Monday, June 29, 2020

“Alias S.S. Van Dine” by John Loughery

While the mystery detective story may have been invented by Edgar Allen Poe, detective stories generally languished in America until the 1920s, with a few notable exceptions like Mary Roberts Rinehart. The British dominated the genre, both in Britain and the United States. Then, in 1926, Scribner’s published The Benson Murder Case by S.S. Van Dine, a story featuring a rather snobby, almost effete detective named Philo Vance. 

Scribner’s was not known for publishing mystery or detective stories. Van Dine’s editor, Maxwell Perkins, also served at the time as the editor for F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway, and for Thomas Wolfe and Margaret Kinnan Rawlings a few years later. In this case, the detective mystery sold well, so well that Scribner’s contracted with Van Dine to publish more. The second in the series, The Canary Murder Case, skyrocketed Philo Vance and S.S. Van Dine to national fame. 

Willard Huntington Wright
Part of the attraction was S.S. Van Dine’s identity. No one knew who it was, and Scribner’s wasn’t saying. And part of the attraction was that the fictional detective happened to capture the spirit of the Jazz Age better than just about any fiction being published. The public couldn’t get enough of Philo Vance. 

Not everyone was impressed; one of the very few negative reviews of The Benson Murder Case came from a relatively unknown writer named Dashiell Hammett. But Philo Vance and S.S. Van Dine put the American detective story on the map, paving the way for an entire generation of noir writers like Hammett and Raymond Chandler.

Van Dine was Willard Huntington Wright, known for being more of an art critic, book reviewer, and editor than a mystery writer. He had been literary editor of the Los Angeles Times, an editor of The Smart Seta novelist, an art historian, and art exhibition organizer. A friend of H.L. Mencken and an admirer of the novels of Theodore DreiserWright hated romance and detective fiction with a passion, until he needed money. He knew Max Perkins from his brief Harvard days, and he presented the editor with three story treatments, which became the first three Philo Vance stories.

But the man was complex, and he’d led a complicated life. John Loughery tells the story of that life in Alias S.S. Van Dine: The Man Who Created Philo Vance. Published in 1992, the biography deservedly won an Edgar Award from the Mystery Writers of America for best biography. It is a well-researched, in-depth work, its accomplishment even more marked by the fact that Wright told so many different stories (some embroidered truths, others outright lies) about his childhood, upbringing, education, and work experience. Loughery sifted through all the information to produce a well-written, engaging biography.

He tells a complete story. Wright had a first-rate mind, but he tended to squander his talents. He didn’t like to follow direction, especially from the people who employed him. He treated his wife and daughter rather shamefully, and his serial philandering was the least of that treatment. He disdained popular literature, seeing himself as an arbiter of artistic ideas and understanding. In many cases, he was exactly that. He borrowed money from whomever would lend it to him. 

John Loughery today
Finally, in desperate financial straits, he presented Perkins with three ideas for detective stories. The editor, no fan of detective fiction, immediately recognized the commercial possibilities. From 1926 to about 1934, Wright rode a wave of popularity that combined publishing and film (most of the Philo Vance stories became movies). But his creativity waned; the later of the 12 novels were weaker than the earlier ones. By 1938, Perkins was saying they would publish no more; the stories simply weren’t selling like they had. But Scribner’s knew that Van Dine and Philo Vance had saved the publishing firm from disaster after the stock market crash of 1929.

Loughery has also published Dagger John: Archbishop John Hughes and the Making of Irish AmericaDorothy Day: Dissenting Voice of the American CenturyThe Other Side of Silence: Men’s Lives and Gay IdentitiesJohn Sloan: Painter and Rebel, and other works. He’s been nominated for the Pulitzer Prize for Biography and received the Edgar Award in Biography from the Mystery Writers of America for Alias S.S. Van DineHe has also edited three anthologies. First Sightings: Contemporary Stories of American Youth (1993), Into the Widening World: International Coming-of-Age Stories (1994), and The Eloquent Essay: An Anthology of Classic and Creative Nonfiction (2000). Born in 1953, he lives in New York City.

Wright died in 1939 from heart disease; he was 51. He and his novels were quickly forgotten until a minor revival in the 1990s. But Philo Vance was an American original; he put American detective fiction on the world literary map and could rightly point to what he made possible – Sam Spade, Philip Marlowe, Mickey Spillane, Perry Mason, and so many characters and stories in detective fiction. Alias S.S. Van Dine tells a fine story about a talented and very imperfect man.


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