The Austin Murder Case by John L. Breen

by Arun

Source: Ellery Queen’s Mystery Parade

Story Number: 104

EQ’s Introduction to this story: Fans and aficionados have always regretted that certain famous detectives have appeared only in full-length novels. S.S. Van Dine is one such example who never wrote a short story about the sophistic and sophisticated Philo Vance. John L. Breen has set out to rectify this shortfall by providing his version of a Philo Vance short story – what might be called “a hitherto undiscovered account of one of Vance’s greatest triumphs” – a pastiche with parody touches, every tone and every accent the right “McWright,” the real “McDine” ….

Jack Austin is leaving New York and moving to Hollywood to make talking pictures and he is throwing a big party to celebrate the occasion. And he has sent an invitation to Philo Vance and Van Dine through Markahm – where each guest will come dressed as his favorite movie star! Vance goes in dressed as Doug Fairbanks and is immediately assured in by his host – who is dressed as Charlie Chaplin. The other guests include a respected Jurist, his daughter, a society vamp, a playboy, the Broadway producer who will be hit the hardest because Jack is moving, a theatrical agent, a debutante, and another actor – while all of the guests were wishing Austin good luck, a few of them were not really on the best of terms with their host. And before the night is out, the host is found dead – stabbed several times with an Orient letter opener!

And it doesn’t take too long for Philo Vance to figure out who the killer is – the dying message clue is aptly interpreted by him and the clue on which the whole case hinges – how did the killer escape from having blood on him when it was such a bloody murder, is interestingly hidden among the useless trivia that is presented to the reader when the reader is getting impatient with all the unwanted knowledge that is being introduced to him!

It contains all the trademarks of a Van Dine story and much more – you see Philo Vance doing double somersaults, you see Van Dine falling in love (thereby breaking his own rule from the 20 rules for writing detective stories), eleven footnotes in a span of thirteen pages with one footnote quoting “were this a full-length novel, I would reproduce those remarks here, since they would undoubtedly be of interest to collectors. Unfortunately, the short- story form offers less latitude for the introduction of such peripheral matters.”

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