In his very influential study of the detective story, Bloody Murder, Julian Symons takes a surprisingly positive view of the first six Philo Vance books but is contemptuously dismissive of the last six. That dismissal has been widely echoed but in the case of The Dragon Murder Case it seems a little unfair.
The Dragon Murder Case has most of the features you expect in a Philo Vance novel. The plot is intricate, the murder method is bizarre and spectacular and Philo Vance is in very Philo Vance form. The latter is either a very good thing or a very bad thing depending on how you feel about Vance, and that is very much a matter of personal preference. I can understand those who find Vance irritating and who dislike Van Dine’s style although personally I find both to be highly entertaining. I like footnotes. I can’t help it.
In an earlier Vance book Van Dine had already dealt with criticisms of Vance’s English accent by pointing out that he had been educated in England. Anyone who spent their formative years in England (and given Vance’s social position this would have meant one of the great public schools followed by either Oxford or Cambridge) would naturally have picked up some upper-class English mannerisms and some trace of an accent. Philo Vance was the sort of hero that Van Dine wanted and the success he enjoyed suggests that most readers were happy with such a hero.
The setting for The Dragon Murder Case is the vast Stamm estate in New York City. Rudolph Stamm and his sister are the last of their line and Rudolph is a character right out of gothic fiction. He could be the protagonist of one of Poe’s stories. In fact there’s quite a marked Poe influence in this tale.
Homicide cop Sergeant Heath has been called to the Stamm estate after a guest had decided on a swim, dived into the Dragon Pool and never emerged. It seems like a straightforward accident but there is something about the atmosphere in the Stamm mansion that Sergeant Heath is very unhappy about. He feels that this is a case that District Attorney Markham should take a look at. In fact he’s probably even more anxious for Markham’s friend Philo Vance to take a look. Having worked with him on previous baffling cases Sergeant Heath has developed a great respect for Vance’s crime-solving abilities. Markham is rather annoyed at being called out to investigate what seems to him to be clearly an accident but Vance is inclined to think that Heath’s instincts may be right. When the Dragon Pool is drained it becomes obvious that this is no accident.
It should be explained that the Dragon Pool is not a swimming pool but an artificial pond of considerable extent, and considerable depth.
This is in some ways a classic example of an impossible crime story. Adding extra spice (and even more gothic atmosphere) are the old Indian legends attached to the Dragon Pool, legends of an actual dragon.
The Dragon Murder Case is a fine example of the fair-play mystery. Van Dine is scrupulous about giving us the necessary clues to both the murder method and the identity of the murderer. R. Austin Freeman said that clues should never be hidden. They should be left in plain sight, and the writer should rely on the reader’s endless capacity to miss their significance. This is what Van Dine does. The really important clues are all right out in the open. Freeman also felt that the writer should never cheat by laying false clues. Van Done does make one use of a false clue in this book, but it’s done in such a way that the alert reader should be suspicious of it from the start.
My own view is that the writer also needs to play fair psychologically - the reader needs to believe that the killer is not only the only one who could have physically committed the crime, but also the only one with the right psychology to have committed it. That means more than just a convincing motive; the killer needs to be the sort of person who would commit murder, and do so in the manner in which the murder was actually carried out. Van Dine is careful to do that in The Dragon Murder Case. The solution might be wildly outlandish but it still rings true psychologically.
One of the conventions of the golden age detective story is that there should be a limited number of suspects. A popular way of doing his was to put the suspects in a location that is physically isolated from the outside world, thus eliminating the possibility of an outside killer. In this book Van Dine handles the situation more cleverly and more subtly. The estate is not cut off from the outside world but the crime happens in such a way that only the small group of people staying at the house could have had the one essential piece of information that made the crime possible. The killing is also done in such a manner that the killer must have been very familiar with the geography of the estate. An outsider could certainly have entered the estate, but an outsider could not have done this murder.
What this means is that the extraordinary setting Van Dine has chosen is not just there to provide a colourful backdrop. It plays a crucial plot rôle. It would not be going too far to say that this is a murder that could have taken place nowhere else in New York.
The Dragon Murder Case is outlandish but wonderfully entertaining. Van Dine’s style might strike some critics as overblown but it’s perfectly in keeping with the nature of the story and its setting. Tremendous fun, and highly recommended.