A house party is under way at Rexton Manor in the Berkshires to celebrate the return of Carrington Rexon's son and heir Richard from his studies in Europe. However, Rexon Senior is nervous about his fabled emerald collection, given the mixed bag of café society guests. Philo Vance will easily blend in and so agrees to keep an eye on the situation.
The story gets off to a mysterious start, for the first person Vance and his personal advisor and friend Van Dine see on arrival at the extensive Rexon estate is Ella Gunthar, companion to Richard's invalid sister Joan. Ella is figure-skating alone on a pond in the woods to the music of a portable gramaphone. The large house is full of Bright Young Things, including singer Sally Alexander, treasure hunter Stanley Sydes, and gentleman jockey Chuck Throme. In addition, the Rexon family physician Dr Loomis Quayne pops in regularly to visit Joan.
It is not long before dark events take place. The guard of the wing in which Carrington Rexon's gem collection is kept is found dead at the foot of a cliff in suspicious circumstances. There are plenty of suspects, not just the guests but also Eric Gunthar, Ella's father and overseer of the estate workers, and Old Jed, a hermit who lives in the woods. Then Carrington Rexon is knocked out, the key to the gem room stolen, and his collection rifled of its choicest items. Much more will happen before Vance is able to aid the local constabulary in unmasking the murderer and thief.
My verdict: This is a particularly interesting novel in that while it has plenty of dialogue its style is telegraphic, and there are no footnotes or learned ramblings by Vance. The introduction explains when Van Dine died suddenly the work had reached his usual second stage of writing, meaning it lacked "the final elaboration of character, dialogue, and atmosphere". Van Dine fans therefore have the extra treat of in effect looking over his shoulder as he works.
Shorn of its usual elegant encrustations, then, the plot of The Winter Murder Case is revealed naked to its bare bones but it is still intricate enough to give the reader a chance to deduce the solution before it is revealed. A vital clue in plain sight and misdirection aplenty makes this Philo Vance adventure a valiant last hurrah.
E-Text: The Winter Murder Case