S. S. Van Dine. The Benson Murder Case. New York, Scribner’s, 1926.
“When an author has been so unfortunate as to write a popular novel, it is a difficult thing to live down the reputation. Personally I have no sympathy with such a person, for there are few punishments too severe for a popular novel writer.” Willard Huntington Wright, 1909.
Philo Vance/Needs a kick in the pants.
With sales of over one million volumes, S. S. Van Dine was one of the most popular detective novelists of the Twenties. His series of novels featuring the self-consciously aristocratic detective Philo Vance were published by the august firm of Charles Scribner, and edited by the indefatigable Maxwell Perkins, also shepherd to the talents of Hemingway, Fitzgerald and Thomas Wolfe. S. S. Van Dine was really Willard Huntington Wright , a former academic and aesthete, art critic and editor with H. L Mencken of The Smart Set. Under his own name he published a half dozen books on art, society and literature (including a well reasoned attack on the 11th edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica). As S. S. Van Dine, his first of twelve mystery novels was The Benson Murder Case, published in 1926. His cultured and erudite detective/hero/alter ego, clearly reflects the new privileged lifestyles of the Jazz Age. as well as any number of quintessentially twenties qualities such as nerve and excess. They were highly and dramatically publicized. Although now they are more likely to be judged preposterous and pompous, they were immensely popular in their time and forecast an American obsession with the rich and famous continuing into the 21st Century. The Canary Murder Case broke all records for detective fiction, selling 20,000 copies in the first week of publication. It was also the first detective fiction to run in the eminent literary magazine Scribner’s.
Van Dine’s stories were the anti-thesis of the hard-boiled school, taking place largely among the upper classes and in the realms of high society and high culture, featuring the people, events and institutions of New York, including Stieglitz and his gallery, the famous Halls-Mills Murder and other true crimes of the decade. Many of Van Dine’s six letter murder cases (Canary, Bishop, Kennel, etc) were made into movies starring William Powell or Basil Rathbone as Vance, and including among others the wildly popular Louise Brooks (who ends up a corpse in the Canary Murder Case). Ellery Queen and Rex Stout, were to follow more successfully in his footsteps as the fascination of the public with Van Dine and Vance waned in the thirties. He is largely forgotten today and when remembered, as a curiosity of the times.