Sunday, June 17, 2018

The Winter Murder Case (1939)

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Major characters:


Philo Vance, Dilettante detective
John F.-X. Markham, District Attorney
Lt. O’Leary of the Winewood police

Carrington Rexon, owner of the Rexon estate
Richard Rexon, his son
Joan Rexon, his daughter, an invalid
Jacques Bassett, friend of Richard Rexon

Staff on the Rexon Estate

Ella Gunther, caregiver/companion to Joan Rexon, girlfriend of Lief Wallen
Eric Gunther, father of Ella, overseer (caretaker)
Marcia Bruce, housekeeper
Old Jed, The Green Hermit, former overseer
Lief Wallen, a guard
Guy Darrup, chief carpenter
Higgins, butler
Dr. Loomis Quayne, Rexon family physician

Guests at the Rexon Estate

Carlotta Naesmith, prominent society girl
Dahlia Dunham, political aspirant
Sally Alexander, singer/impersonator
Beatrice Maddox, aviatrix
Stanley Sydes, treasure hunter
Pat McOrsay, race car driver
Chuck Throme, jockey


Locale: The Berkshires, Massachusetts

Synopsis:

Philo Vance is invited to visit the estate of Carrington Rexon, in the Berkshires of western Massachusetts. Carrington is concerned about the security of his emerald collection, due to the presence of a number of guests at the estate. His son, Richard Rexon, is about to host a party to announce his engagement to society girl Carlotta Naismith. Carlotta has organized the gathering whose guests are mostly unknown to Carrington, hence his anxiety about his emeralds.

On his way through the snowy roads to the estate, Vance stops and is enchanted by a girl skating on the estate’s pond. She is Ella Gunther, caregiver to disabled Joan Rexon (injured in a skating accident as a youth). Ella is also the girlfriend of Lief Wallen.

While in the woods the next day, Eric Gunther (father of Ella) discovers the body of Lief Wallen lying at the base of a cliff. Vance inspects the body and suspects murder. Some of the emeralds have meanwhile disappeared from the collection. While investigating, a second murder occurs.


Review:

The biography of Willard Wright ("Alias S. S. Van Dine") says that Wright hurried to complete this novel and left it ready to publish after his death. The only thing which differentiates it from his previous works is the change of venue - this one takes place in the snowy Berkshires rather than Manhattan. It has the standard S. S. Van Dine formula: discovery of a body, theft of a valuable object, a love triangle, and the slow process of alibi breakdown. Fortunately, it does leave out the long pedantic speeches on irrelevant topics, which makes the action more concise. A distraction is the batch of one-dimensional filler characters (the "guests") who do nothing more than dilute the pool of potential suspects.

Additional Material:

This book was published after the author’s death. The publishers included two additional pieces: the preface contains a memorial tribute to Willard Wright, and the appendix contains Wright’s (writing as S. S. Van Dine) Twenty Rules for Writing Detective Stories.



Friday, June 8, 2018

The Gracie Allen Murder Case (1938)


Major characters:


  • Philo Vance, dilettante detective
  • John F. - X. Markham, District Attorney
  • Ernest Heath, sergeant of the Homicide Bureau
  • Gracie Allen, employee of a perfume factory
  • George Burns. perfume mixer
  • Jimmy Puttle, perfume salesman
  • Mrs. Allen, Gracie’s mother
  • Philip Allen, Gracie’s brother
  • Daniel Mirche, Maitre-d at the Domdaniel cafe
  • Dixie Del Marr, singer at the Domdaniel cafe
  • Owl Owen, head of a criminal ring
  • Benny the Buzzard (Beniamino Pellinzi), escaped prisoner
  • Delpha (Rosa Tofana), a fortune teller
  • Tony Tofana, her husband



Locale: New York City

Synopsis:

Sergeant Heath interrupts a visit of Philo Vance and John F.X. Markham with the news that Benny the Buzzard has escaped from prison. Benny had threatened Markham’s life at his sentencing trial years earlier.

Van Dine (the narrator) and Philo Vance head north of the city for an outing. While walking in the woods, Vance encounters legally-blonde Gracie Allen, and they have a long, flirtatious conversation. She reveals she works in a perfume factory with mixer George Burns and salesman Jimmy Puttle.

