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S. S. Van Dine

S. S. Van Dine is the pseudonym used by American art critic Willard Huntington Wright (October 15, 1888 – April 11, 1939). Wright was an important figure in avant-garde cultural circles in pre-WWI New York, and under the pseudonym (which he originally used to conceal his identity) he created the once immensely popular fictional detective Philo Vance, a sleuth and aesthete who first appeared in books in the 1920s, then later in movies and on the radio.

Willard Huntington Wright was born to Archibald Davenport Wright and Annie Van Vranken Wright on October 15, 1888, in Charlottesville, Virginia. His younger brother, Stanton Macdonald-Wright, became a respected painter, one of the first American abstract artists, and co-founder (with Morgan Russell) of the school of modern art known as “Synchromism”. Willard, a largely self-taught writer, attended St. Vincent College, Pomona College, and Harvard University without graduating.

At age 21, Wright began his professional writing career as literary editor of the Los Angeles Times, where he was known for his scathing book reviews and irreverent opinions. He was particularly caustic about romance and detective fiction. Wright’s energies were devoted to numerous projects, reflecting his wide range of interests.

A Germanophile, Wright did not support America’s decision to join the Allied cause in World War I, and he was blackballed from journalism for more than two years after an overzealous secretary erroneously accused him of spying for Germany, an episode that became a much-publicized scandal in New York in November 1917. Though cleared, his favourable view of Prussian militarism cost him many of his friendships. After suffering a nervous breakdown and the beginning of a long-term dependence on illegal drugs, Wright retreated to California, where he attempted to make a living as a newspaper columnist in San Francisco.

Returning to New York in 1920, Wright took any freelance work that came his way but lived a restless, impoverished existence and, in his displays of temper and anxiety, alienated many of his old friends. By 1923, he was seriously ill, the result of a breakdown from overwork, he claimed, but in reality the consequence of his secret cocaine addiction, according to John Loughery’s biography Alias S.S. Van Dine.

Confined to bed for a prolonged period of recovery, he began in frustration and boredom reading hundreds of volumes of crime and detection. As a direct result of this exhaustive study, he wrote a seminal essay, published in 1926, which explored the history, traditions, and conventions of detective fiction as an art form. Wright also decided to try his own hand at detective fiction and approached Maxwell Perkins, the famous Scribner’s editor whom he had known at Harvard, with an outline for a trilogy that would feature an affluent, snobbish amateur sleuth, a Jazz Age Manhattan setting, and lively topical references. In 1926, the first Philo Vance book, The Benson Murder Case, was published under the pseudonym “S.S. Van Dine”. Within two years, following the publication of The Canary Murder Case and The Greene Murder Case, Wright was one of the best-selling authors in the United States.

Frankly embarrassed by his turn from intellectual pursuits to mass market fiction, Wright never wanted to publish under his own name. He took his pseudonym from the abbreviation of “steamship” and from Van Dine, which he claimed was an old family name. He went on to write twelve mysteries in total, though their author’s identity was unmasked by 1928. The first few books about the distinctive Philo Vance (who shared with his creator a love of art and a disdain for the common touch) were so popular that Wright became wealthy for the first time in his life.

Wright’s later books declined in and popularity. The reading public’s tastes changed, and the “hard-boiled” school of detective fiction became the dominant style in the 1930s. The new mood was captured by Ogden Nash in his brief verse:

Philo Vance
Needs a kick in the pance.

In addition to his success as a writer of fiction, Wright’s lengthy introduction and notes to the anthology The World’s Great Detective Stories (1928) are important in the history of the critical study of detective fiction. Although dated by the passage of time, this essay is still a core around which many other such commentaries have been constructed. He also wrote an article, “Twenty Rules for Writing Detective Stories”, in 1928 for The American Magazine. It has been frequently reprinted.

Wright wrote a series of short stories for Warner Brothers film studio in the early 1930s. These stories were used as the basis for a series of twelve short films, each approximately 20 minutes long, that were released in 1931 – 1932. Of these, The Skull Murder Mystery is notable for its non-racist treatment of Chinese characters, something quite unusual in its day. From a monetary perspective, Wright was fortunate in his experiences with Hollywood, and he was lionized on his visits to the movie capital.

On April 11, 1939, at age 50, Wright died in New York of a heart condition exacerbated by excessive drinking, a year after the publication of an unpopular experimental novel that incorporated one of the biggest stars in radio comedy, The Gracie Allen Murder Case. He left behind a complete novelette-length story that was intended as a film vehicle for Sonja Henie and was published posthumously as The Winter Murder Case. Max Perkins generously referred to Wright at the time of Wright’s death as a “gallant, gentle man” who had been tormented by the pressures of a market-driven age. His portrait, painted by his brother in 1914, hangs in the permanent collection of the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C.

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