100 Mysteries You Should Die Before You Read, #001
A Fine and Private Place, by Ellery Queen (1971)
Ellery Queen; as everyone knows, a pseudonym of Grand Masters Frederic Dannay and Manfred Lee. The Wikipedia entry is thorough, if you’re curious.
The first edition is from World in 1971 and originates the image I associate with this book, of a hand gripping a large “9” that is dripping blood. The UK first is by Victor Gollancz, 1971, and is their usual ghastly screaming yellow jacket with simplistic typography and no cover art. The first paper is possibly the most restrained edition, Q4978 from Signet. Other editions exist; this ugly jacketless Detective Book Club edition happens to be the one that came to hand in my library.
This is the last book written by Ellery Queen about Ellery Queen; since by this point in time Ellery Queen had also become a house name for a number of different writers, it is certainly not the last book published as by Ellery Queen, but almost. As I like to put it, this is the last “real” Queen.
Spoiler warning: What you are about to read discusses in explicit terms the solution to a murder mystery. Since I hope to persuade you to not read it due to its general awfulness, the point may well be moot, but I thought I’d make it.
Nino Importuna is an extremely wealthy Manhattanite with a thriving multi-national business, a large household, two brothers, a handsome young male secretary and a stunningly beautiful wife. As we learn at the outset, he’s 63, she’s 21, and he married her by blackmailing her widowed father into forcing his only daughter to consent to the marriage (or else he’d send the father, a cheerful boulevardier of loose morals but impeccable social background, to prison for embezzlement). There is a pre-nup, the details of which amount to “Please murder me for my money five years and five minutes after we get married.” Nino is also, as we soon learn, fixated on the number 9. He lives on the top of a 9-storey building at 99 East something-or-other in Manhattan. He makes business deals only on the 9th, 18th and 27th of every month. And so on, down to the smallest detail of his life and then some. For instance, he requires a book whose topic is events of the year 666 to be shelved upside down in his library. Possibly this was brought into being by a congenital deformity which fused two of his fingers together and left him with only nine digits.
There is a little linking device throughout the novel which is not meant to be precisely understood at the outset, but only comes into its full meaning near the end. Essentially, after a scene from the father’s point of view in which he agrees to force his daughter Virginia to marry Nino, we are told, in an abstract omniscient tone without the person of a narrator, that this act forms the gestation of an idea that will come to fruition, or birth, in nine months. The linking device is in fact some sort of abstract consideration of pregnancy; as events progress, the fetus matures. Next we learn, by reading a long extract from the diary of Virginia about a luncheon date, that she is having an affair with Peter, the secretary. This somehow confirms the growth of the pregnancy.
Three months later, the viewpoint switches to that of Ellery Queen. His father Inspector Queen informs him of the murder of Julio, one of Nino’s brothers at the Importuna mansion at 99 East. There are a couple of clues so obviously planted as to be immediately disbelieved by everyone, and they point at Marco, the third Importuna brother, who promptly commits suicide. Is the case closed? Well, there’s nothing like a motivation, and Ellery has a funny feeling, but it seems as though everyone is satisfied with the obvious answer.
Six months after that — in the ninth month — Nino gives a little dinner for his wife to commemorate their 5th wedding anniversary. Nino invites Peter along, which is kind of strange for a personal celebration but proves useful to move the plot along later, and announces that the pre-nup agreement has come to an end and now if they divorce she gets half, etc. Etc. meaning that Nino promptly develops tummy troubles and heads for bed, only to be found the next morning having been battered to death with 9 bonks from a piece of modern art that looks like, OMG, the number 9. And all of a sudden Virginia inherits the whole half-billion. Which in 1971 is a considerably larger sum than it would seem today; we are meant to know that this is one of the wealthiest men in the world and that Virginia is now the equivalent of Jackie O, who is mentioned by name. And the death is said to be the birth.
Ellery, of course, must solve the mystery, which seems in its bizarrie to be right up his alley. There are really only two suspects, Peter and Virginia. And immediately Ellery starts to receive cryptic messages, all nine words in length and nine-related in tiny details, which detail some strange nine-ness about the late Nino’s life. The messages are accompanied by playing cards: all nines. This set of messages sets a large detective mechanism in action to learn the truth about the nine-nesses; was Nino involved in a baseball team, did he commission a set of statues of the nine Muses, was he a friend of a Supreme Court Justice. And the answers come back uniformly false. The final such message, though, is not a suggestion of fact but a question. With whom was Virginia having lunch (Peter, as we know) on the date and time covered by the diary entry which we read at the outset?
In terms of master detective output, Ellery has not been giving very good value thus far. There are a few deductions around the body of Julio, most of which lead to the conclusion that the murderer is either left-handed and pretending to be right-handed, or vice-versa. Not one of Ellery’s better days. It’s almost like Ellery has been largely absent for most of the proceedings; he asks questions and looks at locations, but never seems to catch fire and care about the case. But at this point, he now takes an active hand and starts asking the right questions. He asks to see Virginia’s diary entry, reads it, and has the traditional great revelation of whodunnit.
