This was the snowy swan song for amateur sleuth Philo Vance. It is also, stylistically, Van Dine’s most atypical book, told in a brisk, direct and light manner almost completely free of those adornments (footnotes and expansive digressions etc.) that critics of the series so disliked – our hero even goes skating at one point (yes, ‘Philo Vance on Ice’). It begins at a party in a snowbound country estate heralding a prodigal son’s return …

I offer this review as part of Bev’s 2013 Vintage Mystery Challenge in the ‘A Calendar of Crime’ category; the 2013 Book to Movie Challenge at the Doing Dewey blog – for links click here; and Patti Abbott’s Friday’s Forgotten Books meme at her fab Pattinase blog.

“Ladies and gentlemen,” he began in mock ceremonious style. His voice was clear and resonant. “I have been honored with the privilege of conducting this memorable event. I confidently promise you an evening of most unusual regalement.”

Carrington Rexon, a rich emerald fancier, lives in a stately old manor on his estate in the small town of Winewood in the Berkshires. He is having a series of parties to welcome the return of his son Richard after a European sojourn – and to celebrate his arranged wedding to prominent society girl, Carlotta Naesmith. But beneath the surface all is not well – Carlotta has invited many strangers to stay for the festivities, while his distracted son has brought back a questionable acquaintance in the shape of Jacques Bassett, so the old man thinks that his priceless collection of emeralds may be at risk. Vance is sent for and trudging through the January snow with Van, his trusty Boswell, arrives in time to witness several murders, a theft and the amazing ice skating skills of Ella Gunthar, the companion to Rexon’s invalid daughter Joan who is also having a secret affair with Richard. Vance will have to crack and unbreakable alibi and play some subtle psychological games before resolving the various crimes while also trying to keep the Rexon name out of the scandal sheets.

“Don’t deny you dote on the suffering of others, you sadist. You live for crime and suffering. And you adore worrying. You’d die of ennui is all were peaceful”


What immediately strikes the reader is how lean this book is, focusing on the strictest details of character and plot with very little in the way of detailed descriptions of place and people – and certainly none of the conversations and lectures on art, philosophy and other high brow topics that one would normally anticipates from Van Dine. The plot is traditional and perfectly serviceable and if the murderer is not that hard to spot, this was equally true in the previous 11 volumes in the series. But this is none the less a light and agreeable read with Vance’s affectations merely amusing rather than irritating most of the time. Was this change in tone an attempt to appeal to a broader audience on the part of the author or a sign of waning interest and energy? Well, yes and no …

“A strange and dizzy household”

The book’s somewhat simplified plot can partly be explained by the fact that, at least in part, it was originally designed to serve as the basis for a movie to be made by Twentieth Century Fox. It is also true though that the Vance series was no longer the sensation it had been just a few years earlier, so there was little patience among readers for the aristocratic air of superiority projected by the cultured super sleuth. So perhaps Van Dine (or rather, author Willard Huntington Wright, whose work I recently profiled here) really was trying to make the character more human and down-to-earth. What is definitely true, as we learn from the unsigned introduction to all editions of this book, is that the effect was partially unintentional. Rather, the stripped down feel is due to the fact that Wright died having only completed the second of his projected three drafts. So what we have is a short novel, barely 30,000 words long, barely two-thirds the length of the book that preceded it in the series, the rather woeful Gracie Allen Murder Case that none the less was an improvement over the movie it was written to inspire. Winter ultimately served as the basis for most unlikely of Van Dine movies.

“See here, Vance!” he thundered. “This has gone far enough! If you’re going to make a farce of it, I prefer to say be damned to the emeralds, and drop the matter right now.”

