S. S. Van Dine (1888 – 1939)

th (2)S. S. Van Dine, pseudonym of Willard Huntington Wright, (born Oct. 15, 1888, Charlottesville, Va., U.S.—died April 11, 1939, New York, N.Y.), American critic, editor, and author of a series of best-selling detective novels featuring the brilliant but arrogant sleuth Philo Vance. Wright was educated at St. Vincent and Pomona colleges in California, at Harvard University, and in Munich and Paris. Pursuing a career as a writer, Wright became literary editor of the Los Angeles Times in 1907 and in 1912 moved to New York to become editor of Town Topics and The Smart Set, where he remained until 1914. With H.L. Mencken and George Jean Nathan he published a book of travel essays called Europe After 8:15 (1914). He also wrote the poetry collection Songs of Youth (1913), the novel The Man of Promise (1916), and several critical works on art and philosophy, including Modern Painting (1915) and What Nietzsche Taught (1915). While convalescing from an illness, Wright studied thousands of detective stories. As S.S. Van Dine he eventually wrote a dozen Vance novels in that genre. Among them are: The Benson Murder Case (1926); The Canary Murder Case (1927); The Greene Murder Case (1928); The Bishop Murder Case (1929); The Scarab Murder Case (1930); The Kennel Murder Case (1933); The Dragon Murder Case (1933); The Casino Murder Case (1934); The Garden Murder Case (1935); The Kidnap Murder Case (1936); The Gracie Allen Murder Case aka The Smell of Murder (1938); and The Winter Murder Case (1939). The successful series inspired more than 15 films and many radio programs. Wright also edited the anthology The Great Detective Stories (1927) and wrote the essays “Twenty Rules for Writing Detective Fiction,” which appeared in American Magazine (1928), and I Used to Be a Highbrow but Look at Me Now (1929). (Source: Britannica).

Bibliography: The Benson Murder Case (1926); The Canary Murder Case (1927); The Greene Murder Case (1928); The Bishop Murder Case (1929); The Scarab Murder Case (1930); The Kennel Murder Case (1933); The Dragon Murder Case (1933); The Casino Murder Case (1934); The Garden Murder Case (1935); The Kidnap Murder Case (1936); The Gracie Allen Murder Case aka The Smell of Murder (1938); and The Winter Murder Case (1939).

Recommended reading: Mike Grost’s page on S. S. Van Dine


(Facsimile Dust Jacket, Charles Scribner’s Sons (USA), 1926)

The Benson Murder Case introduces Van Dine’s sleuth, Philo Vance. Vance is a wealthy connoisseur of the arts, and amateur detective who assists the district attorney with his investigations. Van Dine’s whole first chapter is devoted not the mystery, but a description of Vance’s art collection. Van Dine was an art critic by profession, and Vance comes across as a genuine intellectual with a deep knowledge of the world of art. The Benson Murder Case is somewhat dry and austere as a plot. It is a straightforward murder and its solution without the symbolic resonances of the next two books. Instead its focus is on the mind and personality of Philo Vance. The book is written in Van Dine’s magnificent English prose style, a style out of sync with the plain vernacular popularized in the 1920’s by Ernest Hemingway, Sinclair Lewis and others. Instead Van Dine’s style suggests the ornate prose masterpieces of Sir Walter Raleigh, Sir Thomas Browne and Charlotte Brontë. Van Dine’s portrait of a reasoning mind in his depiction of Philo Vance’s solving the mystery is genuinely impressive, and combined with Vance’s rich verbal fluency forms a believable portrait of human Intellect at work. (Mike Grost)

Of all the books that have some claim to being considered classics of the crime genre none have divided readers quite so dramatically as S. S. Van Dine’s Philo Vance novels. The features that exasperate and enrage critics of these books are the very things that delight their admirers. I’m very much in the camp of the admirers. (Vintage Pop Fiction) To continue reading please click here.

Elizabeth Ferrars (1907 – 1995)

12088Elizabeth Ferrars (6 September 1907 – 30 March 1995), born Morna Doris MacTaggart, was a British crime writer.

