This is the last Filo Vance novel, and it is actually not finished. Vance possessed a surprisingly vast and accurate knowledge of thousands of Willard’s arts and objects, and was also skeptical of life and society. But in reality, only those who superficially know Willard Huntington Wright will have this similarity. Vance as much as he was Wright.
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CHAPTER I AN APPEAL FOR HELP
CHAPTER II GLAMOR IN THE MOONLIGHT
CHAPTER III THE BOURBON GLASS
CHAPTER IV THE FIRST MURDER
CHAPTER V THE CURSE OF THE EMERALDS
CHAPTER VI A WOMAN’S BARB
CHAPTER VII THE INQUEST
CHAPTER VIII SECRET PLANS
CHAPTER IX AN ABRUPT SUMMONS
CHAPTER X THE MISSING KEY
CHAPTER XI FAREWELL SOIRÉE
CHAPTER XII QUEEN ISTAR’S NECKLACE
CHAPTER XIII THE SECOND MURDER
CHAPTER XIV SKATING FOR TIME
CHAPTER XV QUERIES AND ANSWERS
CHAPTER XVI FINAL CURTAIN
TWENTY RULES FOR WRITING DETECTIVE STORIES
It was characteristic of Willard Huntington Wright, known to the great public as S. S. Van Dine, that when he died suddenly on April 11, 1939, he left The Winter Murder Case in the form in which it is published, complete to the last comma. Everything he ever did was done that way, accurately, thoroughly, and with consideration for other people. It was so with the entire series of the Philo Vance mysteries.
He has himself told the story of becoming a writer of mysteries in an article called, “I Used to be a Highbrow, and Look at Me Now.” He had worked as a critic of literature and art, and as an editor, since he left Harvard in 1907. And this he had done with great distinction, but with no material reward to speak of–certainly no accumulation of money. When the war came it seemed to him that all he had believed in and was working for was rushing into ruin–and now, twenty-five years later, can anyone say he was wrong? There were other influences at work on him perhaps, but no one who knew Willard and the purity of his perceptions in art, and his devotion to what he thought was the meaning of our civilization as expressed in the arts, can doubt that the shattering disillusionment and ruin of the war was what brought him at last to a nervous breakdown which incapacitated him for several years. He would never have explained it so, or any other way. He made no explanations, or excuses, ever, and his many apologies were out of the kindness of a heart so concealed by reticence that only a handful ever knew how gentle it really was. So at last all that he had done and aimed to do seemed to have come to ruin, and he himself too.
Only a gallant spirit could have risen up from that downfall, and gallantry alone would not have been enough. But Willard had also an intellect–even despair could not suppress it–which worked on anything at hand. One might believe that if his fate had been solitary confinement he would have emerged with some biological discovery based on the rats that infested his cell. Anyhow, his doctor finally met his demands for mental occupation with the concession that he read mysteries, which he had never read before. The result was, that as he had studied painting, literature and philosophy, he now involuntarily studied and then consciously analyzed, the mystery story. And when he recovered he had mastered it.
He was then heavily in debt, but he thought he saw the possibility of freeing himself from obligations a nature of his integrity could not ignore, or in fact endure, by what he had learned in his illness. He wrote out, at some ten thousand words each, the plots of his first three murder cases, thought through to the last detail, footnotes and all, and brought them to the Century Club to a lunch with an editor of the publishing house that has put all of them before the public.
This editor knew little about mystery stories, which had not been much in vogue since Sherlock Holmes, but he knew Willard Wright. He knew from far back in Harvard that whatever this man did would be done well, and the reasonable terms–granting the writer’s talent–that Willard proposed were quickly accepted.
It is now thirteen years since Philo Vance stepped out into the world to solve The Benson Murder Case and, with that and the eleven others that followed, to delight hundreds of thousands of readers soon hard pressed by the anxieties and afflictions of a tragic decade. Each of these famous cases was set forth, as were the first three, in a long synopsis–about ten thousand words–letter perfect and complete to that point in its development. After the first three of these synopses, the publisher never saw another, nor wanted to, for he knew beyond peradventure that the finished book would be another masterpiece in its kind. Nor did he ever see the second stage of development, but only the third, the final manuscript–and that he read with the interest and pleasure of any reader, and with no professional anxieties. But this second stage in the infinitely painstaking development of the story was some 30,000 words long, and it lacked only the final elaboration of character, dialogue, and atmosphere. The Winter Murder Case represents this stage in S. S. Van Dine’s progress to its completion, and if the plot moves faster to its culmination than in the earlier books, it is for that reason.
They say now that Philo Vance was made in the image of S. S. Van Dine, and although Willard smoked not Régies but denicotined cigarettes, there were resemblances. Both were infinitely neat in dress, equally decorous and considerate in manner, and Vance had Willard’s amazingly vast and accurate knowledge of a thousand arts and subjects, and his humorously sceptical attitude toward life and society. But in fact the resemblance would stand for only those with a superficial knowledge of Willard Huntington Wright. Vance in so far as he was Wright, was perhaps the form under which a gallant, gentle man concealed a spirit almost too delicate and sensitive for an age so turbulent and crude as this. Willard was not one to wear his heart upon his sleeve–but there were daws enough to peck, as there always are, and they found it where his friends always knew it to be, near the surface, and quick to respond.
As for the principles upon which he based his writing, and which brought new life into the craft of detective literature, they were succinctly set down by him in his famous twenty rules which are to be found at the back of this volume.
CHARACTERS OF THE BOOK
John F.-X. Markham
District Attorney of New York County.
