SS Van Dine – forgotten author

Willard Huntington Wright as painted by his brother, Stanton MacDonald-Wright (photo: cliff1066 / CC attribution)

Willard Huntington Wright as painted by his brother, Stanton MacDonald-Wright (photo: cliff1066 / CC attribution)

Does anyone read the rarefied intellectual puzzles investigated by Philo Vance anymore? I have been looking again at this series written and narrated by ‘SS Van Dine’ mainly with great pleasure (and will provide a couple of reviews here at Fedora very shortly). I suspect though that in my generally positive view of these books I may be in a minority as they are not held in great esteem anymore.

In trying to consider my own enjoyment and their once great popularity, what follows is a general rundown of all twelve of the novels with associated musings, with an emphasis on some of the movie adaptations now that most of them are available on DVD.

“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.” - from The Benson Murder Case (1926)

VanDine_Bishop_Scribnerpb‘S.S. Van Dine’ was the pseudonym used in the 1920s and 30s by the art critic Willard Huntington Wright (1888-1939), who in my copy of Beyond Good and Evil (which has an introduction by Wright) is referred to, “… one of the foremost students and interpreters of Nietzsche in America.” According to the publicity of the time, Wright created his sleuth Philo Vance after a long illness (now alleged to be due to a drug habit) during which he had been banned from reading anything more stimulating than detective stories (!!). The character is similar to Dorothy L Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey, also being a rich aristocrat who likes to solve crimes and is prone to dropping quotes and citations as he goes. In the case of Wright the erudition was pretty impressive and usually linked to the cases fairly convincingly – well, at least to begin with …

“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” - from The Scarab Murder Case (1930)

As ‘Van Dine’ he explored many of the aesthetic and moral ideas of his serious but largely un read earlier books such as “The Creative Will” in a series of novels beginning with The Benson Murder Case in 1926, a new novel appearing roughly every year up ti his early death in 1939; his last novel, his twelfth, which had only reached its second draft, was published posthumously. His novels seem particularly dated today, and indeed Philo Vance does seem to embody the kind of upper-class affectations which today seem so much a cliché of “classic” detective fiction.

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.”  - from The Canary Murder Case (1927)

But Van Dine’s novels, at least until the mid 1930s were supremely popular among both critics and the public; they were a publishing sensation, more or less keeping his publisher, Scribner’s, solvent during the Depression.

Powell_returns_as_Vance

Wright eventually outed himself as Van Dine and accepted that his fame would be ensured by a series of mystery books and not his more scholarly works. Despite his relative obscurity today, the debt owed to Sayers, he was probably at the time the most popular and influential mystery writer since Doyle, a position he was to more or less hold until the coming of World War II when he was probably superseded by the not dissimilar Ellery Queen. His historical importance shouldn’t be under estimated, especially in view of his symbiotic relation ship with the cinema.

“Vance at that time was thirty-four years old. He was just under six feet, slender, sinewy, and graceful. His chiselled regular features gave his face the attraction of strength and uniform modelling, but a sardonic coldness of expression precluded the designation of handsome. He had aloof grey eyes, a straight, slender nose, and a mouth suggesting both cruelty and asceticism. But, despite the severity of his lineaments– which acted like an impenetrable glass wall between him and his fellows– he was highly sensitive and mobile; and, though his manner was somewhat detached and supercilious, he exerted an undeniable fascination over those who knew him at all well.”  - from The Greene Murder Case (1928)

VanDine-Canary-scribner-pbHe introduced a number of interesting gimmicks to the form, such as the use of footnotes to give the books a patina of refinement and culture to appeal to the higher middle classes and help rescue the genre from the depths of the penny dreadful (which is where Chandler, more or less, said he had every intention of taking it back, though he didn’t really mean it in terms of readership). Another innovation was that ‘S.S. Van Dine’ was also the name of the narrator, who acted as Watson to Vance’s Holmes, a gimmick to be taken to one brilliant step forward by Ellery Queen (though it had been done before by Nick Carter [sic]). Queen also used a variation of the Van Dine title strategy, which always followed the same formula: ‘The [six letter word] Murder Case’, the one exception being The Gracie Allen Murder Case, which was really a novelised movie story. Queen’s books were also introduced by one ‘J.J. McCue’, clearly a ‘Van Dine’ clone, as was the initial info that the name of the detective, now residing in Italy, was a pseudonym to protect his identity, which is pretty much the identical information given out by Van Dine in the first Vance book – and it is worth stressing here that at that point Vance had only appeared in three books to give some idea of just how gigantic  success the character was in popular fiction.

“A murder, I presume,” Vance complained through a yawn. “Nothing less than gore would have led your footsteps to my boudoir at this ungodly hour.”

“Not a murder–” Markham began.

