Study Guide

S. S. Van Dine

by Willard Huntington Wright

S. S. Van Dine Essay - Critical Essays

Analysis

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 tangled skein of events,” the reader of a detective novel experiences “the swift and exhilarating participation in the succeeding steps that lead to the solution.” Van Dine sees the detective novel as unlike “fiction in the ordinary sense.” It is an “intellectual game, . . . a complicated and extended puzzle cast in fictional form,” and puzzles, he avers, have been humankind’s “chief toy throughout the ages.” Van Dine likens the detective novel to the crossword puzzle:In each there is a problem to be solved; and the solution depends wholly on mental processes—on analysis, on the fitting together of apparently unrelated parts, on a knowledge of the ingredients, and, in some measure, on guessing. Each is supplied with a series of overlapping clues to guide the solver; and these clues, when fitted into place, blaze the path for future progress. In each, when the final solution is achieved, all the details are found to be woven into a complete, interrelated, and closely knitted fabric.

All the Philo Vance novels are intricately plotted; several underscore the puzzle element. In The Bishop Murder Case (1929), for example, clues to a series of murders include allusions to Mother Goose rhymes, mathematical theories, and chess moves. Vance himself approaches his cases as if they were puzzles or mathematical problems; he is an adherent of “cold, logical exactness in his mental processes.”

The solution to be sought in a detective novel, according to Van Dine, is ideally that of a murder: “Crime has always exerted a profound fascination over humanity, and the more serious the crime the greater has been that appeal.” He once said that he considered “murder” the strongest word in the English language, and he used it in the title of each of his Philo Vance novels.

For a puzzle to be enjoyable—and solvable—it must be logical and fair. Many of Van Dine’s twenty rules address the issue of fairness. For example, “The reader must have equal opportunity with the detective for solving the mystery. All clues must be plainly stated and described” (rule 1); “No willful tricks or deceptions may be placed on the reader other than those played legitimately by the criminal on the detective himself” (rule 2); “The detective himself, or one of the official investigators, should never turn out to be the culprit . . . ” (rule 4); “The culprit must be determined by logical deductions—not by accident or coincidence or unmotivated confession . . . ”(rule 5).

Van Dine stresses that the detective writer must be ingenious but never implausible: “A sense of reality is essential to the detective novel.” The ideal material for the plot is commonplace, not exotic; the detective writer’s task is “the working of familiar materials into a difficult riddle” that, if the reader should go back over the book after reading it the first time “he would find that the solution had been there all the time if he had had sufficient shrewdness to grasp it.” The Philo Vance novels meet this criterion, for the most part. Vance typically solves his cases by a process of elimination and through his knowledge, both academic and intuitive, of human psychology.

Although, unlike romances or adventure novels, the detective novel, according to Van Dine, must have only enough atmosphere to establish the “pseudo-actuality” of its plot, setting, as opposed to atmosphere, is crucial:The plot must appear to be an actual record of events springing from the...

(The entire section is 2036 words.)