S.S. Van Dine
S.S. Van Dine was the penname of Willard Wright (1888-1939). The Philo Vance novels are traditional detective stories which were eventually displaced in the public's eye by the tough detectives of Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, and others. He was also noted as the creator of a series of rules about detective stories, many of which were arbitrary and all of which have been violated at one time or another with success. The first Philo Vance novel was The Benson Murder Case (1926). As was the case with Ellery Queen, the author tells us in the first book that Philo Vance is not the real name of his detective but a pseudonym to protect the innocent. Vance inherits enough money that his friend, a lawyer, is able to give up his practice and devote himself solely to administering his friend's estate, and provide written accounts of his investigations. Vance lives in New York City where he collects paintings and sits around in smoking jackets. The first novel is festooned with distracting footnotes providing explanations for foreign terms he uses, or to provide generally irrelevant detail about some comment made in the main text. Vance is rather foppish and affected. His pronouncements about art and music - that art experts look at the style to authenticate something rather than the paints and canvas and that a musician can look at a sheet of music and determine the composer - are outright nonsense and Vance himself is an offensive, megalomaniac despite the author's constant apologies. His theory of crime investigation, even if it were not based on fallacies, would result in few convictions since he disregards physical evidence. This disdain for clues was mirrored in Carolyn Wells' early mysteries, although she soon changed her ways. Vance also ignores motive and opportunity. Nor does he understand how lie detectors work. And of course all the policemen involved are dunces.
The story eventually gets moving when District Attorney Markham invites Vance to accompany him while he looks into the murder of Alvin Benson. Benson was shot to death while sitting in his living room. His housekeeper. who lived upstairs, was awakened by the shot fired some time after midnight but dismissed it as a backfire. A woman's purse is found in the room. The house and windows were locked so it appears that Benson let his killer in at some point and from the condition of the body it also appears that he died instantly and without suspecting anything. A Cadillac was noticed parked in front of the house at the crucial time, with fishing gear in the back seat, but no one was seen in the vicinity. Vance is particularly interested to note that Benson wore a toupee and false teeth. The mystery woman is identified as a singer toward whom Benson was attracted despite the presence of a boyfriend. They had dinner that evening and she returned to her apartment, without her handbag, late enough that she could have committed the murder. She is uncooperative when questioned although she does admit that the dead man had handled her investments and recently lost most of her money.
Vance's disdain for physical evidence doesn't last long. He uses the bullet and a ballistics expert to determine where the killer was standing at the time the shot was fired. He "proves" that the woman wasn't tall enough to have fired the fatal shot so suspicion turns to her fiancÚ, Leacock, who was seen leaving his apartment at just the right time for him to be the murderer. Leacock, who threatened Benson a few days earlier, unconvincingly denies owning a weapon of the type used in the crime. The Cadillac is finally traced to one of two of Benson's friends, both of whom had been interviewed without incident and both of whom claim to have been elsewhere at the time of the murder. When confronted, he insists that the house was dark and no one responded while he was there, but that he saw Leacock in the area. Further evidence reveals that the same man, Pfyfe, forged a check with Benson's name, was caught out, provided a confession and a written promise to repay the money, which was due two days after Benson was murdered. Since he is the only witness claiming that Leacock was at the murder site, Pfyfe rises to suspect number one, even though Leacock is also seen throwing something - presumably his revolver - off the Brooklyn Bridge.
It turns out that Benson and business partner, who is also his brother, strongly disliked one another and often listened in surreptitiously to each other's conversations. Benson also took home a small package from the company safe the night he was killed, just about the right size to have held a revolver, or perhaps a box of jewels which the housemaid saw briefly in Benson's possession.. Pfyfe, who is married, also has a mistress on the side, and the jewels turn out to be the property of his mistress, left as security on the promissory note. The novel cheats heavily, introducing a warehouse full of new facts during the resolution which the reader had no way to anticipate. And there is no way that Vance could have identified the killer five minutes after arriving at the murder scene, which is his unsupported claim. Van Dine did, however, do a very good job of setting up alternate explanations, any one of which would have been a convincing resolution.
