The "Canary" Murder Case - S. S. Van Dine - ebook

In the offices of the Homicide Bureau of the Detective Division of the New York Police Department, on the third floor of the Police Headquarters building in Center Street, there is a large steel filing cabinet; and within it, among thousands of others of its kind, there reposes a small green index-card on which is typed: “ODELL, MARGARET. 184 West 71st Street. Sept. 10. Murder: Strangled about 11 p.m. Apartment ransacked. Jewelry stolen. Body found by Amy Gibson, maid.”

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Title: The "Canary" Murder Case

Author: S. S. Van Dine [Willard Huntington Wright] (1888-1939)






   First appearances deceive many: the intelligence



Courtesy of Paramount Pictures.THE CANARY.


For many years I was the personal attorney and constant companion of Mr. Philo Vance; and this period covered the four years during which Mr. John F.-X. Markham, Vance’s closest friend, was District Attorney of New York. As a result it was my privilege to be a spectator of what I believe was the most amazing series of criminal cases that ever passed before the eyes of a young lawyer. Indeed, the grim dramas I witnessed during that period constitute one of the most astonishing secret documents in American police history.

Of these dramas Vance was the central character. By an analytical and interpretative process which, as far as I know, has never before been applied to criminal activities, he succeeded in solving many of the important crimes on which both the police and the District Attorney’s office had hopelessly fallen down.

Due to my peculiar relations with Vance it happened that not only did I participate in all the cases with which he was connected, but I was also present at most of the informal discussions concerning them which took place between him and the District Attorney; and, being of methodical temperament, I kept a complete record of them. It is fortunate that I performed this gratuitous labor of accumulation and transcription, for now that circumstances have rendered possible my making the cases public, I am able to present them in full detail and with all their various sidelights and succeeding steps.

In another volume—“The Benson Murder Case”—I have related how Vance happened to become involved in criminal investigation, and have also set forth the unique analytic methods of crime detection by which he solved the problem of Alvin Benson’s mysterious murder.

The present chronicle has to do with Vance’s solution of the brutal murder of Margaret Odell—a cause célèbre which came to be known as the “Canary” murder. The strangeness, the daring, the seeming impenetrability of the crime marked it as one of the most singular and astonishing cases in New York’s police annals; and had it not been for Philo Vance’s participation in its solution, I firmly believe it would have remained one of the great unsolved mysteries of this country.

S. S. Van Dine.

New York.

Table of Contents

I. The “Canary”

II. Footprints in the Snow

III. The Murder

IV. The Print of a Hand

V. The Bolted Door

VI. A Call for Help

VII. A Nameless Visitor

VIII. The Invisible Murderer

IX. The Pack in Full Cry

X. A Forced Interview

XI. Seeking Information

XII. Circumstantial Evidence

XIII. An Erstwhile Gallant

XIV. Vance Outlines a Theory

XV. Four Possibilities

XVI. Significant Disclosures

XVII. Checking an Alibi

XVIII. The Trap

XIX. The Doctor Explains

XX. A Midnight Witness

XXI. A Contradiction in Dates

XXII. A Telephone Call

XXIII. The Ten O’Clock Appointment

XXIV. An Arrest

XXV. Vance Demonstrates

XXVI. Reconstructing the Crime

XXVII. A Game of Poker

XXVIII. The Guilty Man

XXIX. Beethoven’s “Andante”

XXX. The End


Philo Vance

John F.-X. Makkham

District Attorney of New York County.

Margaret Odell (The “Canary”)

Famous Broadway beauty and ex-Follies girl, who was mysteriously murdered in her apartment.

Amy Gibson

Margaret Odell’s maid.

Charles Cleaver

A man-about-town.

Kenneth Spotswoode

A manufacturer.

Louis Mannix

An importer.

Dr. Ambroise Lindquist

A fashionable neurologist.

Tony Skeel

A professional burglar.

William Elmer Jessup

Telephone operator.

Harry Spively

Telephone operator.

Alys La Fosse

A musical-comedy actress.

Wiley Allen

A gambler.


A street-cleaner.

Amos Feathergill

Assistant District Attorney.

William M. Moran

Commanding Officer of the Detective Bureau.

Ernest Heath

Sergeant of the Homicide Bureau.


Detective of the Homicide Bureau.


Detective of the Homicide Bureau.


Detective of the Homicide Bureau.


Detective assigned to District Attorney’s office.

Deputy-Inspector Conrad Brenner

Burglar-tools expert.

Captain Dubois

Finger-print expert.

Detective Bellamy

Finger-print expert.

Peter Quackenbush

Official photographer.

Dr. Doremus

Medical Examiner.


Secretary to the District Attorney.


Vance’s valet.



In the offices of the Homicide Bureau of the Detective Division of the New York Police Department, on the third floor of the Police Headquarters building in Center Street, there is a large steel filing cabinet; and within it, among thousands of others of its kind, there reposes a small green index-card on which is typed: “ODELL, MARGARET. 184 West 71st Street. Sept. 10. Murder: Strangled about 11 p.m. Apartment ransacked. Jewelry stolen. Body found by Amy Gibson, maid.”

