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Van Dine, SS

Page history last edited by Jon 13 years, 3 months ago

SS Van Dine was the pseudonym of Willard Huntington Wright (October 15, 1888 - April 11, 1939), a U.S. art critic and author. He created the once immensely popular fictional detective Philo Vance, who first appeared in books in the 1920s, then in movies and on the radio.


Willard Huntington Wright was born to Archibald Davenport Wright and Annie Van Vranken Wright on October 15, 1888, in Charlottesville, Virginia. He attended St. Vincent College, Pomona College, and Harvard University. He also studied art in Munich and Paris, an apprenticeship that led to a job as literary and art critic for the Los Angeles Times. Wright's early career in literature (1910 - 1919) was taken up by two causes. One was literary Naturalism. He wrote a novel, The Man of Promise, and some short stories in this mode; as editor of the magazine The Smart Set he also published similar fiction by others.


In 1907, Wright married Katharine Belle Boynton of Seattle, Washington. He married for a second time in October 1930. His wife was Eleanor Rulapaugh, known professionally as Claire De Lisle, a portrait painter.


From 1912 to 1914 he edited The Smart Set, a New York literary magazine, and continued writing as a critic and journalist until 1923, when he became ill from what was given out as overwork, but was in reality a secret drug addiction, according to John Loughery's biography Alias S.S. Van Dine (New York : Knopf, 1992 ISBN 0684193582). His doctor confined him to bed (ostensibly because of a heart ailment) for more than two years. In frustration and boredom, he began collecting and studying thousands of volumes of crime and detection. In 1926 this paid off with the publication of his first S. S. Van Dine novel, The Benson Murder Case. Wright took his pseudonym from Van Dyne, an old family name, and the abbreviation of "steamship." He went on to write 11 more mysteries, and the first few books about his upper-class amateur sleuth, Philo Vance (who shared a love of aesthetics like Wright), were so popular that Wright became wealthy for the first time in his life. His later books declined in popularity as the reading public’s tastes in mystery fiction changed. He moved into a penthouse and enjoyed spending his fortune in a style similar to that of the elegant and snobbish Vance. Wright died April 11, 1939, in New York City.


In addition to his success as a fiction writer, Wright's lengthy introduction and notes to the anthology The World's Great Detective Stories (1928) are important in the history of the critical study of detective fiction. Although dated by the passage of time, this essay is still a core around which many others have been constructed.


Wright also wrote a series of short stories for Warner Brothers film studio in the early 1930s. These stories were used as the basis for a series of 12 short films, each around 20 minutes long, that were released in 1930 - 1931. Of these, The Skull Murder Mystery (1931) shows Wright's vigorous plot construction. It is also notable for its non-racist treatment of Chinese characters, something quite unusual in its day. As far as it is known, none of Van Dine's screen treatments have been published in book form and it seems as if none of the manuscripts survive today. Short films were extremely popular at one point and Hollywood made hundreds of them during the studio era. Except for a handful of comedy silents, however, most of these films are forgotten today and are not even listed in film reference books.


Most of Van Dine's mysteries are available as free downloads from Gutenberg Australia. Van Dine's Twenty Rules for Writing Detective Fiction can be found here.


Film reviews


The Kennel Murder Case really is an enjoyable mystery film. I have to admire the way it speeds along, always concentrating on exposition of the complicated plot. Love interest, normally the bane of such films, is rigorously supressed to a bare minimum (and the female half of it is the intelligent Mary Astor, so what there is of it is fine). William Powell makes a phine Philo, smart and sophisticated but without Philo's more irritating affectations of manner and speech. The guy playing Markham was a bit of a shock, as he was so grandfatherly, but that didn't really matter. The plot and Philo are the thing.



I've seen all but the 1937 Night of Mystery (remake of the 1929 Greene Murder Case) and the 1936 British film of "The Scarab Murder Case" (which is presumed to be a lost film). I happen to share the general consensus that "Kennel" is the far and away the best of the films, but several of the others are also of some interest:


The Benson Murder Case (Paramount 1930) seems to me the best of the three Paramount William Powell Vance films (though, interestingly enough, the least faithful to its source novel). A few denouement flashbacks add a nice touch.


"The Bishop Murder Case" (MGM 1930), though rather slow and creaky, has some nice visuals, an interesting (if still) portrayal of Vance by Basil Rathbone, and a beautifully underplayed performance by Roland Young.


The Dragon Murder Case (Warners 1934). Like its source novel, this film is let down by a rather uninteresting solution. But the problem itself is fascinating, and the film has all the polish of the Warners factory in the mid-thirties.


The Gracie Allen Murder Case (Paramount 1939). Like "Dragon," this film stars Warren William as Vance. It's no great shakes, but just the novelty of such a thing existing keeps one watching.


Mike Grost on SS Van Dine


Van Dine's first three mystery novels are an important achievement in the history of mystery fiction. Van Dine planned and plotted his first three novels as a trilogy. All three were plotted out and written in short form, more or less at the same time. After they were accepted as a group by famed editor Maxwell Perkins, Van Dine expanded them into full length novels.


