by Carol Westron
S.S. Van Dine is the pseudonym used by Willard Huntington Wright when writing detective novels. For the larger proportion of his life he lived, worked and wrote as Wright. His work as a critic, editor and literary writer was not only different from his later work and life as a writer of detective stories, for the major part of his life he actively despised and disparaged detective stories and other commercial genres. For this reason, I have decided to call him by his real name, Wright, until the point in his life when he became a writer of detective stories and adopted the pseudonym Van Dine.
Willard Wright was born in Virginia, but was brought up in California, where his father owned a hotel. He was educated at St. Vincent College, Pomona University and Harvard University, but failed to graduate. In 1907, when he was just nineteen, he married Katherine Belle Boynton and they had a daughter, Beverley. The marriage swiftly failed and the couple divorced.
In 1909 Wright became literary editor of the Los Angeles Times. He became well-known for his scathing book reviews and was particularly critical of romance and detective novels. He was a friend and follower of H.L. Mencken, the satirist, journalist and scholar, and many of his opinions mirrored those of Mencken. He was also influenced by Oscar Wilde, Ambrose Bierce and Theodore Dreiser. Wright's first, literary novel, The Man of Promise (1916) was written is the style of Dreiser's work. Thanks to the influence of Mencken, in 1912 Wright became the editor of the New York literary magazine The Smart Set. He used his position to publish short stories, plays and poems by many controversial writers who have become literary icons, such as D.H. Lawrence, Joseph Conrad, Ezra Pound and W.B. Yeats. In 1914 he was dismissed by the magazine's conservative owner, who felt that Wright was intentionally shocking and provoking the magazine's middle-class readership by focusing on unconventional and often sexually explicit fiction.
Like his mentor, Mencken, Wright was a follower of the teachings of the German philosopher, Nietzsche and, in 1915, he published What Nietzche Taught, which described, commented on and quoted all of Nietzche's writing in an attempt to convince the American public of the value of Nietzsche's work. Also in 1915, he co-authored with his brother, Stanton Macdonald Wright, Modern Painting: Its Tendency and Meaning, a book which surveyed the important art movements of the last hundred years and predicted that, in the future, art colour abstraction would replace realism. Stanton Wright became a respected painter and one of the founders of American abstract art, and, through his teaching and influence, Willard Wright became one of the most progressive, influential and opinionated art critics of the period. At this time he helped to organise several art exhibitions, including the Forum Exhibition of Modern American Painters, which brought new artists to public attention. In 1916 he published The Creative Will, a work of aesthetic philosophy that influenced many artists and writers, including William Faulkner and Georgia O'Keefe. At this time, he was still writing short stories, and, according to recent research by American academic Brooks Hefner, these included a series of short stories about an intellectual criminal, which he wrote under a pseudonym long before he adopted the Van Dine pseudonym.
In 1917 Wright published Misinforming a Nation, in which he attacked the Encyclopedia Britannica Eleventh Edition, alleging it was filled with inaccuracies and British bias. As a supporter of Germany, Wright opposed America entering World War I in support of Britain. In 1917, rumours that he was spying for Germany caused him to be blackballed from journalism for over two years and cost him the friendship of Mencken and Dreiser. Wright had always been skilled at alienating people but now he went into a full-scale mental and physical decline and became dependant on illegal drugs. Until 1920 he attempted to scrape a living as a newspaper columnist in San Francisco.
In 1920 he returned to New York and attempted to make a living as a freelance journalist, but his erratic behaviour and bad-temper alienated many of the friends he had left. In 1923 his health broke down; he claimed this was due to over-work but, according to his biographer, John Loughery (Alias S.S. Van Dine, 1992), his collapse was due to his secret addiction to cocaine. Confined to bed, he began to read hundreds of the books he had always claimed to despise, detective stories. As a result he wrote an essay which explored his opinions of the history, traditions and conventions of detective fiction. He also prepared the outlines of the first three books in a series of detective novels. In 1927 he published the essay, The Great Detective Stories, under his own name of Wright.