Here, in a few commonplace words, is the bleak, unadorned statement of one of the most astonishing crimes in the police annals of this country—a crime so contradictory, so baffling, so ingenious, so unique, that for many days the best minds of the Police Department and the District Attorney’s office were completely at a loss as to even a method of approach. Each line of investigation only tended to prove that Margaret Odell could not possibly have been murdered. And yet, huddled on the great silken davenport in her living-room lay the girl’s strangled body, giving the lie to so grotesque a conclusion.

The true story of this crime, as it eventually came to light after a disheartening period of utter darkness and confusion, revealed many strange and bizarre ramifications, many dark recesses of man’s unexplored nature, and the uncanny subtlety of a human mind sharpened by desperate and tragic despair. And it also revealed a hidden page of passional melodrama which, in its essence and organisms, was no less romantic and fascinating than that vivid, theatrical section of the Comédie Humaine which deals with the fabulous love of Baron Nucingen for Esther van Gobseck, and with the unhappy Torpille’s tragic death.

Margaret Odell was a product of the bohemian demi-monde of Broadway—a scintillant figure who seemed somehow to typify the gaudy and spurious romance of transient gaiety. For nearly two years before her death she had been the most conspicuous and, in a sense, popular figure of the city’s night life. In our grandparents’ day she might have had conferred upon her that somewhat questionable designation, “the toast of the town”; but to-day there are too many aspirants for this classification, too many cliques and violent schisms in the Lepidoptera of our café life, to permit of any one competitor being thus singled out. But, for all the darlings of both professional and lay press-agents, Margaret Odell was a character of unquestioned fame in her little world.

Her notoriety was due in part to certain legendary tales of her affairs with one or two obscure potentates in the backwashes of Europe. She had spent two years abroad after her first success in “The Bretonne Maid”—a popular musical comedy in which she had been mysteriously raised from obscurity to the rank of “star”—and, one may cynically imagine, her press-agent took full advantage of her absence to circulate vermilion tales of her conquests.

Her appearance went far toward sustaining her somewhat equivocal fame. There was no question that she was beautiful in a hard, slightly flamboyant way. I remember seeing her dancing one night at the Antlers Club—a famous rendezvous for post-midnight pleasure-seekers, run by the notorious Red Raegan.[1] She impressed me then as a girl of uncommon loveliness, despite the calculating, predatory cast of her features. She was of medium height, slender, graceful in a leonine way, and, I thought, a trifle aloof and even haughty in manner—a result, perhaps, of her reputed association with European royalty. She had the traditional courtesan’s full, red lips, and the wide, mongoose eyes of Rossetti’s “Blessed Damozel.” There was in her face that strange combination of sensual promise and spiritual renunciation with which the painters of all ages have sought to endow their conceptions of the Eternal Magdalene. Hers was the type of face, voluptuous and with a hint of mystery, which rules man’s emotions and, by subjugating his mind, drives him to desperate deeds.

Margaret Odell had received the sobriquet of Canary as a result of a part she had played in an elaborate ornithological ballet of the “Follies,” in which each girl had been gowned to represent a variety of bird. To her had fallen the rôle of canary; and her costume of white-and-yellow satin, together with her mass of shining golden hair and pink-and-white complexion, had distinguished her in the eyes of the spectators as a creature of outstanding charm. Before a fortnight had passed—so eulogistic were her press notices, and so unerringly did the audience single her out for applause—the “Bird Ballet” was changed to the “Canary Ballet,” and Miss Odell was promoted to the rank of what might charitably be called première danseuse, at the same time having a solo waltz and a song[2] interpolated for the special display of her charms and talents.

She had quitted the “Follies” at the close of the season, and during her subsequent spectacular career in the haunts of Broadway’s night life she had been popularly and familiarly called the Canary. Thus it happened that when her dead body was found, brutally strangled, in her apartment, the crime immediately became known, and was always thereafter referred to, as the Canary murder.

My own participation in the investigation of the Canary murder case—or rather my rôle of Boswellian spectator—constituted one of the most memorable experiences of my life. At the time of Margaret Odell’s murder John F.-X. Markham was District Attorney of New York, having taken office the preceding January. I need hardly remind you that during the four years of his incumbency he distinguished himself by his almost uncanny success as a criminal investigator. The praise which was constantly accorded him, however, was highly distasteful to him; for, being a man with a keen sense of honor, he instinctively shrank from accepting credit for achievements not wholly his own. The truth is that Markham played only a subsidiary part in the majority of his most famous criminal cases. The credit for their actual solution belonged to one of Markham’s very close friends, who refused, at the time, to permit the facts to be made public.

This man was a young social aristocrat, whom, for purposes of anonymity, I have chosen to call Philo Vance.

Vance had many amazing gifts and capabilities. He was an art collector in a small way, a fine amateur pianist, and a profound student of æsthetics and psychology. Although an American, he had largely been educated in Europe, and still retained a slight English accent and intonation. He had a liberal independent income, and spent considerable time fulfilling the social obligations which devolved on him as a result of family connections; but he was neither an idler nor a dilettante. His manner was cynical and aloof; and those who met him only casually, set him down as a snob. But knowing Vance, as I did, intimately, I was able to glimpse the real man beneath the surface indications; and I knew that his cynicism and aloofness, far from being a pose, sprang instinctively from a nature which was at once sensitive and solitary.