Philo Vance returned in The Canary Murder Case (1927). The novel opens with a lengthy rehash of the same argument about evidence that went on for even longer in the first book. A popular singer/dance named Odell and known as the Canary is found strangled in her ground floor apartment. The apartment has been searched and the dead woman's jewelry is missing, along with the contents of a letter box. There is evidence suggesting that there is some stage setting here because the jewelry case was not opened with the fireplace poker that is placed to suggest that was the implement used. Vance also points out that the victim's torn dress was probably not the result of her struggles. One closet remains undisturbed, with the key on the inside rather than outside. There are fingerprints there which match another set found near the body. Odell had brought a man home the night of the murder. To enter the apartment, they would have to pass the night switchboard operator, who saw them but doesn't know the man's name. They were in the apartment for half an hour, and as he was leaving they both heard her cry for help. They rushed to her door but she then insisted that she was all right. Neither of them saw her at that time, which might suggest that it was some kind of recording designed as an alibi for the man. But things become even more complex when the operator tells them that she received a telephone call later that evening and that a man answered the telephone. The obvious explanation at this point is that the second man was already in the apartment when the couple arrived, that he concealed himself in the closet, and for some reason answered the telephone after emerging and finding the dead woman. The daytime operator, however, insists that no one else entered her apartment that evening, although one man rang her bell. The maid, however, insists that no one was there when she left for the day because she kept her hat and coat in the mysteriously untouched closet.
The missing date identifies himself and appears to be innocent. The fingerprints match those of a professional thief - although why a professional would have left prints in two different places is rather puzzling. Another acquaintance, Cleaver, admits that the dead woman had blackmailed him but he seems to have an iron tight alibi. Vance concludes that Cleaver was not entirely forthcoming, and the fact that he has a brother visiting in town raises the suspicion that his alibi might have been contrived by a family resemblance. Vance and company also confront the victim's doctor, who reacts with near violence to suggestions that he might be involved, after which Vance analyzes his character based on the shape of his skull. Vance clearly suspects what the reader does as well, that the petty criminal was concealed in the closet at the time of the murder and probably broke open the jewel case during the course of that visit. But that suggests that two men were separately hidden in the apartment when the couple returned, and there is still no explanation of how either of them could have gotten in. The burglar, however, was the Canary's lover and therefore might have had his own key, although that doesn't explain how he got past the switchboard operator.
Vance tracks down a friend of Odell's, who provides a questionable alibi to yet another of the dead woman's beaus, now her own fiancÚ. She also says she received a telephone call from Cleaver at the same time that he was supposedly receiving a ticket for speeding, which casts doubt on his alibi as well. The fiancÚ, Mannix, has also been seeing one of his models, who happens to live in the apartment adjoining Odell's. Vance easily blows a hole in his alibi - the woman was lying - as well as discovering that Odell's doctor was infatuated with her and at one point threatened to kill her. This leaves no alibi for three of the four main suspects, the last of whom was her dinner date that evening. Mannix finally admits that he was in the adjacent apartment when the murder was committed and claims that he saw Cleaver leaving by the side door, which was supposedly bolted from the inside for the entire evening. Cleaver then admits that he visited and says he came in and left by that door - which is not visible from the switchboard, although he obviously could not have rebolted it. Cleaver also met the doctor that same evening and the doctor was aware that Odell was entertaining a man in her apartment. The missing jewels turn up in a trashcan, finally disposing of any theory that the murder was a consequence of a robbery. The burglar announces that he knows who the killer is, but is murdered himself - predictably - before he can talk. Vance identifies the killer psychologically by means of a rigged poker game but only by chance does he figure out that the woman's voice which provides him an alibi was actually just a recording.
This is much better written than van Dine's first novel. The mystery is more cleverly designed - despite some flaws - and the implications unfold more logically and effectively. There are far fewer footnotes! There are some annoying falsehoods. Art forgers do not "always" correct mistakes of anatomy or perspective when copying masterpieces. It is not always possible to determine which of two men was born to wealth by the way they handle their utensils while eating. The shape of the head as nothing to do with moral standards. Much of what Vance says about human psychology is poppycock. There's also a problem with the speeding ticket that temporarily provided an alibi for Cleaver. The officer would have required some form of identification so he would have known that it was the brother, not the owner of the car. Another minor problem is that there is no reason why Cleaver would have tried to enter through the side since he knew that it was always locked at night. The solution is dependent upon the record player being located in the vestibule rather than the apartment proper, which makes no apparent sense. It's still a pretty good detective story.
