The Casino Murder Case (S.S. Van Dine)

Rating: 3 out of 5.

“You learned a hell of a lot!…This house is just a bunch of stenographers.” –Sergeant Heath

I found this line quite humorous for some reason, so could not resist quoting.  Vance gets an anonymous typed letter (see stenographer comment above), warning him of dire goings-on among the wealthy Llewllyn family: cold, society matriarch, do-nothing son, son’s former actress (I believe it was) wife, modern daughter and matriarch’s brother, who runs the casino of the title.  Sure enough, that night son, his wife and daughter are poisoned, the son at the casino and the wife and daughter at the Llewellyn house, one of those classic brownstones that crowd the pages of Van Dine tales.  The wife expires, but the son and daughter recover.

The story that develops is pretty interesting, the question of the poisoning method making it rather resemble a John Rhode mystery (from comments in the tale I couldn’t help but wonder whether Van Dine hadn’t read Rhode’s The Claverton Mystery, which came out the year before).  Vance is pretty sober here, giving no lectures (there were only fourteen footnotes by my count), and actually does some solid practical investigation, including a side trip to New Jersey with the ever-compliant Van, who, consummate toady as ever, makes sure to tell us that Vance is an excellent driver (Markham does nothing in this one but take orders from Vance).  Recently discovered “heavy water” becomes a prominent matter in the tale.  Some reviewers of the book and film adapted from it seem to think this heavy water business silly, but I thought it quite good.  Van Dine consulted the real-life Princeton Professor of Chemistry, Hugh Stott Taylor, who gets due credit.

Contrary to assertions often made about Van Dine’s decline in the thirties, this tale is enjoyable reading today, 75 years after it was first published.

My biggest complaint with this book is the plot of the killer SPOILER , the son, to implicate his uncle as the murderer.  I understand the heavy water idea was to lead to the uncle, but since we’re told that it had not been determined that heavy water actually could kill a human, how was the son expecting a conviction to be obtained?  Also, the son poisoned himself and planned to poison his mother with non-lethal doses (the daughter got the mother’s poison instead), so that they would not be suspected (the son has an Oedipus complex, we’re told).  But what would the uncle’s motive have been for poisoning his nephew, his sister and his nephew’s wife?  I suppose it must have been something to do with inheritance, but how exactly?  I must have missed something.

Blurb (US)

This new Van Dine murder case deals with three unusual poisonings.  Philo Vance is immediately called in, and actually witnesses one of the coups of the murderer.  District Attorney Markham and Sergeant Heath of the Homicide Bureau both play an exciting part in the sinister criminal investigation.

The locale shifts between New York’s fashionable gambling resorts and the social life of Park Avenue.  The “Casino” is a famous modern Canfield’s to which the élite and the wealthy go for relaxation and excitement – an American Monte Carlo.  Situated in one of the famous old mansions of Manhattan, this fashionable gambling club is the principal scene of the most baffling murder mystery that S. S. Van Dine has yet conceived.  And it is in this colourful atmosphere of roulette wheels and vintage champagne that Philo Vance, cosmopolite, gourmet and criminologist, with his knowledge of gambling systems and the intricacies of the gaming table, brings the murderer to justice.

The story moves with Mr. Van Dine’s usual swiftness and logic to the most thrilling dénouement of any of his books.

Contemporary reviews

Observer (Torquemada, 18th November 1934): [Like John Rhode] Mr. S.S. Van Dine is also a scientist; but his science is excellently fortified by his very considerable share of that fairy gift—when it was given out, Agatha Christie was the world’s chief beneficiary—of leading readers round by the nose.  Philo Vance, in spite of ingenious notes confounding the fictional and the actual, has always seemed to us a somewhat unreal figure.  If we remember rightly, he spent some years at Oxford; consequently he talks like this: “Oh, no.  On the contr’ry…The epistle has possibilities, don’t y’ know…I’m afraid it’s necess’sry…”  A Non-Collegiate student?  Sometimes, also, when he moans and looks bewildered and talks (to Markham, as it might be to Lomas) of “such touchin’ devotion” and “my dear fellow—oh, my dear fellow!” the effect is as of Reggie Fortune, most living and lovable of all detectives, getting through at a séance.  But the plotting in this book is, as ever, first rate, and we specially congratulate Mr. Van Dine on returning, after an excursion, with The Dragon Murder Case, into the slightly improbable, to the top of that form which he showed in the Greene, Benson, and Bishop murder cases.

Sunday Times (Dorothy L. Sayers, 18th November 1934): RE-ENTER PHILO VANCE—MORE IRRITATING THAN EVER

Just as each new baby ushered into the world is the finest child its nurse ever saw, so every successive crime investigated by Philo Vance is more shocking and unnerving to his attendant Van Dine than any of its predecessors.  It is a solemn and affecting thing to see human beauty and human turpitude thus advancing side by side to perfection; but perhaps both the nurse and Mr. Van Dine are apt to exaggerate in the excitement of the moment.

I think myself it is a mistake to insist too loudly in the first chapter of a mystery on the awful revelations to follow: it is an opening that takes a lot of living up to.  I doubt whether the reader will be greatly upset by “the terrific and fatal dénouement that came so suddenly”—he has met too many dénouements of the same kind.  He will probably content himself with wondering (not for the first or the twentieth time) why the criminals of fiction should be at so much pains to explain their methods in detail to the detective before proceeding with the job of polishing that inconvenient person off.  If any criminal ever does succeed in slaying Mr. Vance, I shall heartily sympathise.  He has now begun to model his style on Mr. Reggie Fortune; he says, “My dear Markham—oh, my dear Markham!” and “I could bear to know a few facts” and “same like a shillin’ shocker”—and, dearly as I love the original Reggie, I could not bear to hear every detective talk same like him.

