Monday, June 22, 2020

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

Few outside his immediate circle of friends knew it, but S.S. Van Dine, author of the Philo Vance mysteries, was in declining health. He had suffered a mild heart attack; he was told by his doctor that the prognosis was not good and that his end would be sooner rather than later. He continued to work; the need for money was always present.

He wrote the next Philo Vance mystery as he had written the previous stories. He would create a core story of some 20,000 words, and then rewrite it, adding in all the detail, footnotes, and extended discussions of art, theater, sports, and anything else that served as one of the hallmarks of the detective. In other words, he first wrote the basic narrative, and then he came back to embellish it.

The 1939 book cover
He did finish the basic story of the last manuscript – some 20,000 words. The typist stacked the pages neatly on his desk. But he never finished the novel, and he never saw the typed version. He died on April 11, 1939, the manuscript unfinished.

As a consequence, The Winter Murder Case is the shortest of the Philo Vance mysteries. It’s missing some of the familiar characters, like Sergeant Ernest Heath and his band of detectives. District Attorney John F.X. Markham has but a fleeting role at the beginning of the story. And there are no footnotes and other Philo Vance trademarks. Even the narrator “Van” is barely mentioned.

Vance has been asked to come to the Carrington Rexon estate in the Berkshires. It’s the height of winter and snow is everywhere. There’s a house party involving the usual assortment of jaded friends and hangers-on, and the Rexon patriarch is fearful that his collection of emeralds is at risk. The daughter of the estate manager is an accomplished ice skater, and ice-skating looms large in the story. An estate guard is found dead, seemingly of an accidental fall but actually of a blow to the head. The patriarch is himself attacked and knocked out, and some of the prize emeralds are stolen.

Movie poster via Wikipedia
It’s an odd story for a Philo Vance mystery. Vance has never been called in before a crime happens, but in this case he is. The murders (there are two) appear almost accidental, with one of the “master criminal mind” directing them. It’s a Philo Vance story that “might have been,” had Van Dine lived long enough to finish the rewriting and editing.

Working with executives at Paramount Studios, Van Dine wrote the story specifically to provide a role for skating star Sonja Henie (the studio suggested the title be The Sonja Henie Murder Case, following the success of The Gracie Allen Murder Case book and movie, but Van Dine resisted).  

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.” 

S.S. Van Dine
Scribner’s dutifully published The Winter Murder Case as written in 1939, but its sales were disappointing. Paramount did eventually film and release the movie, but dropping the Vance character, changed the title, and rewrote the story so much that’s unrecognizable from the book. The 1941 movie was called Sun Valley Serenade, starring Sonja Henie, Milton Berle, John Payne, and Glenn Miller. The movie is best remembered for its Glenn Miller tunes, including “Moonlight Serenade,” “In the Mood,” and “Chattanooga Choo Choo.”

The novel, more properly called a novella, was usually included in various Van Dine anthologies. It was reprinted in 1993 by mystery expert and publisher Otto Penzler, as part of his Classic American Mystery Library series. To help make it a fuller book, Penzler included Van Dine’s once-famous article “Twenty Rules for Writing Detective Stories.”


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