Next was The Greene Murder Case (1928). Two women were shot, one fatally, in their bedrooms by an intruder whom the police believe to have been an inexperienced burglar. Vance involves himself because both women supposedly had retired for the night, but their bedroom lights were both on, because he doesn't believe a burglar would have confused a bedroom door with a staircase, and because three full minutes passed between the two shots. The women were sisters and there are three other siblings as well as their invalid mother in the house. The police theory seems particularly inadequate when we learn that the dead woman, Julia, habitually locked the door to her room when she went to bed. The mother, a querulous and nasty person, has supposedly been unable to walk for over ten years, a circumstance which automatically makes her a prime suspect in detective stories. The servants are an unsavory lot and one wonders why the family would continue to employ a butler whom they believe spies upon them and a religious fanatic maid who openly despises them. Nor does there appear to be much affection among any of the siblings. There is also a revolver missing from its accustomed place in the house and it is the right caliber to have been the murder weapon. Markham, the district attorney, is described as being intelligent and imaginative but as was the case in the first two books, he seems shortsighted to the point of stupidity once again. Vance also has a curious blind spot. He makes much of the fact that the lights were on in the second victim's room but, given that three minutes had elapsed since the first, it is completely plausible that the second victim, Ada, might have been wakened by the sound and turned on the lights prior to investigating. The family doctor, who was not at home at the time of the shooting and who lives nearby, becomes our second major suspect. There is also some mystery attached to the cook, who formerly had a higher station in life. Ada was adopted and it's logical to suspect she was Ada's real mother.
There were blurred tracks in the snow suggesting someone had entered and left the house by the front door on the night of the crime, although it was supposedly locked. When Chester, the oldest sibling, is shot to death in his room a few days later, there are more tracks including some melted snow inside the house. The house is searched for the weapon, except for the library which has supposedly been locked up for more than a decade. That they would allow this room to go unsearched is appallingly nonsensical. It is entirely possible that someone had a duplicate key or had picked the lock. For all they knew, the killer could be living there. After a long period with few developments, Ada approaches the police and tells them that the second brother, Rex, lied about not having heard the shots the first night. She calls him from Markham's office to tell him to come give a statement, but moments later he is shot to death in his room at the house despite a police guard outside. Once again there are footprints suggesting an outside intruder but Vance, like the reader, has already decided these were designed to be found in order to cover up the true explanation.
Not surprisingly, when they finally enter the locked library they discover it has been in use by the killer. The family doctor reports that someone has stolen drugs from his bag and shortly afterward Ada is attacked again, this time given a fatal dose of morphine, although another doctor saves her thanks to the foresight of Vance and the police. Ada has also reported seeing the mother walking about at night, which reinforces the idea that she is the killer, but then she is fatally poisoned as well, leaving only one daughter, Sibella, and Ada, whom Sibella does not know is still alive, although the doctor - who seems to be romantically involved with her - does know the truth. They then tell Sibella that Ada is alive and her mother dead, which makes one wonder why they ever made an effort to pretend Ada was dead. It may have been that Van Dine changed his mind about how the final chapters would go. The autopsy reveals that the mother could not possibly have walked, so Ada was either mistaken or lying. The last quarter of the book is shamelessly padded with lectures by Vance on subjects irrelevant to the mystery. It is then discovered that Sibella and the doctor are in fact secretly married. The revelation that Ada is the killer, that she inflicted her own injuries to divert suspicion, is really not very surprising. The assertion that she inherited criminal tendencies from the father she never knew is, of course, bunk. This is a much weaker novel than the first two.
