Plot: An eerie death unfolds when a horse jockey mutters that he has to break his neck, only to have just such an injury take place, when his horse stumbles and the man is killed in the process. At first the death is ruled an accident, but Philo Vance (Edmund Lowe) has other ideas and with a little persuasion, is allowed to look into the situation a little deeper. All of those with potential connections to the deceased are assembled at the estate of horse breeder Mr. Hammle (Gene Lockhart), but his hosting duties are cut short when he is shot and killed. Now certain his suspicion was correct, Vance begins a full investigation and this won’t be a simple case, since a lot of people disliked or outright hated Mr. Hammle. As Vance digs into the clues, more seemingly accidental deaths unfold at the mansion, forcing him to speed up his efforts if he wants to have anyone left alive to reveal the truth to.
Entertainment Value: I tend to overlook a lot if the dialogue is fun and that proves to be the case here, as this isn’t one of the best Philo Vance mysteries, but The Garden Murder Case has some snappy banter on showcase. The narrative is fun as well, as it includes the suspicion of hypnosis as a murder weapon, which I think helps the story stand out from the others in the series. The premise leads to some almost eerie moments, as our victims seem to be aware of their impending doom, which again, does a lot to break up an otherwise straight ahead murder mystery formula. The tone is similar to other Philo Vance mysteries I’ve seen, serious when it needs to be, but there’s a vein of humor that runs through the picture as well. This manifests in the dialogue here, with some fun exchanges and banter, made even better by some cast members who dial up their turns to make the most of the lines. Outside of the crisp dialogue and hypnosis elements, this is a traditional murder mystery and there’s nothing wrong with that, but it is a boon to the movie to have those qualities in place. I think there’s more than enough here to make The Garden Murder Case rise above the average mysteries out there, so this one earns a solid recommendation.
The role of master sleuth Philo Vance is taken here by Edmund Lowe, who follows a remarkable line of suave, likable performers. I don’t think he is one of the better in the Vance series, but that is not a surprise, given who came before. You can turn in some good work and still not be on par with William Powell or Warren William, so that is not a knock on Lowe whatsoever. I like that he takes a light approach to the role, focused on charm and humor in most scenes, which helps his lone Vance appearance be quite entertaining at times. Lowe also has good chemistry with his costars, which is one reason the dialogue exchanges are so slick here. So while not as refined or memorable as some of the Vance performers, Lowe is good here and brings a slightly fresh approach, so I enjoyed his work. I was also happy to see Gene Lockhart in The Garden Murder Case, as I have started to seek out his work, even if he normally has smaller roles. He is fun to watch and makes his appearances memorable. The cast also includes Virginia Bruce, Nat Pendleton, Charles Trowbridge, and Benita Hume.