Intriguing if ultimately somewhat disappointing: A full biography (the first, apparently) of nasty, elegant, tortured...


ALIAS S.S. VAN DINE: The Man Who Created Detective Philo Vance

Intriguing if ultimately somewhat disappointing: A full biography (the first, apparently) of nasty, elegant, tortured Willard Huntington Wright (1887-1939)--magazine editor, art critic, and, as ""S.S. Van Dine,"" the author of the phenomenally successful, now nearly forgotten Philo Vance mysteries. Loughery, art critic of The Hudson Review, begins, effectively, with Wright's final, unhappy days: the Philo Vance bubble already burst, his lavish lifestyle in disarray. Next, bewilderingly, the narrative flashes back not to Wright's beginnings but to his brief stint (1913-14) as editor of The Smart Set--where his daring taste soon got him into trouble. Only then does Loughery make a proper start: Virginia childhood with indulgent, hotel-owning parents and an equally precocious younger brother (artist Stanton); spotty studies at Harvard and impetuous, unfortunate marriage at 19; acerbic book-review work in California, with Mencken as model. After The Smart Set debacle came years of ill-rewarded labor as an eloquent champion of modern art, particularly the ""synchronism"" of brother Stanton Macdonald-Wright. A failure in N.Y.C, Wright became a 1920's scrounger in Hollywood, writing for movie-mags--while wrestling with drug addiction and domestic turmoil. (He was a misogynistic womanizer as well as a racist.) Finally, in 1924, this bitter aesthete decided to sell out with a vengeance and came up with Philo Vance, a ""fantasy projection"" of himself: art connoisseur, aristocrat, amateur detective--and the first American sleuth to rival the sophistication and popularity of the British mystery greats. However, by 1933, the Van Dine novels had become ""a dreary, desperate, mortifying labor for cash."" Despite the clumsy start, an unlikable subject, and insufficient psychological depth: curious, literate life-history, with sporadic illumination of American culture (pop and otherwise) in the 1910-40 period.

Pub Date: May 1, 1992


Page Count: 320

Publisher: Scribners

Review Posted Online: N/A

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 15, 1992