A Lost Modernist Manifesto, or: S. S. Van Dine’s Rules for Detective Fiction

We’re apparently on the theme of “genre” this week! This post is about how the “detective fiction” genre was defined in the twentieth century (more or less).

Folks who are dedicated fans or critics of detective fiction have probably heard of S.S. Van Dine, the pseudonym of an American detective fiction writer who was popular in the 1920s and 1930s. While his status in the detective genre is nowhere near the rock star status of Agatha Christie, he is still often referenced for the set of rules he enshrined in 1928 for properly constructing detection fiction, which he describes as a game to be played between a writer and a reader.

That is what this post was meant to focus on: his list of rules, at least as theorist Tzvetan Todorov distilled them 35 years later for his own examination of genre fiction.

Portrait of Willard Huntington Wright (S. S. Van Dine) by his brother, Stanton MacDonald-Wright, Oil on canvas.
Portrait of Willard Huntington Wright (S. S. Van Dine) by his brother, Stanton MacDonald-Wright, Oil on canvas. Image from Wiki Commons. Portrait held by the National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution

But before I can get to those rules, I feel I need to give some more context for them. S.S. Van Dine is the pseudonym of Willard Huntington Wright, an American art critic from Virginia who was influenced by, and worked among, the avant-garde artists of the first part of the twentieth century. He went to Paris in the 1910’s and became enthusiastic about the art and cultural innovations and spirit of that milieu. When he came back to the U.S., he dedicated himself to writing about the modern art and modernist movements he had encountered (though he wouldn’t have referred to them with the term “modernist”). Wright published significant books on Nietzsche and modern art for U.S. readers and was active in art critical circles in the U.S. He was even a kind of acolyte and friend of H.L. Mencken, who was also a fan of Nietzsche and an influential cultural critic in the American twentieth century.

His association with Mencken landed him an editor position for a New York magazine, The Smart Set, which was primarily dedicated to realist fiction, though under Wright’s editorial term, it published many names that would be part of a “who’s who” list of a particular set of modernist men, including Ezra Pound, D.H. Lawrence, Ford Maddox Ford, and Joseph Conrad. So, it seems that Wright was part of the so-called “little magazines” of pre-WWI modernism in the U.S. Wright’s avant-garde circle was decidedly male and elitist, however, and represented a kind of striving for masculinity-through-aesthetic-ideal, like that he saw in (the seemingly very different) Oscar Wilde and Friedrich Nietszche.

This reverence for elitism or cultural aestheticism is both countered by, and channeled into, his famous fictitious amateur sleuth, Philo Vance. Here is an early description of the fictional detective from the first novel in the sequence of 12 mysteries:

Vance was what many would call a dilettante, but the designation does him an injustice. He was a man of unusual culture and brilliance. An aristocrat by birth and instinct, he held himself severely aloof from the common world of men. In his manner there was an indefinable contempt for inferiority of all kinds. The great majority of those with whom he came in contact regarded him as a snob. Yet there was in his condescension and disdain no trace of spuriousness. His snobbishness was intellectual as well as social. He detested stupidity even more, I believe, than he did vulgarity or bad taste. I have heard him on several occasions quote Fouché’s famous line: C’est plus qu’un crime; c’est une faute. And he meant it literally.

Vance was frankly a cynic, but he was rarely bitter; his was a flippant, Juvenalian cynicism. 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. (The Benson Murder Case)

There is something remarkable about the merging of two contrasting ideologies and forms in this excerpted text, when considering the content and its delivery mechanism together: the elite modern man and the common popular fiction genre; scientific interest and intellect via frivolous entertainment; aloofness and sensationalism; and so on.

The fact that Wright is writing this text at all, and that we (common folk) are here reading it, suggests a kind of defeat or capitulation to the things the elite art critic of the avant-garde detested. Rumor has it that Wright was not making enough money as an art critic, so he had to resort to popular writing to make a living. Wright’s snobbery and disdain for the form comes through this detective figure and through the tone of the narrative. When I read the words “He detested stupidity even more, I believe, than he did vulgarity or bad taste,” I can’t help but feel a bit of a personal attack: this man–both the fictional character and the author–despises the reader in this moment, and must let them know this.

