The Emetic Murder Case (S.S. Van Dine)

Admirers of the great American detective writer S.S. Van Dine may be unaware that he wrote a thirteenth novel featuring his Nietzschean aesthete sleuth Philo Vance, who appeared to such effect in The Greene, Bishop, and Scarab Murder Cases.  For some strange reason, this work has lingered in obscurity since it was published in 1931, to almost deafening critical opprobrium:

This is the most revolting book published since THE SHEIK!—Isaac Anderson, New York Times

Disgusting.—Springfield Republican

Absolutely outrageous…  Ill-bred and common.—Boston Transcript

The author has no taste whatsoever.—Saturday Review of Literature

A clear instance of the degeneracy of the youth of today.—Cleveland Open Shelf

A monstrous perversion, which no decent library or bookshop would stock.— Wisconsin Library Bulletin

Certainly not up to his usual standard; was Mr. Van Dine feeling quite well?—Will Cuppy, Books (NY Herald Tribune)

Completely untrue to real life.  I bet Mr. Van Dine has never drunk six balthazars in a single evening in his whole life.  Anyway, real men drink gin brewed in bathtubs from potato peelings, not Chateau L’Effete.—Dashiell Hammett, New York Evening Post

The failure of this work and Van Dine’s ensuing lack of confidence are believed to account for both the decline in quality in, and the growing unpopularity of his later works.

Abashed, the unfortunate author suppressed all copies of the book, and forbade its mention ever again.  The novel was believed utterly destroyed.  While conducting some private researches into forbidden literature, I discovered, to my stupefaction and delight, the last extant copy, in the library of St. John the Beheaded.

Out of a spirit of social responsibility, I provide the following extract:


By S.S. Van Dine

(Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1931)

Of all the monstrous and insanely diabolical crimes that terrorized New York, until solved by the super-human genius of Philo Vance, the affair the newspapers dubbed “The Emetic Murder Case” was the most horrifically sickening.

My readers will, of course, remember the extraordinary popular excitement that accompanied the dreadful crime in an emetically sealed room.  Grisby van Sluyp — heir to the Sluyp millions, and descendant of one of the earliest settlers in what was then New Amsterdam — was found decapitated in his drawing-room, its handle and lock dissolved by the victim’s own gastric juices.  The inhuman savagery of this terrible crime caused the most hardened policeman’s offended gorge to rise.

Many believed that the murderer was mind-bendingly, snot-dribblingly insane, his secret and occult motive born of the darkest, deepest passions of the human heart, but only Vance had the perspicacity and keen insight into human nature to understand that behind this palimpsest of horrors lay an intellect of Machiavellian ruthlessness and unparalleled depravity—a mind nearly as clever as that of Vance himself.

It was in early June that we received our first news of the appalling crime that would disrupt the whole social fabric of New York.  In that infernal heat wave, the city laboured under a nauseating miasma that thrust its gaseous extremities up people’s nostrils.  It claimed the lives of thirteen thousand people in the course of six months, until one could not go outside without dropping dead on the sidewalk.  The quarantine sign was hastily scrawled on the doors of a thousand houses, and the rats scampered through the city, feeding with ghoulish delight on abandoned corpses.  It was picturesquely moyenâgeux.

Vance had recently returned to the country only a couple of days before.  For his last holiday, he had gone to Pukë in Albania, where he had researched the cultural significance of emesis.  The topic had fascinated him for many years, ever since he had translated Menander’s cycle of plays, the Cryptosporidia, hitherto thought lost until Vance unearthed it in the tombs of Achmed the Surprisingly Well-Balanced.

I have, in previous chronicles, described Vance’s encyclopaedic knowledge of dragons, Scotch terriers, perfumes, and hieroglyphics, and his uncanny ability to identify the murderer when everybody else but the servants was dead.

Vance was also able to reconstruct the entire life history of a suspect and their intestinal parasites from a study of their vomit.  He possessed one of the finest collections in the world, and, believing that good health relied on regular purges, employed his valet Currie to stick a peacock feather down his throat three times a day (a method used by the late, unlamented gluttonous Emperor Vitellius, as described by Suetonius).[1]  He also had his own private vomitorium.[2]

[1] Vance was a great admirer of Suetonius.  His favourite work was Lives of Famous Prostitutes—a work which, he claimed, taught him more about human nature than even his beloved Wittgenstein.

[2] In case he was entertaining the entire populace of Rome in his private amphitheatre, where policemen used to fight man-eating lions and sabre-toothed tigers, and wanted them to leave quickly.


