The SS Van Dine Murder Case

William Powell as Philo Vance

‘S.S. Van Dine’ was the pseudonym of Willard Huntington Wright (1888-1939) who was regarded in the teens and twenties as the greatest American authority on Nietzsche (my copy of Beyond Good and Evil has an introduction by Wright, who is called therein “ of the foremost students and interpreters of Nietzsche in America”). According to the publicity of the time, he created his fictional sleuth Philo Vance following a long illness (now actually 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.

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 to the time of the author’s premature 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.

But Van Dine’s novels, at least ’till the mid nineteen-thirties were supremely popular amongst both critics and the public; they were a publishing sensation, making Wright the John Grisham of their day. 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. Along with the almost equally forgotten Mary Roberts Rinehart, he was probably the most popular and influential mystery writer since Doyle, a position he was to hold until the coming of World War II. His historical importance shouldn’t be under estimated, especially in view of his symbiotic relation ship with the cinema, which is far more common today (e.g. Elmore Leonard and more especially the aforementioned Grisham)

He 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 had every intention of taking it back). 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.

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 indeed in terms of plotting. 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 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 of any interest though The Canary Murder Case, which also starred William Powell (he played the role 4 time in all) is mainly 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 Seranade”, bore no resemblance to his work at all. 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.

The fill list of novels is as follows:

THE BENSON MURDER CASE (1926) (filmed with William Powell)
THE CANARY MURDER CASE (1927) (filmed with William Powell)
THE GREENE MURDER CASE (1928) (filmed with William Powell)
THE BISHOP MURDER CASE (1929) (filmed with Basil Rathbone)
THE SCARAB MURDER CASE (1930) (filmed with Wilfred Hyde-White)
THE KENNEL MURDER CASE (1933) (filmed with William Powell)
THE DRAGON MURDER CASE (1933) (filmed with Warren William)
THE CASINO MURDER CASE (1934) (filmed with Paul Lukas)
THE GARDEN MURDER CASE (1935) (filmed with Edmund Lowe)
THE GRACIE ALLEN MURDER CASE (1938) (filmed with Warren William)
THE WINTER MURDER CASE (1939) (filmed without Vance as “Sun Valley Seranade”)

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.

There’s a rather amusing trailer in which William Powell as Nick Charles meets himself as Philo Vance – it is available from YouTube:

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8 Responses to The SS Van Dine Murder Case

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