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The World of Philo Vance, Spectator of Life

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It truly gives me great pleasure to be able to put a few words to paper to mark the re-issue of The Benson Murder Case, the first mystery novel by S.S. Van Dine, one of America‘s all-time greatest writers of detective fiction. His books may be largely forgotten today, almost a century from the first publication of this book, but undeservedly so. Van Dine should be mentioned in the same breath as other leading golden age authors, such as Ellery Queen or Agatha Christie. His Philo Vance books were phenomenally popular in their day. 

According to his biographer, John Loughery, in Alias S.S. Van Dine, “Throughout the late twenties, Willard Huntington Wright (S.S. Van Dine) had been one of Scribners‘ best-selling authors. His detective novels, translated into eleven languages, had sold more than a million copies by the end of the decade. With his Van Dyke beard and pearl-handled cane, he was a striking (if enigmatic) figure in New York Society …“ In his “lavish years, Willard could have been a character in a Fitzgerald short story… In his prime, Willard was one of the most interviewed writers in America, and one of the most affluent.“

S.S. Van Dine was born Willard Huntington Wright in 1888 and initially made his name as an art critic. He also reviewed books, being the literary editor of The Los Angeles Times, and published several books under his real name, including a novel, The Man of Promise (1916). Among his non-fiction books are Modern Painting (191) and The Future of Painting (1923). Earlier, in 1913, he had also published a collection of poetry, later saying, in a private letter: “Having repented of my early indiscretions, I have (suppressed) the entire edition, and if by any hook or crook you manage to get a copy of it, it will be because my plans for confiscation were incomplete.“ 

When Wright turned to crime fiction, under the nom de plume S.S. Van Dine, his true identity remained a secret at first. In a wonderful essay, from 1928, “I Used to Be a Highbrow but Look at Me Now,“ Van Dine explains how he came to writing mysteries. He claims that he began reading detective fiction during a long illness, recovering from a nervous breakdown. “For two years I did little else (than reading detective fiction). I devoured it. I wallowed in it.“ According to the essay, the idea of writing a detective novel took hold of him and he outlined a series of novels, creating his sleuth and working out plots for three books. One of the reasons for not using his real name, he claims, was that, “in America the writing of detective novels is not yet considered a wholly respectable occupation.”

The Benson Murder Case was originally published on October 8, 1926 by Charles Scribner‘s Sons and, incidentally, first edition copies have become notoriously elusive. According to Van Dine‘s essay, the “entire first edition of The Benson Murder Case was sold out in a week, and the following month saw two other large editions vanish from the bookstalls.“ He stated that the success of the Philo Vance stories had surpassed his wildest dreams and that the fame of S.S. Van Dine had spread as he never dared hope it would. Indeed, he said that there was something both of romance and irony in the amount of money that his first three detective novels had earned. 

“Within a year of the time I completed the manuscript of The Benson Murder Case I was free from financial worries and in a position to tack in any direction my fancy dictated.“ In the above-mentioned biography, Loughery states that The Benson Murder Case had “everyone even remotely interested in detective fiction wondering who ‘S.S. Van Dine’ was.”

We first meet renowned detective Philo Vance (not the detective‘s real name, according to Van Dine‘s introduction) in The Benson Murder Case. That novel, as well as the other ones, is narrated by a character called Mr. S. S. Van Dine, Mr. Vance‘s “lawyer and almost constant companion, being the only person who possessed a complete record of the facts,“ as stated in the Publisher‘s Note at the beginning of the book. The character Van Dine met Vance at Harvard, where the author also studied.

“Vance‘s one passion (if a purely intellectual enthusiasm may be called a passion) was art – not art in its narrow, personal aspects, but in its broader, more universal significance.“ This is how we first get to know Philo Vance, with the author also telling us that he was an authority on various forms of art, as well as a collector. 

Throughout the series we come to realize that Vance seems to be an expert on almost anything (such as Egyptology, in The Scarab Murder Case), and the author frequently includes detailed footnotes to explain obscure details or fascinations of Vance. “He was a man of unusual culture and brilliance. An aristocrat by birth and instinct … The great majority of those with whom he came in contact regarded him as a snob,“ as stated in Van Dine‘s description of him in the first chapter of the novel. “Perhaps he may best be described as a bored and supercilious, but highly conscious and penetrating, spectator of life.“ Van Dine also describes him as a man of rare personal charm, unusually good-looking. “When I saw John Barrymore recently in Hamlet I was somehow reminded of Vance.“ Van Dine also mentions his slightly English accent and inflection (from his days at Oxford), and he does have an unusual way of speaking: most int‘restin‘ – pos‘tively – don‘t y‘ know

Vance lives in an apartment on East 38th Street in New York, the two top floors of an old mansion, filled “with rare specimens of oriental and occidental, ancient and modern, art“ – apparently including an original Michelangelo drawing. He also spends a lot of time at his favorite club, the Stuyvesant. The Vance novels are New York stories, just like some of the best Ellery Queen novels, truly bringing that magnificent city to life – and the best place to enjoy a Van Dine novel might very well be in a quiet corner of the reading room of the New York Public Library on Fifth Avenue, not too far from Vance‘s apartment.

