The Bishop Murder Case was published in 1929 to much popularity and acclaim. The fourth in what was to eventually become a series consisting of twelve novels, The Bishop Murder Case, like the three preceding it, involved the story of a murder that was analyzed and inevitably solved by the incomparable detective and main character, Philo Vance. By the time of the publication of The Bishop Murder Case, S.S. Van Dine, the author, had created a name for himself with the three previous, very popular Philo Vance books. This fact produced an anticipation and excitement for The Bishop Murder Case that was unparalleled for a detective novel. Additionally, the publisher, Charles Scribner's Sons, backed the novel with a huge advertising campaign that pushed sales for the novel over the top. The murders in the novel focused on the upper class, erudite world of scholarly mathematicians in New York City during the 1920s. Playing off the plot, the book was constructed in a very mathematical, rigid formula that was intertwined with a nursery rhyme theme. Van Dine's The Bishop Murder Case was one of the first detective novels to have so structured and complex a plot; in fact, Van Dine, with his book, started to forge a new school of detective novels with such followers as Ellery Queen, Anthony Abbott, Rufus King, Stuart Palmer, C. Daly King and Rex Stout. Along with starting a new school, Van Dine played off the popularity of the classic detective story by creating a novel that included clever twists and riddles and a full range of intriguing and mysteriously motivated characters. However, as interesting as these characters were, it is undeniable that many of them fall into stock character categories of murder mysteries - but this may have made the book all that more appealing to the public who enjoyed murder mysteries of that sort. Clearly, The Bishop Murder Case falls into three categories that helped it to become a bestseller: it was written by an established, popular author who had a massive publishing house backing him; it partakes from the classic detective/murder mystery genre while infusing the genre with new ideas; and it possesses stock characters that appeal to the public.
Van Dine's first three novels, The Benson Murder Case, The Canary Murder Case, and The Greene Murder Case were an important beginning to Van Dine's career as a detective writer. Van Dine had originally plotted them as a trilogy in novella form, but when famed editor Maxwell Perkins accepted them, Van Dine expanded them into full stories and they were received very well upon publication. In fact, The Greene Murder Case was #4 on the bestseller list in 1928. Like many other authors and books, such as Joseph Heller and Agatha Christie, the enormous success of previous novels ensured the monetary success of future publications, and the example of The Bishop Murder Case was no different. The public had devoured the three earlier Philo Vance novels, and Van Dine made sure not to disappoint with The Bishop Murder Case. The book reached #4 on the bestsellers list for 1929 and was received extremely well by both the public and the critics. In fact, many called it the best Van Dine novel to date, and it is still widely regarded as so today. Although the plots in all four of these Philo Vance novels were original and quite different, Van Dine used the same qualities that the public came to know and love in his novels, such as highbrow intellectualism, unexpected plot twists, and wealthy, fascinating characters. As Donna Jacumin notes in her essay on Louis Joseph Vance's mystery novel The Brass Bowl, the same phenomenon of a series of books possessing similar qualities was what helped to make Vance's trilogy of The Brass Bowl, The Black Bag, and The Bronze Bell so popular. Clearly, because the public had come to expect a certain type of story from Van Dine, he learned to fulfill their expectations and did so very successfully with The Bishop Murder Case.
Additionally, because so much was expected of The Bishop Murder Case from the public, the critics and the industry, Van Dine's publisher, Charles Scribner's and Sons put an enormous amount of effort into pushing the book. They placed frequent ads in Publisher's Weekly and The New York Times. These ads made such grandiose statements as "February 20th will be the big fiction date of the year when The Bishop Murder Case will be published by Charles Scribner's Sons" and "Coming! February 20th! Backed by the biggest advertising and promotional campaign ever placed on a detective novel?The Bishop Murder Case." Charles Scribner's and Sons was a considerable publishing house at the time that they published The Bishop Murder Case. They had published other big-name authors such as Hemingway and Fitzgerald. Furthermore, Maxwell Perkins, the renowned editor whom Van Dine worked with from Scribner's, developed a close relationship with the author and therefore helped Van Dine to continue creating quality work while gauging the reception the books would have. Scribner's domination in the publishing world, combined with their advertising savvy and close relationship to Van Dine certainly helped to push sales of The Bishop Murder Case over the top.