This essay has been described as a 'seminal work.' It is certainly comprehensive, but it is also opinionated and didactic, with Wright as the arbiter of technique, style and characterisation. Most of the writers that we now know as the Queens of the Golden Age of Mystery had not yet started on their illustrious careers as detective writers, but the work of Agatha Christie is treated to harsh criticism. Although Christie had, at this time, published six detective novels: [The Mysterious Affair at Styles (1920); The Secret Adversary (1922); The Murder on the Links (1923); The Man in the Brown Suit (1924); The Secret of Chimneys (1925); The Murder of Roger Ackroyd (1926) and a book of short stories, Poirot Investigates (1924)] only the Poirot novels and short stories are selected for mention in Wright's essay. In it he refers to Poirot as Christie's 'pompous little Belgian sleuth' and claims that, 'Poirot is more fantastic and far less credible than his brother criminologists.... and the stories in which he figures are often so artificial, and their problems so far fetched, that all sense of reality is lost, and consequently the interest in the solution is vitiated.' Wright becomes positively outraged when referring to the solution of The Murder of Roger Ackroyd (1926), which he describes as a 'trick' and not a 'legitimate device of the detective-story writer.' Compared to the rest of the essay, the references to The Murder of Roger Ackroyd ferment with wounded vanity and it seems probable that Christie's device fooled Wright and he was not going to forgive her 'trickery'.
It is worth noting that, although Dorothy L. Sayers' first two detective books, Whose Body? (1923) and Clouds of Witness (1926) had been published, both the author and her creation, Lord Peter Wimsey, are skimmed over in one sentence, 'Lord Peter Wimsey, the debonair and deceptive amateur of Dorothy L. Sayers's Whose Body?' In this way Wimsey is concealed amongst references to many other fictional detectives. This is especially interesting when one considers the superficial but numerous points of resemblance between Lord Peter Wimsey and Wright's (Van Dine's) later creation, Philo Vance. Both Wimsey and Vance are wealthy and cultured, 'aristocrats' within the terms of their own social spheres, prone to quotation, both educated at Oxford University and liable to use affected mannerisms in their speech, both wear monocles, both are bachelors living in comfort and affluence, waited upon by a devoted English servant, and they are connoisseurs of good food and drink. Also, of course, both are fond of interesting themselves in police investigations, where they are allowed an extraordinary amount of access and influence by the official investigators. Van Dine describes Vance as a decorated World War I veteran, but, unlike Lord Peter Wimsey, who was a serving officer throughout the War, Vance shows no sign of suffering and damage. Of course, the differences between Wimsey and Vance are immense, especially as Wimsey's character and relationships develop. Compared to Wimsey, with his tortured memories of war and his agonised indecision when faced with unmasking a murderer and taking responsibility for his/her death, Vance is a superficial and egocentric character. It is impossible to prove how greatly Van Dine (Wright) was influenced by the early Wimsey books while he was in the process of creating Philo Vance, but it is interesting to speculate.
The Benson Murder Case, the first Philo Vance detective story, under the pseudonym S.S. Van Dine. When questioned about the origin of this pseudonym he claimed that the S.S. came from the abbreviation of sailing ship, while Van Dine was an old family name. However, his biographer, John Loughery (Alias S.S. Van Dine, 1992) reported that he could find no trace of the name Van Dine in Wright family records.
There are many interesting and innovative features in the Philo Vance books. The narrator is called Van Dine, the same name as the pseudonym adopted by the author. He is a lawyer who devotes his whole practice to managing the business of the wealthy Philo Vance, whom he has followed ever since they were both at school. 'For years I had been Vance's friend and legal adviser – a kind of monetary steward and agent-companion. I had quitted my father's law firm of Van Dine, Davies & Van Dine to devote myself wholly to his interests – a post I found far more congenial than that of a general attorney in a stuffy office – and though my own bachelor quarters were in a hotel on the West Side, I spent most of my time at Vance's apartment.' (The Bishop Murder Case, 1928.) The Van Dine narrator is far removed from Dr Watson or Captain Hastings; he never expresses an opinion, much less advances a theory, nor does he do anything other than follow Philo Vance, document his words and deeds, all in a spirit of uncritical devotion. Although other characters occasionally speak to him, he never adds anything to the story. The device, however, was a clever one, and was effectively copied by later detective story authors, most notably Ellery Queen.