She was born in Rangoon (currently Yangon), Burma into a Scottish timber and rice-trading family. Her early years were in the hands of a German nanny, and the initial intention was that she should be sent to Berlin to complete her education. The deteriorating political climate between Britain and Germany led to her moving to Britain instead at the age of six. She attended Bedales School from 1918 to 1924. She claimed in later years that she never would have been able to write crime novels if she had not learned German as a child from her nanny, the rigorous sentence structure and complex rules of grammar being an indispensable preparation for the architecture of a crime thriller. Unable to study English Literature, because she was never taught Latin or Greek, she took a diploma in journalism at London University (1925–1928), and wrote two novels under her own name in the early 1930s. It was at this time that she met and married her first husband.

Around 1940, she met a lecturer in Botany at Bedford College, Dr (later Professor) Robert Brown, and the same year her first crime novel, Give a Corpse a Bad Name, was published. She separated from her first husband and lived with Robert Brown in Belsize Park, London, from 1942. However, she did not obtain a divorce and marry Brown until October 1945. She remained on friendly terms with her first husband, who also remarried. In 1951 she and her new husband moved to Cornell University in the USA, where her husband had been offered a post. Notwithstanding the financial attraction of such a posting in austerity postwar Britain, they returned a year later owing to the atmosphere of McCarthyism. Having seen the rise of fascism in Europe, they were disturbed by the “witch-hunts” against many writers and academics accused of communist sympathies. In 1953, she became one of the founding members of the Crime Writers’ Association (she was its chair in 1977). She was inducted into the famed Detection Club in 1958.

From 1957, when her husband was appointed Regius Professor of Botany at the University of Edinburgh, until shortly after his retirement in 1977, they lived in Edinburgh. Citing the long, cold winters as a reason, they then moved south to the village of Blewbury in Oxfordshire, where they lived until her sudden death in 1995. She professed no religious faith and was probably instrumental in turning her husband from distinct evangelism in the 1930s towards agnosticism. She was buried in Blewbury in a non-religious ceremony. Her final novel, A Thief in the Night, was published posthumously in 1995. She was survived by a nephew, Peter MacTaggart. In the United States, her novels were published under the name E.X. Ferrars, her US publishers assuring her that “the ‘X’ would ‘do it'”. Ferrars was in fact her mother’s maiden name.

Though the majority of Ferrars’s works are standalone novels, she wrote several series. Her first five novels all feature Toby Dyke, a freelance journalist, and his companion, George, who uses several surnames and is implied to be a former criminal. Late in her career, she began writing about a semi-estranged married couple, Virginia and Felix Freer, and a retired botanist, Andrew Basnett. Several of her short stories also feature an elderly detective called Jonas P. Jonas. (Source: Wikipedia)

From Mike Grost: The mystery and suspense writer is known as Elizabeth Ferrars in Britain and E.X. Ferrars in the United Sates. The Casebook of Jonas P. Jonas and Other Mysteries includes six short tales about genteel private eye Jonas P. Jonas. Jonas is one of those lower middle class, two-bit, non-violent private eyes who run through British mystery fiction. They have the personalities and social status of British tradesmen. They bear little resemblance to the tough shamuses of American hard-boiled fiction. Some are quite honest and industrious, like Jonas P. Jonas. The six Jonas tales are uneven as mysteries. But they are so short, and so connected in spirit, that most people will want to read them as a group. Considered as a mystery, the best Jonas work is “The Case of the Blue Bowl” (1958). This develops a full puzzle plot murder mystery, with a surprising solution. It also asks an intriguing background question, about birds.

A list of her books is available at Fantastic Fiction here.

Short Form: Designs on Life (1980), by Elizabeth Ferrars

Short Form 2: The Casebook of Jonas P. Jonas and Other Mysteries (2012), by Elizabeth Ferrars

A Royal Mystery: Give a Corpse a Bad Name (1940), by Elizabeth Ferrars 

41DKhJ2-rBL._SY346_The Casebook of Jonas P. Jonas contains seventeen previously uncollected stories, including the six cases of Jonas P. Jonas who retells his sleuthing exploits in the hope that his niece will write his memoirs. This is the thirty-fourth volume in Crippen & Landru’s Lost Classics series uncollected detective and mystery stories by great writers of the past. The book is edited by the detective-fiction-expert John Cooper, who has also edited collections by Michael Gilbert, Michael Innes, and Julian Symons. The cover illustration is by Gail Cross, and the Lost Classics design is by Deborah Miller. (Source: Amazon)

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