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S. S. Van Dine biography




S. S. Van Dine

(1888 - 1939)

THE mysterious Willard Huntington Wright was born in 1888 in Charlottesville, Virginia. He was educated at St. Vincent College, California, 1903; Pomona College, California, 1904; and Harvard University, 1906. At Harvard he was a prize student in anthropology and ethnology. In 1907 he married Katharine Belle Boynton of Seattle, Washington, and in the same year became literary editor of the Los Angeles Times.

During his six years with the Times, Wright also served as literary critic for Town Topics, 1910-14; dramatic critic for the same, 1912-14; and editor of Smart Set Magazine, 1912-14. In 1915 he became art critic for The Forum, the following year he was literary critic for International Studio, and in 1917 he served as literary editor of the New York Evening Mail. In 1918-19 he was music critic and art editor of the San Francisco Bulletin, and in 1922-23 he was art critic for Hearst's International Magazine.

Beginning in 1913, Wright published various books on art, literature, and music, which were regarded as scholarly works, but gave him little fame. In 1916 he published a novel, The Man of Promise, dealing with the failure of a man of high talent, which received little attention.

About 1925 Wright underwent a long illness. During his convalescence, by way of occupational therapy, he wrote The Benson Murder Case, in which he created the character of Philo Vance, a master sleuth. In order that his mystery novels should not be judged in comparison with his previous scholarly works, he adopted the pseudonym of S. S. Van Dine, taking an old family name from his maternal grandmother who was a Van Dyne.

The Benson Murder Case was published in Scribner's Magazine and then in book form in 1926. By the time the second of the series, The Canary Murder Case, appeared a year later, Van Dine had become a best-seller, Vance was a household word, and guessing the author's identity was a favorite pastime. When Van Dine wrote an article for a Chicago paper, he responded to the editor's malicious request for a photo with a caricature of himself (having been a painter) which was faithful in every detail, yet unfaithful in general impression. It had the prehensile ears, hair parted to the right, beard, mustache, and monocle. This drawing led to a comparison of the works of S. S. Van Dine with those of Willard Huntington Wright, and thus to a discovery of the author's closely-guarded identity thru certain similarities in those works.

In 1927 Wright published, under his own name, an anthology called The Great Detective Stories, which he prefaced with a thirty-five page essay on the types of detective fiction produced in America, England, France, Germany, Austria, and Russia since Poe and Gaboriau. Under his own name he also wrote an introduction to Some Famous Medical Trials. At the same time he wrote articles on detective fiction under his pen-name. Under both names he expressed some of the same ideas, in some of the same language. When this evidence was presented, together with other clues, he finally admitted his identity. When Wright's neglected novel, The Man of Promise, was reissued in 1929 after he became known as S. S. Van Dine, it received high praise.

Meanwhile, at the rate of one a year, Wright continued to produce Philo Vance's ingenious solutions of baffling murders. After the Canary Murder Case came: The Greene Murder Case (1928), The Bishop Murder Case (1929), The Scarab Murder Case (1930). The author allotted himself six years to produce the complete works of S. S. Van Dine. After the publication in 1931 of the sixth of the series, The Autumn Murder Case, he planned to bid farewell to his successful pseudonymous self and return to his old identity. He planned then to complete the writing of Philology and the Writer and Modern Music. The latter is to supplement Modern Painting (1915) and Modern Literature (1926) and, like them, will be applications of the critical theory enunciated in The Creative Will (1916).

Van Dine's special skill was the constructionof interesting, complex, book length plots. He was not anywhereas good at ingenious puzzle ideas of the sort Chesterton, Christie,and Carr excelled at. But his books and their solid constructionfascinate. Detail after detail gets piled up into an interestingpattern. This can be better described as "Good storytelling"or "Good construction" than as "clever mystery ideas",perhaps. Van Dine's are novels in which the unfolding plot in allits details is more interesting than the solution. This is not tosay the plot is necessarily ultra-complicated. Van Dine's plotsare more well-proportioned than huge; some of his followers expandedtheir range, especially Queen and Abbott. Reading Van Dine's booksis an experience in beauty. The well designed stories meet the beautifulliterary style.

Wright is the very model for Philo Vance himself. A versatile scholar, he is acquainted with languages, literatures, sciences, art, criminology, medicine. He has studied abroad. An interviewer who visited Wright in his study in the West Seventies of New York City writes: "The gentleman seated opposite us was meticulously, groomed and completely at ease in his soft flannel robe. His grey Van Dyke befits his character perfectly. The expression of his eyes changes with his conversation from quiet amusement to intense interest and back to amusement in the course of a sentence. A straight nose and high forehead complete the impression of dignity and extraordinary alertness . . . As we talked he lighted a fresh cigarette at regular ten minute intervals, each time selecting a new holder from a right-hand drawer of the desk." The visitor found the room perfectly conceived for the study of a master sleuth: "It is a large room, rather high, with solid book-shelves against the walls to a convenient reaching height. Above the shelves are hung modern paintings, the predominant note of which is brilliant coloring. These paintings stand out remarkably in the rather dim light of the study. On the north wall is probably the most complete library of detective fiction ever assembled; against the west wall is, perhaps, the most complete private library of Egyptology, including many papyri, in the United States; and the remaining space is given to subjects interesting to a gentleman who delves into arts and sciences."

Information source: wikipedia