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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.

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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Comment Preferences

  •  I've read "Perdition" and will have to... (7+ / 0-)

    ...look for Collins' other works at the library. Thanks for the diary and for reminding me about him.

  •  I learn so much in your posts! (10+ / 0-)

    Thanks, Susan. I've met this author--a very nice guy who does all he can for anyone who asks, and for the genre in general. (And I was very happy he & Mickey Spillane reprinted one of my stories in their Century of Noir anthology--no gender bias in Mickey Spillane the person, even if characters in his 50s-60s era books harbored some.) And even so, I didn't know much of anything you mentioned here! You're not the only one who's going to wants to catch up in terms of reading these books.

    "A step backward, after making a wrong turn, is a step in the right direction.” Kurt Vonnegut

    by scilicet on Mon May 05, 2014 at 05:41:53 PM PDT

    •  That is so good to hear. I really enjoyed his (9+ / 0-)

      style and the very clever way he incorporated the history and the reality of this long forgotten writer. I'm now torn between Nate Heller or the Titanic Murders. Choices.

      The audible version of this novel is very good, the narrator seems to hit just the right supercilious tone for Van Dine.

      I tried to read I, the Jury for a diary some months back, and just could not handle the attitude. And yet I remember trying so hard to get my hands on every one of his Mike Hammer novels when I was young. He could tell a story.

      •  definitely going to check this out (8+ / 0-)

        There's nothing like a reader who can do a supercilious tone!

        And besides, any excuse to go rummage at audible, especially now that it's marked over a hundred science fiction/fantasy books down to $6.95.

        I'm maybe 1/3 way into book 3 of James S.A. Corey's Expanse series right now. I loved Book 2 (Caliban's War) so much that I keep wishing I could somehow pull my favorite characters from that one into the one I'm reading now. Talk about first world reader problems...

        "A step backward, after making a wrong turn, is a step in the right direction.” Kurt Vonnegut

        by scilicet on Mon May 05, 2014 at 06:25:31 PM PDT

        [ Parent ]

  •  MAC (8+ / 0-)

    I enjoyed The Lusitania Murders and it prompted me to look for some of the original Philo Vance novels in our local library.  They only had one:  The Bishop Murder Case, and it was interesting enough, but I found I didn't really care much for the detective.  I have to agree with Ogden Nash:

    Philo Vance
    Needs a kick in the pance

    I first encountered Collins' writing when I was in high school and found the Dick Tracy comic strip in the Chicago Tribune.  Collins was writing the strip at the time and he did an excellent job with it.  

    During the '80s he collaborated with Terry Beatty on MS. TREE, a comic book about a hard-boiled female private eye.  I have an issue or two of the comic, but never really followed it.

    He briefly wrote for DC Comics in the 80's, scripting a few issues of BATMAN and writing a limited series titled WILD DOG.  I don't think DC really liked him; his stories were unlike the kind of Batman stories that were being done at the time.

    I'm not really a fan of Crime Novels, which is why, although I've enjoyed what I've read of Collins, I've never really sought his work out.  I came across The Lustitania Murders by accident and bought it partially because I had some familiarity with Collins as a writer and partially because I'm a sucker for historical mysteries.

    About that time, Collins wrote a handful of other "disaster mysteries" in which a historic disaster becomes the backdrop for murder, and a famous writer finds himself involved in the investigation.  I need to go hunting for the others in that series.

    Read my webcomic, "Hannibal Tesla Adventure Magazine" at

    by quarkstomper on Mon May 05, 2014 at 05:47:38 PM PDT

    •  I too, remember those Dick Tracy comic strips, but (7+ / 0-)

      I thought they were in the Sun Times.

      What I found interesting about Van Dine is how quickly he shot to the top of his genre and how quickly he was forgotten once writers like Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler started writing hard-boiled detective novels.

      I understand that his history of Chicago during the 1930s, the setting of the Nate Heller series, is also very reliable. I look forward to reading some of those as well as the disaster novels.