Companion to Joan Rexon.
Owner of the Rexon estate.
His invalid daughter.
Prominent society girl.
Doctor Loomis Quayne
The Rexon family physician.
A friend of Richard Rexon.
Father of Ella Gunthar. Overseer on the Rexon
The Rexon housekeeper.
The Green Hermit. Former overseer on the
Lieutenant of the Winewood police.
A guard on the Rexon estate.
Chief carpenter on the Rexon estate.
The Rexon butler.
Singer and impersonator.
} Guests at the
} Rexon estate.
CHAPTER I. AN APPEAL FOR HELP
(Tuesday, January 14; 11 a.m.)
“How would you like a brief vacation in ideal surroundings–winter sports, pleasing company, and a veritable mansion in which to relax? I have just such an invitation for you, Vance.”
Philo Vance drew on his cigarette and smiled. We had just arrived at District Attorney Markham’s office in answer to a facetious yet urgent call. Vance looked at him and sighed.
“I suspect you. Speak freely, my dear Rhadamanthus.”
“Old Carrington Rexon’s worried.”
“Ah!” Vance drawled. “No spontaneous goodness of heart in life. Sad. So, I’m asked to enjoy myself in the Berkshires only because Carrington Rexon’s worried. A detective on the premises would soothe his harassed spirits. I’m invited. Not flatterin’. No.”
“Don’t be cynical, Vance.”
“But why should Carrington Rexon’s worries concern me? I’m not in the least worried.”
“You will be,” said Markham with feigned viciousness. “Don’t deny you dote on the sufferings of others, you sadist. You live for crime and suffering. And you adore worrying. You’d die of ennui if all were peaceful.”
“Tut, tut,” returned Vance. “Not sadistic. No. Always strivin’ for peace and calm. My charitable, unselfish nature.”
“As I thought! Old Rexon’s worry does appeal to you. I detect the glint in your eye.”
“Charming place, the Rexon estate,” Vance observed thoughtfully. “But why, Markham, with his millions, his leisure, his two adored and adoring offspring, his gorgeous estate, his fame, and his vigor–why should he be worrying? Quite unreasonable.”
“Still, he wants you up there instanter.”
“As you said.” Vance settled deeper into his chair. “His emeralds, I opine, are to blame for his qualms.”
Markham looked across at the other shrewdly.
“Don’t be clairvoyant. I detest soothsayers. Especially when their guesses are so obvious. Of course, it’s his damned emeralds.”
“Tell me all. Leave no precious stone unturned. Could you bear it?”
Markham lighted a cigar. When he had it going he said:
“No need to tell you of Rexon’s famous emerald collection. You probably know how it’s safeguarded.”
“Yes,” said Vance. “I inspected it some years ago. Inadequately protected, I thought.”
“The same today. Thank Heaven the place isn’t in my jurisdiction: I’d be worrying about it constantly. I once tried to persuade Rexon to transfer the collection to some museum.”
“Not nice of you, Markham. Rexon loves his gewgaws fanatically. He’d wither away if bereft of his emeralds.... Oh, why are collectors?”
“I’m sure I don’t know. I didn’t make the world.”
“Regrettable,” sighed Vance. “What is toward?”
“An unpredictable situation at the Rexon estate. The old boy’s apprehensive. Hence his desire for your presence.”
“More light, please.”
“Rexon Manor,” continued Markham, “is at present filled with guests as a result of young Richard Rexon’s furlough: the chap has just returned from Europe where he has been studying medicine intensively in the last-word European colleges and hospitals. The old man’s giving a kind of celebration in the boy’s honor–”
“I know. And hoping for an announcement of Richard’s betrothal to the blue-blooded Carlotta Naesmith. Still, why his anxiety?”
“Rexon being a widower, with an invalid daughter, asked Miss Naesmith to arrange a house party and celebration. She did–with a vengeance. Mostly café society: weird birds, quite objectionable to old Rexon’s staid tastes. He doesn’t understand this new set; is inclined to distrust them. He doesn’t suspect them, exactly, but their proximity to his precious emeralds gives him the jitters.”
“Old-fashioned chap. The new generation is full of incredible possibilities. Not a lovable and comfortable lot. Does Rexon point specifically?”
“Only at a fellow named Bassett. And, strangely enough, he’s not of Miss Naesmith’s doing. Acquaintance of Richard’s, in fact. Friendship started abroad–in Switzerland, I believe. Came over on the boat with him this last trip. But the old gentleman admits he has no grounds for his uneasiness. He’s just nervous, in a vague way, about the whole situation. Wants perspicacious companionship. So he phoned me and asked for help, indicating you.”
“Yes. Collectors are like that. Where can he turn in his hour of uncertainty? Ah, his old friend Markham! Equipped with all the proper gadgets for just such delicate observation. Gadget Number One: Mr. Philo Vance. Looks presentable in a dinner coat. Won’t drink from his finger-bowl. Could mingle and observe, without rousing suspicion. Discretion guaranteed. Excellent way of detecting a lurking shadow–if any.” Vance smiled resignedly. “Is that the gist of the worried Rexon’s runes by long-distance phone?”
“Substantially, yes,” admitted Markham. “But expressed more charitably. You know damned well that old Rexon likes you, and that if he thought you’d care for the house party, you’d have been more than welcome.”
“You shame me, Markham,” Vance returned with contrition. “I’m fond of Rexon, just as you are. A lovable man.... So, he craves my comfortin’ presence. Very well, I shall strive to smooth his furrowed brow.”
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