THE DRAGON MURDER CASE (1933) by SS Van Dine

Dragon-Murder-Case_poster A man dives into an open air swimming pool and vanishes, never to be seen alive again. When the pool is drained, the only clue to be found is what looks like the footprints of a dragon on the muddy sediment … It’s time for super sleuth Philo Vance to investigate what many now think was perhaps his last major case, both in print and (the following year) onscreen.

I submit this review for Bev’s Golden Age Vintage Mystery Challenge; Katie’s Book to Movie Challenge at Doing Dewey (for review links, click here); and Tuesday’s Overlooked Film meme at Todd Mason’s Sweet Freedom blog.

There before us, in the shallow mud, was the unmistakable imprint of what seemed to be a great hoof, fully fourteen inches long, and corrugated as with scales.

On the stultifying hot evening of 11 August at the palatial New York estate of Rudolph Stamm (“one of the foremost aquarists in America”) an already edgy late-night house party turns tragic when the guests – including his sister Bernice, her childhood sweetheart Leland, her current fiancée Montague, and the latter’s ex-girlfriend, Teeny McAdams – decide to go for a swim. Stamm himself stays behind having already got himself drunk, not surprising given that most of the guests can’t stand each other. Montague jumps in to show off his diving prowess, but never emerges. Leland and shady financier Greeff go in too but can’t find any trace of him. The police arrive, with Vance (and his biographer, Van Dine) in tow – they drain the pool and only find footprints of what look like a beast of some kind. Stamm’s seemingly dotty mother warns them that there is a supernatural creature that dwells there …

“What dragon, indeed!” She gave a scornful hollow laugh. “The dragon that lives down there in the pool below my window.”

VanDine-Dragon-bantamInitially it seems that Montague may have eloped with mystery woman Ellen Bruett, but in the end his body is discovered in a pothole in another part of the estate, as if dropped there from the sky, bearing strange, talon-like scratches. When Greeff goes missing too, he becomes the most likely suspect, but his body also turns up dead in the potholes. It seems as if the creature is picking them off one by one and then flying off with the bodies …

“This is not a household,” he replied, “where life runs normally. The Stamms, as you may know, are an intensely inbred line”

One of the things that attracts me to these kinds of ‘Golden Age’  books, and I accept that this is possibly a very ‘sui generis’ take on the pleasure they can afford, is that they tend to mirror a certain development in the shifting relationship between literature, genre and the reader as they grow and mature. We begin as readers grasping for a rigid code, a binding set of rules, a key to understanding that can guide us through our youth, giving us something to hang on to as we try to to find ourselves in the wilderness of life and literature. As we get a little older and more experienced we are less inclined to adhere to strict codes and demand more freedom before eventually discarding such things – only to return late in life with a sense of nostalgia.

“Then there was one of those sleezy, pasty-faced butlers, who acted like a ghost and didn’t make any noise when he moved” – Sergeant Heath

VanDine-Dragon-Murder-CaseThe Van Dine books by Willard Huntington Wright, with their strict rules of engagement in terms of character and plot, feel like that to me, especially the initial quartet (well, three plus one as the fourth was added after the success of the initial ‘trilogy) that for many remain for most the peak of his accomplishment. When Wright realised just how successful he was decided to do little else – producing three more books that strain a little to match that initial burst of activity. After that the movie deals became more important, audiences started to become less keen on the rigid formula and less interested in seeing behind the impenetrable facade of its intellectually superhuman  hero.

“Can’t a man get drowned without having a lot of policemen all over the place?” His voice was loud and shrill. “Montague–bah! The world’s better off without him. I wouldn’t give him tank space with my Guppies–and I feed them to the Scalares.”