“Oh, I say! What time might it be, then?”
- from The Kennel Murder Case (1933)

In 1928 Van Dine published his 20 rules for writing detective stories, a kid of addenda to Monsignor Knox’s more celebrated list of dos and dont’s in fair play construction. Van Dine’s list can be read online here. It make for highly amusing reading today and helps to explain perhaps why his books are not read much today – rule 3 for instance stipulates that there can be no love interest!

In all there were twelve novels, the initial five novels being of a very high-caliber in terms of complex id admittedly highly unlikely plotting. My personal favourite probably remains The Bishop Murder Case (which I reviewed here) though the first half-dozen are wonderfully entertaining in their own specialised way, with Kennel Murder Case offering a particularly complex locked room mystery. As Van Dine’s popularity began to wane the novels went into a decline, which became very steep in his last three novels. With the exception of perhaps the poorest of the series, Kidnap, all were filmed, though only The Kennel Murder Case, starring William Powell and stylishly directed by Michael Curtiz, is well-remembered today; though The Canary Murder Case, which also starred William Powell (he played the role 4 times in all) is at least remembered today for co-starring that sultry icon of silent cinema, Louise Brooks. Winter was to have been adapted as an Sonja Henie vehicle, but what emerged in 1941, Sun Valley Serenade, bore no resemblance to his work at all (review coming to Fedora very shortly). There was also a series of 12 shorts made by Warner Bros. as the “SS Van Dine Mystery Series” and a radio series, much of which can be heard online at the Internet Archive.

Philo-Vance-DVD-CollectionDVD Availability: Many of the Philo Vance films are now available as part of the Warner Archive on-demand DVD box set, The Philo Vance Murder Case Collection. It brings together The Bishop Murder Case (1930), starring Basil Rathbone as Vance; The Kennel Murder Case (1933), easily the best of the bunch, staring William Powell; The Dragon Murder Case with Warren William, from 1934;  The Casino Murder Case (1935) with Paul Lukas; The Garden Murder Case (1936) with Edmund Lowe and Calling Philo Vance (1940), a wartime remake of Kennel starring the excellent but sadly forgotten James Stephenson. The transfers vary from great (Bishop) to average (Dragon) but all are perfectly serviceable.

In addition, The Canary Murder Case can be viewed freely online here, as can some of the other films in the series including GreeneKennel, Dragon and Gracie Allen,

The full list of novels is as follows (and all can be downloaded for free at the project Gutenberg site here):

The Benson Murder Case (1926) ***** (4 fedora tips out of five)
The Canary Murder Case (1927) ***** (5 fedora tips out of five)
The Greene Murder Case (1928) ***** (5 fedora tips out of five)
The Bishop Murder Case (1929) ***** (5 fedora tips out of five)
The Scarab Murder Case (1930) ****(4 fedora tips out of five)
The Kennel Murder Case (1933) ****(4 fedora tips out of five)
The Dragon Murder Case (1933) ***** (3 fedora tips out of five)
The Casino Murder Case (1934) ***** (2.5 fedora tips out of five)
The Garden Murder Case (1935) ***** (2.5 fedora tips out of five)
The Kidnap Murder Case (1937) ***** (1 fedora tip out of five)
The Gracie Allen Murder Case (1938) ***** (1 fedora tip out of five)
The Winter Murder Case (1939) ***** (2 fedora tips out of five)

The complete set is available on Kindle at an exceptionally reasonable price on Amazon. Otherwise The Benson Murder Case is probably the easiest of the novels to get hold of in paperback while Greene and Bishop are probably the best in terms of ingenuity if not exactly plausibility or characterisation - so if you can get your hands on them you can try to figure out what all the fuss was about back in the 1920s and 30s.


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38 Responses to SS Van Dine – forgotten author

  1. Colin says:

    Great overview of Vance and his creator. I’ve read the first two or three novels and have another three on my shelves. By coincidence, I downloaded the Kindle collection the other day to fill in gaps and complete the set.
    Those early Queen novels are clearly influenced very heavily by Van Dine, and the fact that both have seen their popularity drop seems to indicate that it’s a style of mystery that’s simply fallen out of favor. Personally, I find Van Dine very readable, and I reckon a lot of others would too if they were prepared to give him a chance.

    • Thanks Colin – and so glad to know it’s not just me that still enjoy these books! I think you are absolutely right about the changes in readership tastes being crucial and certainly it is a style that could only have flourished in the inter-war gears. And I do think, like Sayers, that there is a bit more in the way of human feeling on display than tends to be generally credited too …

      • Colin says:

        OK, the emphasis is firmly on the puzzle aspect in this kind of writing, although that doesn’t mean that it is completely detached. In fact, I’m not convinced that the current style is any less superficial when it comes to the “human factor” of the stories. I imagine I’m in a minority on this though.