The Bishop Murder Case (1929) has an interesting premise. The first victim is James Cochrane Robin and he is killed with an arrow, suggesting the nursery rhyme. And the last person known to have been with the victim is named Sperling, which is German for sparrow. Robin and Sperling were rivals for the affection of the daughter of a retired college professor. The immediate suspects not already mentioned are a neighbor named Drukker, another named Pardee, and the professor's research associate, Arnesson. It is also quite obvious that the dead body was posed, that the arrow was not shot by a bow and might not even be the actual cause of death. The servants seem to be above suspicion - and why does Van Dine habitually refer to female servants as "slatternly"? Pardee is an expert on chess but Van Dine clearly isn't since he suggests that certain openings can be prohibited in tournament play. Then a cryptic message shows up, apparently from the killer, signed as the Bishop, which has obvious chess connotations. We are subsequently introduced to Drukker's elderly and possibly mental unstable mother. The mother, Lady Mae, seems to have seen something from her balcony window at the time of the killing - she was heard to scream - but like everyone else interviewed to date, she seems not to be telling everything she knows and she denies the report of her crying out.
Sperling confesses to the crime but is obviously trying to shield the young woman. Evidence suggests that Robin was actually killed inside the house and placed outside afterward. He has a skull fracture which suggests that he was unconscious when the arrow pierced his heart. The only people whose alibis are confirmable are those of the cook and of Sperling, another reason for removing him from the list of suspects. Then a college student is fatally shot in the head in a nearby park, imitating another nursery rhyme, and Vance immediately insists the two cases are related. A scrap of paper found with the second body includes part of a mathematical formula and the typing is the same as on the mysterious note previously received. The new victim was Arnesson's prize student and had frequently been to the house where the first murder was committed and there is a pistol of the proper caliber missing from the same place. There's also a mysterious intruder in Lady Mae's house. Vance draws a variety of conclusions from all this, several of which have very obvious alternate explanations so that they are less than convincing, and engages in a bit of psychological analysis that is pure nonsense such as concluding that all hunchbacks have childish personalities and should therefore be encouraged to play games! This is almost as bad as his conviction that criminal types can be detected by the structure of their face and skull.
Van Dine seems to have lost track of his own plot briefly. After insisting that the mysterious intruder must not realize that they know of his excursion, they then interview everyone involved and ask them where they were during the hour of the intrusion, which would certainly tip off the killer than they know about it. I suspect that Van Dine did not keep very detailed notes or outlines for his stories. Drukker is killed by being thrown off a high wall - Humpty Dumpty - and his mother is found dead of an apparently heart attack. In another of Van Dine's inexplicable lapses from logic, Arnesson is told by the police to arrange funerals and the disposal of the Drukker estate without checking to see if there is a will, living relatives, or any other hindrance to this disposition. Finally Pardee is found dead, an apparent suicide, in front of a house of cards, suggesting the house that Jack built. The supposition is that he was the killer, but even unsophisticated readers will know this isn't true. We are supposed to suspect Arnesson at this point - he has been largely ignored by the police, who in fact respond positively every time he asks for details about their investigation, and there is a nice red herring in which he seems to have deliberately confused the timeline. The real killer becomes obvious by process of elimination, although his motives are not revealed until after the fact, which is a mild cheat.
The Scarab Murder Case (1930) opens with an acquaintance of Philo Vance discovering the dead body of Dr. Kyle, a patron of Egyptologists, lying with a bashed in skull in an exhibition room. Panicking, he goes to Vance instead of the police and Vance notifies them by phone, then goes to examine the body himself. The acquaintance, Scarlett, works for Dr. Bliss, an Egyptologist whose work has been largely financed by the dead man. Salveter is Kyle's nephew and he was responsible for talking his uncle into providing the funds. Bliss also has a wife and an Egyptian advisor named Hani as part of his household plus a cook and a butler. The murder weapon was a statue of the goddess of vengeance, only just received into the collection. A jeweled scarab is found near the body. The scarab bears hieroglyphs linking it to the lost Egyptian ruler for whose tomb Bliss had been recently searching. The scarab had been made into a scarf pin and was normally worn by Dr. Bliss, who was alone in his nearby study at the time of the murder. Also present is a document which Bliss had made up the previous evening and which Kyle should not have seen until they met later that day. The police naturally assume that the two men did meet, quarreled, and that Bliss killed Kyle.
