Saturday, October 29, 2016

The Garden Murder Case: Review

The setting of The Garden Murder Case (1935), S. S. Van Dine's ninth mystery novel featuring that stylish, intellectual detective Philo Vance, is a rooftop penthouse. Vance receives a not-so-anonymous phone message that piques his interest in the nest socialite gathering of Floyd Garden and his friends to listen to the outcome of horse races in the comfort of his father's luxurious penthouse. Drinks are made to order and wagers are placed to the bookies by Floyd on his direct bookie line. Despite the caller's refusal to leave a name, Vance immediately recognizes the phrasing and key words as pointing to Dr. Siefert who attends the Garden family--post particularly Mrs. Garden who suffers from a mysterious malady. 

"There is a most disturbing psychological tension at Professor Ephraim Garden's apartment, which resists diagnosis. Read up on radioactive sodium. See book XI of the Aeneid, line 875. Equanimity is essential."

Equanimity is the name of a horse set to race in the Rivermont Handicap the next day. Since Vance and Floyd Garden share membership in a club, Vance has a standing invitation to join the racing festivities any time and he decides to take advantage of it the very next day. 

Vance and his Boswell, Van Dine immediately sense the tension in the air. They meet all the essential players from Floyd Garden to his mother to his friend and cousin, Woode Swift. Also in the mix are two lovely young women, Zalia Graem and Madge Weatherby, who seem to have divided the attentions of the men (not necessarily equally) including Cecil Kroon and Lowe Hammerle, two more of the sporting crowd. And even Mrs. Garden's nurse Bernice Beeton gets in on the betting action. When the final wagers are placed, Swift has placed last cent he has on Equanimity--a horse that Vance, who is a fair hand at handicapping horses, does not believe will be up to the job. 

Swift has had the habit of going up to the rooftop garden to listen to the results alone. As soon as the final race is finished and it is clear that Equanimity has lost the race, a gunshot is heard and at first glance it looks like Swift has committed suicide upon hearing that all his money has been lost as well. But Vance spots several indications that someone has used Swift's loss as a clever cover for murder. And the murder isn't finished...the nurse is trapped in a paper vault with poisonous gas and Floyd's mother will also be killed before Vance is able to solve the crime. There is no tangible proof that District Attorney Markham could use to go to trial, so Philo Vance uses himself as bait to capture the killer on film when they try to push him off the garden balcony.

Van Dine has taken a lot of flack for his last six detective novels. In fact, crime novelist and critic Julian Symons wrote in Bloody Murder, "The decline in the last six Vance books is so steep that the critic who called the ninth of them [i.e. The Garden Murder Case] 'one more stitch in his literary shroud' was not overstating the case." But, honestly, I don't see that this is so very bad. It's not intricately plotted, but there are certainly enough red herrings to make things interesting and Vance isn't nearly as all-knowing in this one as is sometimes the case (he doesn't give a detailed lecture on horse racing as he has been wont to do about Chinese pottery, for example). The mystery provides a very pleasant day's reading--with familiar characters and enough mystification to keep you guessing for a good while. ★★ and a half.

This counts for the "Spiderweb" category on the Golden Vintage Scavenger Hunt card.


Anonymous said...

Always glad to see Van Dine books getting reviewed again Bev, thanks. The first half dozen Vance books are much superior to the ones that followed, which did get progressively thinner, no question, but I do remember enjoying this one - well, I enjoyed the all though have never read KIDNAP MURDER CASE actually ...

Bev Hankins said...

Sergio--Honestly, this is the last one I had to read and I can't say that I thought any of them were real stinkers. Of course, there are a few that I need to go back and reread since I read about half of them before blogging. But I enjoyed them all. I just think they're a lot of fun--and certainly more entertaining than so many of today's cozies with their endless plots of knitting circle murders or murder with recipes.

fredamans said...

I don't know if this would be for me, but am glad it was interesting enough for you.

Rick Mills said...

Murder in a penthouse while sitting around listening to horse races on the radio? I'm in! This is next on the to-be-read list.

Rick Mills said...

And here is my cast of characters and review: