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Please begin with an informative title:

Generally I don't care for tribute novels written in the style, or with the characters, of another author. An example is Death Comes to Pemberley the PD James' work that made me cringe. On the other hand, Laurie King does a terrific job using Sherlock Holmes as a character (although not the main one) in her series that began with The Beekeeper's Apprentice.

Oil on Canvas Portrait of Willard H. Wright
Oil Portrait of Willard Huntington Wright
AKA S.S. Van Dine by his brother,
Stanton MacDonald-Wright
Max Allan Collins uses the name and work of a cultural critic and successful, but now forgotten, mystery writer in his book, The Lusitania Murders. S.S. Van Dine was the nom de plume of Willard Huntington Wright (October 15, 1888 – April 11, 1939).

Wright began his writing career in 1909 as a book critic for the LA Times with an especially highbrow attitude toward genre fiction. He later became a well-respected art critic. His brother, Stanton Macdonald-Wright, was the founder of the school of modern art known as "Synchromism," and secretly the co-author of Wright's survey of modern art, "Modern Painting: Its Tendency and Meaning." And while this portrait of Wright, by his brother, is not done in the abstract Synchromism style, it does show the influence of Cezanne, whom the brothers helped promote in their book.

A fan of Friedrich Nietzche, Wright hoped to enlighten and educate the American public with What Nietzsche Taught in 1915. Two years later, his obvious German sympathies were clearly apparent in his critique of the Encyclopædia Britannica Eleventh Edition in which he lambasted what he considered to be a British bias against Germany. He opposed American entry into WWI and was falsely accused of being a German spy.

The scandalous, albeit untrue accusation resulted in him being blacklisted from journalism for two years. Broke, he retreated to California to recover from a nervous breakdown and spend some quality time with illegal drugs. During the 1920s, after a serious illness which may have been related to his fondness for cocaine, he began a long recovery which he devoted to the study of the mystery genre. Eventually, he began writing them himself under the pseudonym of S. S. Van Dine. He pulled himself out of poverty and became a wealthy man writing a very popular genre series starring Philo Vance, an wealthy, aristocratic, amateur sleuth who was very generous in his disdain for the common folk. Which shows that karma can provide a chuckle or two.

Max Allan Collins uses both Van Dine and Philo Vance, although Vance is renamed Philomina and is a Pinkerton agent/actress in The Lusitania Murders.

Although I own a few Collins mysteries, I have put off reading them. The more I read about Collins' affection for the work of Mickey Spillane, the less I thought I could enjoy his work. In my youth I read all of the Mike Hammer novels that Spillane wrote, not really noticing the flagrant homophobic, racist, misogynist attitudes that are today eye-jaring and off-putting. As a young reader, I was swept away by the plotting of his stories, turning the pages as quickly as I could. But I was young. That is my excuse, and I am sticking to it.

So, even though Max Allan Collin's best known detective, Nate Heller, operates in my home town during the 30's, I haven't gotten around to reading any of his work, fearing that I would find shades of Spillane.

After reading The Lusitania Murders, I may have to reconsider. I chose The Lusitania Murders because I love to cruise, especially trans-ocean cruises. Life during an ocean voyage is strictly bound by a limitless horizon. Floating on a tiny spec in a huge ocean in an infinite universe, life takes on a rhythm and pace dictated by ship's time. Collins does capture that closed bubble that exists on a passenger liner as well as the glory of an era long past, in this novel that reads a bit like an Agatha Christie cozy.


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Book cover for Lusitania Murders.
The Lusitania Murders
by Max Allan Collins
Published by Berkley
November 5th 2002
272 pages

This novel begins 99 years ago last Thursday, on May 1, 1915, as our hero, Willard Huntington Wright, is boarding the Cunard passenger ship, the RMS Lusitania, for what would be its final transatlantic crossing from New York to Liverpool. Wright has been commissioned to travel on the ship, in Saloon Class which was Cunard's version of First Class, in order to interview some of the passengers making the crossing; philosopher Elbert Hubbard, millionaire, Albert Vanderbilt, theatrical producer Charles Frohman, and the Special Envoy to the United States from Belgium, Madame Marie DePage. But his reputation, as well as an earlier, less than flattering, article on Hubbard, has led Wright to use his pseudonym, S.S. Van Dine while on the cruise.

In addition to the interviews, his new editor has discussed with Van Dine the rumors that the Lucy, as she is nicknamed, is carrying war material and is armed with three or possibly six inch guns. And has given Van Dine a final assignment during the voyage:

“You’d like me to ascertain whether these big guns exist... and whether guns and ammunition are secreted away in the cargo hold.”
Shortly after leaving port, three young German stowaways are discovered in the Steward's Pantry during a tour given to Van Dine by Staff Captain J.C. Anderson. Anderson immediately calls for the ship's detective. Cunard has hired the Pinkerton Agency to provide security for the voyage and Philomina Vance is the detective assigned to the Lusitania. Philo Vance is acting as Madame DePage's traveling companion and as such, has already met Van Dine. The two had just enjoyed lunch together in the Verandah Cafe.

When a body turns up dead, the two combine forces, she as the ship's official detective and he as her German speaking translator and companion as they attempt to determine the motive behind the slaying. Was it robbery or sabotage? Or both?

Spoiler, the ship never does make port in Liverpool.

It is clear that Max Allan Collins has done his homework on this novel. There was a detective onboard the final crossing of the Lusitania, although it was a Scotland Yard detective, not named Philo Vance. Nor was Van Dine on that journey, but he had sailed on the Lusitania a few months earlier. The historical figures, including the Staff Captain were all on board. There were three Germans saboteurs on the ship. Collins' Van Dine pastiche is written in a memoir style, complete with footnotes, a hallmark of Van Dine's Philo Vance novels.

This is a fairly short mystery told in the traditional cozy style. I think it would be enjoyed by any fan of the cozy genre, but would especially please those who value historic accuracy skillfully woven into a plot.

About the Author:

Max Allan Collins is the New York Times bestselling author of Road to Perdition and multiple award-winning novels, screenplays, comic books, comic strips, trading cards, short stories, movie novelizations, and historical fiction. He has scripted the Dick Tracy comic strip, Batman comic books, and written tie-in novels based on the CSI, Bones, and Dark Angel TV series; collaborated with legendary mystery author Mickey Spillane; and authored numerous mystery novels including the Quarry, Nolan, Mallory, and the bestselling Nathan Heller historical thrillers. His additional Disaster series mystery novels include The Titanic Murders, The Hindenburg Murders, The Pearl Harbor Murders, The London Blitz Murders, and The War of the Worlds Murder.

Collins, Max Allan (2012-12-11). The Lusitania Murders (Disaster Series) (p. 245). AmazonEncore. Kindle Edition.

And finally, while preparing this diary, I stumbled upon this article, published on April 30, 2014, from The Guardian:
Lusitania divers warned of danger from war munitions in 1982, papers reveal
Newly released secret Whitehall files disclose that a Ministry of Defence warning that "something startling" was going to be found during the August 1982 salvage operation raised such serious concerns that previously undeclared war munitions and explosives might be found that divers involved were officially warned in the strongest terms of the possible "danger to life and limb" they faced.

Foreign Office officials also voiced serious concerns that a final British admission that there were high explosives on the Lusitania could still trigger serious political repercussions with America even though it was nearly 70 years after the event.

I thought it an interesting coincidence that an article like this should be published while I was writing about a book that was first released a dozen years ago.

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Originally posted to Readers and Book Lovers on Mon May 05, 2014 at 05:00 PM PDT.

Also republished by Community Spotlight.

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