He arranges a meeting among himself, Peter, Virginia, and a roomful of police and lawyers. He then announces that all the nine-y messages have been sent to mislead him and that he knows the real answer. He goes over the diary entry and suggests that Peter at this luncheon conceived the idea of killing Nino after Virginia’s pre-nup expires, then marrying Virginia himself and coming into half of a half a billion. And, in order to increase the pile for Virginia to its full value, he killed Julio and would have killed Marco had he not offed himself. The old List of Adrian Messenger gambit; get rid of other heirs before you inherit.
Oh, jolly good point, says Peter cheerfully. Just one little thing — that night, Virginia and I went off for a dirty evening in a remote motel, and here’s an envelope full of timed, dated receipts, videotape, and witness statements to prove it. (More or less.) Ellery slaps his forehead and goes into a funk.
He then realizes — which is not much of a stretch since there are no other characters in the book who can be demonstrated to even remotely gain from the murder — that Virginia’s father has set all this up so that Virginia will inherit and Peter will be convicted of the murder, leaving her immense fortune in her father’s control. The last line is the father’s acquiescence with Ellery’s solution.
Why is this so awful?
I’ll say right off the bat that it is a little bit cruel to single out this particular volume for a slagging; half of the writing team died the year this final book came out and their novels had been in a steep decline for years. In 1963, after not publishing a novel for five years, the authors began to use ghostwriters and only four subsequent volumes in the next eight years are known to be their sole work; three are poor puzzle mysteries based on a central trick and this is the last and perhaps worst. 1970’s The Last Woman in His Life is also execrable, FYI. Anyway, my opinion is that they should have either withheld this from publication or passed it over to one of their excellent ghost writers to turn into a decent novel based on the central premise.
Speaking of ghosts, as I re-read this preparatory to writing this, I was struck particularly by how this is almost the ghost of a novel. Or perhaps the spooky dead skeleton of one. Everywhere, you can see ways in which this book could have been improved, and possibly would have been if someone had looked at it critically before publication. Structurally, it’s just a mess. The opening sequence from the POV of the father, after which he doesn’t appear in the novel for more than a fleeting glance or two, is meant to be the token sop to the idea that the murderer has to be someone whom the reader has had a chance to inspect. Then the overlong diary entry from the POV of Virginia is just ridiculous. Really, the entire point of the diary entry was to not only inform the reader that Peter and Virginia are having an affair — and believe me, in later pages he does everything except honk her ass like a bike horn, so it’s not exactly a secret — but that her father, who is the cause of the two sneaking out the back of the restaurant for fear of being discovered, has not only been spotted by them but has spotted them himself, and begun to formulate his plan. But the diary entry is simply impossible. If Virginia was a diarist of this skill and intensity, reporting complex conversations verbatim and gushing with description, it would have taken her six hours a day to document the rest of her life. So the first few scenes lead you to believe that you’re going to share other POVs throughout the book. Then the POV switches to Ellery for the entire remainder of the novel. What was the point? There were two crucial plot points that needed to be delivered, without breaking the flow of the novel so seriously as is done here, and a writer of Queen’s experience could easily have managed it with a little thought.
The structural overlay of the pregnancy is just incomprehensible. If it was going to be seriously integrated into the framework of the novel, then some female character would have had to have been pregnant; and Virginia is literally the only woman in the book, barring a brief glimpse of the Queens’ housekeeper, Mrs. Fabrikant. (My copy has Ellery referring to her scornfully as “Flabby” at one point but I trust this is a typo for the more usual “Fabby”.) If Virginia is pregnant, the plot falls apart, so why on earth keep suggesting pregnancy to the reader when it’s impossible? Besides, as the book makes clear, Nino is impotent and Virginia is still a virgin, as her boyfriend promptly nicknames her. Thank goodness the authors dump it after the second murder, although there is one horrible little remark about afterbirth that was a little misplaced.
I’ve given you a great deal of detail about the plot, such as it is — people seem to do things because the plot requires them to, and not for any reason. Ellery himself is rather a skeleton at the feast. The police force seems to merely stand around and wait for things to happen, or for Ellery to have an idea. And the actions of Peter and Virginia are simply incomprehensible. You know, if you have an iron-clad alibi for the time of a billionaire’s death and inherit under his will, it rather behooves you to do so much as MENTION it when you are sitting around the penthouse the morning after the corpse’s discovery. Especially as you are unencumbered by anything except the throes of new love; although the boyfriend might have wanted to take the cops aside and discreetly share the details of their tryst rather than blurt it out for all and sundry. And since these are almost the only two characters in the whole book who are not dead or servants/employees, and their actions are completely ridiculous, it sort of sucks the marrow out of the book in terms of believability.