  •  Max and I lived across the street from each other (11+ / 0-)

    and we took some of the same courses at the University of Iowa back in the late 60s and early 70s. He is a fine writer. Although our lives finally took different paths, I've continued to read his work. I can only hope he read mine. :-)

    Many times I’ve returned. Never was I the same in any of my guises. I feel inside, my times before, with no memories of each journey. My soul’s shadows haunt all the paths it has traveled.

    by Wendys Wink on Mon May 05, 2014 at 05:53:42 PM PDT

  •  Most intriguing (7+ / 0-)

    Wasn't Philo Vance a movie character, or perhaps old radio show? The name is ringing some bells, distantly. Now I have to go research.

    Great Questions of Western Philosophy: How much wood would a woodchuck chuck if a woodchuck could chuck wood?

    by Mnemosyne on Mon May 05, 2014 at 06:41:56 PM PDT

    •  Yes, they were made into popular movies. From (8+ / 0-)

      the Wikipedia:

      The Philo Vance novels were particularly well suited for the movies, where the more unpleasantly affected aspects of the main character could be toned down and the complex plots given more prominence. One of these films, The Kennel Murder Case, has been called a masterpiece by renowned film historian William K. Everson.

      The Canary Murder Case (1929) with William Powell as Philo Vance.
      The Greene Murder Case (1929) with William Powell as Philo Vance.
      The Benson Murder Case (1930) with William Powell as Philo Vance.
      The Bishop Murder Case (1930) with Basil Rathbone as Philo Vance.
      The Kennel Murder Case (1933) with William Powell as Philo Vance.
      The Dragon Murder Case (1934) with Warren William as Philo Vance.
      The Casino Murder Case (1935) with Paul Lukas as Philo Vance, and co-starring Rosalind Russell.
      The Garden Murder Case (1936) with Edmund Lowe as Philo Vance.
      The Scarab Murder Case (1936) with Wilfrid Hyde-White as Philo Vance. Reportedly, no prints exist of this British production.
      Night of Mystery (1937) (based on The Greene Murder Case) with Grant Richards as Philo Vance. Reportedly, no prints exist outside of university/museum collections.
      The Gracie Allen Murder Case (1939) with Warren William as Philo Vance, billed below Gracie Allen.
      Calling Philo Vance (1940) (a remake of The Kennel Murder Case with an altered setting) with James Stephenson as Philo Vance.
      Philo Vance Returns (1947) with William Wright as Philo Vance.
      Philo Vance's Gamble (1947) with Alan Curtis as Philo Vance.
      Philo Vance's Secret Mission (1947) with Alan Curtis as Philo Vance.

    •  Not just movies, (4+ / 0-)

      but also 3 radio series.  I've only heard the last one but I find it enjoyable, the actor playing Philo does it well.  

  •  Spoiler! LOL. (6+ / 0-)

    It does sound like a very interesting read. Thanks for yet another lead.
    I agree, James' Pemberley was a disaster.

    Support Small Business: Shop Kos Katalogue If you'd like to join the Motor City Kossacks, send me a Kosmail.

    by peregrine kate on Mon May 05, 2014 at 08:01:23 PM PDT

      •  Encyclopædia Britannica Eleventh Edition.Yikes (5+ / 0-)

        We must have had one of the eleventh edition plus versions when I was a kid. I remember it as The Eleventh Edition, but I know ours was later because just those words or the story of the Lusitania make me cringe. The only act of plagiarism I ever committed was done deliberately, to see how close the teachers were watching me (or not). My report on the Lusitania in 10th grade must have looked like I wrote it, in neat penmanship & blue ink. But the text was entirely word for word from that encyclopedia, no changes or wording it myself, etc. Got an A on it! (and figured out nope, they're really not watching the ones who are expected to be good.)

        So anyway, it was interesting to read more about the story now.

        We are all pupils in the eyes of God.

        by nuclear winter solstice on Tue May 06, 2014 at 07:54:32 AM PDT

        [ Parent ]

        •  What the A suggests to me is that you could have (3+ / 0-)

          written an essay that would have been suitable for the Encyclopedia. And apparently your teacher expected such quality from you as a matter of course.

          •  yes, I liked to look at it that way, except that (2+ / 0-)
            Recommended by:
            Susan from 29, RiveroftheWest

            that still confirms that I was able to b.s. my way through it and no one would look twice. Life tends to work out well for me that way, in the same way that my physical presentation as a small, not-bad-looking, female, white driver who cries easily affords me the benefit of the doubt. I made an illegal u-turn around a traffic island, not noticing that the car behind me was a police car. What happened to me? The guy pulled me over and- got out his map and gave me directions, and sent me on my way with a 'just don't do things like that, okay?'
                If I were a large, ugly, black, male, not necessarily in that order, in the same situation, what would have happened?
                If I were a not-so-good student, or one without a pleasant manner, my paper might have been looked at with more scrutiny. Why should someone who struggles more to do the work have their work scrutinized more closely than one who seems to do things with ease?
                I see this in my twin grandchildren, one picked up a skill with ease while the other struggled. A short while later, #1 is 'struggling'- 'can't do it' even though she had been for half an hour. She began pretending she couldn't because she wanted as much attention as the struggling twin was getting. I could see her point, which is similar to my misbehavior. Needing to be challenged to her point of difficulty and then granted the same amount of attention.


            We are all pupils in the eyes of God.

            by nuclear winter solstice on Tue May 06, 2014 at 01:59:03 PM PDT

            [ Parent ]

      •  Thank You (3+ / 0-)

          Read and hot listed.   Love your descriptions.  Thanks again.

  •  Max is (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Susan from 29, RiveroftheWest

    a nice guy and a good writer.  As you have noticed, he puts more effort into the research than a lot of writers.  I generally find his stuff to be enjoyable.

    I am not religious, and did NOT say I enjoyed sects.

    by trumpeter on Tue May 06, 2014 at 12:31:49 PM PDT

  •  Heed the Warning! (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Susan from 29

    Based on a glowing review I had read when it was first published -- and being a big P.D. James fan -- I checked out a copy of Death Comes to Pemberley from my library a few years ago with great anticipation.  What a mistake! "Losing" the copy, rather than returning it to the library to inflict on other innocent James and Austen lovers, would have been truly an act of kindness.  It was awful --  something that was clearly apparent from just the first few pages.  But I was masochistic (and disbelieving) enough to see it through and, if anything, it just got worse and worse until it limped to its tiresome conclusion.  I felt throughly embarrassed for James and appalled that any editor would allow such awful writing see the light of day.  And if anyone's name but hers had been on the manuscript, I doubt it would have. . . .

    This being my first comment here, I wanted to thank you for the presence of this group.  I've enjoyed following the book reviews and recommendations and, on the basis of some a few months ago, recently started reading Crombie's Kincaid and James series, as well as Laurie King's Mary Russell/Sherlock Holmes and Kate Martinelli series.  I'm hooked!  

    My father died almost exactly a year ago and the last 12 months have been tough, dealing with the estate issues and, of course, the loss itself. Though a voracious reader normally, I realized recently that I hadn't read anything strictly for pleasure for far too long.  Being able to immerse myself in these well-written but not too mentally demanding books has provided me with a wonderful break from the "real world" that I greatly appreciate and look forward to.  So, thank you so much for bringing them to my attention.

    •  Thanks for stopping by! That PD James thing was (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      indrasnet, RiveroftheWest

      just awful, but it gave me the chance to write a negative review, which I don't do often. I still don't understand what the professional reviewers were thinking on that one.

      And I am very glad that we, I'm including the commenters, as they often provide the best recommendations, have been able to give you a few tips that have panned out.

  •  I love Max Allan Collins (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    Great summer reads!  I may not have read everything he has written, but I've read a lot of his work.  If you like this one, try Flying Blind and Stolen Away.  Those two are my personal favorites.

  •  Willard Huntington Wright reminds me strongly of (0+ / 0-)

    Van Gogh in the painting at the top of this post.

    Thank you so much for this diary, Susan, thoroughly enjoyed reading it!  Mysteries, particularly "cozies," are my favorite genre at the moment.

    "Religion is what keeps the poor from murdering the rich."--Napoleon

    by Diana in NoVa on Fri May 09, 2014 at 05:51:02 PM PDT

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