CIPC #200: S. S. Van Dine, Le fou des échecs

This is the third year now that I do this blog. I have touched on movies, television series, paintings, comics, literature, sculptures – pretty much any type of cultural output. Yet, I still stumble upon something new, occasionally. Literary serials, for example. In the nineteen twenties, S. S. Van Dine’s1 detective character Philo Vance was as widely popular as he is now forgotten. His books were translated and appeared serialised in newspapers. This is how I found out about him and them: while combing Belgian newspaper Le Vingtième Siècle2 for its chess column, I suddenly encountered a story entitled Le fou des échecs by Van Dine. It is probably a translation (by A.-H. Ponte) of The bishop murder case and most certainly the subject of today’s post.

The case starts when a guy named Cock Robin is found quite dead with an arrow in his chest. in front of the house of the Dillard house. Immediately, parallels are drawn to an old nursery rhyme.

For a couple of chapters, the story hobbles along slowly with nothing out of the ordinary happening. They call in the help of a Norse mathematician, a certain Arnesson, but his help isn’t of much help. Is the title perhaps a lie? No! For the end of the 4th chapter, it turns out the guy living opposite to Dillard’s is John Pardee, a fervent chess solver and inventor of a gambit which was refuted by Lasker, Capablanca, and Rubinstein. To make things more interesting, our detectives get a mysterious letter signed “the bishop”. That’s starting to sound more like it!

Unfortunately, this plot line disappears for the moment. A certain Sperling confesses to the murder — which is highly convenient, as ‘sperling’ is German for ‘sparrow’ — but is not believed by our detective.

Then a second guy is killed. He is called John Sprigg and brings to mind L. Frank Baum’s version of an old story from Mother Goose.3 The plot thickens, the remaining part of the story thins. One interesting detail: on the body of Sprigg, a typed copy of the Riemann-Christoffel formula is found. Presumably, the Riemann-Christoffel tensor is meant — and this is a bit of a plot hole, because there is no way that could be typed on a 1920’s typewriter.

A small bishop is left at the door of a possible witness. It turns out that Pardee has been chosen to play a short march against the great Rubinstein.4 The bishop is apparently one taking from a chess set he has analysed with. Very suspicious!

The suspicions of the police land on a certain Drukker, a hunchbacked guy who lives, together with his mother, opposite the house where the first murder has taken place. On the morning they want to bring him in for questioning, he is found dead after a fall from a great height. Hunchback is one of the possible suggested etymologies for Humpty Dumpty, so the string of nursery rhyme murders continues.

Then the great  Vance gets a brilliant idea: he checks the time used by Rubinstein and Pardee during their game. It turns out that Rubinstein had pondered a brilliant combination for forty-five minutes, during which time Pardee might have been out and about. Suspicions rise!

An important manuscript concerning the mathematical theories of the murdered hunchback has been stolen. This opens up a frightening new possibility: perhaps it is not chess which must be defended from dishonour in this blog post but rather maths. Here’s what Vance says about mathematicians’ subjects:5

It’s on the one hand the measure of infinite space in terms of light years and on the other hand the measure of the electron that is so infinitely small that the invention of Rutherford’s unit was necessary, a millionth of a micron.

That’s massively wrong in a plethora of ways. As far as I am aware, the Rutherford is only used as a unit of radioactivity, not of size. As such, it was only introduced after the second World War, so it could not have been known to Van Dine at the time he wrote this. More importantly, mathematicians are study all sorts of things besides the universe or electrons: group theory, number theory, topology, algebraic geometry… Even those mathematicians that do study either the universe or the electrons will rarely allow such a pedestrian concept as the light year to intrude in their papers.

Sensational news! Pardee turns up dead in an apparent suicide, with a house of cards next to him. That this house of cards did not fall down when Pardee shot himself and fell on the table is prima facie so implausible as to be impossible, but it eludes the combined forces of the New York police until Vance finally mentions it in the evening under a smoke.

Then, after a hint by professor Dillard, Vance realises that their is a very evil bishop Arnesson in Ibsen’s Pretenders.6 Could the Norse guy be the perpetrator?

Of course not! No, it’s the old Dillard himself who killed everyone. He tries to poison Dillard to make it look like the murderer committed suicide, but Vance switches glasses and he drinks his own poison. The nursery rhyme murders are over and so it this post.

Final verdict: Meh. It’s kind of standard fare. The detective doesn’t really detect all that much and he doesn’t really showcase an extraordinary intelligence. On the other hand, there ain’t much wrong with it.

1. [Van Dine is precisely the name you expect an American to give when you ask him to come up with a Dutch name. It kind of sounds like someone heard the name Van Duijn and then tried (and failed) to anglicise it.]
2. [In particular the issues from March 26th until April 29, 1934. By the way, this is the same newspaper which featured Tintin in its youth supplement.]
3. [Here, Van Dine overestimates how well-known the Johnny Sprigg name is. It certainly doesn’t appear in every or even most versions of Mother Goose.]
4. [A short match with very strange rules! Apparently it is played over three games (?!) and Pardee has lost one and drawn (!) one. Therefore, if he wins the last one he wins the match (??).]
5. [Translation (of the translation) done by yours truly. It would be a mildly interesting exercise to see how close this is to Van Dine’s original.]
6. [I’d like to point that you’re reading on a Dutch-speaking Belgian’s blog about a French translation of an English story talking about an American translation of a Norse book, here.]