“She must be bad or she wouldn’t have killed my husband. I’m not defending him, but men don’t go to the houses of complete strangers and get murdered by them!”
Victoria Van Allen is the most charming young hostess in New York City. Everything is perfectly respectable at her parties, yet with an artistic, bohemian flair that makes an evening with Vicky Van a memorable occasion. There’s always room for a new friend at her table, so no one minds when one of the guests brings along the rich but slightly awkward Mr. Somers. Before the evening is through, however, Somers will be lying dead on the floor with a knife in his chest, and the beautiful Vicky will vanish into the night.
My first foray into Carolyn Wells’ work, The Mystery Girl, was a disappointment. Wells has a knack for light society comedy, but the murder investigation in that one was a disaster. A few other bloggers have had better luck with Wells, however, with Curtis Evans singling out Vicky Van as especially worthy of attention. He is correct—Vicky Van’s high-society murder allows plenty of scope for the social observations that Wells does so well, paired with an enjoyably audacious mystery.
The narrator is Chester Calhoun, one of Vicky’s many admirers. He always enjoys his evenings at the Van Allen home, and cannot say that anything untoward has ever happened there, yet somehow it’s not the sort of place he would allow his young sister to go. Chester finds Vicky’s charms difficult to put into words.
Vicky Van had money enough and though nothing about her home was ostentatious or over ornate, it was quietly and in the best of taste luxurious…Her gown, the skirt part of it, was a sort of mazy maize-colored thin stuff, rather short and rather full, that swirled as she moved, and fluttered when she danced. The bodice part, was of heavily gold-spangled material, and a kind of overskirt arrangement was a lot of long gold fringe made of beads. Instead of a yoke, there were shoulder straps of these same beads, and the sleeves weren’t there.
And yet, that costume was all right. Why, it was a rig I’d be glad to see Winnie in, when she gets older, and if I’ve made it sound rather—er—gay and festive, it’s my bungling way of describing it, and also, because Vicky’s personality would add gayety and festivity to any raiment.
Still, Chester has the greatest admiration for Vicky. Neither he nor any of her other friends could believe her guilty of murder—“You might as well suspect a dove or a butterfly of crime!” Besides, what motive could she possibly have? Somers was a stranger to all of them. No one could want to murder a man they had met only that evening.
As it turns out, both Somers and Vicky have secrets in their pasts. Chester has always prided himself on being an honorable man, but now, for the first time, he doesn’t know the honorable thing to do. Should he cooperate with police, or help the friend whose innocence he believes in?
Could a girl of such cultivated tastes and such refinement of character be a—a wrong-doer? I couldn’t say murderer even to myself. Then my common sense flared up, and told me that crime is no respecter of persons. That women who had slain human beings were not necessarily of this or that walk of life…I could not say Vicky was incapable of crime—indeed, her gay, volatile manner might hide a deeply perturbed spirit. She was an enigma, and I—I must solve the riddle. I felt I should never rest, until I knew the truth, and if Vicky were a martyr to circumstances, or a victim to Fate, I must know all about it.
Chester would be the first to admit that he’s far from a genius detective. “Sherlock Holmes, I thought to myself, would read that letter, look at it through his good old lens, smell it, and then walk out, and return in a half hour, with Vicky Van in tow! But for my part, I could see nothing illuminating in that plain paper and envelope.” He misses the importance of several clues, such as the lack of perishable food in Vicky’s kitchen suggesting that she was already planning to leave town. But he is finely attuned to the subtle social distinctions of the case. This is a mystery that hinges on the entitlement of old money, and what happens when it comes into contact with those who don’t have it.
It’s also important that Chester is able to see women as human beings. His boss describes him as “a ladies’ man,” because he is good with female clients, but Chester is not the charmer that phrase would suggest. He simply gets along with women because he treats them as equals and trusts them to know their own needs. Though Chester is inclined to be protective of women in the abstract, when real-life women make decisions he disagrees with, he accepts their choices. Other male characters are not so broad-minded, seeing women, especially those of a lower social class, as merchandise to buy, discard, and handle as they like. Vicky Van is very much a story about the power men have over women—even intelligent, privileged women. For some such women, death may offer their only release.
Once again, great detective Fleming Stone and his sidekick Fibsy turn up at the last minute. In spite of his ridiculous street-urchin dialect, Fibsy has a sharp mind, and this case offers him a chance to shine. There are really two mysteries here, the murder and the disappearance of Vicky. Stone concentrates all of his attention on the latter; it’s sheer good luck that the revelation of Vicky’s fate also brings forth the evidence needed to solve the crime. There is so much focus on Vicky that no room is left for any other suspects. The solution certainly has that Carolyn Wells touch, but it’s just plausible enough to be fun rather than infuriating.
Vicky Van is a pleasingly offbeat mystery. Though it offers plenty of lightweight diversion, the underlying message is more serious, arguing that women have the right to live their own lives in the way that they choose. Carolyn Wells is known mostly for her predilection for outlandish solutions, but Vicky Van shows that Wells was more than capable of writing a compelling detective story.
This is one of those books where nothing in particular is great, but everything comes together really well…And the solution to this particular mystery is excellent. It’s all classic Carolyn Wells, down to the young woman who is freed from some kind of oppression by the murder, but none of the other Wells mysteries I’ve read have been anywhere near this much fun.
Thoroughly enjoyable and unique book…The best Carolyn Wells I have read thus far.
Vicky Van is in the public domain, with a free ebook available at Project Gutenberg.