“Pon my soul, Dine, old thing,” he remarked, languidly smoking his Régie, “I often wonder why few people study the noble art of vomitin’—not merely the technique, of which, as Cicero says: Plus ultra quod erit de nihil sepulture vigilum inter alia maestas neque meam sartoris tiberam proconsulatorum.  Eheu.  But rather, the meanin’.  Is there anythin’ as natural or human as vomitin’?  Vomit is the glue that holds society together in great, thick, glistenin’ strands, with little bits of carrot in.  One is reminded of Nietzsche’s noble sentiment, Ein Verunauschendlung dahin, dass die Bleichehorauspetellung, wohin meinem Pflatzerschneid duftet, unentabendruckungslos ist.  Or, as Plato said in the celebrated E-Metic portion of his Republic:


This was Greek to me, but I nodded appreciatively all the same.  How marvelously erudite Vance was, with his flawless knowledge of so many languages!

“Vomitin’ (known medically as emesis),” he graciously explained, “is the forceful expulsion of the contents of one’s stomach through the mouth and sometimes the nose.  Vomitin’ can occur due to a wide variety of conditions; it may present as a specific response to ailments like gastritis or poisonin’, or as a non-specific sequela of disorders ranging from brain tumours and elevated intracranial pressure to overexposure to ionisin’ radiation.  The feelin’ that one is about to vomit is called nausea, which usually precedes, but does not always (alas!) lead to, vomitin’.  Vomitin’ is different from regurgitation, although the two terms are often used interchangeably.  Regurgitatin’ is the return of undigested food back up the oesophagus to the mouth, without the force and displeasure associated with vomitin’.”[3]

[3] Vance had spent many months in the libraries of Europe and America; had consulted learned physicians including Ilya Ivanov and Sergei Bryukhonenko (to whom he gave a litter of his Scotch terriers); and had personally been told by the world’s leading emetologist, Dr. Mandible Sutch of Glasgow, that his researches owed much to Vance’s inspiring presence.  Vance, touched by this, had contributed a small monograph on the subject to Wikipedia.  Viz.:

“Vomitin’ is central to many religions,” he continued.  “The Japanese believe that Kanayamahiko and Kanayamahime were vomited up by the dyin’ Izanami, just as Mitsuha no me and Wakumusubi were produced from her urine, and Haniyasuhiko and Haniyasuhime from her dung.  The African Boshongo tribe believe that the sun, the moon, the stars, and finally mankind were vomited up by the creator god Bumba, while Kronos, of course, regurgitated the Olympian gods.

“There are many interestin’ beliefs surroundin’ vomit, y’know.  As Frazer notes in the Golden Bough, the peasants of Perche, in France, believe that a prolonged fit of vomitin’ is brought about by the patient’s stomach becomin’ unhooked, and so fallin’ down.  Then, old dear, one of the tribes of Outer Mongolia believe that the Creator brought up the universe after a night on the tiles, and for that reason, worship vomit, buildin’ enormous statues and temples of the stuff.  The great French anthropologist Mordray[4] has described curious rituals in which they daub themselves in the regurgitated remains of last night’s dinner, and devote themselves to weeks of solitary meditation, far away and upwind from society.  During this time, they are tabu, untouchables, not merely because of the whiff, but because they are one with the divine substance.  When they return to society, they are ceremonially trampled to death by herds of stampeding platypi.  Due to the difficulty of findin’ platypi in Outer Mongolia, this happens very seldom.

[4] A friend of Vance’s.  Yes, he had some.

“Among the tribes of the Arctic regions, however, vomit is viewed with aberration; it is believed to have sympathetic magic properties, and is therefore ceremonially burnt by the shaman, in order to stop the witches, or nungagagutal, from usin’ it against them.  Then, of course, poor people —plebeians and such like, what? —have developed secondary stomachs, and chew the cud, bringin’ up their food and eatin’ it again; why, think of the crowd in Julius Caesar, who throw up their sweaty night-caps, which they’d eaten for dinner the night before.  Scientists, too, have discovered the possibilities of vomit.  The brilliant Wraslzjciewnski believes that by passin’ it through an antephase interstitial diacritical hypopositronic subinductive maximegalonometer, he can isolate the fundamental buildin’ blocks of life itself, and recreate life in his laboratory.”

Vance then proceeded to speak for six hours (unbroken except by Currie entering with the nocturnal feather) on the subject of vomit.  I listened enthralled; how could this wonderful man know so much about so many fascinating things?  I was only a half-witted lawyer whom everybody ignored, and whom Vance himself treated with a patronising contempt that I chose to believe was the closest that he came to feeling affection; but, by Jingo, it made me proud to accompany him on his cases, and to see perhaps the greatest mind of the past millennium unravel these tangled skeins of crime.

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