The puzzles got looser, the characters thinner, the plots started to repeat themselves so that by the end the decline in quality becomes very sharp. In this book, his seventh in the series, the basic set-up is certainly intriguing, and the exploration of some of the myths surrounding dragons and sea serpents is diverting – on the other hand, the plan by the (by Van Dine’s standards, reasonably well-concealed) murderer is unnecessary convoluted and we never do get a truly adequate explanation about why they went to quite so much trouble with a miracle disappearance. John Dickson Carr would handle that side of things rather better in his 1949 Henry Merrivale novel, A Graveyard to Let. The movie tries to elide this basic lack of plausibility by moving at great speed …

“She’s nuts!” – Sergeant Heath (Eugene Pallette)

VanDine-Dragon-scribner-pbAt 66 minutes, the film boils down the novel to its very barest essentials (including the deletion of one of the guests, Ruby Steel). Following the success of Kennel Murder Case, its star and director team of William Powell and Mike Curtiz were sought for a reprise – but Powell asked for more money than Warner was prepared to pay and so Curtiz turned it down, as did several other in-house directors at the studio (including Mervyn LeRoy) before Warren William took over as Vance and H. Bruce “Lucky” Humberstone (who later would also handle some of the best Charlie Chan films) took over as director. The cast of regulars carried over from the previous film include the voluminous and voluble Eugene Pallette (Sergeant Heath) as well as the wiry Robert McWade (as DA Markham) and the crotchety Etienne Girardot (the coroner, Dr Doremus), who mainly serve as comic relief.

“I’m a coroner, not a philosopher!” – Doremus (Etienne Girardot)

Margaret Lindsay, the classiest of the second tier of Warner contract leading ladies, plays Bernice while Lyle Talbot gets to play her love interest, as always doing a great impersonation of a stuffed shirt. William does well enough, but one does inevitably miss Powell while Humberstone has none of the style of Curtiz, though plenty of energy – and there is at least one memorable shot filmed from above so that, as William leans back in a recliner, we shoot through a fishbowl hanging from the ceiling. There is also some very nice, and for the time unusual, underwater filming for the main sequence when Montague goes missing. Heath and Doremus are a great double act – indeed in the opening scene, set in a steam room, they trade old vaudeville quips (Doremus: “Ernest, it’s clear that you don’t know much about women. Now I’ll tell you, women are, generally speaking… ” Heath: “You certainly said it! They are generally speaking!”) though George E. Stone is fabulous, stealing every scene he can as the vaguely caddish, permanently soused Tatum. A hit in its day, the film is still fun for its cast and zippy dialogue, though the plot is even less plausible than it is in the book.

Dragon

The original novel, along with the other 11 Vance mysteries, is available very inexpensively on Kindle and also for free as part of the Project Gutenberg. I profiled the life and work of SS Van Dine here quite recently here.

The Philo Vance series:

  1. The Benson Murder Case (1926)
  2. The Canary Murder Case (1927)
  3. The Greene Murder Case (1928)
  4. The Bishop Murder Case (1929) – review here
  5. The Scarab Murder Case (1930)
  6. The Kennel Murder Case (1933)
  7. The Dragon Murder Case (1933)
  8. The Casino Murder Case (1934)
  9. The Garden Murder Case (1935)
  10. The Kidnap Murder Case (1936)
  11. The Gracie Allen Murder Case (1938)
  12. The Winter Murder Case (1939) – review here

Philo-Vance-DVD-CollectionDVD Availability: The film is easily available on DVD as part of the Warner Archive on-demand box set, The Philo Vance Murder Case Collection. It brings together The Bishop Murder Case (1930), starring Basil Rathbone as Vance; The Kennel Murder Case (1933), easily the best of the bunch, staring William Powell; The Dragon Murder Case;  The Casino Murder Case (1935) with Paul Lukas; The Garden Murder Case (1936) with Edmund Lowe and Calling Philo Vance (1940), a wartime remake of Kennel starring James Stephenson. The transfers vary from great (Bishop) to average, which certainly sums up the slightly faded and scratched but respectable appearance of Dragon.

The Dragon Murder Case (1934)
Director: H. Bruce Humberstone
Producer: Henry Blanke
Screenplay: F. Hugh Herbert, Robert N. Lee and Rian James
Cinematography: Tony Gaudio
Art Direction: Jack Okey
Music: Bernhard Kaun (uncredited)
Cast: Warren William, Margaret Lindsay, Lyle Talbot, Eugene Pallette (Heath), Robert McWade (Markham), Etienne Girardot (Doremus)

I offer this review as part of Bev’s 2014 Golden Age Vintage Mystery Bingo Challenge bingo in the ‘animal title’ category:

vintage-golden-animal

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

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This entry was posted in 2014 Book to Movie Challenge, 2014 Vintage Mystery Challenge Bingo, New York, Philo Vance, SS Van Dine, Tuesday's Overlooked Film. Bookmark the permalink.