The Gracie Alleyn Murder Case (1938), which he had intended to call The Gracie Murder Case. This was an experimental and unpopular novel featuring a real actress, Gracie Alleyn, who was a radio comedy star.
As the narrating character explains in the first books, Philo Vance is the pseudonym of a wealthy, young, intellectual, art collector, at that time living in New York, but who has now gone to live in Italy and has given permission for his triumphs in detection to be related as long as his anonymity is maintained. This is an interesting, rather naïve conceit, as it seems impossible that such an outstanding figure in society would not be immediately identified both by journalists and his social peers. In later books, the claim that Philo Vance is a pseudonym disappears.
At the start of his detective adventures Vance is described as 'unusually good-looking, although his mouth was ascetic and cruel...there was a slightly derisive hauteur in the lift of his eyebrows...His forehead was full and sloping--it was the artist's, rather than the scholar's, brow. His cold grey eyes were widely spaced. His nose was straight and slender, and his chin narrow but prominent, with an unusually deep cleft...Vance was slightly under six feet, graceful, and giving the impression of sinewy strength and nervous endurance.' (The Benson Murder Case, 1926.) In The Canary Murder Case (1927) it is revealed that Vance is not yet thirty-five.
As well as being handsome and immensely rich with inherited wealth (the impression is given that Vance would never do anything as vulgar as work for his living) Vance is a master of just about everything: fencing, polo, archery, marksmanship, golf, chess, poker, classical music, psychology, phrenology, ancient Egypt, Chinese ceramics, a breeder and shower of thoroughbred dogs, and a winning handicapper of race horses. He is also fluent in several foreign languages and uses numerous quotes in these languages, which, as a reader, one can only hope are not crucial to the basic detective story. Vance's chief passion is art, and, like his creator, he has very strong opinions about it.
In every way Vance regards himself as superior to other people, a view in which he was supported by his faithful biographer, the narrator Van Dine. 'An aristocrat by birth and instinct, he held himself severely aloof from the common world of men. In his manner there was an indefinable contempt for inferiority of all kinds. The great majority of those with whom he came in contact regarded him as a snob. Yet there was in his condescension and disdain no trace of spuriousness. His snobbishness was intellectual as well as social. He detested stupidity even more, I believe, than he did vulgarity or bad taste.'
Vance dismissed detection based on fingerprints and any form of physical clues, and based his whole theory of detection on psychology. 'Vance’s knowledge of psychology was indeed uncanny. He was gifted with an instinctively accurate judgement of people, and his study and reading had coordinated and rationalized this gift to an amazing extent. He was well grounded in the academic principles of psychology, and all his courses at college had either centered about this subject or been subordinated to it.' With such unerring accuracy in judging people, it can only be marvelled at that it took so long, and usually at least one more murder, for Vance to discover the killer. Also Vance was an upholder of phrenology. Foremost among the phrenologists' beliefs was the claim that the skull takes its shape from the brain, which means that the surface of the skull can be read as an accurate index of psychological aptitudes and tendencies. This was a fascinating, although probably unconscious bit of characterisation, because, as modern day biologist Dr John van Wyhe observed, 'phrenology attracted the enthusiastic and the arrogant.' There can be little dispute which category included Philo Vance.
'I have often marvelled at the friendship of these two antipodal men...Markham was forthright, brusque, and on occasion, domineering, taking life with grim and serious concern...Vance, on the other hand, was volatile, debonair, and possessed of a perpetual Juvenalian cynicism.' (The Greene Murder Case, 1928.)
One thing that has always remained ambivalent was what Van Dine wished to convey about Vance's sexual orientation. In The Benson Murder Case (1926), as Vance is dressing, Markham asks if he is planning to wear a green carnation. (Green carnations were worn by Oscar Wilde and, in the early 20th century, became a symbol of homosexuality.) In the same book somebody calls Vance a 'sissy.'
