Literary tastes change, and those changes occur when two forces overlap: the needs of the innovating artist and the temper of the times. No better illustration of that principle can be found than in the origins of the Philo Vance phenomenon. Willard Huntington Wright, an impecunious art critic and recovering drug addict, needed to reinvent himself and become “S.S. Van Dine,” author of one of the bestselling detective series of his day, and America in the Jazz Age craved a new kind of detective fiction, one that brushed aside Sherlock Holmes in his study, Miss Marple and her sensible shoes, and the deductive musings of any continental European.
Before writing The Benson Murder Case in 1926, Willard Huntington Wright (1887 – 1939) would never have imagined a successful career for himself as a detective novelist. A precociously well-read adolescent, a Harvard dropout who thought he was smarter than most of his professors, the literary editor for the Los Angeles Times at the age of twenty-two, Wright initially felt nothing but scorn the whole genre. “The woods are full of detective stories,” he wrote in 1912 after reviewing several new mysteries for that paper, “and most of them are bad. In fact, any serious detective story is of necessity bad. It appeals to the most primitive cravings within us.” Fifteen years later, he would be singing a different tune.
Wright’s life prior to his adopting the pen name “S.S. Van Dine” reads like a novel itself.
He was the older brother of one of America’s first abstract artists, Stanton Macdonald-Wright, and the two were in constant competition to gain renown for themselves as the intellectual titans they felt themselves to be. Their wildly indulgent parents had raised them to assume the world was theirs for the taking. Stanton’s path to success was modern art; Willard’s was to be in literature and journalism. They were eager to leave Los Angeles and make a name for themselves in New York, announcing to anyone who cared that southern California was too small a field for their ambition. For several years, they were both remarkably productive in their endeavors and lucky in the timing. Like the Wright brothers of Kitty Hawk, Willard and Stanton Wright looked like young men of extraordinary promise.
For a time it seemed as if Willard Wright might achieve the goals that mattered most to him. With the help of his mentor, the critic H.L. Mencken, he landed the job in his mid-twenties as editor of a classy, high-circulation New York monthly, The Smart Set. His intention in those pages was to introduce a sophisticated readership to the most daring new writers, American and European. He was spoken of as an editor and critic of consequence, a man whose cultural breadth was quite extraordinary. He published a respectable coming-of-age novel, a study of Friedrich Nietzsche, a book of aesthetic philosophy, and (with his brother’s help) a pathbreaking history of modern painting, introducing Cézanne to American readers and predicting the coming triumph of abstract art.
There were problems, though. Wright never quite knew when to stop pushing the envelope. During his time at The Smart Set, despite repeated warnings from allies like Mencken, he published more risqué fiction than the magazine’s owner could stomach. The new realism of Theodore Dreiser was one thing, but stories and one-act plays about streetwalkers, seduced schoolgirls, infidelity, and abortion were too much for advertisers as stodgy as Postum and Grape-Nuts, Tiffany’s, Steinway, and Monarch Typewriters. Not surprisingly, Wright was bounced from his prestigious job after only a year in the editor’s chair.
Willard Wright was also a drinker, a moocher, and a womanizer of epic proportions. It became harder and harder for him to hold down a job, freelance writing kept him in genteel poverty, and his occasional use of marijuana and opium became a problem he couldn’t control. Old friends and colleagues turned against him. He lectured extensively about art and wrote astute criticism for various newspapers and magazines, activities earning him mention today in most histories of modernism in America, but beating the drum for avant-garde painters like Arthur Dove, Marsden Hartley, and John Marin was not a way to make a living.
Wright’s derailment was made even worse by an unfounded accusation of spying for the Kaiser after America had entered the First World War. His troubles originated in a prank when, to tease his hyper-patriotic stenographer, he pretended to be secretly communicating with German agents. She turned out to be more gullible and excitable than he knew. She reported him to the authorities, the Secret Service swooped in to make an arrest, and before his name was cleared, the story made the papers. As a result, in 1918, Wright was blackballed in the world of New York journalism, sending him into a drug-induced tailspin, and for the next seven years he had to scrounge about to keep his head above water. He also had to endure the thought that the “boy wonder” of California was now regarded everywhere as a has-been.Slowly, in 1925, an idea dawned on him, a way out, and Wright immersed himself in that one-despised literary form: detective fiction.
Slowly, in 1925, an idea dawned on him, a way out, and Wright immersed himself in that one-despised literary form: detective fiction. He read everything he could get his hands on. Arthur Conan Doyle’s books, the Arséne Lupin tales, the Father Brown series, Eden Phillpotts, R. Austin Freeman, A.E.W. Mason, Anna Katherine Green, Mary Roberts Rinehart, Agatha Christie, and the newest writer on the scene, Dorothy Sayers: he devoured them all. Eventually feeling he had mastered the conventions of the genre (and noted its shortcomings), he prepared an outline for a three-book series that he sent to Maxwell Perkins at Scribners, an old Harvard acquaintance. Perkins saw its commercial potential at once. The British monopoly on detective fiction was about to end. Willard Huntington Wright became “S.S. Van Dine.”