Sometimes we actually get the feeling that there was nothing Vance couldn‘t do. According to Van Dine‘s descriptions, he was an expert fencer, had a golf handicap of only three, played championship polo, was “one of the most unerring poker players I have ever seen,“ and had an uncanny knowledge of psychology. Van Dine‘s biographer states that Vance was as famous in his day as Holmes or Poirot, saying: “There was no need for Vance to be likable, Willard explained. That never really mattered. It was enough that he should be memorable.“

The Benson Murder Case deals with the death of stockbroker Alvin Benson, and in the story we meet a number of recurring characters, including the District Attorney of New York County, John F. X. Markham, who was “only an instrument in many of his most famous cases,“ as they were actually solved by Vance, of course. We also meet Sergeant Heath, Dr. Doremus, the medical examiner, and Currie, Vance‘s valet. 

In Van Dine‘s biography, Loughery notes that the plot of The Benson Murder Case “would have sounded tantalizingly similar to the much-discussed Joseph Elwell murder of 1920. Elwell, a wealthy stockbroker and noted bridge player, had been found shot to death seated in his living room chair in his locked brownstone apartment with no apparent signs of forcible entry. Despite an intensive police investigation, neither the weapon nor Elwell‘s murderer was ever found.“

The tone for the whole series is set early on in The Benson Murder Case when Markham states that the case strikes him as a particularly complex one. “Fancy, now!“ said Vance. “And I thought it extr‘ordin‘rily simple.“ The readers will have to embrace Vance‘s slight arrogance to fully enjoy the series. He really is the ultimate debonair sleuth (even using a monocle, without really needing to) who is much smarter than the official investigators, and not afraid to show it.

Van Dine wrote twelve books about Philo Vance, published between 1926 and 1939, the final one posthumously (an outline of a book, rather than a full length novel). The first six are generally considered to be somewhat superior to the latter. In a private letter written in March 1930, Van Dine said: “I have decided to do only six books…however, one never knows exactly what the future holds. Our best plans go awry at times.“ He had said more or less the same in the essay mentioned above, including that he doubted that any writer had more than six good detective-novel ideas in his system.

The Philo Vance success story was not limited to book sales. A total of fifteen Philo Vance movies were made, between 1929 and 1947, most of them based on Van Dine‘s books. In January 1928, Van Dine signed an option agreement for The Benson Murder Case with Paramount Famous Lasky Corporation (later Paramount Pictures). The option fee was $1,750, with a further $15,750 payable upon the exercise of the option. The option was indeed exercised and the film released in 1930, starring Hollywood superstar William Powell as Philo Vance. 

Vance was also referred to in one of the great Christmas movies of the 1940s, The Man Who Came to Dinner (“Philo Vance is now at work!“) and, in 1937, Parker Brothers created S.S. Van Dine‘s Great Detective Game, a board game featuring Philo Vance – a wonderful game to play, although copies are relatively difficult to come by.

Van Dine is also known for his Twenty Rules for Writing Detective Stories, focusing on the fair play between the author and the reader. “The detective story is a kind of intellectual game. It is more – it is a sporting event. And the author must play fair with the reader.“ The rules make for an enjoyable read, although even the best of golden age writers have broken one or more of them. The detective himself should never turn out to be the culprit, says Van Dine, also stating that there “simply must be a corpse in a detective novel, and the deader the corpse the better.”

Willard Huntington Wright – S.S. Van Dine – passed away in New York in April 1939, fifty years of age. His lasting legacy is Philo Vance, and hopefully this re-issue will bring Van Dine‘s work to new generations of readers. Vance really is one of a kind, don‘t y‘ know

–Ragnar Jonasson


Featured image: Portrait, Willard Huntington Wright (S.S. Van Dine)
Artist Stanton MacDonald-Wright
National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution


Britannica.com, article on S.S. Van Dine

Loughery, John, Alias S.S. Van Dine: The Man Who Created Philo Vance, 1992.

Option Agreement dated January 24, 1928, between S.S. Van Dine and Paramount Famous Lasky Corporation.

Penzler, Otto, Collecting Mystery Fiction #3, S.S. Van Dine, 1999.

Van Dine, S.S., I Used to Be a Highbrow but Look at Me Now, re-issue by The Mysterious Bookshop, with an introduction by Otto Penzler.

Van Dine, S.S., A letter from Van Dine to Mr. Van Schalsa, March 7, 1930.

Van Dine, S.S., A letter (undated) from Willard Huntington Wright, from 225 Fifth Ave., NY.

Van Dine, S.S., The Benson Murder Case, 1926.

Van Dine, S.S., “Twenty Rules for Writing Detective Stories“ as published in The Winter Murder Case, 1939 (the Rules were originally published in 1928).


Ragnar Jonasson is an award winning and bestselling Icelandic author of detective fiction, and an avid reader of golden age crime fiction. His books are published in over thirty territories worldwide and have sold around three million copies. His novel Snowblind was selected as one of the top 100 crime fiction novels of all time by Blackwells, and The Darkness as one of the 100 best crime novels and thrillers since 1945 by the (London) Times. In 2021, he became the first Icelandic author to have an official top ten best-selling novel in the US. His two crime series are being developed for television by CBS Studios and Warner Bros. respectively.

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Michael Neff
Algonkian Producer
New York Pitch Director
Author, Development Exec, Editor

We are the makers of novels, and we are the dreamers of dreams.

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