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