        • While I think Thomas Harris did it brilliantly, that tends to be what puts me off the serial killer sub-genre certainly. The success of the Scandinavian ‘style’, certainly as exemplified by Stieg Larsson and (the rather better) Henning Mankell, tends to contrast emotionally crippled protagonists with the grim suffering of the villains may by some seem to vitiate this though I haven;t read enough of them to be truly convinced.

  2. davidsimmons6 says:

    One of my all-time favorites,The Greene Murder Case is the one I send to those who are hesitating on the brink of diving into classic detective fiction.

  3. Skywatcher says:

    I read a few of the books some years ago, and I think that you’re probably right. However… the real cause of Van Dine’s obscurity may be the character of Vance himself. He is very much one of those ‘superman’ detectives of the pre-WWII world, with knowledge and skill beyond those of his mortal readers. He was not unlike Sherlock Holmes in that respect, but unlike Doyle (or Agatha Christie with Poirot), Van Dine didn’t really give him the flaws and foibles that make him endearing. He was a Nietzchen Superman, a character that was going to become less and less popular as history stumbled towards the 1940s. It’s worth remembering that when Ellery Queen returned to television in the 70s, Jim Hutton’s characterisation was much more akin to the ‘ordinary Joe’, second incarnation of the detective, than the more Vance-like original version.

    • Very fair points you make here Skywatcher – certainly the absent-minded Queen of the 70s TV show (which I love by the way) is miles away from the detached and ultra-cerebral character of the 1920s he started out as. The modulation of the character, like that of Campion to a certain extent, was a very bright move – I’m going to post a review of the very last book in the series, The Winter Murder Case, very shortly as I wanted to see if the character was indeed also changing by this stage (the answer is yes, a bit, though not least due to the increasing importance of the movie adaptations)- cheers mate.

  4. Sergio – What a great idea to explore Van Dine and Philo Vance. Rarefied maybe, but those intellectual puzzles stand the test of time in my opinion. You’ve reminded me that I’ve not read one of these in a very, very…long time. Perhaps a re-read is in order…

  5. Kelly says:

    I read THE CANARY MURDER CASE because of the film connection, but I never pursued him any further. I do remember enjoying it, though.

    • Thanks Kelly – that version of Canary is not really all that representative of the original novel as I recall – but it does depend on your tolerance for the old-fashioned superman sleuth solving a super complex problem just for the mental exercise (not everyone’s cup of java, I realise …)

  6. TracyK says:

    My first try at Van Dine was The Greene Murder Case and I did not like it that well. I believe at the time you suggested The Bishop Murder Case for a 2nd one to try. I still haven’t tried another one but I am definitely going to go hard copy the next time. The first one I read was an e-book and did not have the drawing of the rooms in the house. I do see that the pack of 12 at Amazon has all the illustrations for the books and is probably a good deal.

    • Hiya TracyK – Greene is one of my favourites so if you do give Bishop a go I hope the edition itself helps you enjoy it more though by the sound of it the style may not be quite right – but I would love to hear about it either way! And thanks very much for the comments, as always.

  7. Curtis Evans says:

    The great heyday of Van Dine was around 1927 to 1930, when he was making the bestseller lists in the United States (very, very rare for mystery writers back then, when people read mysteries mostly though rental libraries). He suffered a substantial drop in popularity by the mid-30s, but it was by no mean a collapse, as is often implied. The classical detective novel was still very popular with the reading public. But his introduction of would be “hard-boiled” elements into Kidnap suggests something was in the air! Then he was so desperate for lucrative movie deals, in order to keep up his lavish lifestyle (especially with declining book revenues), which explains the abomination of The Grace Allen Murder Case.

    • Thanks very much Curt – I haven’t read the biography that says Wright had a serious problem with drug addiction but he certainly had to maintain that lifestyle one way or another – in that sense though I think his own involvement with the Vance persona is particularly appealing because of its element of wish-fulfillment even for its author.

  8. neer says:

    Thanks Sergio for this informative write-up. I have never read Van Dine though he has long been on the list of my TBR authors. Perhaps early next year…

  9. Patrick says:

    I’ve read only one Van Dine, and I can never remember what its title is, but I do remember that Van Dine tries fooling readers with the phonograph trick, one of the oldest in the book. In fact, it seems that with Van Dine, as with the recent FATHER BROWN series, all you need to do is find the one person who couldn’t possibly be the killer and that’s your killer. It might lead to some ingenious mechanisms for murder, but it takes all element of surprise out as a consequence.

