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

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(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.

3 thoughts on “S. S. Van Dine (1888 – 1939)”

  1. I’m a great admirer of Van Dine’s purity. The narrator’s blank personality functions perfectly as the reader’s eyes and ears. And Vance is my favorite detective.

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