A group of related bloggers who work in the general area of Golden Age Mysteries has decided to collaborate and publish a blog post every Tuesday as the Tuesday Night Bloggers. We began in the spirit of celebrating Agatha Christie’s 125th birthday anniversary. We’ve now going to continue with a different Golden Age mystery writer every month; Tuesdays in November will be devoted to Ellery Queen.
A note: henceforth when I refer to “Ellery Queen” I mean the literary character. Any reference to “EQ” will refer to the two real-life cousins who wrote together and signed their work as Ellery Queen.
My five most and least favourite Ellery Queen novels
It’s always difficult to pick just a few titles from a lifetime of writing, but rather than simply present you with my “five best/five worst” list, I thought it would be worthwhile to give you an example of the factors that bounded my decision. I trust that will make it easier for you to decide if you agree for yourself or not, because it’s usually the case that there are as many opinions about such things as there are devoted readers of any author. What I think is most important is not whether you agree with me, but if you get to spend an enjoyable moment thinking, “Why, that nitwit, it’s perfectly clear that the best/worst one is X because what *I* like most about the work is …”. So have fun deciding exactly where I went wrong!
It seems to me as though for many mystery writers there is something that they’re trying to say, or a theme they’re trying to express, that you can find repeating throughout their work. One underlying theme is “Police work is demanding and difficult, but somehow rewarding.” Another is, “I wrote this so that you could have fun figuring it out, but I’m not really serious.” (Freeman Wills Crofts and Phoebe Atwood Taylor, respectively.) Sometimes an author will have two modalities: Robert Barnard, for instance, was as wacky as Taylor half the time and wrote dark and complex literary mysteries the rest of the time.
Ellery Queen, though, showed us FOUR different themes during different time periods. Period 1 is generally acknowledged to be the “nationalities” mysteries, where the focus is on pure logic. Let’s call the short Period 2 “trying to get Hollywood’s attention”; plot-heavy, snappy dialogue, simple caricatured characters. Then Period 3, “Wrightsville”, where EQ mixed crimes and small-town American values. Period 4 was “solve the imposed pattern” mysteries, where Ellery met a situation where there was some sort of structured pattern of events that didn’t make sense unless you knew the hidden theme. Next, Period 5 was when Ellery Queen became a house name, and the theme was “here’s an exciting, shallow, and straightforward story about a crime”. I think instead of defining a Period 6 it’s easier to say that Period 4 resumed after Period 5 had run its course; the quality declined at the end of this long oeuvre but the theme of the imposed pattern remained the same.
I differentiate here between my idea of a theme, and something that many people have noticed about Ellery Queen stories — they’re frequently structured like “first the false solution, then the true one”. Yes, I agree, this is frequently the case — but it’s not thematic, it’s a way of telling that thematic story. That’s why it cuts across all the EQ periods in the same way as their standby short story structure (which is, “X is dead, A, B, C are the suspects; they all look equally guilty but two are disqualified because of Z”).
I’ve gone into this in a little detail because I think it’s important for you to know that I enjoy Periods 1 and 3 the most, and that’s likely to colour my ideas of which novels are my most and least favourite, and why. I don’t really think Period 4 is the equivalent of Period 1 … your mileage may vary simply because you prefer one theme to the other. In the same vein, I’ve deliberately called these my “most and least” favourites — not “best” and “worst”; and I’ve excluded volumes of short stories.
My five most favourite Ellery Queen novels
And, as you will soon note, in reverse numerical order. My favourite EQ novel is at the end of this list.
5. The Siamese Twin Mystery (1933)
There’s not much to the puzzle issues in this book; the clues are slight and well-hidden. There’s a tiny bit more coincidence in a few of the plot twists here than I ordinarily prefer (the initials of one character, for instance, are a stretch). But the situation that underlies this book is perhaps the most exciting thing EQ ever wrote; all the characters are stranded at the top of a mountain and, chapter by chapter, the fire is creeping up the mountain towards them. As Thelma Ritter observes in All About Eve, “Everything except the bloodhounds snapping at her behind.” This book is beautifully put together to increase the tension in a long slow slope. By the time the fire reaches the mountaintop your nerves are pitched at the point where you want to scream and hide your head, but you absolutely must know what happens next. It’s a wonderful experience and masterfully written.
