S. S. Van Dine

Van Dine - photo.jpgPseudonym of Willard Huntington Wright

Born: 15 October 1888, Charlottesville, Virginia, USA

Died: 11 April 1939, New York

Profession: Art critic

Detective: Philo Vance


Overview

S.S. Van Dine’s novels were enormous best-sellers in their day, and made into blockbuster films, with William Powell or Basil Rathbone playing Philo Vance.

These days, many critics look askance at Van Dine.  Philo Vance needs a kick in the pance!  The footnotes!  The lectures on art, dragons, criminal psychology, Chinese ceramics, and Scotties!

Let’s not beat around the bush.  I love S.S. Van Dine’s detective stories.  They’re what detective stories should be: imaginative, elaborate problems with lots of murders and clues.  Better still, Van Dine was a cultured cosmopolite.

Van Dine codified the fair play puzzle plot, with its emphasis on mystery and fair play; a genius detective whose workings are not shared with the reader until the end, but who (unlike Holmes) reaches them on clues provided to the reader; a closed circle of suspects, with suspicion moving rapidly from one character to another; and an emphasis on character clues, with physical clues used to support conclusions.

Ellery Queen, John Dickson Carr, and Agatha Christie, to name but three, owe him much.

Go on!  Read The Bishop Murder Case, where the murders are based on Mother Goose rhymes; The Scarab Murder Case, set in a private Egyptology museum; or The Greene Murder Case, the classic large family in old house murder.

The best Van Dines are the first six.  Benson and “Canary” are both solid, with lots of good detection, suspicion cast on a wide range of suspects, and plenty of wit.  Greene and Bishop are the two classic Van Dines, chock full of gruesome murders and bright ideas.  Scarab is excellent – great setting in an Egyptian museum, intricate detection, clever plot (although used before, by Christie).  Kennel has a great first half, but goes downhill after the discovery of the second body, and basically turns into serial interviewing.  Dragon has a great situation (man dives into pool and vanishes), but the solution is silly, and there’s not enough plot.  Casino and Garden are not outstanding, but still fun (although the film of Garden has a better plot!).  Kidnap is an unsuccessful attempt to become hard-boiled.  Gracie Allen is fairly dire – not so much for Gracie, as for the philosophical mob boss whose polysyllabic pretentiousness makes Vance seem modest and down to earth.  And Winter is a second draft (Van Dine died before he could flesh it out).

Recommended reading: Mike Grost’s page on Van Dine


Works

  1. The Benson Murder Case (1926)
  2. The “Canary” Murder Case (1927)
  3. The Greene Murder Case (1928)
  4. The Bishop Murder Case (1929)
  5. The Scarab Murder Case (1930)
  6. The Kennel Murder Case (1933)
  7. The Dragon Murder Case (1933)
  8. The Casino Murder Case (1934)
  9. The Garden Murder Case (1935)
  10. The Kidnap Murder Case (1936)
  11. The Gracie Allen Murder Case (1938)
  12. The Winter Murder Case (1939)

They say…

S. S. Van Dine, an American, is the best living writer of detective fiction. – Arnold Palmer in The London Sphere

S. S. Van Dine … the greatest detective-story writer discovered this century. – Sydney Horler in The London Evening News

S. S. Van Dine is far and away the most skilful deviser of shuddering, mystifying, and plausible tales of murder now thrilling the spine of a nation. – The New York Evening Post

What Van Dine has done is to lift the detective story in America up to a level where intelligent readers can enjoy it.  He does better than any other writer in this country in this type of fiction. – Baltimore Observer

The Philo Vance series has created a new standard in mystery fiction. – Portland Journal

Philo Vance is a real addition to the great company of amateur detectives. – London Times Literary Supplement.

Philo Vance will rank as one of the great detectives of fiction. – Hall (England) Eastern Morning News

Philo Vance is an investigator as refreshingly new and fascinating as Sherlock Holmes was in 1887.  Van Dine is no unworthy successor to Conan Doyle, and Vance suffers not at all by comparison with Sherlock. – Philadelphia Public Ledger