Those of us who are Queen fans of long standing, and I confess I have been for decades, always expect one of a couple of things from a Queen piece. From novels, we expect the “false solution, then the true”, which is embodied here, and from a heap of single-plot-point short stories, we have come to expect a certain structure. Essentially three people, A, B, and C, are the only suspects for a murder and Ellery must explain the dying message, or the cryptic clue, or the criminal’s adherence to a theme, that allows him to pin the crime on one of the three. This is also pretty much the premise for The King is Dead from 1952, with a twist. I thought the idea of the three brothers all dying was a strange reversed echo of that old theme, but perhaps it’s coincidence. What is not coincidence is that this plot is structurally quite similar to 1948’s Ten Days’ Wonder; merely turned inside out so that Nino dies and Virginia lives, but with about the same motive and structural overlay. (Oh, and quite a bit less overwritten, which is the present novel’s only comparative virtue.) The love triangle also owes a lot to 1953’s The Scarlet Letters. Even the small point of the mailing of the playing cards hearkens back to 1938’s The Four of Hearts. In other words, there is not much that’s original here. The thematic “false then true” chime to many of the previous novels is just fine, but for the rest of it, there is nothing here in terms of plot or puzzle that you haven’t seen before.
The puzzle, indeed, doesn’t really seem to exist. It seems clear that someone is piling up stacks of nines in every direction for some purpose, but who benefits by it? No one really seems to win and the murderer eventually gets discovered by dint of trying to outsmart Ellery, a common failing. Really, if the killer had just left things quietly in place, he would have thought up a much easier way of accomplishing his desires. Like the one I thought of in a few seconds — lure Peter to a remote location without an alibi, then kill Nino while Virginia is under scrutiny at the opera and leave a subtle clue to Peter. Not that much would have been needed since he was one of the only possible suspects. Heaping up piles of nines just prolongs the investigation to no real end. It’s like the old kids’ joke: “What has four legs, wags its tail and is filled with cement? A dog.” “A dog isn’t filled with cement!” “Oh, I just put that in to make it harder.” Well, this book is filled with cement. And to have the two main suspects announce that they have an iron-clad alibi at precisely the moment when Ellery has just accused them? No, no, no. That hearkens back to the younger, brasher Ellery of The Greek Coffin Mystery and The Finishing Stroke who spoke too soon and resolved never to do so again. The latter-day Ellery should have solved the whole mystery on the spot upon hearing of the alibi. Instead, he sputters out, solves the mystery months later and turns what could have been a terrific ending into a mild-mannered accusation over cocktails.
The characters? Pure cardboard. The cornflower-eyed bride, the clean-cut Ivy League secretary. The evil billionaire with a deformed hand. Even the spendthrift roue who is the murderer. They act against their own best interests to serve a stupid plot, rather than being better created to serve its needs. And I think it’s clear that Queen had very little idea of how truly wealthy people actually live or act. In his hands they combine the brash vulgarity of a Trump with the social pretensions of an Astor, without being thought of as one or the other polar opposite. And when the plot finds it convenient, they are remarkably ignorant of how the other half lives; not a characteristic of the self-made man as far as I know.
The writing is leaden and dull; nothing ever seems to come to life, and it’s just a series of cliches about expensive furniture and objects, beautiful women, gross toad-like billionaires. The locations are rarely described in any detail. It’s as though Queen expected to run through another draft and fill out the spaces, but merely piled the manuscript into a box and got it in under deadline instead. My estimate is that this is 60,000 to 70,000 words and these days it would have been 100,000 at least, just to feed the public’s attitude for detail.
In short (too late! I hear unkindly in the background) this is yet another example of why prolific mystery authors ought seriously to reconsider publishing their last few books. Agatha Christie, Ngaio Marsh, John Dickson Carr, Ellery Queen — all dribbled out a series of poorly-written clinkers for their last handful of books and worsened their reputations as a result. And yet when you become a Grand Master of the status of Ellery Queen, I expect it must be difficult to look the writer in the eye and say, “Um, this isn’t publishable as it stands.” A crappy Ellery Queen will still sell better than a skilled mid-list author, and the temptation to get one last saleable title out has to be immense. And so it is sad to say that the very last Ellery Queen is his worst ever, and rightly deserves its place on the list of 100 Mysteries You Should Die Before You Read. I trust I’ve saved you the trouble.
Notes For the Collector:
Abebooks.com will provide you as of this writing with the true US first, VG, for $30 and the UK first for about $40 — and that’s the top of the range. The 1st paper, Signet Q4978, will set you back $8 plus shipping. The UK Penguin’s cover focuses on Nino’s hand deformity, which is gross but collectible, My favourite is the Signet, mostly because the “girl with a huge prop in a box” format was part of a uniform paper edition Signet did of Queen at the time. Abebooks doesn’t cite a signed copy — except for one signed by one of the authors’ sons, which is odd and fairly useless — and I would expect that because this is close to the end of their career, there is unlikely to be a huge number of signatures of this book — hence it would be disproportionately valuable. All other copies are going to be relatively affordable. As you’ve gathered, I think this is a terrible and unreadable book and wouldn’t recommend that you collect it unless you are a Queen completist.