It’s 1926. It’s the Jazz Age. Calvin Coolidge is in the White House. Prohibition is in full flood, or drought; so is the crime associated with it. Evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson disappears for a time. A hurricane devastates Miami. Greta Garbo makes her American film debut. Rudolph Valentino dies. A.A. Milne publishes Winnie-the-Pooh. The St. Louis Cardinals beat the New York Yankees to win their first World Series title.
Willard Huntington Wright (1888-1939) was an art critic who had been literary editor of the Los Angeles Times, an editor of The Smart Set, a novelist, an art historian, and art exhibition organizer. A friend of H.L. Mencken and an admirer of the novels of Theodore Dreiser, Wright hated romance and detective fiction with a passion.
|Willard Huntington Wright, aka S.S. Van Dine|
But in 1923, recovering officially from a nervous breakdown but actually from a cocaine addiction, Wright began to binge on mystery and detective novels. He talked with an old Harvard classmate, the legendary Max Perkins of Scribner’s, about a book centering on a private detective who was snobbish, erudite, and educated in art and music. Perkins was intrigued, and in 1926, Wright published the first Philo Vance detective story, The Benson Murder Case.
Too embarrassed to use his own name, he adopted the pen name of S.S. Van Dine. He even made S.S. Van Dine a character in the story – “Van,” an attorney and Philo Vance’s sidekick and chronicler. Vance is close friends with John F.-X. Markham, district attorney for New York County.
Alvin Benson is a stockbroker and financial advisor. Early one morning, his housekeeper discovers his body in the living room of his apartment on West 48th Street in New York City. He’s seated in a chair, legs still crossed, a book open in front of him – and a bullet hole through his head. A woman’s handbag and gloves are found on the fireplace mantle. Both the police and the district attorney’s office investigate, and Markham invites his friend Philo Vance along to learn how investigations are done.
Vance soon realizes that Markham and the police tend to follow circumstantial evidence, ignoring what he calls the “psychology of the crime.” In his breezy, irreverent, and borderline condescending manger, Vance slowly educates his friend on how to consider and investigate the crime.
This first Philo Vance mystery is important for its introduction to how the man thinks and analyzes. Considerable and detailed attention is paid to his methods, his thought processes, and his personality, which can often be as maddening to the reader as it is to Markham and the police. The novel is also filled with descriptions of Jazz Age New York – the clubs, the concerts, the entertainments, and how people of the servant class and upper middle class lived. Almost everyone seems to smoke, and smoke rather elegantly.
Markham considers suspect after suspect, and then he watches Vance demolish one evidentiary case after another, gradually brining the focus to the one person the killer must be. In the process, we realize that The Benson Murder Casemay be as much a sociology and psychology text as it is a murder mystery. The author has an incredibly detailed eye for people, settings, and the New York City of the period.
Wright would publish 12 Philo Vance mysteries between 1926 and his death in 1939. The books were highly successful and made him a lot of money. As successful as his mysteries were, he camouflaged his name behind the pseudonym; he was too embarrassed to acknowledge his work openly.
Over the next several weeks, I’ll be looking at the Philo Vance mysteries, the author, and what place the stories have in the Golden Age of the Mystery Novel.
Top photograph: New York City in the 1920s.