Thursday, January 23, 2014

The Winter Murder Case: Review

Carrington Rexton is a bit nervous.  His son Richard has just returned from medical studies in Europe and there's a house party going on to hail the conquering to speak.  So, what's making Papa Rexton nervous?  Well...he doesn't quite get these young folks and there's a fellow that Richard has brought back with him who seems a bit suspicious.  And...oh yeah...Rexton has a bunch of sparkly emeralds and a rare necklace that aren't exactly as secure as they ought to be.  

Rexton arranges (through District Attorney Markham) to have his old friend Philo Vance on the premises to look everything (and everybody) over and see if his fears are groundless.  Vance meets the guests and inhabitants of the Rexton manor--from son of the house and the invalid daughter Joan to Ella Gunther, companion to Joan and a secret ice skating star; from Carlotta Naesmith, society girl and Richard's intended--at least intended by Papa Rexton--to Stanley Sydes, man about town and avid treasure-hunter.  Also in the wings are the family doctor, a famous singer, a race car driver, a gentleman jockey, a famous aviatrix, and a host of others.

Vance barely has time to discover who's who and take a peek around the premises before Lief Wallen, a guard stationed to guard the Gem Room, is found at the base of a cliff dead from a blow to the head.  Accident?  Or was he hit and tossed over the edge.  The emeralds disappear and then there is another death--this time it is Jacques Bassett, the suspicious friend of Richard's.  The local lieutenant is sure that Ella and her father--particularly her father--are the ones to watch, but while Vance admits that things look rather black for the father and daughter, he asks the lieutenant to wait for one more ice skating exhibition.  Vance has a few tricky moves of his own to put on display.

The Winter Murder Case (1939) is the final book in S. S. Van Dine's (Willard Huntington Wright) Philo Vance series.  It actually represents the second stage of his writing process--a process that included first, a 10,000 word outline; second a draft that filled out the dialogue; and a final draft to complete the details and descriptions.  Van Dine died before he could complete the final draft of his twelfth book.  There are many critics, with Julian Symons in Bloody Murder chief among them, who say that Van Dine's work was in steady decline throughout his last six novels.  Symons writes: "The decline in the last six Vance books is so steep that the critic who called the ninth of them one more stitch in his literary shroud was not overstating the case." 

I, on the other hand, didn't think the book was so very awful.  It is true that it is very bare bones.  Vance speaks in very short, clipped sentences...and there seems to be a lot left unspoken that should be explained, particularly when you realize that Vance is not working with his usual brothers-in-arms, Markham and Sergeant Heath.  But the story is well-plotted and even in the bare bones stage there are enough clues that the reader has a fair chance to discover the culprit.  I must confess--I did spot the culprit, but I couldn't have pointed to any particular clue that led me to my choice.  At least, I couldn't until after I had completed my read-through and went back to find them.  Two and a half stars for a pleasant read.

This counts for the "Date, Time, Etc" Square on the Golden Vintage Mystery Bingo card.


Anonymous said...

I'm with you Bev, this is definitely one of the better books from the latter half of the Vance series.

fredamans said...

Not read one, I haven't. Don't know that I will either, but the story sounds interesting enough. Great review.

neer said...

I have not read any Van Dine but now after reading this I want to read at least one book by him.