By the late 1930s Van Dine’s glory days were over but he was still marketable enough a commodity to have Hollywood making him offers. He provided Paramount Studios with a story outline for what became The Gracie Allen Murder Case, which he later turned into the penultimate of the Vance novels. He then made a deal with Fox for another Vance story, this time showcasing the talents of ice skating sensation Sonja Henie. Following the author’s death the novel came out but the movie got stuck in development hell – it went through umpteenth rewrites and ultimately emerged 3 years later as Sun Valley Serenade with all mystery elements removed but with the addition of Glenn Miller, turning the film into a box office hit. Interestingly the final screenplay was credited to Helen Logan and Robert Ellis, veteran writers for the studio’s Charlie Chan series, as was its director, H. Bruce Humberstone. The movie itself is a typical review style musical of the era, combining comedy schtick by an absurdly young Milton Berle, OTT ice skating sequences, a wonderful dance routine by the amazing Nicholas Bothers and some great swing music, very handsomely produced in the typical glossy Fox style. It has nothing to do with Van Dine’s book really but great fun if you’re in the mood (sic).

Availability: This book, along with the other 11 Vance mysteries is available very inexpensively on Kindle and also for free as part of Project Gutenberg. This particular book can be accessed online here. The film is easily available on DVD in a no frills but extremely well-preserved edition that includes the original stereo recording of Miller’s band playing ‘Chattanooga Choo Choo’, ‘In the Mood’, ‘Moonlight Serenade’ and ‘I Know Why (and So Do You)’.

Sun Valley Serenade (1941)
Director: H. Bruce Humberstone
Producer: Milton Sperling
Screenplay: Helen Logan and Robert Ellis
Cinematography: Ted Cronjager
Art Direction: Lewis Creber, Richard Day
Music: Emil Newman (music director)
Cast: Sonja Henie, John Payne, Milton Berle, Lynn Bari, Glenn Miller

***** (2 fedora tips out of 5)

This entry was posted in 2013 Book to Movie Challenge, 2013 Vintage Mystery Challenge, Friday's Forgotten Book, New York, Philo Vance, SS Van Dine. Bookmark the permalink.

45 Responses to THE WINTER MURDER CASE (1939) by SS Van Dine

  1. Colin says:

    I hope to make my way through the Vance novels chronologically. I’m sure I read the first two but I’m not 100% sure if I finished the third. Anyway, the point I guess is that it’ll be a while before I get round to this one. I have to say the stripped down style does sound interesting. Can’t say I feel the same about that movie though.

    • The movie is a laugh, honest! As for the books, they certainly need not to be read too closely together in my view – just too similar in approach – I did that wehn I first read them and I think it made the later volumes seem weaker than they are – it was great fun revisiting Winter in fact.

      • Colin says:

        Thanks for the tip. I had planned to space them out anyway; actually, that’s generally what I do with most authors. Add in my increasingly slow reading speed and I think I’ve hit on the perfect recipe.

        • You’re a wise man and no mistake! It’s not always like that for me – I read all the original Parker books by Richard Stark from the 60s and 70s in one go and had a great time, so …

          • Colin says:

            For me, it’s just a case of too much of the same author or character in too short a time leaving me feeling jaded. I’m like that with my viewing habits as well, I like to keep shuffling the pack.

          • I know what you mean – I used to do that a lot in my teens and twenties but now resist the temptation to gorge!

          • Colin says:

            I think a lot of us do. It’s part of the process of discovering new writers, and perhaps the personal libraries aren’t so big at that point. One positive by-product of my current mountain of unread books is that this situation rarely arises now.

          • I used to love drawing up lists of books to read films to watch that went on for pages and pages … now it’s a long list of posts I hope to finish writing!

          • Colin says:

            Tell me about it! Although in my case it’s more a matter of posts I hope to start these days.

          • Oh, I am way more elaborate – I just checked and literally have 112 wordpress posts in various draft stages … insane doesn’t quite seem to cover it really …

          • Colin says:

            Wow! I never do that. If I start a post, it has to be finished. I have to get it done and dusted within two hours at the most. Anything else would drive me nuts.

          • As it were, on the nuts stakes, I am clearly way ahead of you …

          • Colin says:

            I dunno, probably a close run thing. 🙂

          • I am going to take a leaf out of your playbook chum and see about taking a month off from blogging because, looking at that list of potential posts of mine is just a teensy weensy bit scary … I think I need a calm January …

          • Colin says:

            The odd break, enforced or voluntary, is necessary from time to time. Blogging is fun but it’s important to make sure it doesn’t become a chore – then it’s just a pain.
            I guess you noticed I’ve eased way back lately. Frankly, I’ve been far too busy to give as much time to the site. Anyway, it’s healthy to take a bit of a breather.