    I’m not a fan of Philo Vance, and although Van Dine’s historical importance cannot be understated I also think the books have not aged well. Mainly because Vance is annoying. But I can highly recommend the parody THE JOHN RIDDELL MURDER CASE, in which Philo Vance discovers the corpse of reviewer John RIddell (which is not yet dead) wearing only one tennis shoe, and must go through all the previous year’s best-sellers to discover whodunnit.

    • Thanks very much Patrick – it’s usually not too tough to figure out who did it, true enough, and this is another thing that Van Dine (sic) shares with Sayers – she wrote better prose but I think he had slightly better grasp of intellectual ideas (and less obviously objectionable ones too) – THE JOHN RIDDELL MURDER CASE does sound like great fun chum but some of the prices for it out there are really scary …

  10. Sergio, this is an excellent profile of SS Van Dine. I have thought of reading the author on more than one occasion. I have also come across some of his non-fiction although I don’t know what that is all about either. It’d be fun to read his books in physical form.

    • Thanks Prashant – well, if you have found some of his essays then you are doing better than most – nobody I know has read those! The novels are, in my view, really entertaining examples of the genre as it stood in the mid to late 20s – I’m reviewing a couple of them shortly starting with the last, The Winter Murder Case – and it is also great that they are all available for free online.

      • Sergio, you’re right, they’re essays including a short fiction called EUROPE AFTER 8:15 which he co-authored with H.L. Mencken and the only one I downloaded long ago, when I wasn’t familiar with his fiction; never read it, though.

        • Sounds great chum – before he invented the ‘Van Dine’ persona he was very well-known in art and philosophy circles and published a fair bit but none of its was even remotely popular, until Vance came along.

  11. As I continue to read early 20th century American mystery writers I encounter numerous references to Vance in many of them, often disparaging references. He seemed to be come the butt of jokes even among his competitors. As late as the 1950s mystery writers were still making fun of amateur sleuths in novels by likening them to Philo Vance. Harriette Ashbrook was one of the earliest Vance imitators (only one year after Queen appeared in THE ROMAN HAT MYSTERY, too) with her playboy detective Spike Tracy. He had a major influence on a lot of mystery writers in the 1930s and 1940s. There is an entire subgenre in detective fiction called the Van Dine School that includes Ashbrook, Queen, Anthony Boucher, and “Anthony Abbot” who created Commissioner Thatcher Colt.

    Vance was so popular in 1937 there was a board game created around him. It pre-dates Clue (or Cluedo in the UK) by eleven years. I believe there was also a card game which featured Philo Vance. Periodically, both of these games turn up on auction sites. I’ve been trying to get my hands on the Philo Vance board game for over 15 years now. One of these days…

    Go here to see photos of the Philo Vance board game.

  12. justjack says:

    Have not *read* any of the books, but I have seen several of the movies, and found them to be thoroughly diverting. Formulaic, but of the most pleasant sort.

  13. Pingback: Classic crime in the blogosphere, October 2013 | Past Offences

  14. Ben Solomon says:

    Good, old S.S. was one of the first detective writers I read. I enjoy several of his early works, but slugging through the collection becomes a tired and stiff experience. I wonder at times if I’m just becoming tired and stiff myself. In any case, I’ll always have a soft spot for Philo (not to mention the Curtiz-Powell combo in “The Kennel Murder Case”).

  15. stlamc says:

    Excellent review of the Philo Vance novels. Vance’s upper crust character and dialogue can be off-putting for many readers, and was so even in the 1930s (Rosalind Russell’s character critiqued Vance’s style in the 1935 Casino Murder Mystery film). Vance does make mistakes, fortunately, which he admits, but Van Dine’s (Wright’s) books would have been more successful (today and in the past) if Vance’s character had enabled the reader to bond with him more easily. Basil Rathbone (Bishop Murder Case) probably best captured Vance’s character in the book, whereas William Powell brought a warmer personality without losing the original formality/superiority (a balance that would have improved the books, I think).

    Having read many classic (Christie, Doyle, etc), pulp (Chandler, Stout, Hammett), and other variations (Biggers, Sapper, Ellery Queen, Gardner, etc) of older mystery novels, I believe the Philo Vance books have that extra bit of pleasing complexity and polish. The earliest Vance novels are probably superior (Kennel, Bishop, and Benson likely being my favorites). However, last month I finally took time to read the Winter Murder Mystery and, although sloppier with fewer twists than the earlier books, it was still as good as any typical murder mystery novel (IMO).

    • Thanks very much for all the great feedback and I agree completely about the Vance character (though I clearly must re-watch Casino again, Id forgotten Russell was in it) – sounds like we are very much on the same page (sic)! I recently re-read Winter (I’ll be reviewing it next week in fact), and was very pleasantly surprised even if it is clearly a bit unpolished – thanks again.

  16. Pingback: THE WINTER MURDER CASE (1939) by SS Van Dine | Tipping My Fedora

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