Profile at MysteryNet.com: “S.S. Van Dine: A Forgotten Master of the Puzzle Mystery” by Charles L. P. Silet
S. S. Van Dine was the pen name of Willard Huntington Wright, a prolific critic of the arts who turned to writing crime novels following a long illness. Broke and looking to revive his career, Wright submitted a three book outline for a detective series featuring Philo Vance, a wealthy aesthete and man about town, to his old friend Charlie Scribner who was looking for a writer to tap into the growing market in mystery fiction. The series was an immediate success, and Wright authored a baker’s dozen detective novels which made him wealthy and famous.
The Philo Vance books hit just the right note of intrigue and wit to appeal to the growing sophistication of American readers in the late nineteen twenties. The books were snapped up by Hollywood as well and inspired over thirty movies which extended Wright’s reputation. He became a celebrity and appeared in advertisements in popular magazines, wrote several influential essays on detective fiction, and lived an extravagant life not unlike his fictional creation.
However, in the mid-thirties reading tastes changed and the popularity of the series waned, so that at the time of his death in 1939, Wright was an impoverished and largely forgotten man. In spite of his once enormous fame he is now little read and only inadequately mentioned in studies of the modern American mystery fiction.
The Dragon Murder Case (1933) captures him at the top of his form. The novel begins late, one hot August evening when Vance; his friend, John F.-X. Markham, the District Attorney; and S. S. Van Dine, Vance’s lawyer and financial advisor–and the author of the tales–are summoned by Sergeant Heath of the Homicide Bureau to come to Innwood, the ancestral home of the Stamm family, where there has been a mysterious disappearance. Sanford Montague, fiance of Bernice Stamm, dived into the estate’s “Dragon Pool” during a nocturnal revel and has not been seen since. The pool is steeped in legend and possesses a deadly past which later is recounted by the demented dowager Stamm who lives on the third floor of the house.
When the three arrive they find a collection of house party guests, each of whom has motive enough to have murdered the missing man, but as they look into Montague’s affairs, information comes to light to suggest that he may have simply run away from his upcoming nuptials. After one of the other guests turns up dead, the authorities begin treating both cases as murder. As usual Vance languidly smokes his Regie cigarettes and asks seemingly odd questions as he pieces together the clues. Markham scoffs at Vance’s methods and grumbles about wasting time. Van Dine takes it all in so that later he can write it all down.
As he had set down in his famous “rules” for detective stories, Van Dine carefully lays out the clues for the reader to follow and just as carefully explains them at the novel’s conclusion. In between we are introduced to a set of eccentric characters, each with his or her own background, and a locale that is carefully defined and contributes to the mood of the story. But it is Vance, of course, who holds center stage with long lectures on the history of dragons and the habits of various tropical fish. The Dragon Murder Case contains an amusing tale full of clever twists, a tidy set of clues, and a delicious period atmosphere. And although the pacing is a bit more deliberate than is common nowadays, the novel still provides a good mystery.
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An Annotated S. S. Van Dine Reading List
- The Dragon Murder Case by S. S. Van Dine. (First published in 1933)
- Alias S.S. Van Dine: The Man Who Created Philo Vance by John Loughery, (1992)
Charles L.P. Silet teaches courses in film and contemporary literature at Iowa State University and writes extensively on the mystery field. He is currently working on a collection of his interviews with major contemporary writers.