Monday, May 25, 2020

“The Casino Murder Case” by S.S. Van Dine

The purported narrator of the Philo Vance mystery novels is the pseudonymous author S.S. Van Dine, always referred to as “Van” in the stories. The reader always knows what all the other characters, including Vance, look like in great physical and psychology detail, but never does the author provide a physical description of Van. He accompanies Vance on investigations, and he writes reports of the various crimes.

We do know a little about the narrator. He and Vance attended college together. Van also worked at his father’s law firm, Van Dine, Davis, & Van Dine. He made a decision to leave the family firm and work for Vance full-time as an attorney, general secretary, and accompanying investigator. Eventually, it’s mentioned that he lives in a small apartment in Vance’s brownstone. Later critics have read all kinds of implications into Van and his apartment, but the one thing it provided for was a legitimate reason what Van always seems in attendance when District Attorney John F.X. Markham and Police sergeant Ernest Heath arrive with a crime report.

His role in the novels is not unlike Dr. Watson in the Sherlock Holmes stories, except that Arthur Conan Doyle allowed Watson’s character to more fully develop. Van remains much more of a mystery.

Van is generally faceless and colorless, and the perfect scribe, but there are occasional exceptions, as in The Casino Murder Case, first published in 1934. He finds himself, with Vance, confronting an almost diabolical killer, and he occasionally notes the chilling terror he feels at times, including when they’re both staring their own deaths in the face.

The story centers on the Llewellyn family. Lynn and Amelia Llewellyn are brother and sister; Lynn is married to the former stage star Virginia Llewellyn, and they all live with their mother (in a large New York City brownstone, a standard setting in most of the Philo Vance stories). Also living with them is a maternal uncle, Richard Kincaid, who owns a casino, and Morgan Bloodgood, who works for Kincaid as a casino croupier. 

The story begins with an anonymous letter, saying evil events will begin to happen at the casino on a Saturday night. Vance goes, grasping that it’s the letter writer who will set the vents in motion. The events begin when Lynn Lewellyn is apparently poisoned and collapses at the roulette table. At the same time, at home, his wife Virginia apparent commits suicide by taking poison. Then sister Amelia collapses, having drunk water intended for her mother. Someone is obviously out to destroy the family, and all the clues point to Kincaid, the uncle. 

S.S. Van Dine
But Vance soon realizes that the clues have been designed to point to the uncle. And what is unfolding is the ruthless implementation of a ruthless plan, a plan that the killer adapts as mistakes are made and events warrant a change. The novel at times reads like a movie script, and the story was filmed and released as a movie of the same name in 1935, starring Paul Lukas as Philo Vance.

Willard Huntington Wright (1888-1939) was an art critic who had been literary editor of the Los Angeles Times, an editor of The Smart Set, a novelist, an art historian, and art exhibition organizer. A friend of H.L. Mencken and an admirer of the novels of Theodore Dreiser, Wright hated romance and detective fiction with a passion, until he needed money. In 1926, he published the first Philo Vance story, The Benson Murder Case, with Scribners. And he used the pen name “S.S. Van Dine” so friends wouldn’t know.

The Casino Murder Case certainly is in the running for the best of the 12 mysteries written by Van Dine. A fully developed Philo Vance is the story’s center and star, and he’s even up for a bit of entrapment when he learns he can’t prove the murderer’s identity. The thrilling disclosure scene starts looking deadly for Markham, Vance, and Van, and it’s helpful to remember that there are four more mysteries after this one.


Top photograph: The movie poster for The Casino Murder Case (1935), staring Paul Lukas at Philo Vance (and made into something of a romance, which the book isn't).

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