“Any problem originating in one human being can be solved by another human being. It merely requires a knowledge of the human mind, and the application of that knowledge to human acts.”
Philo Vance was what many would call a dilettante, but the designation does him an injustice. He was a man of unusual culture and brilliance. An aristocrat by birth and instinct, he held himself severely aloof from the common world of men. In his manner, there was an indefinable contempt for inferiority of all kinds. The great majority of those with whom he came in contact regarded him as a snob. Yet there was in his condescension and disdain no trace of spuriousness. His snobbishness was intellectual as well as social. He detested stupidity, even more, I believe, than he did vulgarity or bad taste. I have heard him on several occasions quote Fouché’s famous line: C’est plus qu’un crime; c’est une faute. And he meant it literally.
Vance was frankly a cynic, but he was rarely bitter; his was a flippant, Juvenalian cynicism. Perhaps he may best be described as a bored and supercilious, but highly conscious and penetrating, spectator of life. He was keenly interested in all human reactions; but it was the interest of the scientist, not the humanitarian. His knowledge of psychology was uncanny. He was gifted with an instinctively accurate judgement of people, and his study and reading had coordinated and rationalized this gift to an amazing extent. He was well grounded in the academic principles of psychology, and all his courses at college had either centred about this subject or been subordinated to it.
He had reconnoitered the whole field of cultural endeavor. He had courses in the history of religions, the Greek classics, biology, civics, and political economy, philosophy, anthropology, literature, theoretical, and experimental psychology, and ancient and modern languages. But it was, I think, his courses under Münsterberg and William James that interested him the most.
Vance’s mind was basically philosophical—that is, philosophical in the more general sense. Being singularly free from the conventional sentimentalities and current superstitions, he could look beneath the surface of human acts into actuating impulses and motives. Moreover, he was resolute both in his avoidance of any attitude that savoured of credulousness and in his adherence to cold, logical exactness in his mental processes.
He was unusually good-looking, although his mouth was ascetic and cruel. There was a slightly derisive hauteur in the lift of his eyebrows. His forehead was full and sloping—it was the artist’s, rather than the scholar’s, brow. His cold grey eyes were widely spaced. His nose was straight and slender, and his chin narrow but prominent, with an unusually deep cleft. Vance was slightly under six feet, graceful, and giving the impression of sinewy strength and nervous endurance.
While his “one passion” is art, Vance was highly skilled at many things: an expert fencer, a golfer with a three handicap, a breeder and shower of thoroughbred Scottish Terriers, a talented polo player, a master poker player, a winning handicapper of race horses, experience in archery (“a bit of potting at Oxford,” as he referred to it), a patron of classical music, a connoisseur of fine food and drink, knowledgeable of chess, and of several foreign languages. He was also an expert on Chinese ceramics, psychology, the history of crime, ancient Egypt, Renaissance art, and a host of other recondite subjects. In The Kidnap Murder Case, in which Vance uses a gun, he is described as a good marksman and a decorated World War I veteran. He was also a heavy smoker, lighting up and puffing on his Regies continually.
According to some contemporary critics, these mannerisms of Vance were affectations, which made him look like a foppish dandy, and a poseur however, there is some question regarding Vance’s sexuality. In The Benson Murder Case, Vance is called a “sissy” by another character, and early in the book, as he is dressing, his friend Markham asks if he is planning to wear a green carnation, the symbol of homosexuality during the late 19th and early 20th centuries.