Van Dine's middle period books show some decline. The Kennel Murder Case (1932) has a terrific first half (Chapters 1 - 10), with Vance investigating a complex, coincidence laden, locked room murder. After this the book runs out of steam, and seems padded. According to the 1936 introduction to the novel, in the omnibus Philo Vance Murder Cases, the two halves were written nearly a year apart. Several real life friends of Van Dine appear as themselves in the second half of the novel. The Dragon Murder Case (1933) has a memorable impossible crime in its opening pages, but its solution is fairly ordinary, and the book's storytelling is none too good. The Casino Murder Case (1934) works better as storytelling, but its mystery plot is also undistinguished.


Van Dine's last three novels show his storytelling talent operating at full force. The Kidnap Murder Case (1936) adds more physical action than the usual Van Dine cerebral plotting allows, perhaps as an attempt to keep up with popular styles. The action scenes at the end, while apparently simple and restrained compared to the orgies of violence in some pulp tales, seem remarkably dramatic. This book also has a very well constructed mystery plot.


Van Dine's last two books were intended as Hollywood scenarios. Both are shorter than Van Dine's typical novels, and The Winter Murder Case (1939) is in fact a novella that Van Dine intended to expand into a full length book, a project cut short by his death. The Winter Murder Case seems especially similar to the B mystery movies of the thirties, and seems like a cross between Van Dine's usual style, and those films. It was intended as a vehicle for Sonja Henie, and while reading the story it is easy to "see" her in that role.


The Gracie Allen Murder Case (1938) is in many ways an experimental novel. It includes not just Hollywood stars in its plot, George Burns and Gracie Allen, but also such characters as Gracie's mother and brother. This gives the book an unusual feel. So does the comic tone of much of Gracie's dialogue. This tone suddenly shifts in a later chapter to one character's philosophically anguished speculations, and then back again to Gracie. The whole thing works oddly wonderfully, and shows Van Dine's skill at combining his traditional approach with some unusual forms.


Van Dine and Plot Construction


Van Dine's special skill was the construction of interesting, complex, book length plots. He was not anywhere as good at ingenious puzzle ideas of the sort Chesterton, Christie, and Carr excelled at. But his books and their solid construction fascinate. Detail after detail gets piled up into an interesting pattern. This can be better described as "Good storytelling" or "Good construction" than as "clever mystery ideas", perhaps. Van Dine's are novels in which the unfolding plot in all its details is more interesting than the solution. This is not to say the plot is necessarily ultra-complicated. Van Dine's plots are more well-proportioned than huge; some of his followers expanded their range, especially Queen and Abbott. Reading Van Dine's books is an experience in beauty. The well designed stories meet the beautiful literary style.


Most of the Van Dineans followed their leader in the sense that the whole of the plot is more interesting than the sum of the parts. There is a "Gestalt" effect in their books. This reaches its peak, of course with Ellery Queen, and his complex chains of reasonings. But it can also be seen in works as different as Abbott's Geraldine Foster, and Marsh's False Scent. The Van Dineans tended to lean toward novels and novellas, not short stories: only Ellery Queen and Stuart Palmer wrote any quantity of short fiction. This is a logical consequence of needing a large canvas on which all the details of plot can be painted.


The Locked Room problems in The Canary Murder Case and The Kennel Murder Case are less central to their puzzle plots than we are used to in John Dickson Carr. In Carr's novels, the impossible crime is very complex, and the major riddle of the mystery. The same is true in Chesterton, Carr's beloved master. Van Dine's locked rooms are simpler, and more mechanical in their solution, than Carr's or Chesterton's. Van Dine usually treats them as just one more ingredient he has thrown into the stew of his plots; he solves the one in Kennel two thirds of the way through the book, treating it as just another plot twist. Kennel cites as its ancestor, not Chesterton, but the locked room novels of Edgar Wallace, such as The Clue of the New Pin (1923), and The Clue of the Twisted Candle.


The best part of the film version of The Kennel Murder Case is the final 15 minutes, during which Philo Vance reconstructs the murders. He uses a scale model of the house, and this is intercut with shots flashing back on the commission of the crime. Many of these contain camera movements, and are filmed from the point of view of participants in the action.


Van Dine's pioneering history of detective fiction


Van Dine's lengthy introduction and notes to his anthology The World's Great Detective Stories (1928) constitute the pioneering history of detective fiction. Written in Van Dine's most magnificent prose, this history is still the core around which all others have been constructed (including the present writer's). My copy has been a treasured possession since I bought it at a used book sale as a child.


Van Dine's Screen Writing


Van Dine wrote a series of short stories for Warner Brothers film studio in the early 1930's. These stories were used as the basis for a series of 12 short films, each around 20 minutes long, that were released in 1930 - 1931. The Skull Murder Mystery (1931) shows Van Dine's vigorous plot construction. It is also notable for its non-racist treatment of Chinese characters, something quite unusual in its day.


