Invisible Ink: No 103 - S.S. Van Dine


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The Independent Culture

Raymond Chandler said he was "probably the most asinine character in detective fiction", but the upper class amateur sleuth, Philo Vance, was a hugely popular figure in the 1920s, in books, films and on radio.

Vance was the creation of Willard Huntington Wright (1888-1939), a liberal American writer and art critic who authored What Nietzsche Taught and Misinforming the Nation, a vitriolic anti-British rant against the Encyclopedia Britannica.

Unfortunately, his plans for a lofty literary career were derailed by cocaine addiction. His doctor's solution was to confine him to bed for two years. Bored, he turned to reading detective stories and realised he might be able to make money. Adopting the pen name SS Van Dine, he wrote The Benson Murder Case and seven more. The early ones made him rich. As a dilettante and a poseur, he revelled in the high life but regretted losing his highbrow status.

With an expensive lifestyle to support, it made more sense to write murder mysteries and his vast knowledge of them led him to create a celebrated article entitled "Twenty Rules For Writing Detective Stories". The rules are still followed today. Number Five states: "The culprit must be determined by logical deductions — not by accident or coincidence or unmotivated confession. To solve a criminal problem in this latter fashion is like sending the reader on a deliberate wild-goose chase, and then telling him, after he has failed, that you had the object of his search up your sleeve all the time. Such an author is no better than a practical joker." Some of the rules, such as Number Three's "There must be no love interest", have now been superseded.

However, Wright didn't always stick to his own rulebook and is sometimes accused of cheating. He was very good at characterisation, but his often implausible plots didn't necessarily contain clues that would allow the reader to work out the solution. Even so, they were a lot of fun to read.

Wright's mysteries fell from fashion, but by now he was writing short films for Warner Brothers. At the time of his death he had flopped with an unpopular experimental novel that blurred fact and fiction called The Gracie Allen Murder Case, and had written another for the glamour-skater Sonja Henie, which was published after his death as The Winter Murder Case. His novels are all out of print, but can now be found on Kindle.