The development of S. S. Van Dine’s theory and the composition of his early detective novels occurred at the same time—during his two-year convalescence beginning in 1923. Writing under his real name, Van Dine articulated his theory of detective fiction in a detailed historical introduction to his anthology The Great Detective Stories: A Chronological Anthology (1927). Van Dine’s theory underlies “Twenty Rules for Writing Detective Stories” (1928), his acerbically witty credo, which, as he affirmed, was “based partly on the practice of all the great writers of detective stories, and partly on the promptings of the honest author’s inner conscience.” Van Dine’s theory is important in its own right as well as in the context of detective writers’ concerns about the integrity of the genre during this period. His theory is also borne out to a large degree in the Philo Vance novels, although significant departures from it may be observed.
The Rules of Detective Fiction
In his 1927 introduction, Van Dine begins by distinguishing detective fiction from all other categories of fiction. “Popular” rather than “literary,” it is unlike other kinds of popular fiction—romance, adventure, and mystery (that is, novels of international intrigue and suspense)—in that it provides not a passive emotional thrill but an engaging intellectual challenge. Rather than merely awaiting “the author’s unraveling of the...
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