An increasing body of evidence seems to point toward Bliss, whose shoeprints are also found in a compromising place. Vance finds some faint signs that suggest it was a deadfall, that the statue was placed to fall on Kyle when he performed one of his routine chores. This means that alibis for the time of death are meaningless. There is also some opium laced coffee and speculation about the distribution of Kyle's money following his death. The Egyptian also seems to be hiding something and he may have been spying for the Egyptian government. Then someone attempts to murder Bliss, apparently rendering him above suspicion despite the evidence against him, and another attack is aimed at Scarlett. The interviews seem a bit perfunctory this time, but the puzzle unfolds itself reasonably well. It's fairly obvious that Bliss is the killer by midway through; the clues against her are so transparently planted that it seems unlikely a clever murderer would have been so clumsy. One of the better Vance novels. Although this was filmed in 1936, no copy is known to exist, which is rather a shame.
The Kennel Murder Case (1933) is a locked room murder mystery. Archer Coe is found dead in his bedroom, the door locked from inside, the murder weapon in his hand, shot through the head. The conditions suggest that it was suicide despite this not being in the victim's nature. Coe's brother Brandon, who normally lives there, is reportedly in Chicago. Other characters of early interest are Hilda Lake, the dead man's niece, and Raymond Wrede, friend of the family and romantic interest for Lake. There is also a visiting Italian named Grassi. There are some minor oddities found as soon as the door is broken down. Coe was wearing street shoes with a dressing gown, and was seated facing the door rather than at his desk. The situation becomes really strange when an examination of the body shows that the bullet was fired well after Coe was already dead, that he has a bad bruise on his head and a broken rib, neither of which would be fatal, and that the actual cause of death was a stab wound, although there are no tears in his clothing which means he changed clothing after he was stabbed, or his murderer did it for him. And while there are a few small signs of a struggle, he is otherwise neat and orderly. And to add another note of strangeness, a wounded dog is found in the house, even though no one had ever seen a dog on the premises before. The circumstances of the brother's sudden trip to Chicago are suspicious, and there is the possibility that he didn't leave at the time he was believed to have departed after all.
Brisbane Coe is in fact missing after acting strangely, and there is evidence that he was in the house around the time of the murder, and after he supposedly had taken the train to Chicago. He and the niece both stand to inherit substantial sums of money. But before a case can be made against Brisbane Coe, his dead body is found in a closet, stabbed in the back. The Chinese cook lies about what time he returned to the house on the night in question, and a valuable antique has been replaced with a cheap substitute. The broken vase is found in the trash with blood stains on the inside, and the murder weapon is found under a cushion of a chair inside the locked room, even though it was used to kill Brisbane hours after Archer. Then someone stabs Grassi, though not fatally, while Vance tracks down the owner of the injured dog. The case is unraveled then, a murder of impulse compounded with an attempted murder by another party, complicated even further by the fact that Archer did not know that he had been stabbed since he was only bleeding internally, and walked upstairs to his own room despite having been assaulted elsewhere. This is easily the best of the Philo Vance mysteries, although the actions of the Chinese cook don't always make sense.
The Dragon Murder Case (1933) opens with an interesting puzzle. Montague is attending a rather drunken party at the Stamm estate when he dives into the large, partly natural swimming pool and never comes up. There seems to be no exit from the pool but preliminary searches cannot find his body. He was courting Stamm's sister Bernice, and Stamm objected, but everyone else seems to have had a good reason for wanting him dead as well. Leland, a close family friend, may also have been interested in Bernice and he didn't like Montague. Greeff is the family stock broker, who distrusted Montague's influence on the family fortune and also may have had designs on Bernice. MacAdam, a young woman, was Montague's romantic interest at some point and there is tension between them. Steele, another young woman, had argued with the missing man, although no one knows exactly what it was about. Other characters of interest include Stamm's elderly mother, a young man named MacAdam, and the butler. It was Montague who suggested the late night swim, during which Stamm had become insensible from drink. Leland is the one who called the police and who seems the most level headed, but Steele accuses him of treachery. There is also a woman named Bruett who did not attend though invited and who had previously met Montague. Mrs. Stamm is reportedly delusional and is often set off by events involving the pool, which is the subject of Native American legends - and Leland is Native American on one side of his family.
