Philo Vance came to the radio from the pages of popular fiction just like other popular detectives like Sherlock Holmes and Phillip Marlowe. Usually when a well loved character comes to broadcast from literature there are fans who don’t like the newer interpretation of the character. This was true for the Lord of the Rings movie franchise. It was true for the works of Tom Clancy. There has been a lot of debate over how true the radio and movie portrayals treated Arthur Canon Doyle’s Holmes.
Philo Vance was not a terribly well liked character. He was created by S.S. Van Dine who wrote twelve crime novels featuring the character. There were also 15 films made about the character. Vance the man was a dilettante and a dandy. There is also some indication that Van Dine was ambivalent about the character’s sexuality. Vance is an aristocrat, but he wears his aristocracy with none of the grace of a character like James Bond. The many areas in which he has a snobbish expertise reinforce this.
Poet Ogden Nash wrote: “Philo Vance Needs a kick in the pance.”
Phillip Marlowe and his creator Raymond Chandler had little use for Vance. Chandler wrote that Vance was “the most asinine character in detective fiction”. Marlow would quip in The Big Sleep that he was “not Sherlock Holmes or Philo Vance ” then go on to explain that there is more to detective work than picking up the clues that the police missed.
On the radio Philo Vance becomes a pretty normal, if extremely courteous and intelligent gumshoe. Philo Vance would be played by Jose Ferrer, John Emery and Jackson Beck. Beck’s version of the character was made even more likeable with the addition of his “girl Friday”, secretary Ellen Deering played by Joan Alexander. He will always foil the bad guy with his skill at finding the missing clue rather than resorting to gun play of fisticuffs. More often than not the audience will also pick up the clue as well, but there is always an extra detail that the police, and the audience, won’t find without Vance’s help.