48 Responses to THE DRAGON MURDER CASE (1933) by SS Van Dine

  1. Sergio – As ever, a thoughtful and fascinating review of both film and novel. And you’ve given me some interesting ‘food for thought’ about the kind of novel a Philo Vance story is. Certainly the genre has changed over the years, and so has what we expect from it. So, for the matter of that, have the ‘rules’ for what counts as a crime novel. Much to think about, for which thanks.

    • Thanks Margot – when it comes to the Philo Vance books it is always fascinating, to me, to consider the xontext in which they emerged to become, for a time, the most succesful mysteries ever published – and yet, now … mind you, I was looking at the bestseller lists of 1976 yesterday and was stunned by what was doing well at the time (let’s just say I find Leon Uris pretty much unreadable nowadays)

  2. davidsimmons6 says:

    I loved the Greene Murder Case, even read it several times, but for some reason never read any other Van Dines. Is there one you would place at the top of the list?

  3. Bev Hankins says:

    This reminds me that I really need to start watching the Philo Vance movies that my husband very kindly got for me….

    I’m glad you mentioned A Graveyard to Let. One of the delights of that book was the sly reference to the Dragon Case. It was nice to be in the know when Carr trotted that out. I actually rated Dragon a bit higher than you did, but it’s true that it’s not one of Van Dine very best.

    • Thanks very much Bev – I used to rate this one a little higher myself to be honest, but on re-reading it I found that very little other than the central situation really stuck with me and yet I used to hold it in higher regard – I do want to go back and re-read Greene though, as I think it is my favourite still (we shall see), though I shall always hold Bishop in special affection as you gave it to me!

  4. tracybham says:

    A very interesting post, Sergio. I am glad to see that you like the Bishop Murder Case, as I just bought a copy of that one at the book sale, and I was hoping it was a good one.

    • TracyK Bishop may be my favourite (not least because it was a gift from Bev) – basically I’m a fan of these but it’s certainly at it best up to Kennel … as you can tell, Dragon was, upon reflection, a bit of a disappointment.

  5. Colin says:

    I really like that paragraph about the way we approach literature in a different way as we mature, very nicely put.
    I happen to have two copies of this book now – the facsimile hardcover (lovely looking edition) you included as a picture and the kindle version.

    • Thanks chum – and I envy you that hardback – I’m afraid I’ve had to makedo witht he paperback with the blue cover a but further down the post 🙂

      • Colin says:

        Otto Penzler put out a number of really nice facsimile editions back at that time – it’s a shame there weren’t more.
        Funny thing about the Vance novels is, now I’ve got them all as ebooks they should be easier to get round to reading. But I haven’t touched them since I downloaded them. Go figure!

        • Well, let’s face it, they’re chunky and the slightly laborious style does mean you have to be int he right mood – and it helps to read the first half dozen (certainly up to Kennel, a great Mike Curtiz movie of course) as the fun does diminush later on. I was a bit sorry to find that Dragon impressed me less than I remembered.

          • Colin says:

            Yes, I discovered long ago that nothing kills interest in a book quicker than being in the wrong frame of mind. And I share your fondness for the Kennel movie too – but then it is a Curtiz film.

          • I keep meaning to do a Curtiz post, though of course it ould be a complete love fest …

          • Colin says:

            Do it, if you get the chance! There’s such a wide range of material to look at, almost every conceivable genre.

          • I get palpitations just thinking about it 🙂 from Fay Wray in Dr X to Elvis Presley in King Creole, from Errol Flynn’s great 1930s swashbucklers to John Wayne in The Comancheros, from the VistaVision blockbustrer White Christmas to the eternal Casablanca, from the Oscar-winning Joan Crawford mystery-melodrama of Mildred Pierce to Cagney going to the chair in Angels with Dirty Faces to … I think I’ll go and have a lie down now!

          • Colin says:

            I know. It’s the kind of thing that’s simultaneously daunting and attractive, which just proves how impressive his career was I suppose.

