Dragons and games of chance and Philo Vance's game of death
In the fourth Leonaur volume of the Philo Vance Murder Cases we find the urbane New Yorker tackling a particularly puzzling crime. In 'The Dragon Murder Case'—the seventh tale—a guest visiting a country house dives into the swimming pool and instead of climbing out again disappears completely. Suspicions are quickly raised concerning the intervention of a vengeful dragon, but Philo Vance is not so sure. He is, as devotees know, an expert in disappearances, criminals, dragons and how to solve a whodunit that would baffle anyone else. In the 'The Casino Murder Case', Vance receives an anonymous letter alerting him to imminent danger to a member of his own family. If he wants information which will assist him in averting the threat he must visit a certain Casino to find it. Predictably, once there the body count starts to rise .Vance once more has a case on his hands and a killer to uncover—and this time the preferred weapon is the poison bottle. This is another satisfying helping of detective fiction by one of its masters—with more to come as Leonaur publishes the complete collection of these classic stories.
It was in the cold bleak autumn following the spectacular Dragon murder case that Philo Vance was confronted with what was probably the subtlest and most diabolical criminal problem of his career. Unlike his other cases, this mystery was one of poisoning. But it was not an ordinary poisoning case: it involved far too clever a technique, and was thought out to far too many decimal points, to be ranked with even such famous crimes as the Cordelia Botkin, Molineux, Maybrick, Buchanan, Bowers and Carlyle Harris cases.<br><br>
The designation given to it by the newspapers—namely, the Casino murder case—was technically a misnomer, although Kinkaid’s famous gambling Casino in West 73rd Street played a large part in it. In fact, the first sinister episode in this notorious crime actually occurred beside the high-stake roulette table in the “Gold Room” of the Casino; and the final episode of the tragedy was enacted in Kinkaid’s walnut-panelled Jacobean office, just off the main gambling salon.<br>
Incidentally, I may say that that last terrible scene will haunt me to my dying day and send cold shivers racing up and down my spine whenever I let my mind dwell on its terrifying details. I have been through many shocking and unnerving situations with Vance during the course of his criminal investigations, but never have I experienced one that affected me as did that terrific and fatal dénouement that came so suddenly, so unexpectedly, in the gaudy environment of that famous gambling rendezvous.<br>
And Markham, too, I know, underwent some chilling metamorphosis in those few agonizing moments when the murderer stood before us and cackled in triumph. To this day, the mere mention of the incident makes Markham irritable and nervous—a fact which, considering his usual calm, indicates clearly how deep and lasting an impression the tragic affair made upon him.<br>
The Casino murder case, barring that one fatal terminating event, was not so spectacular in its details as many other criminal cases which Vance had probed and solved. From a purely objective point of view it might even have been considered commonplace; for in its superficial mechanism it had many parallels in well-known cases of criminological history. But what distinguished this case from its many antitypes was the subtle inner processes by which the murderer sought to divert suspicion and to create new and more devilish situations wherein the real motive of the crime was to be found. It was not merely one wheel within another wheel: it was an elaborate and complicated piece of psychological machinery, the mechanism of which led on and on, almost indefinitely, to the most amazing—and erroneous—conclusions.<br>
Indeed, the first move of the murderer was perhaps the most artful act of the entire profound scheme. It was a letter addressed to Vance thirty-six hours before the mechanism of the plot was put in direct operation. But, curiously enough, it was this supreme subtlety that, in the end, led to the recognition of the culprit. Perhaps this act of letter-writing was too subtle: perhaps it defeated its own purpose by calling mute attention to the mental processes of the murderer, and thereby gave Vance an intellectual clue which fortunately diverted his efforts from the more insistent and more obvious lines of ratiocination. In any event, it achieved its superficial object; for Vance was actually a spectator of the first thrust, so to speak, of the villain’s rapier.<br>
And, as an eye witness to the first episode of this famous poison murder mystery, Vance became directly involved in the case; so that, in this instance, he carried the problem to John F.-X. Markham, who was then the District Attorney of New York County and Vance’s closest friend; whereas, in all his other criminal investigations, it was Markham who had been primarily responsible for Vance’s participation.<br>
The letter of which I speak arrived in the morning mail on Saturday, October 15. It consisted of two typewritten pages, and the envelop was postmarked Closter, New Jersey. The official post-office stamp showed the mailing time as noon of the preceding day. Vance had worked late Friday night, tabulating and comparing the aesthetic designs on Sumerian pottery in an attempt to establish the cultural influences of this ancient civilization,1 and did not arise till ten o’clock on Saturday. I was living in Vance’s apartment in East 38th Street at the time; and though my position was that of legal adviser and monetary steward I had, during the past three years, gradually taken over a kind of general secretaryship in his employ. “Employ” is perhaps not the correct word, for Vance and I had been close friends since our Harvard days; and it was this relationship that had induced me to sever my connection with my father’s law firm of Van Dine, Davis and Van Dine and to devote myself to the more congenial task of looking after Vance’s affairs.<br>
On that raw, almost wintry, morning in October I had, as usual, opened and segregated his mail, taking care of such items as came under my own jurisdiction, and was engaged in making out his entry blanks for the autumn field trials,2 when Vance entered the library and, with a nod of greeting, sat down in his favourite Queen-Anne chair before the open fire.<br>
That morning he was wearing a rare old mandarin robe and Chinese sandals, and I was somewhat astonished at his costume, for he rarely came to breakfast (which invariably consisted of a cup of Turkish coffee and one of his beloved Régie cigarettes) in such elaborate dress.<br>
“I say, Van,” he remarked, when he had pushed the table-button for Currie, his aged English butler and major-domo; “don’t look so naïvely amazed. I felt depressed when I awoke. I couldn’t trace the designs on some of the jolly old stelæ and cylinder seals they’ve dug up at Ur, and in consequence had a restless night. Therefore, I bedecked myself in this Chinese attire in an effort to counteract my feelin’s, and in the hope, I may add, that I would, through a process of psychic osmosis, acquire a bit of that Oriental calm that is so highly spoken of by the Sinologists.”<br>
At this moment Currie brought in the coffee. Vance, after lighting a Régie and taking a few sips of the thick black liquid, looked toward me lazily and drawled: “Any cheerin’ mail?” <br>
So interested had I been in the strange anonymous letter which had just arrived—although I had as yet no idea of its tragic significance—that I handed it to him without a word. He glanced at it with slightly raised eyebrows, let his gaze rest for a moment on the enigmatic signature, and then, placing his coffee cup on the table, read it through slowly. I watched him closely during the process, and noted a curiously veiled expression in his eyes, which deepened and became unusually serious as he came to the end.