Later Vance is dining at a restaurant and observes Gracie Allen and Puttle at another table. Meanwhile a man sits by himself observing. Vance assumes, correctly, it is the jealous Burns. Gracie's brother, Philip Allen, works in the kitchen of the restaurant.

While the authorities are keeping their eye out for Bennie the Buzzard, a man is found dead in the restaurant's office - and is identified as Philip Allen. In his pocket is found a cigarette case belonging to Burns, who is then held on suspicion when the cause of death is found to be poison.

Review:

Despite the title, Gracie Allen is not the murder victim. She is a sweet but dim-witted woman Vance encounters in a forest clearing, and much attention is given to their repartee. The first portion of the book comprises more of a romance novel, with Gracie creating her own love triangle; using Puttle as a pawn to get Burns jealous. The middle portion has all the action, taking place at the Domdaniel Cafe, complete with secret doors and red herrings aplenty. Vance encounters the dying Owl Owen, allegedly a crime boss, but much better suited as a philosopher. They engage in a long, protracted esoteric conversation about the meaning of life, which forms the trademark S. S. Van Dine deviation to run the page count up and prevent the plot from moving along. There is a bit of unfair play with the reader regarding the dead man, but overall not a bad title; not withstanding the long complicated denouement at the finale.

Sunday, June 3, 2018

The Kidnap Murder Case (1936)





Major characters:


  • Philo Vance, dilettante detective
  • John F. - X. Markham, District Attorney
  • Ernest Heath, sergeant of the Homicide Bureau
  • Kaspar Kenting, playboy, gambler, kidnap victim
  • Kenyon Kenting, Kaspar’s brother
  • Madelaine [Falloway] Kenting, Kaspar’s wife
  • Mrs. Andrews Falloway, Madelaine’s disabled mother
  • Fraim Falloway, Madelaine’s sickly, idle brother
  • Porter Quaggy, friend of the Kentings
  • Weem, the Kenting butler
  • Eldridge Fleel, attorney and friend of the Kennings



Locale: New York City

Synopsis:

D.A. John Markham visits Philo Vance and invites him along to an investigation at the Kenting family home, known as the “Purple House”; where a kidnapping has been reported.

Kaspar Kenting appears to have been kidnapped from his room. His window is open, with a ladder found leaning against it. Initial inquiries show Kaspar had gambling debts of $50,000. A ransom note is found demanding $50,000. Is this a real kidnapping, or did Kaspar stage it to get the money from his family? Vance surmises Kaspar is already dead.

The ransom is to be left in a hollow tree in Central Park at midnight. A fake bundle of money is left in the tree and the police watch and wait. A figure comes to retrieve the money - whom I shall not reveal here.

No sooner do Vance and the family return to the Purple House when Kaspar’s wife, Madelaine Kenting, is found missing also - again from her room, with the open window, and the ladder again leaning against the house! Things happen quickly. Attorney Eldridge Fleel is shot at as he leaves the house (by a fusillade from a machine gun, yet all the bullets miss). Then Kaspar’s body is found in the East River.

More threatening notes arrive. One of them contains a clue leading to an empty building in the Bronx. Vance and Heath encounter the gang with deadly results.

Review:

The kidnapping case is full of the usual cliches: a ransom note comprised of words cut from a newspaper, and a demand to leave the ransom in a hollow tree at midnight. So far, it looks like a plot for the Hardy Boys. The odd notes are: How does one kidnap a non-cooperative full grown adult out a bedroom window and down a ladder? Why is the Homicide Bureau out in force investigating, when there is no homicide? Then, how is the kidnap victim’s wife abducted in the same manner?

Vance’s character is quite different from before. No longer content to sit back smoking and making long, rambling pedantic sermons; this Vance is out chasing kidnappers and engaging in gun battles. He disposes of the three of the gang, with the usual “Oh well, it’s for the best” response from the authorities.

Fair-play readers will take some issue with three characters not being introduced until the final denouement, as well as the breaking of Fifth Commandment of Robert Knox's Rules of Fair Play: "No Chinaman must figure in the story".

This is the last of the S. S. Van Dine novels written in the usual sequence. The following two (The Gracie Allen Murder Case and The Winter Murder Case) were reverse-written after the films were made. Please also note pejorative terms used for persons of Chinese ancestry as well as African-Americans.