Vance was not yet thirty-five, and, in a cold, sculptural fashion, was impressively good-looking. His face was slender and mobile; but there was a stern, sardonic expression to his features, which acted as a barrier between him and his fellows. He was not emotionless, but his emotions were, in the main, intellectual. He was often criticised for his asceticism, yet I have seen him exhibit rare bursts of enthusiasm over an æsthetic or psychological problem. However, he gave the impression of remaining remote from all mundane matters; and, in truth, he looked upon life like a dispassionate and impersonal spectator at a play, secretly amused and debonairly cynical at the meaningless futility of it all. Withal, he had a mind avid for knowledge, and few details of the human comedy that came within his sphere of vision escaped him.

It was as a direct result of this intellectual inquisitiveness that he became actively, though unofficially, interested in Markham’s criminal investigations.

I kept a fairly complete record of the cases in which Vance participated as a kind of amicus curiæ, little thinking that I would ever be privileged to make them public; but Markham, after being defeated, as you remember, on a hopelessly split ticket at the next election, withdrew from politics; and last year Vance went abroad to live, declaring he would never return to America. As a result, I obtained permission from both of them to publish my notes in full. Vance stipulated only that I should not reveal his name; but otherwise no restrictions were placed upon me.

I have related elsewhere[3] the peculiar circumstances which led to Vance’s participation in criminal research, and how, in the face of almost insuperable contradictory evidence, he solved the mysterious shooting of Alvin Benson. The present chronicle deals with his solution of Margaret Odell’s murder, which took place in the early fall of the same year, and which, you will recall, created an even greater sensation than its predecessor.[4]

A curious set of circumstances was accountable for the way in which Vance was shouldered with this new investigation. Markham for weeks had been badgered by the anti-administration newspapers for the signal failures of his office in obtaining convictions against certain underworld offenders whom the police had turned over to him for prosecution. As a result of prohibition a new and dangerous, and wholly undesirable, kind of night life had sprung up in New York. A large number of well-financed cabarets, calling themselves night clubs, had made their appearance along Broadway and in its side streets; and already there had been an appalling number of serious crimes, both passional and monetary, which, it was said, had had their inception in these unsavory resorts.

At last, when a case of murder accompanying a hold-up and jewel robbery in one of the family hotels up-town was traced directly to plans and preparations made in one of the night clubs, and when two detectives of the Homicide Bureau investigating the case were found dead one morning in the neighborhood of the club, with bullet wounds in their backs, Markham decided to pigeonhole the other affairs of his office and take a hand personally in the intolerable criminal conditions that had arisen.[5]


The Antlers Club has since been closed by the police; and Red Raegan is now serving a long term in Sing Sing for grand larceny.


Written especially for her by B. G. De Sylva.


“The Benson Murder Case” (Scribner’s, 1926).


The Loeb-Leopold crime, the Dorothy King case, and the Hall-Mills murder came later; but the Canary murder proved fully as conspicuous a case as the Nan Patterson-“Cæsar” Young affair, Durant’s murder of Blanche Lamont and Minnie Williams in San Francisco, the Molineux arsenic-poisoning case, and the Carlyle Harris morphine murder. To find a parallel in point of public interest one must recall the Borden double-murder in Fall River, the Thaw case, the shooting of Elwell, and the Rosenthal murder.


The case referred to here was that of Mrs. Elinor Quiggly, a wealthy widow living at the Adlon Hotel in West 96th Street. She was found on the morning of September 5 suffocated by a gag which had been placed on her by robbers who had evidently followed her home from the Club Turque—a small but luxurious all-night café at 89 West 48th Street. The killing of the two detectives, McQuade and Cannison, was, the police believe, due to the fact that they were in possession of incriminating evidence against the perpetrators of the crime. Jewellery amounting to over $50,000 was stolen from the Quiggly apartment.



(Sunday, September 9)

On the day following his decision, Markham and Vance and I were sitting in a secluded corner of the lounge-room of the Stuyvesant Club. We often came together there, for we were all members of the club, and Markham frequently used it as a kind of unofficial up-town headquarters.[6]

“It’s bad enough to have half the people in this city under the impression that the District Attorney’s office is a kind of high-class collection agency,” he remarked that night, “without being necessitated to turn detective because I’m not given sufficient evidence, or the right kind of evidence, with which to secure convictions.”

Vance looked up with a slow smile, and regarded him quizzically.

“The difficulty would seem to be,” he returned, with an indolent drawl, “that the police, being unversed in the exquisite abracadabra of legal procedure, labor under the notion that evidence which would convince a man of ordin’ry intelligence, would also convince a court of law. A silly notion, don’t y’ know. Lawyers don’t really want evidence: they want erudite technicalities. And the average policeman’s brain is too forthright to cope with the pedantic demands of jurisprudence.”

“It’s not as bad as that,” Markham retorted, with an attempt at good nature, although the strain of the past few weeks had tended to upset his habitual equanimity. “If there weren’t rules of evidence, grave injustice would too often be done innocent persons. And even a criminal is entitled to protection in our courts.”

Vance yawned mildly.

“Markham, you should have been a pedagogue. It’s positively amazin’ how you’ve mastered all the standard oratorical replies to criticism. And yet, I’m unconvinced. You remember the Wisconsin case of the kidnapped man whom the courts declared presumably dead. Even when he reappeared, hale and hearty, among his former neighbors, his status of being presumably dead was not legally altered. The visible and demonstrable fact that he was actually alive was regarded by the court as an immaterial and impertinent side-issue.[7] . . . Then there’s the touchin’ situation—so prevalent in this fair country—of a man being insane in one State and sane in another. . . . Really, y’ know, you can’t expect a mere lay intelligence, unskilled in the benign processes of legal logic, to perceive such subtle nuances. Your layman, swaddled in the darkness of ordin’ry common sense, would say that a person who is a lunatic on one bank of a river would still be a lunatic if he was on the opposite bank. And he’d also hold—erroneously, no doubt—that if a man was living, he would presumably be alive.”

“Why this academic dissertation?” asked Markham, this time a bit irritably.

“It seems to touch rather vitally on the source of your present predicament,” Vance explained equably. “The police, not being lawyers, have apparently got you into hot water, what? . . . Why not start an agitation to send all detectives to law school?”

“You’re a great help,” retorted Markham.

Vance raised his eyebrows slightly.

“Why disparage my suggestion? Surely you must perceive that it has merit. A man without legal training, when he knows a thing to be true, ignores all incompetent testimony to the contr’ry, and clings to the facts. A court of law listens solemnly to a mass of worthless testimony, and renders a decision not on the facts but according to a complicated set of rules. The result, d’ ye see, is that a court often acquits a prisoner, realizing full well that he is guilty. Many a judge has said, in effect, to a culprit: ‘I know, and the jury knows, that you committed the crime, but in view of the legally admissible evidence, I declare you innocent. Go and sin again.’ ”

Markham grunted. “I’d hardly endear myself to the people of this county if I answered the current strictures against me by recommending law courses for the Police Department.”

“Permit me, then, to suggest the alternative of Shakespeare’s butcher: ‘Let’s kill all the lawyers.’ ”

“Unfortunately, it’s a situation, not a utopian theory, that has to be met.”

“And just how,” asked Vance lazily, “do you propose to reconcile the sensible conclusions of the police with what you touchingly call correctness of legal procedure?”

“To begin with,” Markham informed him, “I’ve decided henceforth to do my own investigating of all important night-club criminal cases. I called a conference of the heads of my departments yesterday, and from now on there’s going to be some real activity radiating direct from my office. I intend to produce the kind of evidence I need for convictions.”

Vance slowly took a cigarette from his case and tapped it on the arm of his chair.

“Ah! So you are going to substitute the conviction of the innocent for the acquittal of the guilty?”

Markham was nettled; turning in his chair he frowned at Vance.

“I won’t pretend not to understand your remark,” he said acidulously. “You’re back again on your favorite theme of the inadequacy of circumstantial evidence as compared with your psychological theories and æsthetic hypotheses.”

“Quite so,” agreed Vance carelessly. “Y’ know, Markham, your sweet and charmin’ faith in circumstantial evidence is positively disarming. Before it, the ordin’ry powers of ratiocination are benumbed. I tremble for the innocent victims you are about to gather into your legal net. You’ll eventually make the mere attendance at any cabaret a frightful hazard.”

Markham smoked a while in silence. Despite the seeming bitterness at times in the discussions of these two men, there was at bottom no animosity in their attitude toward each other. Their friendship was of long standing, and, despite the dissimilarity of their temperaments and the marked difference in their points of view, a profound mutual respect formed the basis of their intimate relationship.

At length Markham spoke.

“Why this sweeping deprecation of circumstantial evidence? I admit that at times it may be misleading; but it often forms powerful presumptive proof of guilt. Indeed, Vance, one of our greatest legal authorities has demonstrated that it is the most powerful actual evidence in existence. Direct evidence, in the very nature of crime, is almost always unavailable. If the courts had to depend on it, the great majority of criminals would still be at large.”

“I was under the impression that this precious majority had always enjoyed its untrammelled freedom.”

Markham ignored the interruption.

“Take this example: A dozen adults see an animal running across the snow, and testify that it was a chicken; whereas a child sees the same animal, and declares it was a duck. They thereupon examine the animal’s footprints and find them to be the web-footed tracks made by a duck. Is it not conclusive, then, that the animal was a duck and not a chicken, despite the preponderance of direct evidence?”

“I’ll grant you your duck,” acceded Vance indifferently.

“And having gratefully accepted the gift,” pursued Markham, “I propound a corollary: A dozen adults see a human figure crossing the snow, and take oath it was a woman; whereas a child asserts that the figure was a man. Now, will you not also grant that the circumstantial evidence of a man’s footprints in the snow would supply incontrovertible proof that it was, in fact, a man, and not a woman?”

“Not at all, my dear Justinian,” replied Vance, stretching his legs languidly in front of him; “unless, of course, you could show that a human being possesses no higher order of brains than a duck.”

“What have brains to do with it?” Markham asked impatiently. “Brains don’t affect one’s footprints.”

“Not those of a duck, certainly. But brains might very well—and, no doubt, often do—affect the footprints of a human being.”

“Am I having a lesson in anthropology, Darwinian adaptability, or merely metaphysical speculation?”

“In none of those abstruse subjects,” Vance assured him. “I’m merely stating a simple fact culled from observation.”

“Well, according to your highly and peculiarly developed processes of reasoning, would the circumstantial evidence of those masculine footprints indicate a man or a woman?”

“Not necessarily either,” Vance answered; “or, rather, a possibility of each. Such evidence, when applied to a human being—to a creature, that is, with a reasoning mind—would merely mean to me that the figure crossing the snow was either a man in his own shoes, or a woman in man’s shoes; or perhaps, even, a long-legged child. In short, it would convey to my purely unlegal intelligence only that the tracks were made by some descendant of the Pithecanthropus erectus wearing men’s shoes on his nether limbs—sex and age unknown. A duck’s spoors, on the other hand, I might be tempted to take at their face value.”

“I’m delighted to observe,” said Markham, “that, at least, you repudiate the possibility of a duck dressing itself up in the gardener’s boots.”

Vance was silent for a moment; then he said:

“The trouble with you modern Solons, d’ ye see, is that you attempt to reduce human nature to a formula; whereas the truth is that man, like life, is infinitely complex. He’s shrewd and tricky—skilled for centuries in all the most diabolical chicaneries. He is a creature of low cunning, who, even in the normal course of his vain and idiotic struggle for existence, instinctively and deliberately tells ninety-nine lies to one truth. A duck, not having had the heaven-kissing advantages of human civilization, is a straightforward and eminently honest bird.”

“How,” asked Markham, “since you jettison all the ordinary means of arriving at a conclusion, would you decide the sex or species of this person who left the masculine footprints in the snow?”

Vance blew a spiral of smoke toward the ceiling.

“First, I’d repudiate all the evidence of the twelve astigmatic adults and the one bright-eyed child. Next, I’d ignore the footprints in the snow. Then, with a mind unprejudiced by dubious testimony and uncluttered with material clues, I’d determine the exact nature of the crime which this fleeing person had committed. After having analyzed its various factors, I could infallibly tell you not only whether the culprit was a man or a woman, but I could describe his habits, character, and personality. And I could do all this whether the fleeing figure left male or female or kangaroo tracks, or used stilts, or rode off on a velocipede, or levitated without leaving tracks at all.”

Markham smiled broadly. “You’d be worse than the police in the matter of supplying me legal evidence, I fear.”

“I, at least, wouldn’t procure evidence against some unsuspecting person whose boots had been appropriated by the real culprit,” retorted Vance. “And, y’ know, Markham, as long as you pin your faith to footprints you’ll inevitably arrest just those persons whom the actual criminals want you to—namely, persons who have had nothing to do with the criminal conditions you’re about to investigate.”

He became suddenly serious.

“See here, old man; there are some shrewd intelligences at present allied with what the theologians call the powers of darkness. The surface appearances of many of these crimes that are worrying you are palpably deceptive. Personally, I don’t put much stock in the theory that a malevolent gang of cut-throats have organized an American camorra, and made the silly night clubs their headquarters. The idea is too melodramatic. It smacks too much of the gaudy journalistic imagination: it’s too Eugène Sue-ish. Crime isn’t a mass instinct except during war-time, and then it’s merely an obscene sport. Crime, d’ ye see, is a personal and individual business. One doesn’t make up a partie carrée for a murder as one does for a bridge game. . . . Markham, old dear, don’t let this romantic criminological idea lead you astray. And don’t scrutinize the figurative footprints in the snow too closely. They’ll confuse you most horribly—you’re far too trustin’ and literal for this wicked world. I warn you that no clever criminal is going to leave his own footprints for your tape-measure and calipers.”

He sighed deeply, and gave Markham a look of bantering commiseration.

“And have you paused to consider that your first case may even be devoid of footprints? . . . Alas! What, then, will you do?”

“I could overcome that difficulty by taking you along with me,” suggested Markham, with a touch of irony. “How would you like to accompany me on the next important case that breaks?”

“I am ravished by the idea,” said Vance.

Two days later the front pages of our metropolitan press carried glaring headlines telling of the murder of Margaret Odell.


The Stuyvesant was a large club, somewhat in the nature of a glorified hotel; and its extensive membership was drawn largely from the political, legal, and financial ranks.


The case to which Vance referred, I ascertained later, was Shatterham v. Shatterham, 417 Mich., 79—a testamentary case.



(Tuesday, September 11; 8.30 a. m.)

It was barely half past eight on that momentous morning of September the 11th when Markham brought word to us of the event.

I was living temporarily with Vance at his home in East 38th Street—a large remodelled apartment occupying the two top floors of a beautiful mansion. For several years I had been Vance’s personal legal representative and adviser, having resigned from my father’s law firm of Van Dine, Davis and Van Dine to devote myself to his needs and interests. His affairs were by no means voluminous, but his personal finances, together with his numerous purchases of paintings and objets d’art, occupied my full time without burdening me. This monetary and legal stewardship was eminently congenial to my tastes; and my friendship with Vance, which had dated from our undergraduate days at Harvard, supplied the social and human element in an arrangement which otherwise might easily have degenerated into one of mere drab routine.

On this particular morning I had risen early and was working in the library when Currie, Vance’s valet and majordomo, announced Markham’s presence in the living-room. I was considerably astonished at this early-morning visit, for Markham well knew that Vance, who rarely rose before noon, resented any intrusion upon his matutinal slumbers. And in that moment I received the curious impression that something unusual and portentous was toward.

I found Markham pacing restlessly up and down, his hat and gloves thrown carelessly on the centre-table. As I entered he halted and looked at me with harassed eyes. He was a moderately tall man, clean-shaven, gray-haired, and firmly set up. His appearance was distinguished, and his manner courteous and kindly. But beneath his gracious exterior there was an aggressive sternness, an indomitable, grim strength, that gave one the sense of dogged efficiency and untiring capability.

“Good morning, Van,” he greeted me, with impatient perfunctoriness. “There’s been another half-world murder—the worst and ugliest thus far. . . .” He hesitated, and regarded me searchingly. “You recall my chat with Vance at the club the other night? There was something damned prophetic in his remarks. And you remember I half promised to take him along on the next important case. Well, the case has broken—with a vengeance. Margaret Odell, whom they called the Canary, has been strangled in her apartment; and from what I just got over the phone, it looks like another night-club affair. I’m headed for the Odell apartment now. . . . What about rousing out the sybarite?”

“By all means,” I agreed, with an alacrity which, I fear, was in large measure prompted by purely selfish motives. The Canary! If one had sought the city over for a victim whose murder would stir up excitement, there could have been but few selections better calculated to produce this result.

Hastening to the door, I summoned Currie, and told him to call Vance at once.

“I’m afraid, sir——” began Currie, politely hesitant.

“Calm your fears,” cut in Markham. “I’ll take all responsibility for waking him at this indecent hour.”

Currie sensed an emergency and departed.

A minute or two later Vance, in an elaborately embroidered silk kimono and sandals, appeared at the living-room door.

“My word!” he greeted us, in mild astonishment, glancing at the clock. “Haven’t you chaps gone to bed yet?”

He strolled to the mantel, and selected a gold-tipped Régie cigarette from a small Florentine humidor.

Markham’s eyes narrowed: he was in no mood for levity.

“The Canary has been murdered,” I blurted out.

Vance held his wax vesta poised, and gave me a look of indolent inquisitiveness. “Whose canary?”

“Margaret Odell was found strangled this morning,” amended Markham brusquely. “Even you, wrapped in your scented cotton-wool, have heard of her. And you can realize the significance of the crime. I’m personally going to look for those footprints in the snow; and if you want to come along, as you intimated the other night, you’ll have to get a move on.”

Vance crushed out his cigarette.

“Margaret Odell, eh?—Broadway’s blonde Aspasia—or was it Phryne who had the coiffure d’or . . . Most distressin’!” Despite his offhand manner, I could see he was deeply interested. “The base enemies of law and order are determined to chivvy you most horribly, aren’t they, old dear? Deuced inconsiderate of ’em! . . . Excuse me while I seek habiliments suitable to the occasion.”

He disappeared into his bedroom, while Markham took out a large cigar and resolutely prepared it for smoking, and I returned to the library to put away the papers on which I had been working.

In less than ten minutes Vance reappeared, dressed for the street.

“Bien, mon vieux,” he announced gaily, as Currie handed him his hat and gloves and a malacca cane. “Allons-y!”

We rode up-town along Madison Avenue, turned into Central Park, and came out by the West 72d Street entrance. Margaret Odell’s apartment was at 184 West 71st Street, near Broadway; and as we drew up to the curb, it was necessary for the patrolman on duty to make a passage for us through the crowd that had already gathered as a result of the arrival of the police.

Feathergill, an assistant District Attorney, was waiting in the main hall for his Chief’s arrival.

“It’s too bad, sir,” he lamented. “A rotten show all round. And just at this time! . . .” He shrugged his shoulders discouragingly.

“It may collapse quickly,” said Markham, shaking the other’s hand. “How are things going? Sergeant Heath phoned me right after you called, and said that, at first glance, the case looked a bit stubborn.”

“Stubborn?” repeated Feathergill lugubriously. “It’s downright impervious. Heath is spinning round like a turbine. He was called off the Boyle case, by the way, to devote his talents to this new shocker. Inspector Moran arrived ten minutes ago, and gave him the official imprimatur.”

“Well, Heath’s a good man,” declared Markham. “We’ll work it out. . . . Which is the apartment?”

Feathergill led the way to a door at the rear of the main hall.

“Here you are, sir,” he announced. “I’ll be running along now. I need sleep. Good luck!” And he was gone.

It will be necessary to give a brief description of the house and its interior arrangement, for the somewhat peculiar structure of the building played a vital part in the seemingly insoluble problem posed by the murder.

The house, which was a four-story stone structure originally built as a residence, had been remodelled, both inside and outside, to meet the requirements of an exclusive individual apartment dwelling. There were, I believe, three or four separate suites on each floor; but the quarters up-stairs need not concern us. The main floor was the scene of the crime, and here there were three apartments and a dentist’s office.

The main entrance to the building was directly on the street, and extending straight back from the front door was a wide hallway. Directly at the rear of this hallway, and facing the entrance, was the door to the Odell apartment, which bore the numeral “3.” About half-way down the front hall, on the right-hand side, was the stairway leading to the floors above; and directly beyond the stairway, also on the right, was a small reception-room with a wide archway instead of a door. Directly opposite to the stairway, in a small recess, stood the telephone switchboard. There was no elevator in the house.

Another important feature of this ground-floor plan was a small passageway at the rear of the main hall and at right angles to it, which led past the front walls of the Odell apartment to a door opening on a court at the west side of the building. This court was connected with the street by an alley four feet wide.

In the accompanying diagram this arrangement of the ground floor can be easily visualized, and I suggest that the reader fix it in his mind; for I doubt if ever before so simple and obvious an architectural design played such an important part in a criminal mystery. By its very simplicity and almost conventional familiarity—indeed, by its total lack of any puzzling complications—it proved so baffling to the investigators that the case threatened, for many days, to remain forever insoluble.

As Markham entered the Odell apartment that morning Sergeant Ernest Heath came forward at once and extended his hand. A look of relief passed over his broad, pugnacious features; and it was obvious that the animosity and rivalry which always exist between the Detective Division and the District Attorney’s office during the investigation of any criminal case had no place in his attitude on this occasion.

“I’m glad you’ve come, sir,” he said; and meant it.

He then turned to Vance with a cordial smile, and held out his hand.[8]

“So the amachoor sleuth is with us again!” His tone held a friendly banter.

“Oh, quite,” murmured Vance. “How’s your induction coil working this beautiful September morning, Sergeant?”

“I’d hate to tell you!” Then Heath’s face grew suddenly grave, and he turned to Markham. “It’s a raw deal, sir. Why in hell couldn’t they have picked some one besides the Canary for their dirty work? There’s plenty of Janes on Broadway who coulda faded from the picture without causing a second alarm; but they gotta go and bump off the Queen of Sheba!”

As he spoke, William M. Moran, the commanding officer of the Detective Bureau, came into the little foyer and performed the usual hand-shaking ceremony. Though he had met Vance and me but once before, and then casually, he remembered us both and addressed us courteously by name.

“Your arrival,” he said to Markham, in a well-bred, modulated voice, “is very welcome. Sergeant Heath will give you what preliminary information you want. I’m still pretty much in the dark myself—only just arrived.”

“A lot of information I’ve got to give,” grumbled Heath, as he led the way into the living-room.

Margaret Odell’s apartment was a suite of two fairly large rooms connected by a wide archway draped with heavy damask portières. The entrance door from the main hall of the building led into a small rectangular foyer about eight feet long and four feet deep, with double Venetian-glass doors opening into the main room beyond. There was no other entrance to the apartment, and the bedroom could be reached only through the archway from the living-room.

There was a large davenport, covered with brocaded silk, in front of the fireplace in the left-hand wall of the living-room, with a long narrow library-table of inlaid rosewood extending along its back. On the opposite wall, between the foyer and the archway into the bedroom, hung a triplicate Marie Antoinette mirror, beneath which stood a mahogany gate-legged table. On the far side of the archway, near the large oriel window, was a baby grand Steinway piano with a beautifully designed and decorated case of Louis-Seize ornamentation. In the corner to the right of the fireplace was a spindle-legged escritoire and a square hand-painted waste-paper basket of vellum. To the left of the fireplace stood one of the loveliest Boule cabinets I have ever seen. Several excellent reproductions of Boucher, Fragonard, and Watteau hung about the walls. The bedroom contained a chest of drawers, a dressing-table, and several gold-leaf chairs. The whole apartment seemed eminently in keeping with the Canary’s fragile and evanescent personality.

As we stepped from the little foyer into the living-room and stood for a moment looking about, a scene bordering on wreckage met our eyes. The rooms had apparently been ransacked by some one in a frenzy of haste, and the disorder of the place was appalling.

“They didn’t exactly do the job in dainty fashion,” remarked Inspector Moran.

“I suppose we oughta be grateful they didn’t blow the joint up with dynamite,” returned Heath acridly.

But it was not the general disorder that most attracted us. Our gaze was almost immediately drawn and held by the body of the dead girl, which rested in an unnatural, semi-recumbent attitude in the corner of the davenport nearest to where we stood. Her head was turned backward, as if by force, over the silken tufted upholstery; and her hair had come unfastened and lay beneath her head and over her bare shoulder like a frozen cataract of liquid gold. Her face, in violent death, was distorted and unlovely. Her skin was discolored; her eyes were staring; her mouth was open, and her lips were drawn back. Her neck, on either side of the thyroid cartilage, showed ugly dark bruises. She was dressed in a flimsy evening gown of black Chantilly lace over cream-colored chiffon, and across the arm of the davenport had been thrown an evening cape of cloth-of-gold trimmed with ermine.

There were evidences of her ineffectual struggle with the person who had strangled her. Besides the dishevelled condition of her hair, one of the shoulder-straps of her gown had been severed, and there was a long rent in the fine lace across her breast. A small corsage of artificial orchids had been torn from her bodice, and lay crumpled in her lap. One satin slipper had fallen off, and her right knee was twisted inward on the seat of the davenport, as if she had sought to lift herself out of the suffocating clutches of her antagonist. Her fingers were still flexed, no doubt as they had been at the moment of her capitulation to death, when she had relinquished her grip upon the murderer’s wrists.

The spell of horror cast over us by the sight of the tortured body was broken by the matter-of-fact tones of Heath.

“You see, Mr. Markham, she was evidently sitting in the corner of this settee when she was grabbed suddenly from behind.”

Markham nodded. “It must have taken a pretty strong man to strangle her so easily.”

“I’ll say!” agreed Heath. He bent over and pointed to the girl’s fingers, on which showed several abrasions. “They stripped her rings off, too; and they didn’t go about it gentle, either.” Then he indicated a segment of fine platinum chain, set with tiny pearls, which hung over one of her shoulders. “And they grabbed whatever it was hanging round her neck, and broke the chain doing it. They weren’t overlooking anything, or losing any time. . . . A swell, gentlemanly job. Nice and refined.”

“Where’s the Medical Examiner?” asked Markham.

“He’s coming,” Heath told him. “You can’t get Doc Doremus to go anywheres without his breakfast.”

“He may find something else—something that doesn’t show.”

“There’s plenty showing for me,” declared Heath. “Look at this apartment. It wouldn’t be much worse if a Kansas cyclone had struck it.”

We turned from the depressing spectacle of the dead girl and moved toward the centre of the room.

“Be careful not to touch anything, Mr. Markham,” warned Heath. “I’ve sent for the finger-print experts—they’ll be here any minute now.”

Vance looked up in mock astonishment.

“Finger-prints? You don’t say—really! How delightful!—Imagine a johnnie in this enlightened day leaving his finger-prints for you to find.”

“All crooks aren’t clever, Mr. Vance,” declared Heath combatively.

“Oh, dear, no! They’d never be apprehended if they were. But, after all, Sergeant, even an authentic finger-print merely means that the person who made it was dallying around at some time or other. It doesn’t indicate guilt.”

“Maybe so,” conceded Heath doggedly. “But I’m here to tell you that if I get any good honest-to-God finger-prints outa this devastated area, it’s not going so easy with the bird that made ’em.”

Vance appeared to be shocked. “You positively terrify me, Sergeant. Henceforth I shall adopt mittens as a permanent addition to my attire. I’m always handling the furniture and the teacups and the various knickknacks in the houses where I call, don’t y’ know.”

Markham interposed himself at this point, and suggested they make a tour of inspection while waiting for the Medical Examiner.

“They didn’t add anything much to the usual methods,” Heath pointed out. “Killed the girl, and then ripped things wide open.”

The two rooms had apparently been thoroughly ransacked. Clothes and various articles were strewn about the floor. The doors of both clothes-closets (there was one in each room) were open, and to judge from the chaos in the bedroom closet, it had been hurriedly searched; although the closet off of the living-room, which was given over to the storage of infrequently used items, appeared to have been ignored. The drawers of the dressing-table and chest had been partly emptied on to the floor, and the bedclothes had been snatched away and the mattress turned back. Two chairs and a small occasional table were upset; several vases were broken, as if they had been searched and then thrown down in the wrath of disappointment; and the Marie Antoinette mirror had been broken. The escritoire was open, and its pigeonholes had been emptied in a jumbled pile upon the blotter. The doors of the Boule cabinet swung wide, and inside there was the same confusion of contents that marked the interior of the escritoire. The bronze-and-porcelain lamp on the end of the library-table was lying on its side, its satin shade torn where it had struck the sharp corner of a silver bonbonnière.

Two objects in the general disarray particularly attracted my attention—a black metal document-box of the kind purchasable at any stationery store, and a large jewel-case of sheet steel with a circular inset lock. The latter of these objects was destined to play a curious and sinister part in the investigation to follow.

The document-box, which was now empty, had been placed on the library-table, next to the overturned lamp. Its lid was thrown back, and the key was still in the lock. In all the litter and disorganization of the room, this box seemed to be the one outstanding indication of calm and orderly activity on the part of the wrecker.

The jewel-case, on the other hand, had been violently wrenched open. It sat on the dressing-table in the bedroom, dinted and twisted out of shape by the terrific leverage that had been necessary to force it, and beside it lay a brass-handled, cast-iron poker which had evidently been brought from the living-room and used as a makeshift chisel with which to prize open the lock.

Vance had glanced but casually at the different objects in the rooms as we made our rounds, but when he came to the dressing-table, he paused abruptly. Taking out his monocle, he adjusted it carefully, and leaned over the broken jewel-case.

“Most extr’ordin’ry!” he murmured, tapping the edge of the lid with his gold pencil. “What do you make of that, Sergeant?”

Heath had been eyeing Vance with narrowed lids as the latter bent over the dressing-table.

“What’s in your mind, Mr. Vance?” he, in turn, asked.

“Oh, more than you could ever guess,” Vance answered lightly. “But just at the moment I was toying with the idea that this steel case was never torn open by that wholly inadequate iron poker, what?”

Heath nodded his head approvingly. “So you, too, noticed that, did you? . . . And you’re dead right. That poker might’ve twisted the box a little, but it never snapped that lock.”

He turned to Inspector Moran.

“That’s the puzzler I’ve sent for ‘Prof’ Brenner to clean up—if he can. The jimmying of that jewel-case looks to me like a high-class professional job. No Sunday-school superintendent did it.”

Vance continued for a while to study the box, but at length he turned away with a perplexed frown.

“I say!” he commented. “Something devilish queer took place here last night.”

“Oh, not so queer,” Heath amended. “It was a thorough job, all right, but there’s nothing mysterious about it.”

Vance polished his monocle and put it away.

“If you go to work on that basis, Sergeant,” he returned carelessly, “I greatly fear you’ll run aground on a reef. And may kind Heaven bring you safe to shore!”


Heath had become acquainted with Vance during the investigation of the Benson murder case two months previously.



(Tuesday, September 11; 9.30 a. m.)

A few minutes after we had returned to the living-room Doctor Doremus, the Chief Medical Examiner, arrived, jaunty and energetic. Immediately in his train came three other men, one of whom carried a bulky camera and a folded tripod. These were Captain Dubois and Detective Bellamy, finger-print experts, and Peter Quackenbush, the official photographer.