4. Calamity Town (1942)
This book is so excellent in so many ways … It’s from Period 3 and is really the volume where Wrightsville comes into full flower. Halfway House seems to have given the EQ cousins their first taste of making small-town America a character in their book, or an ongoing landscape against which morality plays were displayed. In Calamity Town they have a sure-handed mix of the detective plot and the small-town America setting, and a story that links them both together. This is one of the two novels in which EQ demonstrated their understanding of how a media frenzy works; the other one is my next entry, Cat of Many Tails. I really think this is what Dorothy L. Sayers was talking about when she wanted detective fiction to become “a literature with bowels”; this is a strong family drama about horrible things happening to nice people. Ellery, as the outsider, is the perfect narrator and begins his process of worming his way into the heart of Wrightsville.
3. Cat of Many Tails (1949)
An absolutely crucial step in the development of the serial killer novel, this beautifully written book is a look at the investigation of a Manhattan-based serial killer who is strangling victims with pink and blue cords: pink for girls, blue for boys. It’s told in a recomplicated style that introduces dozens of characters and follows them for varying lengths of time; a few close relatives of the first victims form a small group of amateur investigators helping Ellery solve the case. The tension builds and builds and this novel is a classic in EQ’s best story-telling modality; the false solution, then the true. Brilliantly written in a whirlpool of action and tension.
2. The Greek Coffin Mystery (1932)
I’ve written extensively about this novel before and how and why I like it so much. (The previous piece is here.) Simply put, I think it’s the best pure puzzle mystery from Period 1 and one of the best puzzle mysteries EVER. It’s a long and complicated puzzle with lots of clues and some interesting characters. The narrative leads you in many directions but if you understand the tiny clues correctly, you can only come up with one very, very surprising killer. This is also the novel that contains the reason why Ellery never talks about his inferences and possible solutions until the end of each case, because he gets so badly burned here by speaking in advance. I can remember distinctly thinking I’d finally solved this one, in my teenage years, only to realize I’d been beautifully led down the garden path by a typewriter key.
1. The Murderer is a Fox (1945)
This is my favourite Queen, and I suspect I may well be alone in this. It’s a Wrightsville novel from Period Three and most people automatically accept the consensus that Calamity Town is the best Wrightsville novel of all. That novel is certainly fine. But this novel has all the good points of Calamity Town, plus it has a wonderful familial intimacy that the other novel only hints at. These are real people who are suffering greatly, and trying to reconstruct the actions of a fateful day years ago. And the writing is just so beautiful … you can
see tiny dust motes dancing in the air of the attic, you can see the lines on Davy Fox’s face that shouldn’t be there but for the war. There is not a lot of evil intent here, but there is great and powerful sadness. It’s also one of the few endings where Ellery cheats justice in a good cause; ultimately this novel is about how we should treat war veterans and rarely do.
And two explanatory notes. I have deliberately drawn my terms to exclude the four Barnaby Ross novels but if I hadn’t, I would have had to find
a way to wedge The Tragedy of Y (1932) into this list. And if you want to know what my favourite ghost-written Ellery Queen novel is, it’s A Room to Die In (1965), written by science-fiction writer Jack Vance.
My five least favourite Ellery Queen novels
Again, in reverse numerical order.
5. The Glass Village (1954)
I don’t care for this novel for a number of reasons. One is that it pretty shamelessly takes off the real-life Grandma Moses, which is a bit lazy. What really bothers me, though, is that this novel is like a Wrightsville novel, if Wrightsville had been populated by inbred cretinous bigots. Wrightsville has the advantage of being balanced and realistic in other novels; this is the Dark Side, and it’s very unpleasant. The book as much as admits to the reader at one point that the plot depends on nobody having access to a long-distance telephone, which is unlikely, and to me the central plot point that identifies the murderer was clear and obvious. Yes, I get that this is about McCarthyism and the mob mentality. But it’s just unpleasant and unhappy and discouraging.
4. The American Gun Mystery (1933)
This one is on my list as one of two Queenian adventures here where I just flat-out cannot believe the solution. In this case, without getting into details, I cannot accept where the gun was said to be hidden; it’s not built up enough to be remotely possible. All the foofaraw with closing the circle and searching 80,000 people in the audience was just so much fluff. The suspects all seem phoney and there is one character whom we never get to meet for long enough to see something that would have been nice to have a chance of assessing; a bit of a cheat. And the way in which Ellery attains the solution is, when all else fails, pull something ridiculous out of your ass because it’s the only thing left. Rex Stout did it much more elegantly and much more tersely in a 1960 novella, The Rodeo Murder (found in Three at Wolfe’s Door).
