Saturday, February 22, 2014

the dragon murder case - 1934

The Dragon Murder Case
From a novel by S.S. Van Dine

A man dives into a pool in full view of his companions. He does not surface. The pool is drained, turning up nothing but what appear to be dragon tracks. Enter Philo Vance, a somber district attorney, and a wisecracking police sergeant, who convene to determine exactly what transpired.

This one's good fun all around, in spite of the somewhat farfetched nature of the crime. But then where would the golden age of detection have been without murderers who went to such ridiculous lengths to carry out such complicated crimes?

This actually marked my first exposure to Philo Vance. I had been meaning to read some of the books prior to seeing it, but those plans fell afoul of the "so many books, so little time" dictum.

the scarab murder case, by s.s. van dine

the scarab murder case
by s.s. van dine

i'm putting a lot of trust in you - you confounded aesthete.
(john markham, to philo vance)

say what you want about philo vance but you can't say that he doesn't have a vast knowledge of pencils (a comment that will make more sense if you've read this book). you could also say that he's a quite unique and distinctive character, one whose adventures were chronicled in twelve novels from 1926 to 1939. many of these made their way to the big screen.

not long ago i decided that it was finally time to experience philo vance in print. i started with the fifth volume in the series simply because i'm a sucker for works that take egyptology as their theme. although the characters here never get any closer to egypt than manhattan (at least not during the course of the novel) this one, as the name suggests, is all about egyptology.

the novel kicks off with the murder of a wealthy new yorker who has backed a number of archaeological expeditions. his body is found in a private museum run by egyptologist dr. mindrum bliss and he's been given a one-way ticket to oblivion courtesy of a nasty knock on the noggin with a weighty statue.

which sounds like a job for philo vance, who is called in to help sort things out, along with the rather inept police and his old friend district attorney markham, who vacillates between deferring to vance and overruling him. as it so happens vance is something of an expert in egyptology and he wastes no opportunity to impart staggering amounts of detail (in those famed footnotes, no less), no matter how irrelevant.

not that vance's irrelevancies are limited to egyptology, mind you. i suspect that he was also an expert in just about everything else under the sun, but having only read this one volume i can't be sure. in any event there's a limited circle of suspects here, mainly the residents of and frequent visitors to the house/museum complex and it's not even forty-eight hours before vance has tied everything up in a nice neat package.

i have to say that i found the print incarnation of philo vance to be not particularly likable but you certainly can't deny that he's a memorable character. as is the case with those other great, memorable and not so likable detectives like sherlock holmes, nero wolfe and hercule poirot, just to name a few. i did find this book quite entertaining and when the to be read pile permits i'm sure i'll be checking out other installments.