I had never read anything by S. S. Van Dine (the pseudonym of art critic and detective novelist Willard Huntington Wright), so when I found an edition of The Scarab Murder Case I figured I’d give it a shot. This is the fifth mystery novel by Van Dine to feature detective Philo Vance, and while he wrote 12 altogether, since there are so few reviews of his work to be found (and what I did find was very mixed), I’m rather unsure of what his reputation is with GAD readers. So, here goes…
Friday July 13thfound Philo Vance in the library of his East Thirty-eighth Street apartment translating Egyptian papyri. Most annoyingly, he was to be intruded on by the arrival of Mr. Donald Scarlett “in a state of distressing excitement.” Scarlett has just found the dead body of philanthropist Benjamin H. Kyle in a private museum of Egyptian antiquities where he is on staff. Not wanting to be caught alone with a dead body, he hastens along to Vance for assistance. Vance takes thinks in hand and invites District Attorney Markham along for the ride.
’Greetings, Markham old dear. Beastly weather, what?” His voice was too indolent to be entirely convincing. ‘By the by, Benjamin H. Kyle has passed to his maker by foul means. He’s at present lying on the floor of the Bliss Museum with a badly fractured skull….Oh, yes – quite dead, I understand. Are you interested, by any chance? Thought I’d be unfriendly and notify you….Sad – sad….I’m about to make a few observations in situ criminus….Tut, tut! This is no time for reproaches. Don’t be so deuced serious….Really, I think you’d better come along….Right-o! I’ll await you here.’”
Once at the museum they find Kyle lying with his arms outstretched, encircling the feet of a life-sized statue of Anubis, god of the underworld. Across Kyle’s shattered skull, a figurine in the shape of the goddess Sakhmet, Egyptian goddess of vengeance, and below…a pool of blood.
’It may mean nothing – surely nothing supernatural – but the fact that this particular statue was chosen for the murder makes me wonder if there may be something diabolical and sinister and superstitious in this affair.’”
Vance & Co. (which now includes Sergeant Heath) soon discover several “clews” (sic). The first, a scarab set in a scarf-pin belonging to the museum’s curator, Doctor Mindrum W.C. Bliss. Then clutched in the dead man’s hand, a report of expenditures which Bliss had been completing. And finally, bloody footprints made by a tennis shoe, the same kind of shoes worn by Bliss, and they lead directly…dah, dah, dah, dah…to Bliss’s study. With much evidence pointing to Bliss, for Sergeant Heath the assignment of guilt is all too obvious. Vance doesn’t believe it’s as simple as that. He concludes that there is a plot, diabolical in it’s complexity, but all to human in it’s origin.
“The evidence that had come to light pointed unmistakably toward the great Egyptologist…” and since everyone connected with Bliss has a motive for pinning the murder on him, Vance is spoiled for suspects. Meryt-Amen, Bliss’ half-Egyptian, and much younger, wife who will receive a large inheritance under Kyle’s will. Anupu Hani, Mrs. Bliss’ Egyptian servant, who asserts the death is Sakhmet’s judgment, “For many generations the sacred tombs of our forefathers have been violated by the treasure-seeking Occidental.” Robert Salveter, the assistant curator to the museum and Kyle’s nephew who also benefits under Kyle’s will, and appears to have deeper feelings for Meryt than he should. And finally, Donald Scarlett, amateur Egyptologist, technical adviser to Bliss on his archaeological digs, and maybe competitor with Salveter for Meryt’s affections.
So now…what did I think of The Scarab? As entertainment the book made for an amusing read, but as a mystery, or even a good story…not so much. The plotting is not complex or in any way ingenious. There is no way anyone can fail to guess who the culprit is, or the motivation behind it. That’s because Van Dine is constantly pointing it out. Worse yet, order to create red-herrings, he has Vance continually announcing “the” question, that once answered will provide the key to unlocking the plot. But the diversion doesn’t last very long…just up until he comes up with the next one.
The most important question in this pseudo-mystical murder – is why – and how the murderer left that archeological specimen beside the defunct body. Once we find the reason for that amazin’ action, we’ll hit upon the secret of the crime itself.”
In fact, the key to the whole plot lies in the question of who had the opportunity to meddle with the cup of coffee.”
We’ve been led into a Moorish maze by the murderer, but the key hasn’t yet been placed in our hands. When it is, I’ll know which door it’ll unlock…”
Maybe I didn’t care for the book because I didn’t like the Philo Vance character? Nah, that had nothing to do with it. Yes, Philo is a rich intellectual know-it-all who seems to have a merely casual concern when murder occurs.
“Vance was debonair, whimsical, and superficially cynical—an amateur of the arts, and with only an impersonal concern in serious social and moral problems.”
But he was really unobjectionable and actually quite bland. And speaking of characters, Van Dine inserts himself into the story as the first-person narrator (Vance’s legal advisor and constant companion), but he is in no way a Watson character. Other that referring to himself moving from room to room, or being introduced by Vance to other characters, he doesn’t participate in the investigation at all. Therefore, you would not be remiss if you forgot his existence altogether, which I often did. Actually, all of the characters are fairly one-dimensional (does DA Markham even have a first name?). I will say that the best parts of the story are the walk-ons by Sergeant Ernest Heath, which occur all too infrequently.
But the most serious issue I had when reading this was, I kept hearing William Powell’s voice reading the lines in my head…only he never dropped a “g”, or said “clew”.
Oh, but there are maps, lots of maps! And one even folds out. How cool is that?
My Judgement – 2/5