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.



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