It is, however, sheer natural cussedness that makes Mr. Vance say “in yon lavatorium,” when he means “in the bathroom”; something lingering with boiling oil in it should be reserved for tormentors of the King’s English.

Although nothing in The Casino Murder Case is quite so nerve-racking as its hero’s conversation, the problem is a nicely complicated one and the criminal highly ingenious.  True, in the actual technique of the murder he does not take quite enough trouble to verify his references, but when he goes about to cast suspicion on the innocent his methods are laudably up to date and show a really self-sacrificing attention to completeness.  The theme is poison; the characters belong to America’s “Social Register”; the setting is a private casino of unparalleled luxury.

Times Literary Supplement (13th December 1934): Mr. Van Dine’s many admirers will not be disappointed with his new book.  The story is perhaps a little over-dramatic; but the author provides a startling and exciting reconstruction of family hatred at its worst, when what should have been the natural kindness of human beings is turned into tormented suspicion through the possession of too much money.  The degenerate young Lynn Llewellyn, joint heir with his sister to a large fortune, ought never to have married the beautiful musical comedy star, Virginia Vale.  His mother, a hard overbearing woman, can only shrug her shoulders at such folly, openly accusing Virginia of marrying her son for his money.  Virginia is found dead on her bed from poisoning, while her husband is also struck down by poison at the same hour in a fashionable New York casino.  There is a will to begin with—of a kind which is commoner in books than in real life, but one eagerly accepts it.  In it old Mrs. Llewellyn’s money is divided at her death between her son and daughter, but if they are already deceased it passes to her brother, Richard Kinkaid, the owner of the casino.  One poisoning follows another, and although Llewellyn and his sister both recover, Virginia dies and leaves behind a complicated tangle for Philo Vance to unravel.  The murderer himself rarely steps out of the background until the final chapter, and the reader is successfully hoodwinked for the greater part of this briskly moving tale.

New Statesman & Nation (Ralph Partridge, 15th December 1934): A NEW VAN DINE

Mrs. Agatha Christie and Mr. Van Dine are great minds that think alike on the awkward problems of the detective novelist, and consequently they have hit on much the same formula for mystifying and entertaining their countless public—a formula which has never yet failed to work.  Is the detective to have any character interest?  Certainly not, because a character drawn to life would be nothing but a hostage in the battle of wits with a clever reader—and all readers to-day are clever as cats.  If the detective is allowed a mind, they pounce on his mental processes, for clues to the criminal; if he has a heart, that eliminates the possibility of the beautiful lady, and if he has a moral code they can be sure the crime will not be brought home to an old Etonian.  So, wisely, Poirot and Philo Vance go their unreal ways like automata, employing such an outlandish jargon for their utterance that even the most analytical reader has never been able to get a hint of the solution from anything they say.  The second element in the Van Dine–Christie formula concerns the criminal.  In fairness to the reader the crime ought never to be fastened on a minor character in the plot or a scapegoat who crops up in the last chapter.  This is a common resource of less talented writers, but is most irritating, however successful it may be in concealing the mouse from those clever cats; for it makes the bulk of the story a mere waste of time and trouble for the conscientious reader.  In a Van Dine book you may be confident that the criminal will be a prominent character and play a prominent part throughout.  But how then does one not spot him either by the clues or a process of elimination?  Because there are too many clues all leading in opposite directions and one is never given a chance to eliminate.  You are never allowed time to concentrate your attention.  It is like the three-card trick, where Mr. Van Dine manipulates his cards too quickly for the eye to follow; and like the three-card trick it holds an eternal fascination.  In The Casino Murder Case the egregious Philo Vance is set to find a poisoner.  He receives an anonymous letter warning him that something terrible is about to happen in the Llewellyn family; and sure enough it does.  The Llewellyns drop poisoned right and left; and as they are “a pathological household” with every member “tangential to the norm” (to use Mr. Van Dine’s expressive vocabulary), they can none of them escape our suspicion.  To add to the dilemma, there is the family doctor, who is in love with Miss Llewellyn, and Bloodgood, a brilliant mathematician and chemist, with “prominent Darwinian ears”, attached to the same Miss Llewellyn, who acts as chief croupier in the “Casino” gambling club run by one of the Llewellyn family.  We are incidentally privileged to spend an evening with Vance at this exclusive resort and watch 40,000 dollars change hands before the poison gets to work.  And what is the nature of the poison?  That alone constitutes a formidable problem for the toxicologists until Philo helps them out.  The solution is intensely dramatic, quite unexpected, and completely satisfactory.  Again the quickness of the hand deceived my eye, and I must congratulate Mr. Van Dine on having done the trick better than in any of the Vance series since The Greene Murder Case.  I hope to do better next time—in The Garden Murder Case, which we are promised for the future.

NY Times (Isaac Anderson, 30th September 1934, 430w): The crime is an uncommonly subtle one, and the solution of it is one of the major triumphs of Vance’s career.  One is tempted to say that this is the best of the Philo Vance stories, but when one remembers the Benson, Canary, Greene, Bishop, Scarab, Kennel and Dragon cases it is not so easy to decide.

Sat R of Lit (6th October 1934, 50w): O.K., but no masterpiece.