          • I’ll have to do something, you’re right – then we can really argue the toss!

          • Colin says:

            Now that could be a long, long discussion.

  6. kaggsysbookishramblings says:

    Excellent review! I confess I’ve never read any Philo Vance mysteries – my experience of hard-boiled gumshoes ends with the masterly Dashiel Hammett! However, Vance sounds worth exploring – especially the earlier ones.

  7. Noah Stewart says:

    An interesting review and you have done a great job in enticing people to read this book, which is half the battle, isn’t it? It’s an important book, you’ve given us a lot of fascinating background detail and brought a few more readers to the pleasures of Philo Vance — thank you!!

  8. Yvette says:

    Now this is just right up my alley, Sergio. I love Warren William too. (But then I like William Powell and never knew that my dream boat Basil Rathbone had played Philo Vance. An embarrassment of riches.) I must add these dvd collections to my Christmas wish shopping list. 🙂

    I will definitely download this particular book from Project Guttenberg. Thanks, Sergio!

  9. I have been aware of this series for many years, without ever having read any. I really should take a look at them. Great review as ever.

  10. Nicely reviewed, Sergio. I like reading novels from the Golden Age too although I must admit that I didn’t know they belonged to Golden Age till I started blogging and reading about them on other blogs. And to think that I had been reading these novels off and on for several years. I remember starting out with Christie. I haven’t read anything by S.S. Van Dine, however.

  11. Santosh Iyer says:

    I haven’t read any book by S.S. Van Dine. However, I have just downloaded The Kennel Murder Case and am going to read it soon. I chose this because it seems to be a locked room mystery__my favourite genre.

    • Really hope you enjoy it Santosh – most definitely a classic locked room mystery – really curious to know what you make of that pone chum.

      • Santosh Iyer says:

        I have read the Kennel Murder Case. Though the mechanics of the locked room stuff didn’t much impress me, as a detective and mystery story, it is quite good and ingeneous. A set of circumstances lead to weird and puzzling events which Philo Vance has to unravel.
        This book has whetted my appetite for the author’s other books.

        • Glad to hear it Santosh – yes, the locked room is literally a bit mechanical, but fun – worth starting at the beginning of the series I would suggest with Benson and Canary (the latter is also a locked room mystery)

          • Santosh Iyer says:

            OK. I have downloaded both Benson and Canary.

          • Really hope you enjoy these Santosh! I loved these in my teens and still find much to enjoy several (ahem) decades later

          • Santosh Iyer says:

            I have finished reading both Benson and Canary. Both have clever plots and are enjoyable. However, the behaviour of Philo Vance has started irritating me. If I were Markham or Heath, I would definitely punch Vance on his face !

          • Well Santosh, you are in very good company! I think most people find his pretty irritating – clad you though thr plots were good – Greene and Bishop are even better in my view, though I do need to re-read the former as it’s been ages!

          • Santosh Iyer says:

            I have read The Greene Murder Case. This is the best of the four I have read.
            However, my complaint against all the books is that I found the overblown commentaries and the lengthy footnotes really irritating.

          • Well, and there you have it really – I still think that the early Van Dine books have a genuine sense of intellectual excitement as part of the inverstigation but it’s the footnoting and academic apparatus that seems to have dated them – glad you were otherwise won over though 🙂

          • Santosh Iyer says:

            I have finished reading Bishop Murder Case. I agree that Bishop and Greene are the best (of the 5 I have read). If anyone wants to read only 2 Philo Vance, I would recommend Bishop and Greene.
            I have decided not to read any more Philo Vance. First, I learn that the remaining books are mediocre. Secondly, the newness of the author has worn off. Though the plots were quite clever, the wordy and academic style writing is becoming tedious; it is more suitable for academic dissertations !

          • I think most people would completely agree with you here Santosh – glad you enjoyed them!

  12. davidsimmons6 says:

    Benson done; Canary in progress. I’m having a very good time reading Van Dine, and my irritation with Vance is lessening.

  13. davidsimmons6 says:

    Benson, Canary, and Bishop all done now and working on Scarab. Santosh’s comments promote taking a litttle break before I compare them to Greene, the only one I had read before, a long time ago, and liked it so much I read it twice.

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