          • You must have a lot on your plate chum so that sounds very sensible and indeed I think you are absolutely right about how to approach blogging. In the New year things are going to have to be different for me.

          • Colin says:

            Essentially, I’m working three jobs at the moment, which means I’m spending 6 days a week running from one end of the city to the other like a half-crazed loon. So yes, watching and writing time is limited to say the least, especially if you want to retain some semblance of a social life.

          • Bloody hell Colin – I hope that won’t have to go on for too long – that sounds exhausting!

          • Colin says:

            You could, I suppose, say it’s challenging Sergio. Still, it keeps me trim, and there’s always the possibility of it easing off a little round about May. Xmas can’t come soon enough I can tell you!

          • Just keep taking the vitamins!

  2. Margot Kinberg says:

    Sergio – Interesting that Van Dine decided to do a ‘bare bones’ (for him) story. It makes sense too if he was planning at that time on a filmed version. I’m trying to visualise Vance ice skating… In all seriousness, it sounds like an interesting digression from his usual style and Vance’s usual way of going about getting through his cases. Thanks as ever for your thoughtful and well-crafted review.

    • Thanks Margot – I dare say we will never know what Van dine’s final version would have really been like – the ice skating is fairly restrained but I think it is a fair indicator of what Wright was tryign to do with the series.

  3. Kelly says:

    Got a giggle out of Philo Vance on Ice. I wish you had a clip of THAT.

  4. I’ve only read one Philo Vance (THE CANARY MURDER CASE) but I have seen several of the Philo Vance movies. The movies are better than the book.

  5. John says:

    I owned this one several years ago but sold it before reading it. I still have all my other Scribner hardcover editions of the rest of the lot, but never replaced WINTER. Primarily, because it’s the hardest to find out for collectors looking for the original Van Dine hardcovers. I grew tired of Vance after reading the first five books. THE BISHOP MURDER CASE remains the epitome of the series for me. They never got better after that one, IMO. I’m enjoying the movies as I come across them while searching YouTube and other video sites.

    • Thanks John. Well, you’re probably right about Bishop, though I think Scarab, Dragon and Kennel are still pretty good actually. I plan to review some of the films in the new year now that I have the new box set.

  6. Intriguing review, thanks. I’m tempted to go back to Van Dine now.

  7. Yvette says:

    I kind of vaguely remember reading some Van Dine books when I was a teenager, back when dinosaurs roamed the earth. But maybe it’s just that I saw the movies and thought I read the books? Anything’s possible these days. Anyway, thanks for another terrific post and the reminder that maybe it’s time to look about for a couple of Van Dine books.

  8. Thanks for the review, Sergio. I’m going to have to read some novels by S.S. Van Dine. I hope the rest of his novels are short too.

  9. 282daniele says:

    Most interesting, Sergio.
    As you should know, in Italy the critics do not appreciate this novel. Often the consideration in respect of the novels of Van Dine stops at The Casino Murder Case (The Garden Murder Case is deemed a kind of repeat of The Greene Murder Case).
    In truth, even if I believe that Van Dine, although still large, at some point he stopped and started to collect for what he had sown earlier, it is also true that especially the last novels would deserve a serious analysis beyond preconceptions related to his early novels, as yet undisputed masterpiece. Anyway, I wanted you tell you one thing: Do you know that in A Child’s Garden of Death, by Richard Forrest, he makes mention about the skater Sonja Henie, that you mention in your article?

    • Grazie Piero – I had no idea she was mentioned in that book! She was something of a mjor star in the 30s after her many successes at the Olympics though I don’t suppose many of her films are remembered today. More of a celebrity than a performer beyond her skating skills, off-screen she is said to have not been particularly easy to get along with …
      Time Magazine

  10. TracyK says:

    Hi, I am commenting late because I thought I commented earlier. This one sounds more like my kind of thing, and I will read this one for sure. The “snowbound country estate” sounds good.

    • Thanks TracyK – hope you enjoy it – the snowy atmosphere is certainly ever-presenbt in this one – I probably posted the review about 2 months early – story of my life …

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