And yet, the genre itself seems to have its say over the situation, offering some criticism too: isn’t there some built-in sarcasm at Philo Vance’s expense in this passage? Isn’t the target reader, the “common reader,” going to be predisposed to despise this “dilettante”?  And so, perhaps intended or not, a kind of game is already set in play between the elite detective and the common reader who follows along. Do they despise each other? And yet they need each other? One for material necessities (to make a salary), the other for emotional and intellectual escape (from a hard day’s work)? What other purposes or needs might this antagonism serve? (I’m asking this literally, not rhetorically, btw.)

Apparently before he stooped to this common genre fiction level, for which he had to hide his professional identity behind a pseudonym, he tried his hand at a literary novel under his own name, The Man of Promise (1916). This novel would not be considered “modernist” but did aspire to the “high brow” level of what Andreas Huyssen has influentially dubbed “the great divide,” that split culture in the twentieth century between the elitism of “high modernism” and the low masses of popular culture. I have not read Wright’s early novel, tbh, but from secondary comments on it and the excerpts I’ve read, it seems that Wright tells on himself. A lot.

According to critic Brooks Hefner, this early novel by Wright “is a fundamentally misogynist text” that lays out Wright’s own cultural and social philosophies, including the disdain for “feminine” culture that was, at that period, associated with the realism of the Victorian age and viciously criticized in the aesthetic circles of the turn of the twentieth century, led by figures like Oscar Wilde and Friedrich Nietszche (31). In excerpts I’ve read, I can identify a particular strain of modernist manifesto in the narrative voice:

“The intellectual aristocrat must turn his back on the world. The valour of the great man makes it possible for him to endure what the common man would shrink from. Culture … can never be the property of the masses. The instinct for culture is a need; and the masses need only the ugly, primitive and ephemeral things” (Wright qtd. in Hefner 31).

Here is more from Hefner on Wright’s interesting cultural dichotomy that in itself staged the (now understood as mythical) conflict between “modernist artists” and the common folk:

Wright’s transition from 1910s “intellectual aristocrat” to a provider of “ephemeral” fiction for the masses speaks to the permeability of literary boundaries, and his early Philo Vance novels— the most popular American detec-tive novels of the 1920s—chart complicated trends and anxieties in this shift between cultural spheres. These aesthetic boundaries— popularized as “highbrow” and “lowbrow” in Van Wyck Brooks’s 1915 America’s Coming-of-Age— shaped the cultural thinking of writers like Ezra Pound and publications like the Little Review (whose subtitle, from June 1917, assured its readers that it was “making no compromise with the public taste”), and helped define modernism as an aesthetic practice opposed to the marketplace. (31)

I should note here, and Hefner goes on to point out in his article, the pseudo-scientific origins of the phrases “high brow” and “low brow,” which come from phrenology, the pseudoscience that developed in the 19th century to offer a justification for “racial difference” that made it acceptable to European investors and consumers to use slave labor and other destructive means to extract a maximum of resources for minimum of cost to themselves, thus maximizing their profit margins in a globalizing economy.  So, now you know that when someone says “high brow” or “low brow,” they’re using common designators in our language that create hierarchical distinctions within culture based on racism (i.e. the assumption of skills or abilities based on the shape of a skull or facial features), which in turn was/is based on economic and political expediency.

This contextual information about Wright’s cultural and social influences, and the conflicts and anxieties between class, culture, gender and race that shape both Wright’s literary output and any engagement with it, provides an important reminder of the push-and-pull of any cultural object, whether a painting by Pablo Picasso hanging on the wall of a private collector or a pulp detective novel in the rack at newspaper kiosk. This push and pull happens between any cultural object and its creators, markets, audiences, and over time. And by “push and pull” I mean the reciprocal impacts and influences between things.

So, when Tzvetan Todorov turns, in 1966,  to Wright’s, a.k.a. S.S. Van Dine’s, rules of engagement for detective fiction in order to verify or test his own theory of genre construction and distinction, we can remember that both Todorov and Wright are working within specific cultural and social contexts that impact their aesthetic tastes and their philosophical opinions.

