Monday, April 20, 2020

"The Greene Murder Case" by S.S. Van Dine

A few other writers of the Golden Age of Mystery did it, too, but no one used diagrams of the scene of the crime as extensively as S.S. Van Dine did in his Philo Vance mysteries.

The diagram might be of the room where the murder occurred. It might be the room and the floor of the building. It might be the property and how it was situated on the street. But Van Dine invariably used diagrams to illustrate his mysteries. In The Greene Murder Case, published in 1927, the position of the rooms, and who occupied them, play a critical role. 

A diagram from the story
The family of the deceased patriarch, Tobias Greene, all live together in the Greene mansion in New York City. They have to, if they want to inherit under the terms of the old man’s will. Attended by a nurse, his widow lives almost completely in her room, paralyzed and believing her children have no regard for her. The five children are all adults, and it would be an understatement to say they disliked each other. 

District Attorney John F.-X. Markham is called into what appears to be a burglary gone wrong at the Greene mansion. He drags Philo Vance along with him. One daughter, Julia, has been shot to death, while another was injured after being shot in the back. Nothing has been stolen. Brother Chester Greene believes something else is going on, but there are footprints in the snow leading to and from the house. 

A poster for the 1929 movie
And then there’s another death, and it appears someone is out to kill the entire family. Markham and the police are frustrated in making headway in the investigation, and even Vance is stumped for a considerable period of time. Answers will begin to come with the opening of a long-locked library in the house, but this develops into a case where nothing is at it seems, and everyone and anyone is a suspect.

At times, the novel reads like a movie script, particularly for how people enter and leave rooms when being questioned in the case. Like several of the Van Dine novels, The Greene Murder Case was also made into a movie in 1929, starring William Powell who would go on to greater fame as Nick Charles in The Thin Man movies. Powell projects just the right nonchalance to pull off a credible Philo Vance. 

The story culminates in a rather wild car chase, which also seems like a movie script. But it is fascinating to read how Vance gradually and meticulously unwinds the solution to the murders.


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