Mrs. Stamm insists that a dragon lives in the pool and carried off Montague's body. As it happens, two people did fall into the pool in years past. One body was never found and the other turned up in a cave elsewhere, but the circumstances in both cases are unclear. A large piece of rock falls into the pool that same night, but when the pool is drained the following morning, the rock seems perfectly ordinary. There is, of course, no body to be found. In the pocket of Montague's discarded clothing they find a note arranging a rendezvous with Bruett, and in fact an automobile was heard in the distance during the incident, but the timing appears to be wrong. Montague's body then turns up in a glacial pothole not far from the pool, horribly mangled as though he had been clawed to death. There is also a burial vault on the property to which only Mrs. Stamm holds the key. Vance meanwhile expresses interest in Stamm's extensive collection of tropical fish.
Greeff disappears during the night and, predictably, his body is found exactly where Montague's was recovered and bears the same marks. Stamm, for no discernible reason, conceals the fact that he heard Greeff go out for a walk during the evening but the Butler also heard him leave, and heard someone return and bolt the door. Vance ascertains that someone has stolen the vault key without Mrs. Stamm's knowledge, and then locates it hidden in Tatum's room. Inside the vault, Vance finds bloodstains and the flower that Greeff had been wearing the previous day. The explanation of the mystery is easier to guess now than it was at the time the book first appeared as scuba gear are now much more common. This wasn't quite as good as the previous book, but it is still quite good.
The Casino Murder Case (1934) starts with the statement that Vance received a misleading letter from the murderer involved in this case a few days before the incident, an anonymous missive which suggested that the marriage of Lynn Llewellyn was going to have tragic consequences. The Llewellyn household consists of Lynn and his elderly mother, plus his uncle, Richard Kincaid, who owns a mildly disreputable gambling establishment. Lynn is married to Virginia, a former actress of whom his mother disapproves, and his sister Amelia, who is studying art. Other interesting people involved include Morgan Bloodgood, who works for Kincaid, and Allan Kane, a physician and friend of the family. Vance correctly describes the letter as flowery and insincere but believes that it masks a deeper motive, for which reason he passes it on to his friend, the district attorney. Llewellyn is then poisoned at the casino after his glass is filled from the carafe kept in Bloodgood's office. While he is rushed to a hospital where his life clings by a thread, his wife is similarly poisoned elsewhere and dies shortly afterward. Llewellyn survives, but an obviously faked suicide note is found, ostensibly left by the wife. Vance also determines that everyone involved had access to and at least limited knowledge of the operation of a typewriter that was used for both the letter and the suicide note.
Vance starts his investigation, learning that both Bloodgood and Kane are romantically interested in Amelia, but before the evening is over, she too collapses, having been poisoned in the same fashion as her brother. She had just taken a drink from the water bottle in her mother's bedroom. Fortunately she also recovers. There is a rather extended red herring about heavy water, which had recently been discovered when Van Dine wrote the novel. Since its properties were at that time unknown, he suggests that it might be a poison if introduced in more than minute quantities into the human body. This is rather a cheat since readers would not have known anything about it, and in fact it turns out to have no noticeable harmful effect. The dead woman died because belladonna was put in her eyewash - apparently something a coroner would not look for even though poison was suspected and no other cause of death suggested itself. There's also a goof. Vance tells us that the killer - transparently Lynn - manipulated the various water bottles to cause suspicion that they were involved in the poisonings, but in fact he was in the hospital at the time that some of them were emptied and therefore could not have done so. This was the weakest Van Dine book to date.
