Friday, April 6, 2012
The Greene Murder Case by S.S. Van Dine
Philo Vance finds himself embroiled in a the affairs of the Greene family when the oldest daughter is found shot to death in her bed and the youngest daughter is found laying on the floor of her bedroom, bleeding out from another gunshot. Philo Vance, his lawyer S.S. Van Dine, the district attorney, and the police continue to be puzzled as other siblings begin dying off as well. It's up to Philo Vance to figure out what exactly is going on before there are no Greenes alive to inherit their father's fortune.
I'm going to lay it right out in the open that the only reason I wanted to read this book (or any Philo Vance book for that matter) is the brilliant portrayal by William Powell and Paul Lukas in two different movie adaptations. I have been fortunate to see William Powell play the character in The Kennel Murder Case and Paul Lukas play him in The Casino Murder Case. Both movies are based off of books, one of which I have to read at a later date, I just wish that the similarities kept on going.
The Philo Vance in the movies is a different breed from the one depicted in this book. In the movies he is suave, intelligent, kind, and very solicitous. In the book he is egotistical, puts on a fake British accent, and I don't think there is a subject on Earth that he doesn't know everything about. He's an expert in languages, literature, art, fencing, polo, dog breeding, archery, chess, and just about everything else under the sun. I'm not sure what S.S. Van Dine was thinking, but having a character who is great at everything and knows even the most minute detail of any subject is just plain boring. In the books, Philo Vance comes out as a pompous know it all, and that's the kindest thing I could say about him.
Of course such absurdity should comes as no surprise when the author makes himself a character in the books. S.S. Van Dine decides to write the events from the viewpoint of the lawyer, who just happens to live with Philo Vance. They are such good friends, they go everywhere together. I'm assuming it's supposed to be something akin to Watson speaking on behalf of Holmes or even Colonel Hastings reporting the events of Hercule Poirot. Where this concept falls apart is that in the latter two cases, the characters are pretending to be anything they are not. They are purely fictional, relating the events of fictional happenings. In this case the author decides that he himself will be that chronicler, putting himself in the realm of fiction in the hopes of making the story sound factual. It's a conceit that fell flat on it's face for me, and one that I got tired of rather quickly.
Now all this cleverness could, theoretically, be excused if the mystery itself is engaging and pulls you into the lives of the characters. The Greene Murder Case comes close to that all important bar, but just never manages to reach it. All told, 5 members of the family lose their lives. I almost wished all of them had. I have never met a family that deserved death more. The mother is an invalid who berates and hates her children about as much as could be humanly possible. When they start to turn up dead in their own bedrooms, all she cares about is how it may change her comfort since she is bedridden. The siblings themselves, 2 sons, 2 daughters, and one adopted daughter are so caught up in their own lives that there really is no love lost between them. So if you are doing your math right, only one of these miserable people will be left alive by the last page. That fact that the one left alive is the most likable, doesn't say much for them.
The mystery itself starts of in a pretty straightforward way. All 6 members of the family have been forced to live together by the stipulation of the late Mr. Greene's will. If any of them move out before the specified time, they will be disinherited. So when they start to show up with bullets through the head, Philo Vance suspects it may be one of them, but all the evidence points to an outsider. There are mysterious footprints in the snow that lead nowhere, but don't double back to the house either. It's a puzzling case that just doesn't seem to leave any clear answer. As the members of the family keep getting bumped off, poor Philo Vance just can't seem to get a handle on the case. It's only when the murderer is about to take their last victim that Philo Vance's brilliance finally kicks in and the day is saved.
I have two other Philo Vance books to read before the end of the year. Actually they are the two referenced at the beginning of this review, The Kennel Murder Case and The Casino Murder Case. I don't know if they will be along the same line as this book was, but if they are I can promise that they will be the last Philo Vance books that I read. I think the movies will be a safer bet for me.
Challenges: A-Z, VM (Cherchez le Homme)