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 .

1 comment: