The Scarab Murder Case - S.S. Van Dine - ebook

The Scarab Murder Case ebook

S. S. Van Dine



All the action takes place within 36 hours, and during this time, Van Dyne collected many action games, red herring, suspects, humor and lessons from Egyptian history. He is joined by his friend John F. Markham, the New York County District Attorney, and his able assistant Sergeant Ernest Heath. Kyle was found dead in the private museum of the Egyptologist Dr. Mindrum V.K. Bliss at the foot of a large statue of Anubis with a smaller statue of Sakhmet, which seemed to have fallen on his skull from the top of a neighboring shelf.

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Philo Vance

John F.-X. Markham

District Attorney of New York County.

Ernest Heath

Sergeant of the Homicide Bureau.

Dr. Mindrum W. C. Bliss

Egyptologist; head of the Bliss Museum of Egyptian Antiquities.

Benjamin H. Kyle

Philanthropist and art patron.


Wife of Dr. Bliss.

Robert Salveter

Assistant Curator of the Bliss Museum; nephew of Benjamin H. Kyle.

Donald Scarlett

Technical Expert of the Bliss Expeditions in Egypt.

Anûpu Hani

Family retainer of the Blisses.


The Bliss butler.


The Bliss cook.


Detective of the Homicide Bureau.


Detective of the Homicide Bureau.


Detective of the Homicide Bureau.


Detective of the Homicide Bureau.

Captain Dubois

Finger-print expert.

Detective Bellamy

Finger-print expert.

Dr. Emanuel Doremus

Medical Examiner


Vance’s valet.



(Friday, July 13; 11 a. m.)

Philo Vance was drawn into the Scarab murder case by sheer coincidence, although there is little doubt that John F.-X. Markham–New York’s District Attorney–would sooner or later have enlisted his services. But it is problematic if even Vance, with his fine analytic mind and his remarkable flair for the subtleties of human psychology, could have solved that bizarre and astounding murder if he had not been the first observer on the scene; for, in the end, he was able to put his finger on the guilty person only because of the topsy-turvy clews that had met his eye during his initial inspection.

Those clews–highly misleading from the materialistic point of view–eventually gave him the key to the murderer’s mentality and thus enabled him to elucidate one of the most complicated and incredible criminal problems in modern police history.

The brutal and fantastic murder of that old philanthropist and art patron, Benjamin H. Kyle, became known as the Scarab murder case almost immediately, as a result of the fact that it had taken place in a famous Egyptologist’s private museum and had centred about a rare blue scarabæus that had been found beside the mutilated body of the victim.

This ancient and valuable seal, inscribed with the names of one of the early Pharaohs (whose mummy had, by the way, not been found at the time), constituted the basis on which Vance reared his astonishing structure of evidence. The scarab, from the police point of view, was merely an incidental piece of evidence that pointed somewhat obviously toward its owner; but this easy and specious explanation did not appeal to Vance.

“Murderers,” he remarked to Sergeant Ernest Heath, “do not ordinarily insert their visitin’ cards in the shirt bosoms of their victims. And while the discovery of the lapis-lazuli beetle is most interestin’ from both the psychological and evidential stand-points, we must not be too optimistic and jump to conclusions. The most important question in this pseudo-mystical murder is why–and how–the murderer left that archæological specimen beside the defunct body. Once we find the reason for that amazin’ action, we’ll hit upon the secret of the crime itself.”

The doughty Sergeant had sniffed at Vance’s suggestion and had ridiculed his scepticism; but before another day had passed he generously admitted that Vance had been right, and that the murder had not been so simple as it had appeared at first view.

As I have said, a coincidence brought Vance into the case before the police were notified. An acquaintance of his had discovered the slain body of old Mr. Kyle, and had immediately come to him with the gruesome news.

It happened on the morning of Friday, July 13th. Vance had just finished a late breakfast in the roof-garden of his apartment in East Thirty-eighth Street, and had returned to the library to continue his translation of the Menander fragments found in the Egyptian papyri during the early years of the present century, when Currie–his valet and major-domo–shuffled into the room and announced with an air of discreet apology:

“Mr. Donald Scarlett has just arrived, sir, in a state of distressing excitement, and asks that you hasten to receive him.”

Vance looked up from his work with an expression of boredom.

“Scarlett, eh? Very annoyin’.... And why should he call on me when excited? I infinitely prefer calm people.... Did you offer him a brandy-and-soda–or some triple bromides?”

“I took the liberty of placing a service of Courvoisier brandy before him,” explained Currie. “I recall that Mr. Scarlett has a weakness for Napoleon’s cognac.”

“Ah, yes–so he has.... Quite right, Currie.” Vance leisurely lit one of his Régie cigarettes and puffed a moment in silence. “Suppose you show him in when you deem his nerves sufficiently calm.”

Currie bowed and departed.

“Interestin’ johnny, Scarlett,” Vance commented to me. (I had been with Vance all morning arranging and filing his notes.) “You remember him, Van–eh, what?”

I had met Scarlett twice, but I must admit I had not thought of him for a month or more. The impression of him, however, came back to me now with considerable vividness. He had been, I knew, a college mate of Vance’s at Oxford, and Vance had run across him during his sojourn in Egypt two years before.

Scarlett was a student of Egyptology and archæology, having specialized in these subjects at Oxford under Professor F. Ll. Griffith. Later he had taken up chemistry and photography in order that he might join some Egyptological expedition in a technical capacity. He was a well-to-do Englishman, an amateur and dilettante, and had made of Egyptology a sort of fad.

When Vance had gone to Alexandria Scarlett had been working in the Museum laboratory at Cairo. The two had met again and renewed their old acquaintance. Recently Scarlett had come to America as a member of the staff of Doctor Mindrum W. C. Bliss, the famous Egyptologist, who maintained a private museum of Egyptian antiquities in an old house in East Twentieth Street, facing Gramercy Park. He had called on Vance several times since his arrival in this country, and it was at Vance’s apartment that I had met him. He had, however, never called without an invitation, and I was at a loss to understand his unexpected appearance this morning, for he possessed all of the well-bred Englishman’s punctiliousness about social matters.

Vance, too, was somewhat puzzled, despite his attitude of lackadaisical indifference.

“Scarlett’s a clever lad,” he drawled musingly. “And most proper. Why should he call on me at this indecent hour? And why should he be excited? I hope nothing untoward has befallen his erudite employer.... Bliss is an astonishin’ man, Van–one of the world’s great Egyptologists.”

I recalled that during the winter which Vance had spent in Egypt he had become greatly interested in the work of Doctor Bliss, who was then endeavoring to locate the tomb of Pharaoh Intef V who ruled over Upper Egypt at Thebes during the Hyksos domination. In fact, Vance had accompanied Bliss on an exploration in the Valley of the Tombs of the Kings. At that time he had just become attracted by the Menander fragments, and he had been in the midst of a uniform translation of them when the Bishop murder case interrupted his labors.

Vance had also been interested in the variations of chronology of the Old and the Middle Kingdoms of Egypt–not from the historical standpoint but from the standpoint of the evolution of Egyptian art. His researches led him to side with the Bliss-Weigall, or short, chronology (based on the Turin Papyrus), as opposed to the long chronology of Hall and Petrie, who set back the Twelfth Dynasty and all preceding history one full Sothic cycle, or 1,460 years. After inspecting the art works of the pre-Hyksos and the post-Hyksos eras, Vance was inclined to postulate an interval of not more than 300 years between the Twelfth and Eighteenth Dynasties, in accordance with the shorter chronology. In comparing certain statues made during the reign of Amen-em-hêt III with others made during the reign of Thut-mosè I–thus bridging the Hyksos invasion, with its barbaric Asiatic influence and its annihilation of indigenous Egyptian culture–he arrived at the conclusion that the maintenance of the principles of Twelfth-Dynasty æsthetic attainment could not have been possible with a wider lacuna than 300 years. In brief, he concluded that, had the interregnum been longer, the evidences of decadence in Eighteenth-Dynasty art would have been even more pronounced.

These researches of Vance’s ran through my head that sultry July morning as we waited for Currie to usher in the visitor. The announcement of Scarlett’s call had brought back memories of many wearying weeks of typing and tabulating Vance’s notes on the subject. Perhaps I had a feeling–what we loosely call a premonition–that Scarlett’s surprising visit was in some way connected with Vance’s æsthetico-Egyptological researches. Perhaps I was even then arranging in my mind, unconsciously, the facts of that winter two years before, so that I might cope more understandingly with the object of Scarlett’s present call.

But surely I could have had not the slightest idea or suspicion of what was actually about to befall us. It was far too appalling and too bizarre for the casual imagination. It lifted us out of the ordinary routine of daily experience and dashed us into a frowsty, miasmic atmosphere of things at once incredible and horrifying–things fraught with the seemingly supernatural black magic of a Witches’ Sabbat. Only, in this instance it was the mystic and fantastic lore of ancient Egypt–with its confused mythology and its grotesque pantheon of beast-headed gods–that furnished the background.

Scarlett almost dashed through the portières of the library when Currie had pulled back the sliding door for him to enter. Either the Courvoisier had added to his excitement or else Currie had woefully underrated the man’s nervous state.

“Kyle has been murdered!” the newcomer blurted, leaning against the library table and staring at Vance with gaping eyes.

“Really, now! That’s very distressin’.” Vance held out his cigarette-case. “Do have one of my Régies.... And you’ll find that chair beside you most comfortable. A Charles chair: I picked it up in London.... Beastly mess, people getting murdered, what? But it really can’t be helped, don’t y’ know. The human race is so deuced blood-thirsty.”

His indifference had a salutary effect on Scarlett, who sank limply into the chair and began lighting his cigarette with trembling hands.

Vance waited a moment and then asked:

“By the by, how do you know Kyle has been murdered?”

Scarlett gave a start.

“I saw him lying there–his head bashed in. A frightful sight. No doubt about it.” (I could not help feeling that the man had suddenly assumed a defensive attitude.)

Vance lay back in his chair languidly and pyramided his long tapering hands.

“Bashed in with what? And lying where? And how did you happen to discover the corpse?... Buck up, Scarlett, and make an effort at coherence.”

Scarlett frowned and took several deep inhalations on his cigarette. He was a man of about forty, tall and slender, with a head more Alpine than Nordic–a Dinaric type. His forehead bulged slightly, and his chin was round and recessive. He had the look of a scholar, though not that of a sedentary bookworm, for there was strength and ruggedness in his body; and his face was deeply tanned like that of a man who has lived for years in the sun and wind. There was a trace of fanaticism in his intense eyes–an expression that was somehow enhanced by an almost completely bald head. Yet he gave me the impression of honesty and straightforwardness–in this, at least, his British institutionalism was strongly manifest.

“Right you are, Vance,” he said after a brief pause, with a more or less successful effort at calmness. “As you know, I came to New York with Doctor Bliss in May as a member of his staff; and I’ve been doing all the technical work for him. I have my diggings round the corner from the museum, in Irving Place. This morning I had a batch of photographs to classify, and reached the museum shortly before half past ten....”

“Your usual hour?” Vance put the question negligently.

“Oh, no. I was a bit latish this morning. We’d been working last night on a financial report of the last expedition.”

“And then?”

“Funny thing,” continued Scarlett. “The front door was slightly ajar–I generally have to ring. But I saw no reason to disturb Brush–”


“The Bliss butler.... So I merely pushed the door open and entered the hallway. The steel entrance door to the museum, which is on the right of the hallway, is rarely locked, and I opened it. Just as I started to descend the stairs into the museum I saw some one lying in the opposite corner of the room. At first I thought it might be one of the mummy cases we’d unpacked yesterday–the light wasn’t very good–and then, as my eyes got adjusted, I realized it was Kyle. He was crumpled up, with his arms extended over his head.... Even then I thought he had only fallen in a faint; and I started down the steps toward him.”

He paused and passed his handkerchief–which he drew from his cuff–across his shining head.

“By Jove, Vance!–it was a hideous sight. He’d been hit over the head with one of the new statues we placed in the museum yesterday, and his skull had been crushed in like an egg-shell. The statue still lay across his head.”

“Did you touch anything?”

“Good heavens, no!” Scarlett spoke with the emphasis of horror. “I was too ill–the thing was ghastly. And it didn’t take half an eye to see that the poor beggar was dead.”

Vance studied the man closely.

“I say, what was the first thing you did?”

“I called out for Doctor Bliss–he has his study at the top of the little spiral stairs at the rear of the museum....”

“And got no answer?”

“No–no answer.... Then–I admit–I got frightened. Didn’t like the idea of being found alone with a murdered man, and toddled back toward the front door. Had a notion I’d sneak out and not say I’d been there....”

“Ah!” Vance leaned forward and carefully selected another cigarette. “And then, when you were again in the street, you fell to worryin’.”

“That’s it precisely! It didn’t seem cricket to leave the poor devil there–and still I didn’t want to become involved.... I was now walking up Fourth Avenue threshing the thing out with myself and bumping against people without seeing ’em. And I happened to think of you. I knew you were acquainted with Doctor Bliss and the outfit, and could give me good advice. And another thing, I felt a little strange in a new country–I wasn’t just sure how to go about reporting the matter.... So I hurried along to your flat here.” He stopped abruptly and watched Vance eagerly. “What’s the procedure?”

Vance stretched his long legs before him and lazily contemplated the end of his cigarette.

“I’ll take over the procedure,” he replied at length. “It’s not so dashed complicated, and it varies according to circumstances. One may call the police station, or stick one’s head out of the window and scream, or confide in a traffic officer, or simply ignore the corpse and wait for some one else to stumble on it. It amounts to the same thing in the end–the murderer is almost sure to get safely away.... However, in the present case I’ll vary the system a bit by telephoning to the Criminal Courts Building.”

He turned to the mother-of-pearl French telephone on the Venetian tabouret at his side, and asked for a number. A few moments later he was speaking to the District Attorney.

“Greetings, Markham old dear. Beastly weather, what?” His voice was too indolent to be entirely convincing. “By the by, Benjamin H. Kyle has passed to his Maker by foul means. He’s at present lying on the floor of the Bliss Museum with a badly fractured skull.... Oh, yes–quite dead, I understand. Are you interested, by any chance? Thought I’d be unfriendly and notify you.... Sad–sad.... I’m about to make a few observations in situ criminis.... Tut, tut! This is no time for reproaches. Don’t be so deuced serious.... Really, I think you’d better come along.... Right-o! I’ll await you here.”

He replaced the receiver on the bracket and again settled back in his chair.

“The District Attorney will be along anon,” he announced, “and we’ll probably have time for a few observations before the police arrive.”

His eyes shifted dreamily to Scarlett.

“Yes... as you say... I’m acquainted with the Bliss outfit. Fascinatin’ possibilities in the affair: it may prove most entertainin’....” (I knew by his expression that his mind was contemplating–not without a certain degree of anticipatory interest–a new criminal problem.) “So, the front door was ajar, eh? And when you called out no one answered?”

Scarlett nodded but made no audible reply. He was obviously puzzled by Vance’s casual reception of his appalling recital.

“Where were the servants? Couldn’t they have heard you call?”

“Not likely. They’re in the other side of the house–down-stairs. The only person who could have heard me was Doctor Bliss–provided he’d been in his study.”

“You could have rung the front door-bell, or summoned some one from the main hall,” Vance suggested.

Scarlett shifted in his chair uneasily.

“Quite true,” he admitted. “But–dash it all, old man!–I was in a funk....”

“Yes, yes–of course. Most natural. Prima-facie evidence and all that. Very suspicious, eh what? Still, you had no reason for wanting the old codger out of the way, had you?”

“Oh, my God, no!” Scarlett went pale. “He footed the bills. Without his support the Bliss excavations and the museum itself would go by the board.”

Vance nodded.

“Bliss told me of the situation when I was in Egypt.... Didn’t Kyle own the property in which the museum is situated?”

“Yes–both houses. You see, there are two of ’em. Bliss and his family and young Salveter–Kyle’s nephew–live in one, and the museum occupies the other. Two doors have been cut through, and the museum-house entrance has been bricked up. So it’s practically one establishment.”

“And where did Kyle live?”

“In the brownstone house next to the museum. He owned a block of six or seven adjoining houses along the street.”

Vance rose and walked meditatively to the window.

“Do you know how Kyle became interested in Egyptology? It was rather out of his line. His weakness was for hospitals and those unspeakable English portraits of the Gainsborough school. He was one of the bidders for the Blue Boy. Luckily for him, he didn’t get it.”

“It was young Salveter who wangled his uncle into financing Bliss. The lad was a pupil of Bliss’s when the latter was instructor of Egyptology at Harvard. When he was graduated he was at a loose end, and old Kyle financed the expedition to give the lad something to do. Very fond of his nephew, was old Kyle.”

“And Salveter’s been with Bliss ever since?”

“Very much so. To the extent of living in the same house with him. Hasn’t left his side since their first visit to Egypt three years ago. Bliss made him Assistant Curator of the Museum. He deserved the post, too. A bright boy–lives and eats Egyptology.”

Vance returned to the table and rang for Currie.

“The situation has possibilities,” he remarked, in his habitual drawl.... “By the by, what other members of the Bliss ménage are there?”

“There’s Mrs. Bliss–you met her in Cairo–a strange girl, half Egyptian, much younger than Bliss. And then there’s Hani, an Egyptian, whom Bliss brought back with him–or, rather, whom Mrs. Bliss brought back with her. Hani was an old dependent of Meryt’s father....”


Scarlett blinked and looked ill at ease.

“I meant Mrs. Bliss,” he explained. “Her given name is Meryt-Amen. In Egypt, you see, it’s customary to think of a lady by her native name.”

“Oh, quite.” A slight smile flickered at the corner of Vance’s mouth. “And what position does this Hani occupy in the household?”

Scarlett pursed his lips.

“A somewhat anomalous one, if you ask me. Fellahîn stock–a Coptic Christian of sorts. He accompanied old Abercrombie–Meryt’s father–on his various tours of exploration. When Abercrombie died, he acted as a kind of foster-father to Meryt. He was attached to the Bliss expedition this spring in some minor capacity as a representative of the Egyptian Government. He’s a sort of high-class handy-man about the museum. Knows a lot of Egyptology, too.”

“Does he hold any official post with the Egyptian Government now?”

“That I don’t know... though I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s doing a bit of patriotic spying. You never can tell about these chaps.”

“And do these persons complete the household?”

“There are two American servants–Brush, the butler, and Dingle, the cook.”

Currie entered the room at this moment.

“Oh, I say, Currie,” Vance addressed him; “an eminent gentleman has just been murdered in the neighborhood, and I am going to view the body. Lay out a dark gray suit and my Bangkok. A sombre tie, of course.... And, Currie–the Amontillado first.”

“Yes, sir.”

Currie received the news as if murders were everyday events in his life, and went out.

“Do you know any reason, Scarlett,” Vance asked, “why Kyle should have been put out of the way?”

The other hesitated almost imperceptibly.

“Can’t imagine,” he said, knitting his brows. “He was a kindly, generous old fellow–pompous and rather vain, but eminently likable. I’m not acquainted with his private life, though. He may have had enemies....”

“Still,” suggested Vance, “it’s not exactly likely that an enemy would have followed him to the museum and wreaked vengeance on him in a strange place, when any one might have walked in.”

Scarlett sat up abruptly.

“But you’re not implying that any one in the house–”

“My dear fellow!”

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