With the publication of The Benson Murder Case in 1926, The ‘Canary’ Murder Case the following year, and The Greene Murder Case in 1928, everything changed for their author.
Sales were staggering. Perkins credited Ernest Hemingway and S.S. Van Dine with seeing Scribners through the first rough years of the Depression. His scrapbooks of clipping files soon bulged with interviews, profiles, articles he was solicited to write for magazines that had formerly shunned him. Part of the books’ appeal, beyond the ingenuity of the plots, had to do with their highly contemporary feel. The Benson Murder Case was based on the unsolved 1920 murder of bridge expert Joseph Elwell; The ‘Canary’ Murder Case alluded to the real-life murder of an ex-Follies girl that had titillated tabloid readers; and The Greene Murder Case dramatized family murder in an old-money urban castle on the East River. Later books like The Scarab Murder Case (1930) exploited the 1920s fascination with King Tut and all things Egyptian, while The Casino Murder Case (1934) focused on the private gambling dens that well-heeled Manhattanites frequented.Van Dine’s achievement, and the real basis for his success, was in his creation of a new kind of detective, a sleuth who believed in psychology and perception more than flat-footed clue-hunting.
Beyond topicality, though, Van Dine’s achievement, and the real basis for his success, was in his creation of a new kind of detective, a sleuth who believed in psychology and perception more than flat-footed clue-hunting. Freud was fast becoming god-like in America. Even Good Housekeeping extolled the value of psychoanalysis. Vance’s method, then, was one he liked to characterize as psychological and artistic. He would study the crime scene and manner of death in exacting detail, compiling a theoretical profile of the person likely to have committed an act of violence in just that manner. Potential suspects were matched against the specific details of the murders, in contrast to the traditional method of “logically” following clues to a possibly guilty individual. Murder scenes came with signatures. He was like an art expert determining the authorship of a painting, Vance would explain to the usually hapless police. Only one man could have painted Night Watch, if you studied the brushwork and chiaroscuro with sufficient care, and that had to be Rembrandt. Only one man could have murdered Alvin Benson in the particular fashion in which he died, and the alert analyst of the scene—i.e., Vance—would know who that was and who it could not have been.
Ultimately as famous in his day as Sherlock Holmes and Hercule Poirot, Philo Vance was an original. He embodies many of his creator’s interests and quirks, and if he wasn’t likeable (Wright thought that quality irrelevant), he was memorable. Sarcastic and ostentatiously erudite, he leads the intellectual’s ultimate fantasy life, living in comfort in his book-lined townhouse, driving about Manhattan in his beloved Hispano-Suiza, and helping the police solve crimes they lack the subtlety and acumen to unravel. He was a know-it-all with style, a cynical aesthete who also knew plenty of gangsters and gamblers, and that persona had automatic appeal to readers in the late 1920s who wanted to see themselves as more worldly, less genteel, than their Victorian parents. He was also, not unlike Jay Gatsby, a self-invented man with an enigmatic past. He spoke to a time when the world belonged to the man with a healthy ego who knew how to live well and made his own reality. Hollywood agreed. Several of the novels were made into films, the early ones starring William Powell and later Basil Rathbone.
S.S. Van Dine had a good ten-year run. His twelve novels were translated into more than twenty languages, he made a pot of money, and he and his second wife were able to live in luxury in a Manhattan penthouse overlooking Central Park during the worst years of the Depression. By the late 1930s, though, he was losing his touch. The novels became formulaic; the plots, stale and indifferently developed, and Vance’s persona simply annoying. The hard-boiled detective fiction of Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler—what Van Dine angrily called “all booze and erections”—spoke with greater freshness and conviction to a generation for whom the world was a darker, harder, more ambiguous place than Vance’s tidy, elegant Manhattan. The “noir” was ascendant. The bright, heady days of F. Scott Fitzgerald and Dorothy Parker were a memory. Sam Spade was credible and appealing; Philo Vance was fast becoming a relic from another era. Had Van Dine lived another few years, he would have found it necessary to give up the penthouse and accept the fact that his time in the spotlight had come and gone. To pay the bills, he was reduced to pitching gin, radios, and Goodrich tires in magazine ads.
As it turned out, the sleuth and his creator passed from the scene at pretty much the same time. In 1939, after a heart attack and too many years of heavy drinking, Wright died at the age of fifty-two. Obituaries extolling his literary accomplishments appeared in newspapers across the country, but everyone in the business knew that sales for the Van Dine books were falling off fast. Wright himself died a bitter and disillusioned man. Sadly, he could never bring himself to respect his own accomplishments in the genre, and he was angry that “selling out” had rescued him from poverty while burying for all time, even in his own mind, the image of Willard Huntington Wright as a formidable critic and intellectual. Yet there is no denying that, in creating the inimitable figure of Philo Vance, Willard Huntington Wright made a significant mark on the history of detective fiction and provided readers with some enjoyable tales.
Literary tastes inevitably change, but that reality doesn’t diminish the meaning of stories that speak to their time and just might appeal to a much later one as well.