Sunday 24 June 2012

S.S. Van Dine - The Winter Murder Case (1939)

"You live for crime and suffering. And you adore worrying. You'd die of ennui if all were peaceful."

The Winter Murder Case, the last entry in the Philo Vance series, is a much shorter book than the other mysteries of Willard Huntington Wright (alias S.S. Van Dine), running about 160 pages. As an introductory essay explains, Wright developed each of the Philo Vance mysteries in three stages; a long synopsis, the development of the synopsis into an approximately 30,000 word manuscript, and finally a further working of character, dialogue and atmosphere resulting in the finished mystery. Owing to Wright's death on April 11, 1939, The Winter Murder Case never received the final fleshing-out so that some of the trademarks of an S.S. Van Dine title are absent, such as the pseudo literary footnotes and long-winded Vance lectures. This removes some of the insufferability and humanizes Vance (which might be an inducement for some readers, I prefer Vance's full-on conceit), although some of the events of the novel also accomplish this. It's hard to imagine the Philo Vance of the earlier novels acting as the master of ceremonies for an amateur winter carnival variety show, but he does this in The Winter Murder Case--and on ice skates no less!

In The Winter Murder Case, Vance is invited to a house party hosted by wealthy Carrington Rexon who is mistrustful of some of his other guests in proximity to his fabulous emerald collection. His suspicions are given extra weight when one of the estate guards is found dead. This final S.S. Van Dine mystery is an improvement over its predecessor, The Gracie Allen Murder Case which, like that book, was written with a specific movie actress in mind--in this case, Olympic skating champion turned movie star Sonja Henie. While there are many scenes involving skating, the winter theme is merely window dressing and doesn't play an appreciable part to the mystery (it easily could be The Summer Murder Case). Nobody is stabbed or has their throat slit with an ice skate (alas!). In addition to the shortness of the novel, the economy of the mystery itself gives The Winter Murder Case the feel of a short story blown up to novella length. A brisk read but inessential to the S.S. Van Dine canon. (The publication is also padded out with Van Dine's Twenty Rules for Writing Detective Stories and it's amusing to see how many of his own rules Van Dine transgresses).

I have now finished all the Van Dine novels (and basically in order. I suspect The Greene Murder Case was the only one I read significantly out of sequence) with my favourite being The Kennel Murder Case. Seeing some of the divergent opinions on that title makes me want to reread it as it's at least ten years since I completed it .

Sunday 10 June 2012

Ben Benson

Some pictures of Ben Benson who died in 1959 while still in his forties.

Ben Benson - The Affair of the Exotic Dancer (1958)

I've enjoyed Benson's series of mysteries involving Ralph Lindsey which are a combination of police procedural and bildungsroman. Lindsey is a young Massachusetts state trooper who not only makes mistakes at the outset of his career but also pays the price for having made these mistakes. I picked up The Affair of the Exotic Dancer thinking it was a non-series mystery but soon discovered that it features Benson's other series character, Captain Wade Paris of the Massachusetts police; thirty-something, fair, diplomatic, hardened by experience, the type of police veteran into which the callow Ralph Lindsey might develop.

The shooting death of a small business owner is the crime that Paris investigates in The Affair of the Exotic Dancer. However, this novel is not a who-done-it. Rather the story alternates between the police routine work and chapters entitled The Suspect which give the killer's backstory, so that early on the reader knows the identity of the killer and eventually the motive for the crime. It is to Benson's credit that, even knowing this information, the reader's interest is held by this no-frills police story.

Bill. S. Ballinger - Formula for Murder (1958)

While the cover blurb for Formula for Murder promises a "strikingly different kind of sleuth", vanMars (no first name given unless I missed it) is your typical Golden Age amateur; elegant, well-dressed, erudite, a New York City resident with friends in high places. Maybe not typical in all things. I don't recall Philo Vance ever ingesting magic mushrooms to help clarify his thoughts on a case as vanMars does in this novel...

Formula for Murder is a mystery involving suicide. Marcia Graham, a writer for Chic magazine (and presumably vanMars's love interest, although like many detectives he comes across as asexual and the relationship platonic) has been given the unusual assignment of authoring an article dealing with the study of a suicide. Unsure that she can do such a story well Marcia requests vanMars's help feeling that, with his background as a theoretical mathematician, his "scientific, detached attitude" will be a benefit to the writing of the article. Inquiring as to whether a case has been selected, Marcia replies that she'll be guided by circumstance. The next suicide story in the papers will be the one that she'll follow up.

Two days later Marcia has her story; Julian Hare, a former restaurant owner, has leaped from the Brooklyn Bridge in the early morning with two witnesses to his death. After getting the background of the case, Marcia is puzzled. "He wasn't really sick, he wasn't really broke, he wasn't really in any trouble." Even more puzzling is the link to another death. Julian's wife has been involved with an actor who was found murdered later that evening. How are the two deaths related?

Formula for Murder is a short yet solid mystery. vanMars lacks the obnoxiousness that characterizes many other gentleman detectives and the mystery plot, while obvious in some regards, is handled sufficiently well. The book takes its title from vanMars coming up with a formula for murder while in a trance state which, while novel, is basically nonsense.

Pictured is the author photo from the back cover. It's easy to visualize Bill S. Ballinger as vanMars.

Friday 1 June 2012

Terror! Artwork!

I don't have too many dust jackets which aren't readily found (or purchased) on the internet but here's a fairly scarce one--the artwork for the first of the Anne and Jeffrey McNeill mysteries:

Apologies and Acquisitions

I was horrified (okay, mildly surprised) to see that I haven't posted anything since the end of April. Hopefully this month I'll post more (and read better books). Apologies to my 5 followers who must have been frantic with worry and anticipation ;)

There are some new (to me) authors in my recent purchases; Katharine Virden ( an early Doubleday Crime Club selection that I was lucky to find locally for a few dollars), Anthony Weymouth and Margaret Page Hood (creator of Gil Donan, a Maine sheriff).

Also in this batch is an autographed copy of The Wild Duck Murders (I only obtain autographs of authors of whom no one is seeking autographs--what an awkward sentence..)

Finally, the last two two books in the photo are The Edge of Running Water and A Dirty Way to Die (I don't think they photographed very well).