The Garden Murder Case (1935) opens with a mysterious telephone call urging Vance to visit the Garden Estate, a variation of the opening of the previous book. Professor Garden is a chemist working on cancer research. His son Floyd enjoys horse racing and has a running commentary from the track piped into their home, which is the excuse Vance uses to visit. Woode Swift is a cousin and Lowe Hammle is a friend of the family. Floyd's mother is chronically ill and occasionally bedridden. Several friends also attend the race coverage - Cecil Kroon. Zalia Graeme, and Madge Weatherby. There is also a nurse named Beeton. Swift bets his entire bankroll on a horse that loses, after which there is the sound of a shot. He is found on the roof, apparently a suicide, but it only takes a few seconds for Vance to decide that it is murder. During the interval in which Swift was absent from the party, Floyd and Graeme both were alone for a considerable length of time, Mrs. Garden was off on a rare solitary excursion from the house, and the Professor was nowhere to be seen. Kroon also leaves the building for a lengthy period of time, and the elevator operator did not take him down or back up. A vault of documents built on the roof has its door ajar, which also strikes Vance as rather peculiar. The murder weapon belonged to the professor whose whereabouts remain unknown.
Vance's reconstruction of events is that Swift was shot in the vault, which is sound proof, then carried to his chair and positioned to mimic suicide. The second shot, which alerted everyone to the incident, was fired after the fact. The killer, who could have accessed the roof from outside, wiped up the blood in the vault but missed a piece of glass broken from the victim's eyeglasses. The system of internal buzzers by which the servants are summoned has been inoperative all day, which does not initially seem significant. Vance also learns that Swift was to have inherited a large sum of money from the older Gardens, which suggests a motive for Floyd. Swift also had been romantically involved with Weatherby, although that ended, and may have been infatuated with Nurse Beeton. Weatherby accuses Kroon of having murdered Swift in a jealous rage and Kroon refuses to provide details of his supposed alibi.
Kroom eventually admits that he was paying blackmail to someone else in the building and that he chanced upon Swift's dead body but hurried away and concealed his knowledge of it, though not very well. A second revolver, filled with blanks with one empty chamber, is found in Nurse Seeton's jacket pocket. Floyd admits that he only pretended to place Swift's enormous bet and that he would have been liable to pay the bookmaker himself if it had been placed, since Swift was no longer alive, and would have been compelled to pay almost twenty thousands dollars to Swift if he had lived and won. Then someone attempts to kill the nurse with poison gas, although she is saved by Vance in the nick of time. Mrs. Garden then accuses her son Floyd of the murder and announces her intention to disinherit him, but she is fatally poisoned that very night. Vance then tidies up the case.
There are some serious problems with the plot. After the attempt on Beeton's life, why did the police not put her under special guard to prevent a second try? Why, if she was innocent, would she have deepened the risk by going for a long walk alone at night? The relationships among the various characters are much shallower than usual. Some of the supposed motives don't feel like motives at all. Weatherby and Graeme act like clones of each other. We get no sense of the personality of Hammle or the professor at all. Worst of all, Beeton's guilt is obvious almost from the outset. Her motive is transparent, she obviously had ample opportunity, and the faked attempt on her life looks like a faked attempt on her life.
The Kidnap Murder Case (1936) opens with the abduction of Kaspar Kenting, a slightly disreputable character. Kaspar is supported by his brother Kent, who has eyes on his brother's wife, Madeline. Madelaine's mother is Mrs. Falloway and she has a brother Fraim. The family lawyer is named Fleel and Kaspar's best friend is Porter Quaggy. There are hints that Kaspar may have been seriously in debt. Some precious gemstones are missing from his late father's collection and he had been overheard in several angry telephone calls in the days just preceding his disappearance. Vance ascertains which of Kaspar's clothes are missing and discovered that his comb and toothbrush are gone as well. This suggests that he left voluntarily and that the kidnapping is a hoax to raise money to cover his debts. The police begin to believe the same but Vance insists that it is more likely that Kaspar is already dead. His theory is that Kaspar left the house early in the morning but never returned. Someone else did, used a ladder to access his bedroom window, and removed the items designed to suggest that he was faking his own kidnapping. Police reports of a strange car in the area at the time in question are also suggestive.
