Philo Vance—the creation of Willard Huntington Wright, writing as S. S. Van Dine—first appeared in 1926 and overnight became an American publishing phenomenon. Vance appeared in twelve novels and seventeen films, and was so successful and well-known that genre historian J. K. Van Dover declared that by 1930, “Philo Vance was the American detective.” Van Dine’s books were consistent successes until, after publication of The Scarab Murder Case in 1930, the inevitable decline began. Yet Vance is barely remembered today, while his contemporaries, including Charlie Chan and Ellery Queen, are well-known. Was Vance merely a creature of the 1920s, forgotten after the passing of his era (as, for example, might be said of the earlier detectives Average Jones, Jim Hanvey, the Thinking Machine, or Astro the Seer)? Or was there a more specific reason for Vance’s disappearance and Van Dine’s eclipse?
During one of the lowest points in his long career as an editor and art critic, Willard Huntington Wright conceived of the idea of writing detective fiction and created the central figure of Philo Vance (as well as a pen name, S. S. Van Dine). Wright constructed three plots, pitching the series to the acclaimed editor Maxwell Perkins, whose other authors included Ernest Hemingway,
F. Scott Fitzgerald, Thomas Wolfe, and John P. Marquand. Perkins was impressed and immediately bought them for Scribner’s. The first, The Benson Murder Case, appeared in October 1926 and was an overnight success; much promoted by Scribner’s, it sold briskly. It was so well received that Scribner’s decided to take an unprecedented action and publish the second book in the series, The “Canary” Murder Case, in its house magazine, hitherto a highbrow venue for literary fiction and critical essays. The book appeared in four installments, in the May, June, July, and August 1927 issues, with the book itself offered for sale in July. It was a sensation, with copies of the magazine selling out and the book soaring to the top of the bestseller lists. Van Dine devised his own “rules” for crime fiction‡and set out to create a detective with a unique style. Some suggest that the character was intended to out-Holmes Sherlock Holmes, with a deeper erudition and knowledge of useful trivia. A more likely model is Dorothy L. Sayers’s Lord Peter Wimsey, complete with an affected upper-class English accent, a pince-nez, a robust collection of wine and modern art, and a butler. In either case, Philo Vance was established as a New York bachelor, with an inherited fortune and the taste to spend it wisely. Accompanied by his attorney, “S. S. Van Dine,” Vance partnered with New York district attorney John F.-X. Markham to solve murders—and only murders. The Vance novels are long by the standards of Agatha Christie and are paced slowly, including numerous details about the panoply of suspects and the settings. Vance insists that physical evidence is of much less importance than understanding “the exact psychological nature of the deed.” He maintains that understanding the deep-seated urges of seemingly respectable individuals and recognizing their unique psychological signatures is enough to identify a murderer. Vance frequently makes fun of Markham and the police for the logical conclusions they draw from the tangible clues and circumstantial evidence. Yet despite Van Dine’s ignorance of ballistics and other burgeoning forensic sciences and Vance’s disdain for police investigations, there are masses of physical evidence in each book. In The Benson Murder Case, for example, Vance relies heavily on tracing the path of the murderous bullet to demonstrate the height of the killer as well as astutely reasoning out the killer’s hiding place for the murder weapon.Why did Van Dine succeed—at least while he succeeded?
Why did Van Dine succeed—at least while he succeeded? Certainly, while the books were initially among the top bestsellers of the era, the protagonist Philo Vance was not a likeable character. Ogden Nash famously quipped, “Philo Vance/ Needs a kick in the pance,” and Van Dine appreciated the joke, incorporating it into a footnote in a late novel. An effete, White, upper-class snob, living in a Manhattan that seemed devoid of life above 120th Street, Vance moved among the rich and famous, a set well-known to Van Dine. Undoubtedly Van Dine’s skill as a writer, bringing a finely honed purpose and polished literacy to the genre, played a significant part. Perhaps the American readers of crime fiction yearned for an urban experience more familiar than the climes of England or other exotic locations that appeared in other crime writers’ work. Certainly New York featured prominently in all of Van Dine’s books. Perhaps the public reveled in tales of the upper classes. Until Black Tuesday in 1929, the effervescence of the stock markets—which touched rich and poor alike—and the princes of Wall Street entranced the American public. Van Dine’s biographer John Loughery observes, “Philo Vance makes no apologies for his privileged lifestyle. In the Jazz Age none was needed, as Willard had rightly concluded. A man who knew how to spend his money, a know-it-all with style, had automatic appeal.” Another factor was that despite the fantasy that was Vance’s life, there was verisimilitude and a certain realism: the first two novels were based on actual unsolved murders that had stunned and fascinated New Yorkers.
