Before he was S.S. Van Dine the mystery writer, Willard Huntington Wright (1888-1939)
was known as an art critic, art historian, book reviewer, and literary editor. He published books like The Future of Painting, What Nietzsche Taught, the literary novel A Man of Promise, and Modern Painting: Its Tendency and Meaning.
Once he began writing mysteries, however, he used the Van Dine pseudonym so his friends wouldn’t know he was doing something so low brow. The Philo Vance mysteries were wildly successful, and one of the contributing factors was how much the eye of the art critic was involved.
The mysteries contain numerous references to artists, exhibitions, and paintings. Philo Vance is a detective almost by accident; when he’s not assisting District Attorney John F.-X. Markham with a murder investigation, he’s attending art auctions and exhibitions (always on the lookout for Cezanne drawings and watercolors) and visiting galleries in New York City.
Where the influence of art can really be seen is in how Van Dine describes characters. Here is one character, a chief suspect, in The Canary Murder Case, the second Philo Vance mystery:
“He was a large man, and he walked with the forced elasticity of gait which epitomizes the silent struggle of incipiently corpulent middle age to deny the onrush of the years and cling to the semblance of youth. He carried a slender wanghee cane; and his checkered suit, brocaded waistcoat, pearl-gray gaiters, and gaily beribboned Homburg hat gave him an almost foppish appearance But these various indications of sportiveness were at once forgotten when one inspected his features. His small eyes were bright and crafty; his nose was bibative, and appeared disproportionately small above his thick, sensual lips and prognathous jaw. There was an oiliness and shrewdness in the man’s manner which were at once repulsive and arresting.”
This is a description worthy of an art critic describing a painting. All of the characters are described this way, including Philo Vance himself, with one exception – the narrator, usually referred to as “Van” for S.S. Van Dine.
|A poster for the movie, Starring William Powell|
In The Canary Murder Case, the “canary” in question is a stage performer, Margaret Odell, who’s found strangled when the maid arrives for work one morning. Her apartment has also been ransacked. The police and District Attorney Markham focus their suspicions and investigation on five men, four of whom had a strong motive – blackmail and unrequited passion. The attractive Miss Odell was not above blackmailing her various boyfriends.
The murder is something of a locked room mystery; there was apparently no way for the murderer to have entered or left the apartment without being seen. Most of the story is devoted to Vance convincing Markham that he and the police are paying too much attention to the evidence and not enough to the psychology of the crime. But even Vance is baffled for a time, until he begins to understand that there were three people in the apartment when the victim was killed.
The novel was published in 1927, and it retains its appeal as an engaging mystery story. The Philo Vance stories were published in the Golden Age of Mystery (roughly 1920-1945). They come close but don’t precisely qualify as noirstories like those of Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, but they do open a window on the underside of New York City in the 1920s and 1930s.
Painting: Willard Huntington Wright, oil on canvas by his brother, Stanton MacDonald-Wright Wright (1913-1914).