For the sake of brevity, I appreciate Todorov’s condensing and simplification of the original 20 rules, published in 1928:

  1. The novel must have at most one detective and one criminal, and at least one victim (a corpse).
  2. The culprit must not be a professional criminal, must not be the detective, must kill for personal reasons.
  3. Love has no place in detective fiction.
  4. The culprit must have a certain importance:(a) in life: not be a butler or a chambermaid.(b) in the book: must be one of the main characters.
  5. Everything must be explained rationally; the fantastic is not admitted.
  6. There is no place for descriptions nor for psychological analyses.
  7. With regard to information about the story, the following homology must be observed: ‘author: reader = criminal: detective.’
  8. Banal situations and solutions must be avoided (Van Dine lists ten [example banal situations, which are actually common plot devices in detective fiction, such as a cipher which the sleuth works out.])

Here are some things that stand out to me about this list:

  • The “must” language in these rules makes me think of the conflict Wright felt between his sense of elitism and the baseness of popular culture like detective fiction. Are these reminders of what he feels anxiety about? Is the restrictive and authoritative tone of these rules a way for Wright to reinsert some kind of dominance over the genre that he thinks is below him? And beyond that, I hear the echo in the many “musts” of this list in the manifesto language pointed out in Wright’s early literary-didactic novel above. Could we categorize this list of detective fiction rules as an offshoot of the modernist manifesto genre? How exciting!
  • According to Todorov’s interpretation of the rules, the author is the adversary of the reader, and vice versa (the formula in number 7 above). Wright’s rules don’t spell this formula out in this way, so here Todorov is interpreting or diagnosing Wright’s prescriptive relationship as laid out in the 20 rules. I imagine Todorov’s interpretation is correct, based on both these rules and what we know about Wright’s own aesthetics and anxieties. But this also seems to be a bit of a reach in terms of a summary of the rules as Wright lays them out. It doesn’t look like Wright ever made an analogy between the reader/author relationship and the criminal/detective relationship. This does, however, conveniently serve Todorov’s theory of relationships between content and form. So, here we see the summary of the list diverging a bit from the list itself, but more as an augmentation to the list rather than a betrayal of it, because I do believe Todorov’s description is a good faith extrapolation.
  • The emphasis on logic and intellect (i.e., no “trickery” and no “love”) forces a hierarchical distinction between emotions and intellect that Wright has learned from influences like Nietszche. Within these detective genre rules, this distinction becomes a demand that the emotional or illogical inclination of readers and other “popular” genre writers must be combatted through the form itself. In other words, this list seems to be at odds with some fundamental criteria or expectations of the genre, i.e. its popular and thus anti-intellectual purpose.
  • There is evidence in Wright/Dine’s original language that suggests this list of rules (which I am now referring to as a manifesto) is meant to distinguish detective fiction from other kinds of “popular” fiction, and this is important for establishing this text’s (the list’s) performative, manifesto purpose. For example, rule number 15 ends with the declaration: “readers who would spurn the ordinary “popular” novel will read detective stories unblushingly.”
  • Todorov’s use of Wright’s list is therefore interesting because, on one hand, the list is supposed to serve as an authoritative or authentic categorization of the detective genre for Todorov. Todorov uses this list to verify his own taxonomy of genre fiction. However, Wright’s list is another kind of performance piece — written in the pseudonym of the fiction writer, S.S. Van Dine, not the name of the critic, Wright. And in this performance piece, the list of demands itself is as adversarial to the form it describes as the prescribed opposition between author and reader. It is a manifesto about detective fiction, and the fundamental purpose of a manifesto is to, well, BLAST!

Have I just revealed S. S. Van Dine’s “quaint” list of rules for detective fiction to be, in fact, a long lost modernist manifesto?

Picture of the first page of the BLAST manifesto.
The first section of BLAST, the manifesto for the Vorticists, the group led by Wyndham Lewis, who published this short-lived avant-garde magazine in response to the Italian Futurists.



Cover of BLAST, pink background with bold capital letters, the word
Cover of BLAST, 1914.

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