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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2036

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...

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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 terrain of its operations; and the plans and diagrams so often encountered in detective stories aid considerably in the achievement of this effect. A familiarity with the terrain and a belief in its existence are what give the reader his feeling of ease and freedom in manipulating the factors of the plot to his own (which are also the author’s) ends.

Accordingly, the Philo Vance novels usually feature maps and room diagrams. They also present a fascinatingly detailed picture of upper-class life in New York City in the 1920’s and 1930’s.

The style of a detective story, according to Van Dine, must aid in creating the sense of reality and verisimilitude; it “must be direct, simple, smooth, and unencumbered.” It must be unemotional as well, and thus contribute to what is for Van Dine “perhaps the outstanding characteristic of the detective novel”—unity of mood, a mood conducive to “mental analysis and the overcoming of difficulties.” In the Philo Vance novels, accordingly, the author presents himself through the narratorial persona of S. S. Van Dine, the protagonist’s lawyer and companion. The narrator’s status as an attorney serves to underscore the importance of logical analysis and objectivity, but his style, especially in the later novels, is frequently mannered and elaborate, and he digresses frequently into lengthy disquisitions, complete with footnotes, about such matters as art, archaeology, music, mathematics, criminology, and religion—typically in their most esoteric manifestations.

Van Dine’s recommendations about characterization suggests that he thinks of characters—excluding the detective hero himself—primarily as pieces in a puzzle. Although they must not be “too neutral and colorless” (which would spoil the effect of verisimilitude), the detective writer should avoid delineating them “too fully and intimately.” Characters should “merely fulfill the requirements of plausibility, so that their actions will not appear to spring entirely from the author’s preconceived scheme.” They are not to fall in love, since “the business at hand is to bring a criminal to the bar of justice, not to bring a lovelorn couple to the hymeneal altar” (rule 3); nor are they to belong to “secret societies, camorras, mafias” (rule 13), or, it appears, to be professional criminals, who are the concern of police departments, “not of authors and brilliant amateur detectives” (rule 17).

Story materials, plot, atmosphere, setting, style, narration, mood, characterization—according to Van Dine’s theory all of these are strictly functional parts of a puzzle to be solved, counters in an exciting mental game. The primary player in this game is the detective hero and, vicariously, the reader. Van Dine’s ideal detective hero stands in contrast to his world. He is singular. In fact, Van Dine rules that “There must be but one detective—that is, but one protagonist of deduction—one deus ex machina.” To have more than one detective would be to confuse the reader: “It’s like making the reader run a race with a relay team” (rule 9). The detective is singular, not only in number but, more important, in kind. His brilliance sets him above others, especially the police. Preferably, he is an amateur, and this status divorces him from mundane considerations such as earning a living or gaining a promotion. In Van Dine’s view he is at once godlike, heroic (like Oedipus), wise (“the Greek chorus of the drama”), and fascinating:All good detective novels have had for their protagonist a character of attractiveness and interest, of high and fascinating attainments—a man at once human and unusual, colorful and gifted.

The Benson Murder Case

Philo Vance meets these criteria. The opening chapter of the first volume of the series, The Benson Murder Case, provides a detailed character portrait of Vance. He is described as “a man of unusual culture and brilliance.” He is learned in psychology and criminology, enjoys music, and has a passion for art; he is an authority on it as well as “one of those rare human beings, a collector with a definite philosophic point of view.” “Unusually good-looking” and in dress “always fashionable—scrupulously correct to the smallest detail—yet unobtrusive,” Vance is skilled in various sports and games: He is an expert fencer, his golf handicap is only three, he is a champion at polo and an “unerring” poker player. An “aristocrat by birth and instinct, he held himself severely aloof from the common world of men.” Vance is a snob both intellectually and socially: “He detested stupidity even more, I believe, than he did vulgarity or bad taste.”

Reactions to Vance over the years have differed widely and range from fascination and adulation to the bemused annoyance of Ogden Nash’s famous lines, “Philo Vance/ Needs a kick in the pance.” In the later novels his mannerisms sometimes seem self-parodic. Although he did not always avoid them, it is evident in the following passage from The Benson Murder Case that Van Dine knew the risks he was taking with his characterizations of Vance:Perhaps he may best be described as a bored and supercilious, but highly conscious and penetrating, spectator of life. He was keenly interested in all human reactions; but it was the interest of the scientist, not the humanitarian. Withal he was a man of rare personal charm. Even people who found it difficult to admire him found it equally difficult not to like him. His somewhat quixotic mannerisms and his slightly English accent and inflection—a heritage of his postgraduate days at Oxford—impressed those who did not know him well as affectations. But the truth is, there was very little of the poseur about him.

The Bishop Murder Case

Van Dine was very interested in the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche; in 1915, in fact, he published a book titled What Nietzsche Taught. His ideal detective hero bears significant resemblance to the Nietzschean Übermensch (literally, “overman”), who, unlike common human beings, has managed to overcome his passions, has genuine style, is creative, and is above ordinary morality. Van Dine’s Philo Vance is a self-professed disciple of Nietzschean philosophy, and in The Bishop Murder Case he plays the part of an Übermensch when he avoids being murdered by switching poisoned drinks with Professor Bertrand Dillard, the killer he has been investigating. Reproached by the district attorney for taking the law into his own hands, Vance says,“ . . . I felt no more compunction in aiding a monster like Dillard into the Beyond than I would have in crushing out a poisonous reptile in the act of striking.” “But it was murder!” exclaimed Markham in horrified indignation. “Oh, doubtless,” said Vance cheerfully. “Yes—of course. Most reprehensible. . . . I say, am I by any chance under arrest?”

Here Vance does what the author or reader would, perhaps, like to do—deliver justice, not merely to facilitate it through his detection.

Van Dine’s theory posits the detective as an alter ego for both author and reader. The detective isat one and the same time, the outstanding personality of the story, . . . the projection of the author, the embodiment of the reader, . . . the propounder of the problem, the supplier of the clues, and the eventual solver of the mystery.

For Van Dine, then, the detective hero serves the function not only of entertainment but also of wish fulfillment: He satisfies a fantasy about intellectual and moral power. Ultimately and paradoxically, therefore, fictional realism and strict logic serve in Van Dine’s theory of detective fiction a compelling fantasy that cannot be satisfied in the real world of human society.

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