Philo Vance

"Philo Vance
Needs a kick in the pance"

-- Ogden Nash

Philo Vance was responsible for putting detective, crime, and murder mystery books back on the literary map.

There was a time when detective, crime, and murder mystery books had fallen into disrepute. After an auspicious start at the hands of masters like Poe, Dickens, Collins, Gaboriau, Doyle, and others, it seems that a number of lesser writers began to produce mass quantities.

High society, scholars, and intellectuals scorned the genre as inferior.

When literary editor Willard Huntington Wright suffered exhaustion from overworking himself, his doctor forbade him from pursuing his intellectual livelihood. (Well, that is the official account; a recent biography suggests that Wright had a problem with drug addiction.)

But, you see, scholars and intellectuals, don't merely read. Wright pored over his work with a passion. Reading, pursuing literary trails, referencing and cross-referencing -- this was his livelihood and his very raison d'etre.

Wright turned to that genre of writing which was considered less serious and less accepted than the literary heights he normally aspired to. He obtained and read volumes of detective, crime, and murder mystery books.

His conclusion? The books were poorly written by hacks, and it was no wonder they were considered inferior. They were simply examples of bad writing.

But they didn't have to be. If they were better written, the genre could be elevated and, once again, made acceptable.

Wright plotted and outlined three detective novels and presented these outlines to Scribners book publishers. The books (the first three Philo Vance novels) were accepted, and Wright then fleshed them out into novel-length books. He created his pseudonym S.S. Van Dine, who became a Watson character to Vance.

The Philo Vance books were a hit. They brought in enough money for Wright to pursue his hobbies and personal interests. He worked the knowledge he developed into subsequent Vance books. He recovered from his illness and lived somewhat lavishly.

As he continued writing, Wright was to say that every detective story writer has six good books in him. In the end, he developed a dozen Philo Vance books. The first six of these were received favorably by fans, critics, and reviewers of the time. The last six declined in popularity and were panned by reviewers and critics. Julian Symons writes, "The decline in the last six Vance books is so steep that the critic who called the ninth of them one more stitch in his literary shroud was not overstating the case" (Bloody Murder).

Nevertheless, the series was responsible for returning detective, crime, and murder mystery books to the literary landscape. Detective stories once again became an acceptable (and accepted) form of literature. Other writers, such as Ellery Queen, were to be strongly influenced by the series, and the Golden Age of detective fiction was about to be ushered in.

Wright maintained that writers of detective stories should follow strict rules. His "Twenty Rules for Writing Detective Stories" has been anthologized in The Art of the Mystery Story by Howard Haycraft.

Wright also wrote a classic introduction in his own anthology of The Great Detective Stories.

The Philo Vance Books

Philo Vance on Film

The Kennel Murder Case has been made into a film (with William Powell, Mary Astor, Eugene Pallet, and others) that is considered a masterpiece by film buffs and historians, and one of the greatest screen adaptations of a novel from the Golden Age of detective, crime, and murder mystery books. It is available as The Kennel Murder Case (DVD).