Tuesday, February 10, 2015

"S. S. Van Dine Was Born of a Nervous Breakdown"

"The History of Their Books: VI. S. S. Van Dine."
By Arthur Bartlett Maurice (1873-1946).
The Bookman, June 1929.
Online HERE.
Circumstantial evidence, Markham, is the utt‘rest tommyrot imag‘nable. Its theory is not unlike that of our present-day democracy. The democratic theory is that if you accumulate enough ignorance at the polls, you produce intelligence; and the theory of circumst‘ntial evidence is that if you accumulate a sufficient number of weak links, you produce a strong chain.
Portrait by Stanton Macdonald-Wright.
Van Dine and his sleuth Philo Vance were hot stuff in the late '20s and early '30s, as this article clearly indicates. Short excerpts:
[Sherlock Holmes, says Maurice, with his lately published valedictory Case-Book, should feel] perhaps a touch of envy [at Philo Vance who] riding high on the crest of popularity has attained with four books, The Benson Murder Case, The "Canary" Murder Case, The Greene Murder Case and The Bishop Murder Case, a total sale of more than 600,000 copies.
. . . When Philo Vance's conversation is particulary "high-brow," the reader is listening to [his dilettante creator] Mr. [Willard Huntington] Wright in a whimsical and ironic mood.
. . . Worldly success sometimes comes in strange ways. S. S. Van Dine was born of a nervous breakdown that Wright suffered in 1923 . . .
. . . [As a form of therapy his doctor allowed him to resume reading] with the reservation that the reading be confined to the reading of detective stories. For two years Mr. Wright devoured detective mystery fiction. He set to work to discover the reason for its almost universal appeal, to trace its evolution, to define its laws.
. . . [Wright resumed writing with his first novel, The Benson Murder Case, which many thought was suggested by] the events surrounding the Elwell murder of 1920. Actually that case was never in mind . . .
. . . [Similarly] The "Canary" Murder Case had nothing whatever to do with the Dot King murder. The underlying theme of the book was night life on Broadway.
. . . [His next book] The Greene Murder Case was originally without the final e ... [which, when added later] conforms to the unintentional plan of having the distinctive word of each title six letters in length.
. . . [In the case of The Bishop Murder Case, Wright was lunching with a magazine editor discussing murders methods and] the editor maintained, for example, that for the purposes of fiction a murder by bow and arrow was impossible. Mr. Wright agreed with him but later, thinking it over in the light of his own considerable study of the subject of archery, he accepted the editor's dictum as a challenge.
Elwell's murder, according to Van Dine, was not an inspiration.
The article concludes with Van Dine's short catalog of detective fiction "devices whose usefulness has been outlived," gimmicks some of which the great Sherlock himself employed at one time or another:
(a) Determining the identity of the culprit by comparing the butt of a cigarette left at the scene of the crime with the brand smoked by the suspect.
(b) The bogus spiritualistic seance to frighten the culprit into giving himself away. [Et tu, Agatha?]
(c) Forged finger prints.
(d) The dummy figure alibi.
(e) The dog that does not bark and thereby reveals the fact that the intruder is familiar.
(f) The final pinning of the crime on a twin or a relative who looks exactly like the suspected, but innocent person. [Found in too many stories, TV shows, and movies to count.]
(g) The hypodermic syringe and the knockout drops.
(h) The commission of the murder in a locked room after the police have actually broken in. [One episode of Jonathan Creek comes to mind.]
(i) The word association test for guilt.
(j) The cipher, or code letter, which is eventually unravelled by the sleuth. [Lord Peter labored in this vineyard at least once, and Ellery Queen specialized in them.]
Van Dine's own version of how he came to write detective fiction has since been challenged as a self-serving fiction, but tall tale or not he did produce some marvelous mind-bogglers in his day.

- The Elwell murder murder case is covered HERE, and the Dot King case HERE.
- A previous ONTOS mention of Van Dine is HERE.
- Wikipedia's spoiler-free article about Philo Vance is pretty comprehensive; go HERE.
- Wright/Van Dine eventually added 19 other no-no's to his list; see HERE.

Category: Detective fiction

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