There is much available on the web about S. S. Van Dine and his place in the history of mystery. I hesitate to cover that ground again. I will note that S. S. Van Dine is a pseudonym for Willard Huntington Wright (1888-1939), who had worked as a critic and journalist in the U.S. before his career as a mystery novelist.
In Mystery Scene, Summer Issue #95, there is a profile of Philo Vance which includes this summary of how the books came to be:
Philo Vance was born during a two-year period of bed rest for Wright, brought on by the author’s drug abuse. To occupy him, Wright’s doctor suggested light reading, such as detective fiction. For someone who had once written, “There are few punishments too severe for a popular novel writer,” it sounded like a dubious proposition, but to Wright’s surprise, he found mystery novels challenging and entertaining. After reading the genre dry, he decided to get into the act himself. Wright devised the plotlines for three novels—with the intent of writing six in total—and created the nom de plume S.S. Van Dine so his acquaintances wouldn’t know. “Van Dine,” he claimed, was an old family name, but John Loughery, author of Alias S.S. Van Dine, found no evidence supporting that. Wright likewise claimed that S.S. stood for “steam ship.”When I first looked into reading a Van Dine mystery, I was intrigued to find such extreme opinions about his books... in mystery reference books that I have and in book reviews on blogs. He is either revered or held in disdain by many mystery fans. And there are those who find his works of historical interest, but still do not enjoy the stories or the character.
One innovation of Wright’s was to also give the name S.S. Van Dine to the first-person narrator of the books, a trick that would later be be used in a similar way by Ellery Queen.
The Greene Murder Case: My Take
So I picked The Greene Murder Case as my first entry into the works of Van Dine, based on several blogs I read (at Mystery*File and Tipping My Fedora) and the recommendation of 1001 Midnights by Pronzini and Muller. This story is about a wealthy family that is being killed off, one by one. The police first blame the murders on a burglar but eventually have to admit that it must be an inside job. The entire family lives in one mansion, forced to do this by the will left by the patriarch of the family.
Initially I did not find the plot or the characters entertaining, and the writing style was not to my liking. (Perhaps I should have started with the first Philo Vance novel, The Benson Murder Case, which explains Van Dine's relationship to Vance.) I was at least two thirds of the way into the book before I began to truly enjoy it.
I liked the list in chapter 23. It is a summary of the crimes and associated facts from beginning to end and lists nearly 100 items. Very unusual but I liked it. I have no problem with Philo Vance's supercilious and arrogant attitude. He has this in common with other fictional detectives; one of my favorites of this type is Nero Wolfe.
I agree with this assessment at Vintage Pop Fictions:
Most of the criticisms that have been made of these books are entirely accurate. It’s just that if, like me, you’re a fan then you’ll see those things as virtues rather than faults. Vance’s aristocratic mannerisms, his affected mode of speech, his prodigious knowledge of any subject you care to mention, the scholarly footnotes, these are all these things you will either find irritating or endearing.I have yet to decide what side I am on. I will read at least one more of the Philo Vance series, and I would like to find one where the crime is a bit more of a puzzle, and less dependent on intuition (and time) to be solved.
My husband and I have seen the Philo Vance films starring William Powell; the one I remember the best is The Kennel Murder Case. Having read more about films of the books starring other actors, I would love to see those also.