As far as I know, none of Van Dine's screen treatments have been published in book form. I do not even know if the manuscripts survive today. Short films used to be extremely popular. Hollywood made hundreds of them during the studio era. Except for a handful of comedy silents, most of these films are forgotten today, and not even listed in film reference books.


A Review of John Loughery's Alias S.S. Van Dine


John Loughery's biography, Alias S.S. Van Dine (1992), is full of fascinating detail about the author. Loughery shows how Van Dine's early career as a cultural figure (1910-1919) was taken up by two causes. One was literary Naturalism. Van Dine wrote a novel and some short stories in this mode, as well as publishing such fiction by others as editor of the magazine "The Smart Set".


Secondly, Van Dine's brother, painter Stanton MacDonald-Wright, was a founder of the Synchromism movement in painting. Van Dine wrote three books promoting Synchromist ideas. He also had ties to the American abstract artists of the Stieglitz circle. So Van Dine was at the center of the entire American modernist movement in art, with a special knowledge about, and enthusiasm for, abstract art. Loughery is an art historian, and his background here is most sophisticated.


In 1920 Van Dine largely gave up cultural journalism, perhaps regarding it as a lost cause, and permanently turned to popular culture, instead. During 1920-1923, he tried and failed to make it in the movie business, but he could never really get his foot in the door. (Later both Ellery Queen and Anthony Boucher would make similar failed attempts). He was interested in projects that could combine abstract art with set design for films. He did produce a book, The Future of Painting (1923), which predicted an art of pure color delivered through technical means. One thinks of the light organs of his era, the 1920's German experiments in abstract color film (Viking Eggeling, Oskar Fischinger, Walter Ruttmann) which began in 1921, the light films of Jim Davis, the Vortex light shows of Jordan Belson, and the 1950's and beyond abstract films of Belson and the Whitney Brothers, all of which I love.


In 1924 Loughery records Van Dine's first plans to produce a "popular novel". Throughout 1925 he outlined his detective trilogy. Van Dine was basically a writer. Although he was an important critic of abstract art, Van Dine was a novelist, not a painter. Van Dine eventually "found himself" as an author of detective fiction, and was far more prolific in that role than any other, publishing twelve books.


Van Dine had some blind spots. Loughery documents Van Dine's sexist disdain for women artists and writers, whether literary or detectival. Christie is slammed in Van Dine's history of detective fiction, and many other female writers are ignored.


Loughery has some blind spots of his own. He seems unaware of just how important Van Dine is in the history of detective fiction, being the founder of a new school, which includes Ellery Queen, Anthony Abbott, Rufus King, Stuart Palmer, C. Daly King and Rex Stout. Most of these writers are not even mentioned in Loughery's book!


Loughery is also needlessly condemnatory of Van Dine's including roles for specific actresses in his last two novels. This has always been a common practice in theater and film. For example, Shakespeare and Marlowe created roles in their plays that were suited to the talents of their actors. Mozart composed his operas with the strengths and limitations of his singers in mind.


All in all, however, this is a fascinating and well done book. Loughery's detailed comments on Van Dine's novels are insightful, and the mountain of information Loughery has unearthed on Van Dine's life and career make it an important reference on his life and times.


Van Dine and the Future


Van Dine would be thrilled with today's computer workstations, and their ability to model both form and color. In many ways, Van Dine seems to be one of the keenest prophets of the future that has now come to pass. He predicted that technology would lead to a revolution in our ability to manipulate color and light, and it has. He tried his overwhelming best to awake Americans to both modern art, and the art of the world, and now there are a flood of art books available on every subject for everyone to read. Van Dine's dream of a society where there was a mass knowledge of art is now a reality. It has replaced the mass ignorance of his day. Mass education and mass literacy in great writing has also become much more of reality than in Van Dine's time, when higher education was painfully restricted to a tiny handful of Americans. The struggle Van Dine undertook to inform Americans about the best in literature has now been won. Van Dine was one of the first American popular authors to challenge racism; we now have a society vastly more equal than in Van Dine's, although much more work needs to be done to fight against racism. Van Dine genuinely believed in civilization, and he tried to extend it to everybody.


The mystery field does not honor Van Dine enough. He tried to synthesize the best elements of mystery fiction in his work. In doing so he founded a new school, one that opened the door for some of the best detective writing in American history, by Ellery Queen and others. Nor do people appreciate Van Dine as a role model for life. Some mystery fans today are obsessed with "hard-boiledness". They seem over impressed with these stories about men running around with guns. These stories are nothing but cheap macho fantasies. Instead, it is the people like Van Dine who make a difference, people who try to build and make things. Van Dine's endless work for science and the arts is what creates everything of value in life. It is at the core of civilization. If we want to pass down a better life for our children, we have to adopt Van Dine's approach as our model for living. We must be as intellectual, creative and constructive as he was.




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)

Philo Vance Investigates (omnibus edition, 1936)

The Gracie Allen Murder Case aka The Smell of Murder (1938)

The Winter Murder Case (1939)


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