S. S. Van Dine is the pseudonym used by Willard Huntington Wright (1888 – 1939) when he wrote detective fiction. Originally a literary and art critic, Wright read dozens of mysteries and crime novels during a lengthy illness, after which he wrote an essay on the history and conventions of detective novels that was published in 1926. He also wrote an article, Twenty Rules for Writing Detective Stories, in 1928 that has been often reprinted and compared to Ronald Knox’s commandments. After his research into the origins of the detective story, he wrote a dozen contemporary mysteries featuring amateur detective Philo Vance, a well-to-do member of New York’s upper crust. He later developed the scenarios for a number of detective short films produced in Hollywood.
The Canary Murder Case (Macmillan, 1927) was the second adventure for Vance. In the introduction Van Dine describes himself as the personal attorney and close friend of Vance, who accompanied him on his investigations and became his eventual scribe. Vance was well-acquainted with the New York District Attorney John Markham who invited him to assist in the investigation of the murder of Margaret Odell, a Broadway singer and dancer known as the Canary after one of her most famous roles. Odell, notorious for her flamboyance and her love affairs, was found strangled in her apartment one morning by her maid. The apartment was ransacked and her jewelry was missing. Based on the evidence of the switchboard operators and the janitor, the building was secured such that no one could have entered her apartment near the time of the murder, thereby setting up a nice locked room puzzle.
Philo Vance is the classic gentleman detective, wealthy and well-educated with a strong interest in the arts. His foppish mannerisms conceal significant intelligence and creative problem-solving skills. Think Peter Wimsey or Albert Campion transported to Jazz Age New York City. The district attorney and police detectives who can’t keep up with Vance’s out-of-the-box approach to the investigation serve as his foils. The mystery offers an apartment that no one could have entered to commit the crime and suspects with apparently unassailable alibis. In addition, the setting, the social context surrounding the murder, and the dialog are very much of the time and place, making this an intriguing period piece of crime fiction.