Willard Huntington Wright, slightly better known nowadays as S.S. Van Dine, is a prime example of a writer going from riches to rags. While his first detective novel, The Benson Murder Case, sold by the thousands and was followed by several other best sellers, he died broke and near forgotten. Even worse, later critics and historians ripped to shreds what little was left of his critical reputation, deeming him an overrated hack whose works didn’t even begin to hold a candle to the genuine great masters of the genre. Van Dine progressively became shorthand for everything that was allegedly wrong with Golden Age mysteries: insufferable smug detectives, far-fetched plots, poor characterization and almost complete disregard for realism and verisimilitude. His « rules » went from being the gold standard of the genre to universally scorned. There are still some Van Dine fans almost one century after his death but they are a minority within a minority.
The aim of this article is not to rehabilitate Van Dine and his work but to try to answer a question that has puzzled scholars for decades: Why was he so popular? Anthony Boucher himself couldn’t find an answer: Van Dine didn’t bring anything new to the genre and he wasn’t a particularly distinguished writer or plotter – so why were his first books hailed as superior specimens of the genre? Why did they become runaway critical and commercial successes at a time when very few detective stories, including arguably better ones, managed to reach the best-sellers lists?
S.S. Van Dine for a short while was the detective story in America – but what exactly elevated him to such an enviable status? Boucher inadvertantly gives us a clue:
AMONG the peculiar madnesses that beset Americans during the Nineteen Twenties was the belief that S.S. Van Dine wrote great detective stories. It was part of what H.L. Mencken called the American Credo that the cases of Philo Vance existed on a somehow higher cultural level than any other murder mystery — although Dorothy Sayers, Anthony Berkeley and Dashiell Hammett had all begun to write before Van Dine.
Of the three writers Boucher mentions two were Brits and the single American one belonged to a completely different school of crime writing. That Boucher was unable or unwilling to come up with any contemporary American detective story writer of at least equal caliber to Van Dine is telling and leads one to only one conclusion.
There was none.
While the mystery genre was born in the United States, it took a long time for it to become a local specialty. Much of its maturation and development took place abroad and the genre didn’t really come home until the Sherlock Holmes phenomenon finally brought it back. Even then a fully national crime scene didn’t emerge until the early twentieth century with the likes of Jacques Futrelle, Arthur B. Reeve, Melville Davisson Post and Mary Roberts Rinehart – writers that found a distinctively American way of doing crime fiction instead of slavishly parroting the Brits.
Things looked promising at this point and yet – nothing happened.
Except for Rinehart the « founding parents » of American mystery fiction were short story writers rather than novelists, which became a problem after WW1 when the novel became the genre’s new medium of choice. The American school did indeed follow suit and began to produce novel-length detective novels like the « grandmother of mystery » Anna Katharine Green had done one generation before. The problem is, they weren’t very good.
One of the reasons that led me to write this article is my reading today Natalie Sumner Lincoln’s The Blue Car Mystery which coincidentally appeared the same year as Van Dine’s debut. It isn’t a bad read at all, with some clever bits and an efficient narrative drive, but the plot is a mess, complicated rather than complex and with many laughably absurd elements. What’s more, the detection is nearly non-existent and some vital clues are left out from the reader. The whole thing reminds one more of Carolyn Wells than Agatha Christie (remember, Roger Ackroyd also appeared in 1926!)
To many readers on this diet and eager for something that might compare to what the Brits did, Van Dine must have felt like a breath of fresh air. Philo Vance for all his many irritating quirks actually did some detecting. The plots made sense – almost. There were clues and the reader – theoretically – had their chances to solve the puzzle. You see that one, limeys? We can do those detective novels too!
So we finally have our answer, a disturbing one to the Wright-haters past and present:
Van Dine was the American detective story, because the American detective story didn’t exist, or barely did, before him.
Pace Boucher, had Van Dine not came and « refined » the tastes and expectations of his fellow countrymen, we may never have heard of the later and superior American puzzlers that were John Dickson Carr, Helen McCloy, The Lockridges, Stuart Palmer, Anthony Abbot, Ellery Queen… and Anthony Boucher.
That something is a milestone doesn’t mean that it is great, but it certainly means it deserves a special place in history. Van Dine wasn’t great, but American mystery fiction wouldn’t be the same without him. Like it or not.