The time in which The Bishop Murder Case was published, the 1920s, was a time of enormous prosperity in both the United States and England. Also at this time, the popularity of the mystery novel was at an all-time high. Along with the "roaring" 20s, often referred to as the Golden Age, a Golden Age of detective stories was also formed. Some Golden Age detective writers besides Van Dine were Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers, and John Dickson Carr. Any writer who wrote detective fiction during the Golden Age came to be known for using a certain style that consisted mostly of a prescribed formation with little variation. This style is comprised of an aristocratic, brilliant, British or British-wannabe detective who solves mysteries that involve usually fairly bloodless, intellectual, puzzling crimes - all while remaining reasonably detached from the crime itself. The Bishop Murder Case certainly follows a great deal of this formula, which probably lead to much of its success. Philo Vance, the detective and main character, is the upper crust Manhattanite who is called in by the NYPD department on a regular basis to solve certain crimes. The crime in the case of The Bishop Murder Case is that of a the murder of a young man named Joseph Robin Cochrane, known as Cock Robin to his friends, by an archery arrow at the house of Professor Dillard. Vance sees right away that the murder corresponds to a particular nursery rhyme that reads: "Who killed Cock Robin? / 'I,' said the sparrow, / 'With my bow and arrow.' / I killed Cock Robin." Vance's deduction is confirmed when a note concerning the murder is received, signed by THE BISHOP (hence the title of the book). What ensues is a twisted, intellectual murder mystery, involving several more deaths based around nursery rhymes, several suspected characters, a bit of a love triangle, intellectual theories about math and chess, and a complete surprise ending where the reader's deductions are utterly flipped upside down.
Some constructions of the plot are similar to other mystery novels of the time, such as Christie's Ten Little Indians and some of Carr's short stories. However, Van Dine prided himself on being an original while still sticking to certain rules that he believed should apply to all detective novels. In fact, he is well known for having written "Twenty rules for writing detective stories" in 1928, which you can read here. The intro to this essay reads, "The detective story is a kind of intellectual game. It is more--it is a sporting event. And for the writing of detective stories there are very definite laws--unwritten, perhaps, but nonetheless binding; and every respectable and self-respecting concocter of literary mysteries lives up to them. Herewith, then, is a sort Credo, based partly on the practice of all the great writers of detective stories, and partly on the promptings of the honest author's inner conscience." Van Dine goes on to state such rules as "The reader must have equal opportunity with the detective for solving the mystery. All clues must be plainly stated and described" and "A servant must not be chosen by the author as the culprit. This is begging a noble question. It is a too easy solution. The culprit must be a decidedly worth-while person--one that wouldn't ordinarily come under suspicion." The final rule of his credo states,
"And (to give my Credo an even score of items) I herewith list a few of the devices which no self-respecting detective story writer will now avail himself of. They have been employed too often, and are familiar to all true lovers of literary crime. To use them is a confession of the author's ineptitude and lack of originality. (a) Determining the identity of the culprit by comparing the butt of a cigarette left at the scene of the crime with the brand smoked by a suspect. (b) The bogus spiritualistic séance to frighten the culprit into giving himself away. (c) Forged fingerprints. (d) The dummy-figure alibi. (e) The dog that does not bark and thereby reveals the fact that he intruder is familiar. (f)The final pinning of the crime on a twin, or a relative who looks exactly like the suspected, but innocent, person. (g) The hypodermic syringe and the knockout drops. (h) The commission of the murder in a locked room after the police have actually broken in. (i) The word association test for guilt. (j) The cipher, or code letter, which is eventually unraveled by the sleuth."
