The Kennel Murder Case (1933) by S. S. Van Dine (Willard Huntington Wright)
There are a number of odd things going on in this sixth entry in the Philo Vance mystery series. There is Arthur Coe, found dead behind a bolted door in a room with locked windows and no other entry. He has a peaceful, restful look on his face and a bullet wound in his temple. There's a revolver held tightly in his hand (rigor mortis is well established), but the position of his arm relative to the chair in which he is seated and the table under his arm is rather odd. And, yes, the man has been shot--but he didn't die from the bullet wound. He was hit on the head before he was shot--but that didn't kill him either. He was stabbed with a rare Chinese dagger! Not only that, but the man was stabbed through clothes that he had since removed (or had removed for him) and was clothed in his dressing but still had his street shoes on.
Of course, the big question is: If this isn't suicide (and how could it be with three different types of wound?), then how did the murderer get in and out of the locked room? Then there are other trifling things, like the show-quality Scottie dog found wounded behind a curtain. The dog doesn't belong to the household and, in fact, no one in the house likes dogs. And there's the missing priceless Chinese vase which has been replaced by a much inferior piece and is later found broken with bloodstains. Oh, and don't forget the victim's brother, Brisbane, who has also been stabbed and bundled into the coat closet.
For suspects, we have the victim's niece, Hilda Lake, who disagreed most emphatically with her uncle's views on her money and who she should marry. Raymond Wrede is her chosen intended and he had an argument with Arthur shortly before the murder. Gamble, the butler, seems to be on the spot every time something happens--even though others were closer and should have heard various noises first. Liang Tsung Wei, the Chinese cook, who appears to be less of a cook and more an agent investigating his employer's plundering of rare Chinese artifacts. And Signor Eduardo Grassi from the Milan Museum of Oriental Antiquities who had an interest in both the deceased's collection and his niece. Grassi also had an argument with Coe over a deal on some of the collection--Coe had changed his mind and Grassi was not pleased at all.
Van Dine is not shy about his clues in this installment. He strews them about liberally--in fact, at one point Markham, the District Attorney, complains that there are too many clues. Van Dine frequently points out something in his narrative (such as the chair the victim was seated in and those heavy street shoes he wore with his dressing gown) and adds that this item "constituted one of the vital links in the evidential chain of this strange and perplexing case" or that "the answer to this question was also was to prove a vital point in the solution of the tragedy." The reader certainly can't complain that the clues are too obscure or too well-hidden. We can, however, complain that the kennel of the title isn't nearly as central to the murder as it should be. The kennel helps trace the Scottie dog to her owner and that does help Vance solve the case, but if we're going to hang the story title on that bit of the plot, then The Scottie Murder Case makes more sense.
This is an interesting mystery with several side-stories to make things just a bit complicated. We have the dog angle and the Chinese artifacts angle (both of which give Vance ample opportunity to educate Markham and company, as well as the reader). I found the plot to be enjoyable and the characters to be well-drawn. If I hadn't spotted the murderer and had a good idea of how it all worked out (not down to the last detail--but close), then I'd definitely rate this as a four-star effort or higher. Perhaps Van Dine should have shined the light a little less brightly on some of those clues... ★★★ and 1/2.
First line: It was only three months after the startling termination of the Scarab murder case that Philo Vance was drawn into the subtlest and most perplexing of all the criminal problems that came his way during the four years of John F. X. Markham's incumbency as District Attorney of New York County.
On the surface it smacked of strange and terrifying magic, of witch-doctors and miracle-workers; and every line of investigation ran into a blank wall. (p..15)
Have you ever stopped to think how much of all the world's disturbance is caused by butlers being able to see through keyholes? (Philo Vance; p. 21)
...a collector who has just acquired a pair of peach-bloom vases of that size doesn't commit suicide the next day. (Vance; p. 22)
I'm a doctor not a detective. (Dr. Doremus, p. 52) [I love a good echo of Star Trek's Dr. McCoy...]
[after examining the body] "Mr. Markham," he said with precise solemnity, "that baby had been dead for hours when that bullet entered his head." (Dr. Doremus; p. 54)
Interestin' situation--eh, what? Really, Markham, a man doesn't ordinarily shoot himself after death....I fear you simply must eliminate the suicide theory. (Vance, p. 55)
I merely made the suggestion by way of indicating that, at this stage of the game, we should not jump at conclusions. And the more obvious the conclusion, the more cautious we should be. This is not, my dear Markham, an obvious case. (Vance (p. 64)
Oh, well, I'm no moralist. I'm a doctor. (Dr. Doremus, p. 126)
Last line: Sometimes I think that Vance would rather part with one of his treasured Cézannes than with little Miss MacTavish.
Deaths = 4 (two stabbed; one attacked by dog; one shot [dog named Ruprecht--important to plot])