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SS Van Dine was the pseudonym of Willard-Huntington Wright, who was born in
Virginia, USA, in 1888. He had a scholarly upbringing, studying at Harvard University
and going on to study art in Munich and Paris. He then pursued a career as a distinguished
art critic and editor of the influential The Smart Set magazine.
Wright suffered a breakdown, due to overwork, in 1923 and was confined to bed for two years. During this period, he reputedly read over 2,000 works of detective fiction and related criminious books. This clearly gave him a deep grounding in the subject and he began work on three stories, all featuring his series character Philo Vance. After submitting them to a publisher, and having all three immediately accepted, the first one, The Benson Murder Case, appeared in 1926. It was subsequently followed by The Canary Murder Case and The Greene Case. The books enjoyed huge success despite, perhaps initially because of, the complexity of the plots and dialogue. Van Dine continually portrayed Philo Vance as intellectually superior to everyone, almost immeasurably so at times. Lengthy tracts, in-depth analysis and complex solutions, though sometimes warranted and initially amusing, began to irritate and alienate many readers.
Despite declining public and critical support after the early novels, Wright's contribution
should not be overlooked. Although his plotting was at times fanciful, even verging on the absurd,
the first three books were very influential to the development of the Golden Age in America.
Wright died in 1939 and although his star was on the wane, due mainly to his failure to change his style to meet public taste, his position is is both secure and important in the history of detective fiction.
Text © 2004 R.D. Collins
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