While Van Dine did, in my opinion, follow some of the familiar mystery novel methods, he also infused the detective genre with new techniques that created a school of followers. His specialty was construction of interesting, complex, book length plots, in which detail upon detail piled up on each other, finally resulting in a an explanation and deconstruction of the intricate reasonings behind the mystery. The book is written in a verbose, grand English prose style, which is very in contrast to the Hemingway-type vernacular that was popular in the 1920s. However, what is most original about The Bishop Murder Case is that it seems to be the first detective novel based on a nursery rhyme. Christie's Ten Little Indians followed this scheme later. Furthermore, the entire style of The Bishop Murder Case is very geometrical and formal, playing off the fact that the plot is centered on a group of mathematicians and chess players whose lifestyles and ways of thinking reflect their professions. Ellery Queen and Ngaio Marsh, both members of the school of Van Dine that follows the puzzle plot and intuitionist tradition used these methods. So while Van Dine often employed the traditional rules of the mystery genre, The Bishop Murder Case is not only the first nursery-rhyme mystery book, but the first of any sort of mystery novel constructed around a formal scheme, therefore showing how Van Dine imparted new methods into the conventional detective story.
Although, in my opinion, Van Dine did infuse new techniques into the detective story, he also made use of stock characters in The Bishop Murder Case that appealed to the public. The most obvious stock character is that of Philo Vance, the erudite, upper crust, intellectual detective with a debonair personality, impeccable grooming and a perfectly gentlemanly attitude. In his spare time, Vance works on "the uniform translation of the principal fragments of Menander found in the Egyptian papyri during the early years of the present century" (Van Dine, p. 1) and the like. Van Dine describes him physically as "a marked Nordic type, with a long, sharply chiseled face; gray, wide-set eyes; a narrow aquiline nose; and a straight oval chin. His mouth, too, was firm and clean-cut, but it held a look of cynical cruelty which was more Mediterranean than Nordic...it was the face of a thinker and a recluse; and its very severity - at once studious and introspective - acted as a barrier between him and his fellows" (Van Dine, p. 5). Vance comes off as an aristocrat in every sense of the word, and perhaps it was his pomposity and snobbery that turned the critics off from his character. American critic Gilbert Seldes said, "Vance, with his implausible English accent, his unparalleled erudition, and his swank, would be enough to turn anyone away from the stories after five pages were it not that the stories, by that time, are more interesting than the detective." Despite the critics' unfavorable reaction to Vance, the public seemed to love him. Perhaps his qualities seemed to perfectly embody the time period of the Golden Ages - his dashing, wealthy, suave ways and brilliant mystery-solving skills probably inspired readers to want to be like him, instead of being provoked by him. Many other mystery novels' main characters seem to be similar in various ways to Vance. The first one that comes to mind is Christie's Hercule Poirot. While Belgian and not as physically imposing as Vance, the little detective had the same dignified, impeccably erudite ways as Vance. Ms. Marples, another of Christie's creations, was the same sort of proper, intellectually brilliant British crime-solver. Ellery Queen's novels had a main character detective named, aptly enough, Ellery Queen, a somewhat pompous scholar who reminds one of Vance. Dorothy Sayers' main character was Lord Peter Wimsey, who wore a monocle and was reputedly a wonderful lover and a charming ladies' man. Philo Vance clearly fits into the standard formula for a detective who was proper, brilliant, erudite, charming and debonair - and who could solve difficult crimes without getting his suit rumpled.
Despite the fact that it is not an exemplary literary novel, The Bishop Murder Case is simply entertaining, well written and interesting. It clearly fits into many of the genres of bestsellers. As a mystery novel that took from both the old and new styles and employed a stock detective, written by an established author and backed by a major publishing house, The Bishop Murder Case teaches about certain genres of bestsellers and why they are so popular.
John Loughery, Alias S.S. Van Dine, 1992
20th Century Literary Criticism, pp. 353-7
Donna Jacumin's Assignment on Louis Vance's The Brass Bowl
Tebbel, John. History of Book Publishing in the United States. Vol. II. 1975