The structure of the stories is consistent: Vance is requested by Markham to assist in a high-profile murder case. The police are misled by the physical clues and often interrogate or arrest a person who is not guilty of the crime, usually a lower-class person, often with some previous convictions. Vance makes cryptic comments about the psychology of the case and the phrenological features of the suspects and sometimes sets psychological snares for the suspects until, at last, the true culprit is revealed, although, it must be noted, there are usually straightforward physical clues that lead to the arrest.
The character of Vance shares many of Van Dine's interests, including a passion for art and German philosophers. Like Van Dine, Vance was an eager starter of projects but usually found an excuse to move on to something new. 'Vance was a man of cultural ardencies, in whom the spirit of research and intellectual adventure was constantly at odds with the drudgery necessary to scholastic creation.' (The Bishop Murder Case, 1928.) When his creation is considered beside his own life, it seems possible that Philo Vance was the person that Van Dine thought he should have been, if an unkind fate had not deprived him of immense inherited wealth and a loyal and adoring 'Boswell' to record his brilliance and success.
Be that as it may, by the time of publication of the third Philo Vance book, The Greene Murder Case in 1928, Van Dine was one of the best-selling authors in the United States and he became wealthy for the first time in his life. By 1928 Van Dine's identity was generally known and he wrote an article, Twenty Rules for Writing Detective Stories, which was published in The American Magazine. These rules are along the lines of Ronald Knox's Ten Commandments, but expressed with greater pomposity and lacking Knox's satirical humour. As in Rule 3, which forbids any introduction of a love interest: 'There must be no love interest. The business in hand is to bring a criminal to the bar of justice, not to bring a lovelorn couple to the hymeneal altar.'
Even without his name on the article, it would be easy to recognise the creator of Philo Vance in Rule 11: 'A servant must not be chosen by the author as the culprit. This is begging a noble question. It is a too easy solution. The culprit must be a decidedly worth-while person — one that wouldn't ordinarily come under suspicion.'
And, of course, Van Dine couldn't resist having another moan about the 'trick' played by Christie in The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. Rule 4: 'The detective himself, or one of the official investigators, should never turn out to be the culprit. This is bald trickery, on a par with offering some one a bright penny for a five-dollar gold piece. It's false pretenses.'
In 1930 Van Dine married Eleanor Ralapaugh, (known professionally as Claire de Lisle.) His second wife was a portrait painter and socialite. Throughout the 1930s, in his literary life, Van Dine felt that he had fallen into a trap: he had gained fame and wealth but he had lost his reputation as a literary writer and was condemned to write stories that he could not respect. However he and his wife were too accustomed to their extravagant lifestyle for him to walk away. Therefore Van Dine continued to write crime novels, although the quality and popularity of these declined. In his history of detective fiction, Bloody Murder (1972), Julian Symons says: 'The decline in the last six Vance books is so steep that the critic who called the ninth of them one more stitch in his literary shroud was not overstating the case.' And in Raymond Chandler's essay The Simple Art of Murder (1944), Chandler refers to Vance as 'the most asinine character in detective fiction.'
In the 1930s Van Dine wrote a series of short stories for Warner Brothers film studio. Hollywood was kind to Van Dine and all but two of his novels were made into feature-length films, with popular stars in the title role, such as William Powell, Basil Rathbone and Edmund Lowe. Powell, who appeared as Vance in four films, brought a great deal of charm to the role and a lot less arrogance than the original Vance displayed.
In 1939 Van Dine died of a heart condition made worse by heavy drinking. He had achieved fame and wealth but, at the same time, it seems he was a disappointed man, deprived of the literary fame he longed for.
Even in the 21st Century, the Philo Vance stories are an interesting read, both as classic examples of 'whodunnits' and 'locked room' mysteries, and as social documents, as well as an intrinsic link in the history of the American mystery novel.
Many of the Philo Vance books have been reprinted in paperback.
Carol Westron is a successful author and a Creative Writing teacher. Her crime novels are set both in contemporary and Victorian times. Her first book The Terminal Velocity of Cats was published in 2013. Since then, she has since written 5 further mysteries. Carol recently gave an interview to Mystery People. To read the interview click on the link below.
To read a review of Carol latest book This Game of Ghosts
click on the title.