The “Canary” Murder Case was loosely based on the 1923 killing of Dorothy “Dot” King, the “Broadway Butterfly,” and there were many similarities between the actual case and the novel. “Both young women live alone in an apartment and are attended by black maids. Both have had a succession of lovers, and both, at the time of their deaths, are mistresses to men of wealth. Both spent the night prior to their deaths in the company of their lover. And in both instances, the discovery of the body was accompanied by the discovery that the victim’s valuable collection of jewels was missing,” notes Van Dover. Loughery observes, “King’s strangulation by one of her companions in her small West Side apartment still fascinated the public long after the police gave up trying to determine which man was responsible for King’s exceedingly well-planned death.” Van Dine made no pretense of actually trying to solve the underlying case (as Edgar Allan Poe did in the 1842 short story The Mystery of Marie Roget, based on the very real murder of Mary Rogers in New York‡) but he wove a tapestry that would be all too familiar to New Yorkers, sprinkling in real names and real locations. He also worked in enough sex and sin to attract readers bored with the banalities of the country manor houses and Scottish moors so prevalent in popular English mysteries.
Dashiell Hammett was at a loss to understand Van Dine’s success. He wrote a scathing review of The Benson Murder Case in the Saturday Review of Literature for January 15, 1927:
The murderer’s identity becomes obvious quite early in the story. The authorities, no matter how stupid the author chose to make them, would have cleared up the mystery promptly if they had been allowed to follow the most rudimentary police routine. But then what would there have been for the gifted Vance to do? This Philo Vance is in the Sherlock Holmes tradition and his conversational manner is that of a high-school girl who has been studying the foreign words and phrases in the back of her dictionary. He is a bore when he discusses art and philosophy, but when he switches to criminal psychology he is delightful. There is a theory that any one who talks enough on any subject must, if only by chance, finally say something not altogether incorrect. Vance disproves this theory: he manages always, and usually ridiculously, to be wrong.
Hammett’s own time would come in only a few years, but for the time being, in the late 1920s and through the mid-1930s, the European style of puzzle-mystery dominated American crime fiction, and S. S. Van Dine was the golden child of publishing and the king of American crime writers. Mystery scholar Howard Haycraft credited Van Dine with bringing the American detective story to a new peak of excellence and popularity but observed that he did so by doing nothing more than mimicking the well-established English method and style. The quirky amateur, the “locked room,” the limited group of suspects, all had been seen before in the works of Agatha Christie and her colleagues. Van Dine, Haycraft argued, “was essentially a developer, an adapter and polisher of other men’s techniques, rather than a true innovator.”
Yet Van Dine’s mimicry succeeded far beyond bookstands: Hollywood quickly snapped up options on the Vance stories. The “Canary” Murder Case went first, in 1929, starring William Powell as Vance, playing him with Powell’s distinctive clipped, precise movements and mannerisms rather than the effete drawling of the book. The film was an oddity—it went into production as a silent but was quickly intercut with sound. The scintillating Louise Brooks left after shooting her part but before recording her lines, and so Margaret Livingston dubbed her voice and appeared (from the back) in a few scenes. The film was very successful and was swiftly followed by The Greene Murder Case (1929) and The Benson Murder Case (1930). Ultimately, there were seventeen films made, with less and less success, until 1947, when Vance had devolved into a sort of secret agent played by Alan Curtis.
In the end, the pretentiousness and lack of humor of the novels would outweigh readers’ initial fascination. Vance’s erudition became displayed more and more in large and often gratuitous segments that slowed down the tales, and the snob appeal wore thin. By 1939, when Van Dine died, both he and Vance had worn out their welcome, and Van Dine–style stories had been largely replaced by the “hard-boiled” realism of Hammett and others. Here, however, the reader may enjoy Vance at the height of his powers and popularity.
From Leslie Klinger’s introduction to The Canary Murder Case, by S. S. Van Dine. Introduction copyright © 2023 by Leslie Klinger. Reprinted by permission of the publisher, Poisoned Pen Press/Library of Congress Crime Classics.