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The Gracie Allen Murder Case

Posted: May 4, 2023

I got a book in the mail yesterday that is just the weirdest little cultural artifact from the late 30s and I want to talk about it for a second, but before I do, I have to talk about George Burns and Gracie Allen.

I’ve talked in the past about my love of George Burns and Gracie Allen, but I should revisit them. George and Gracie were a couple, a comedy duo, and media pioneers. They were born in the 1890s, and started their careers on the vaudeville circuit in the 20s, before transitioning to film in 29, radio in 34, and television in 1950.

They basically invented the modern sitcom, pioneering lots of staples that would be imitated for decades to come. Their sitcom has dozens of episodes available on the internet archive, and it’s worth watching.

But that’s not what I’m here to talk about, so now I have to talk about a series of detective novels published by “S. S. Van Dine” aka Willard Huntington Wright.

These novels dealt with the character Philo Vance.

Philo Vance is a fictional amateur detective, first published in 1926 and appearing in 12 books, the last posthumously published in 39. Vance was a stylish dandy living in New York. Van Dine was a Watson-y character who chronicled the stories.

The first 10 Philo Vance novels were Wildly successful, and the 12th is also pretty well remembered. There were 16 films, one for each novel and then some others that were created posthumously.

Of course, I’m not talking about the 11 books that are well remembered, I’m talking about the 11th book, the last one Wright published in his lifetime, and the one that Sharply divided critics of the day.

That book was The Gracie Allen Murder Case.

The Gracie Allen Murder Case is a departure from the normal Philo Vance novels, in that it features George, Gracie, and large parts of Gracie’s family. It’s silly, it’s funny.

Gracie was, at this point in her life, one of the biggest stars in the country.

Some people really hated the departure in style, the comic tone, the Gracie Allen-ness of it all.

Those people are wet blankets.

I haven’t read the whole thing, I’ve only started it, but so far it’s very cute. I am reading a first edition from 1938. The book was rarely reprinted, and it is not in high demand, so copies are frequently available fairly cheaply.

There was a screen adaptation, of course:

The screen adaptation also divided people. It was not financially successful. I’ve tried to watch it, but the audio quality on the copy I had was god awful. The copy I linked above has better audio, and that’s on my to-watch list, I may report back after I’ve seen it. I’m a sucker for Gracie Allen after all.

The book, though, is such a bizarre artifact.

Can you imagine the author of a successful series of serious novels today deciding that they were just going to do a comedy celebrity cameo? Who would even have that kind of star power? As the writer or the celebrity, frankly, I can’t think of anyone with the kind of cultural standing it would take to do this.

But it happened.

And, really, it was just the start of the Weird Stuff that George and Gracie would get up to prior to their TV debut in 1950.

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