3.The Origin of Evil (1951)
Unpleasant people doing unpleasant things against a backdrop of Atomic-Age paranoia makes for a very unpleasant book. And in this one, just as the outset of And on the Eighth Day, EQ makes fun of Period 2 — they mock the reader for ever thinking that Ellery could have been a screenwriter. The common theme that underlies this Period 4 novel is so far-fetched that it’s impossible to figure out even if you had more useful clues than being required to know that worthless stocks are called “cats and dogs”. And there’s something in this book that is so unpleasant to read … the misogyny and sheer hatred that EQ express for the “poisonous orchid” woman at the heart of this mystery through the lips of Ellery himself. It’s almost as though there was someone in the lives of one or both of the authors against whom they were taking revenge with this vicious portrait of a woman who is married to an impotent cripple and still has the nerve to want to be sexual.
2.The Four of Hearts (1938)
This is the most commercial novel the EQ partnership ever wrote, to my mind, and it’s meretriciously setting itself out to be a screenplay without caring that there’s nothing of any substance here. The movie-star characters seem as though they were created with specific actors in mind — fine, but if you expect them to be suspects in a murder mystery, don’t make them so darn perfect, because then the reader cannot help but solve the mystery by elimination. The plot line is flat and shallow and things happen for no really good reason, except that a change of location is needed to move the story along. The ending is both hard to understand and just plain silly. And perhaps it’s a very small thing, but I really prefer it it an author doesn’t treat me as sufficiently credulous to believe a “fact” that he just out-and-out makes up. Why anyone would accept that “in fortune telling, cards that are torn in half reverse their meaning” is beyond me; how many times have you accidentally torn a card in half? What they were getting at, of course, is that in a Tarot deck the meaning is reversed if the card is upside down. But apparently I cannot cope with the exotic knowledge that Tarot cards are one-side-up. Bah.
1. And on the Eighth Day (1964)
I know I’m going to take a lot of flack for this — many people regard this as one of their favourite Ellery Queen novels. For me, this is a philosophical religious parable and not a detective story. You can tell that because the characters aren’t referred to as people, but as functions: Storekeeper and Teacher. And I find that kind of story intensely annoying, because to me it seems lazy. If you really wanted me to reach a philosophical and/or religious point, don’t take me by the nose and lead me through cardboard sets and silhouettes to illustrate that point — hide it from me and tease me with clues as to what it might be. (Some people say this book does that for them, I admit.) Put real people and realistic events into it and leave me a little ambiguity as to whether I’ve figured it out, but let me try to figure it out. The other part of why it annoys me is that it’s just so damn pompous. It’s as though the writer wants to tell you a story complete with a musical score filled with shrieking organs to let you know that this is a Really Important Story. It’s histrionic and overwrought and overwritten, and does everything except part the Red Sea to make the point. Oh, how I wish Manny Lee could have done the first draft of this instead of Avram Davidson; he would have been able to rein in Dannay’s plotting and make a real story out of this. And by the way, this book won the Grand Prix de Litérature Policière — it’s entirely probable that they know better than I do.
I’ll note here that I’ve left out the final two Ellery Queen novels, The Last Woman in His Life (1970) and A Fine and Private Place (1971). Yes, folks, I believe these are pretty awful, and have said so here about A Fine and Private Place since it is #1 on my list of “mysteries you should die before you read”. But I’m willing to cut some slack to EQ on these two since they were written by elderly men who were at the end of a long and distinguished career. Both books are poorly executed, but they are at least trying to entertain; there is no point in reading them,
but they have not gotten off on the wrong foot entirely like a couple of novels in this category. Last Woman is impossible to discuss in any detail without giving it away in its entirety. But I think it would be fair to say that it couples an advanced and liberal view of a social issue with the most profound ignorance about its actuality; again, I can cut some slack here for elderly men who are trying to be progressive, but this book casually makes statements that are the equivalent to the modern ear of Agatha Christie using the n-word in the title of a book. For 1970, perhaps that might have been an advanced viewpoint; it’s pretty ugly today.
Let me pause at the end of this month of Tuesdays to tip my hat to Messrs. Dannay and Lee, who had a long and distinguished career in which they entered upon a path of untrodden snow and over the decades left the trail cleared and marked for everyone else to follow. They are one of the most important names in detective fiction and any criticism I have to offer is a small thing against their larger achievements.
Next month’s Tuesdays will be devoted to Ngaio Marsh. I hope you’re enjoying this guided tour and will continue to follow along! Your comments, as always, are welcome.