Like scorpions in a bottle, the five grown children of the late Tobias Greene and their widowed mother live together in dangerous captivity. By the terms of Tobias’s will, they must all continue to reside in the Greene mansion for a quarter-century after his death, or else forfeit any share of his vast financial legacy. One November evening, as an early snow descends upon New York City, shots from a .38 revolver kill Julia Greene and wound Ada Greene. Philo Vance, Van Dine’s brilliant yet priggish amateur sleuth, readily sees that these crimes originate within the Greene household. But as the bodies pile up—the two Greene brothers soon fall victim to the same .38—the suspects dwindle to a ridiculously small number.
This tale, fresh and clever in certain ways, carries a strong whiff of parody. It recalls the family-gothic fiction popularized in the 19th century by Wilkie Collins and Anna Katharine Green (note that surname), and renders that genre faintly absurd by turning a family homestead into a scene of wholesale massacre. The Greene house, perched on the East River at the end of 53rd Street in Manhattan, accentuates that effect. It looms as a stray survivor from an extinct species—an embodiment of Old Gotham, surrounded by a city full of speeding Flivvers and jaded flappers.
Although the steady attrition of suspects undermines any sense of mystery as to the killer’s identity, there is a great deal of incisive detection on display here. One of the book’s high points, for readers who crave a good puzzle, is an exhaustive tabulation by Vance of 97 discrete aspects of the Greene case. Arranged in the right order, he contends, this list of clues and curiosities would point ineluctably to a solution. In that respect, this third Van Dine novel is a pure product of its own time, the puzzle-mad 1920s; it partakes of the stylized artificiality also seen, for example, in that decade’s crossword craze. Yet Van Dine (a pen name of Willard Huntington Wright) prefers to liken a murder case to another kind of artifice. Speaking through Vance, his alter ego, he expounds: “When a true artist paints a picture, d’ ye see, he arranges all the masses and lines to accord with his preconceived idea of composition—that is, he bends everything in the picture to a basic design. … [O]nce we have discovered the underlying shape of this hideous picture’s pattern, we’ll know its creator.”