Monday, June 1, 2020

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

Almost every Philo Vance mystery by S.S. Van Dine includes an in-depth dive into a subject. It may be Egyptian artifacts and hieroglyphics, as in The Scarab Murder Case. It may be Chinese ceramics and pottery. In The Casino Murder Case, the subject was the production of heavy water. Sometimes it’s the scientific study of criminology. The Kennel Murder Case includes an extensive discussion of dog breeding and registration.

The stories also contain a multitude of cursory references to art and music; Vance tosses off references to art, artists, art exhibitions, and symphony and operatic music like many people discuss sports and politics. These references explain why Van Dine included so many footnotes in the stories, footnotes that are real and not invented references. The effect is to depict Philo Vance as a man of broad and deep education, as comfortable puzzling over his translations of Sumerian tablets as he with speculating about the electricity used to produce heavy water. 

In The Garden Murder Case, first published in 1935, the in-depth subject is horseracing. Floyd Garden lives with his parents and a cousin in the penthouse of a New York City apartment high-rise. The penthouse includes a rooftop garden, and the book’s title is taken from both the family name and the penthouse feature. Garden has organized a horseracing betting party. After receiving an anonymous phone call warning of an impending tragedy, Vance gets himself invited to the party.

The event involves a fairly elaborate set-up of radios, telephones, and betting forms. Vance soon realizes that the anonymous phone caller was correct – so many tensions underlie the party and the house that it’s almost inevitable that something will happen. And it does. The cousin bets everything he has on a horse in one particular race, and then he retires to the rooftop garden to await the results. The bets are placed, the race begins and quickly ends, and then all at the party hear a gunshot. The cousin is dead, shot in the temple in what looks like a suicide. Vance quickly determines that it’s murder. The victim was killed even before he knew the outcome of the race (and his horse did indeed lose). 

Over a two-day period, Vance sifts through what’s known and what isn’t known. And then a second murder occurs.

S.S. Van Dine
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.” 

The Garden Murder Case is S.S. Van Dine and Philo Vance at the top of their game. Van Dine liked to play with stories in which justice is only possible when it falls outside the law, and this is certainly one of those. Interestingly enough, this story is the only Philo Vance mystery in which there's a hint of a love interest for the amateur detective. But it is only that, a hint.


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