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

Rating: 2 out of 5.

A man jumps into a swimming-pool supposedly haunted by a dragon—and vanishes. His body later turns up in a pot-hole, bludgeoned and strangled to death, with three claw-marks across his chest… Did the dragon kill him? Obviously not, says the experienced reader. Obviously not, says Philo Vance, who then lectures on mythology and tropical fish. Van Dine ignores the possibilities inherent in the dragon, so there is no atmosphere. Vance either brings everythin’ down to the commonplace (although there is something ludicrously silly in the idea of SPOILER the diving-suit-clad killer fishin’ for men with a grapplin’-hook), or we are treated to the narrator’s imperially purple descriptions of blood-chillin’ / curdlin’ screams and the effect they have on his delicate susceptibilities.

Note the use of the spooky old house with psychologically warped inmates (The Greene Murder Case, Bishop, Scarab) and the “damaged” old woman (Greene, Bishop, Casino).

The plot bears distinct similarities to Conan Doyle’s The Hound of the Baskervilles (the mysterious footprints of the family monster) and to John Dickson Carr’s A Graveyard to Let (the vanishing man in the swimming-pool, the graveyard, the motive, the setting).

Blurb (US)

Van Dine - The Dragon Murder Case.JPGSanford Montague, on a week-end house party at the century-old Stamm estate in Inwood, dives into a private swimming-pool one night, and fails to rise to the surface.  The tragedy is reported to the Homicide Bureau.  After an investigation Sergeant Heath calls on District Attorney Markham and Philo Vance to tell them of his grave suspicions.  The swimming-pool – known as the Dragon Pool – is drained the next day with the most astounding and blood-chilling results.  The Dragon Pool, long regarded as the home of the Amangemokdom (the devil-monster of the Lenape Indians), more than lives up to its sinister reputation.  In the end Philo Vance, with his knowledge of dragon lore and his deep insight into human nature, clears up one of the cleverest and most awe-inspiring murders of modern times.

The story moves swiftly and logically to a dénouement as thrilling as it is unexpected.  For action, suspense, atmosphere, characterization, and clear-cut development, “The Dragon Murder Case” stands at the forefront of Mr. Van Dine’s Philo Vance mysteries.

Mr. Van Dine opens up a new field of research in this story.

There is a fascinating background of tropical fish, deep-sea monsters, and mythological lore, which forms an integral part of the story’s solution.

Contemporary reviews

NY Evening Post (Norman Klein, 14th October 1933, 80w): The author has infused a good deal of swift story-telling in his newest yarn…  Scholarly: Yes, as usual, and far more readable (to me) this time.  Sleuth: Philo Vance.

The Saturday Review of Literature (14th October 1933): Movie actor vanishes into, and from, Spuyten Duyvil swimming pool.  Heath and Markham call Philo Vance.  Below the Greene standard, but better than Bishop or Scarab.  Excellent trick with mythological dragon.  A2.

Books (New York Herald Tribune) (Will Cuppy, 15th October 1933, 420w): Here you have that exciting event, a brand new Van Dine—a life-saver for those inclined that way, and worth anybody’s money…  In fact, Mr. Van Dine has done it again.

NY Times (Isaac Anderson, 22nd October 1933, 330w): This is the seventh of Mr. Van Dine’s Philo Vance stories, and the omniscient Philo still remains one of the most colourful figures in the detective fiction field.

Springfield Republican (12th November 1933, 180w): The reader need shed no tears over any of the victims and may give the author credit for another interesting tale.

New Statesman (Ralph Partridge, 20th January 1934): After his course in bell-ringing [in Sayers’s Nine Tailors] the reader may be excused the lectures on dragons and the catalogue of fish in Mr. Van Dine’s latest.  These are merely like erudite padding to which that author is always addicted, and have no bearing on the detective problem in The Dragon Murder Case; they have been thoughtfully introduced in solid lumps, most convenient for skipping.  As a detective story there is no point in comparing The Dragon Murder Case with The Nine Tailors; both are of the highest class, but of different nationality.  No reader can expect anything better for months to come.  Philo Vance’s present riddle is what happens to a young man who takes a header into a diving-pool and disappears for good—his body is not there when the pool is drained.  It is impossible for the solution not to be far-fetched, but it is certainly original.  Mr. Van Dine is one of the most consistent detective writers, and at the same time so widely known and appreciated that there is no need to say more about his technique.

Times Literary Supplement (25th January 1934): Mr. Van Dine stands in the front rank of American masters of the puzzle crime story, and his characteristic excellences are well sustained in the Dragon Murder Case.  Very timely, in a world whose eyes are fixed upon Loch Ness, tales of a strange monster darken the trail of a peculiarly atrocious crime at the Stamm estate, where the swimming pool is the scene of the murder of Sanford Montague.  There is a full human cast, of suspicious looking fellow-guests and pasty-faced butlers, so that a less skilful writer than Mr. Van Dine could easily maintain his secret, and there is the strange collection of denizens of the deep which is Mr. Stamm’s hobby.  Mr. Van Dine likes to give an appearance of office files to his stories; his characters are classified, and dates and time are placed with exactitude at the heads of chapters.  But, as his readers know by now, this does not mean any absence of a little emotional plot, for his chief characters are men of strong passions.  Few detective stories can wind their appointed length without an allowance of two murders, the original mystery and a “refresher” murder half-way on, and the Dragon mystery is no exception.  The merit of the second murder is that it places all the characters, after the reader has come to take an interest in them, in great jeopardy.  Who will be the next?  And the final laps are a race not only against defeat but against pressing and sinister danger, and, as in all good mystery tales, the end of the meal has the best flavour.

New York Herald Tribune: The best of the Van Dine output.