More evidence supports Vance's theory. The ladder was not previously on the premises. An examination of the footprints and the depth of the indentations in the ground suggests that a small man - Vance assumes he is of Chinese origin because the prints indicate sandals - climbed the ladder alone, which seems to confirm that Kaspar did not leave by that method. His missing comb is found in the hedge where it appears to have been accidentally dropped. There's an interesting scene in this one in which Vance asks the Butler who in the household has reason to dislike Kaspar, then berates him as a cad for answering the question forthrightly. The case takes an interesting turn when the ransom note arrives. The police set a trap and catch Mrs. Falloway picking up the supposed ransom money. Her son is also with her. About the same time Vance notes that Quaggy has in his possession some valuable gemstones which presumably were taken from the family collection. Mrs. Falloway, correctly, believed that her son was trying to steal the ransom money but that he had nothing to do with the actual kidnapping.
The situation changes again when Madelaine Kenting disappears from her room, leaving an open window and the same ladder propped against the wall. A mysterious attack is made on Fleel with a machinegun of all things, but even though it's from very close range, the lawyer is uninjured, which is suspicious in itself. Vance figures out a clue from a new ransom note - a bit of a leap - and rescues Mrs. Kenting from four nameless thugs, killing three of them in the process, which was slightly out of character. The mastermind behind the plot is transparently obvious and there's no real mystery about how any of the intervening steps were accomplished. This is a fair mystery story but not a particularly good detective novel.
The Gracie Allen Murder Case (1938) was written in part for his friend Gracie Allen, who starred in the film version, which is not only awful but bears almost no relation to the novel. It is shorter than the other books and feels almost like a treatment for a screenplay rather than a novel. An escape convict had threatened to kill Vance's friend, District Attorney Markham. Vance is inspired to look into the escapee's former intimates, in the course of which he encounters the scatterbrained title character, who works in a perfume factory. The murder victim is Allen's brother, who works as a dishwasher in the restaurant owned by the crimelord. The brother had just had a fight with Allen's boyfriend and boss at the perfume factory, who just happens to be named George Burns. It appears that the dead man was poisoned although the coroner cannot figure out how. This is just embarrassingly bad. Not only does it have a secret passage, which is about as big a cheat as you can devise, but it is transparently a result of Van Dine's infatuation with Allen, whom we are told is a fascinating and intriguing character, even though she comes across as vapid and actively dumb. The mystery isn't remotely interesting and the writing, even for Vance, is pretty dreadful.
The Winter Murder Case (1939) is a short novel also meant to be the basis for a movie. Carrington Rexon is the slightly eccentric lord of the Rexon Manor, which is home to his priceless collection of gem stones. He is giving a party for his son Richard, who is engaged to Carlotta Naesmith. His daughter Joan is an invalid. The young crowd coming to the party are largely strangers to him but he considers Jacques Bassett his friend and has nothing bad to say about Dr. Louis Quayne. His daughter's companion is Ella Gunthar, whose father Eric manages the estate. Worried about having so many strangers near his collection, Rexon prevails upon Philo Vance to come stay during the critical period. Old Jed, the former manager, is retired and lives on the estate. There are also a handful of named guests at the party. Promptly upon Vance's arrival, the man assigned to guard the gem collection is found dead, apparently following an accidental fall, although it's pretty obvious that's not what really happened. There are indications the dead man was interested in Ella but that his feelings were not reciprocated. There are too many characters, most not developed at all, and the whole story has a rushed, cobbled together feel. Not a memorable ending for a career.
Van Dine was not a very good writer and his plots only occasionally showed signs of originality or inventiveness. He is also prone to unwarranted melodrama. Each of the first five books is described as the most startling New York had ever seen, and the overblown language pops up constantly. A man shot to death is not an "unspeakable horror" or a "grotesque dream of fabulous wickedness." The constant use of foreign words or phrases with footnotes is irritating, unnecessary, and snobbish. He repeats himself a great deal - particularly Markham constant insistence that Vance is wasting his time - and presents obvious observations as brilliant insights, or even worse, states that something is the only possible interpretation when clearly there are several others. He gets technical details wrong - chess tourney rules, forensic procedures, psychology - that he should have checked, as well as the occasional grammatical gaffes - imply and infer are not synonyms. Although he improved with The Kennel Murder Case and The Dragon Murder Case, his writing career was almost at an end. .