Given the number of singular surprise endings for which they were responsible, it’s safe to say that Agatha Christie and Ellery Queen were both masters of misdirection. One or the other probably invented nearly every variation on “the least likely suspect” motif. They shared a goal of fooling the reader, using “fair play” methods that, in the end, made us smack our heads and say, “I should have known!“
Still, Christie and Queen worked in different neighborhoods, so to speak. I’m not talking about St. Mary Mead vs. Wrightsville. Christie was the queen of the domestic mystery, while the preoccupations of Frederick Dannay, who plotted the Queen books, and the literary aspirations of his cousin, Manfred B. Lee, who wrote them, led Ellery, the detective, into deeper and darker waters. As a result, the techniques of misdirection that each author employed were different. In discussing this idea, spoilers may abound, so proceed at your own risk!
Christie’s writing was firmly rooted in the here and now of daily life. (The Malice Domestic awards are called Agathas for a reason!) Her characters were mostly middle class, and their struggles to earn money, find love, and handle the trials and tribulations of a normal existence form the background of her mysteries. This may not have seemed the case if one looks at her first nine novels, where only three of them – The Mysterious Affair at Styles, Murder on the Links, and The Murder of Roger Ackroyd – fall under this domestic category. The other six feature wild political conspiracies or master criminals at work, and they constitute relatively minor works in the Christie canon, although most have their pleasures and are adored by many fans. (I confess to enjoying The Big Four, and I intend to re-read The Man in the Brown Suit soon; however, an attempt to revisit The Secret Adversary, the first Tommy and Tuppence mystery, had to be aborted. I fear I have developed an allergy to lighthearted, poorly plotted thrillers. I much prefer the Beresfords after a few years of marriage have sorted them out.)
As much as she loved writing these books, Christie must have known where her creative bread was buttered, and her output of thrillers thinned considerably during her career. By contrast, Queen only dabbled once in political waters without the presence of Ellery or his father (or Drury Lane), and that was in The Glass Village, an expose of the madness of the Cold War witch hunts, but still very much a whodunit. Ellery remains a constant throughout the Queen canon but his character becomes more complex, growing more reflective and neurotic as his experience begins to weigh on him.
The central setting for twenty-seven of Christie’s novels is a family house. Fifteen novels take place in a village, where everyone knows your name and business. The majority of Christie’s characters have strong familial or business relationships with each other to which the reader can relate, except in the “travel” books, which take place on a mode of transport or in a hotel, where various upper to lower middle class people on vacation interact with each other, and the mystery is often about how they are connected to each other. In Appointment With Death, Christie seems to solve the issue by having most of the characters belong to one large family, so it’s something of a twist when Poirot argues at the end that the children of the horrible Mrs. Boynton, the most likely suspects by far, may be innocent of her murder. Most of us know how the problem of strangers on a train is solved on the Orient Express, but in Death on the Nile, Colonel Race is tasked with Poirot to figure out the connections between the victim and the lengthy list of passengers, particularly when it is proven that the one person most likely to have killed Linnet Doyle could not possibly have done so.
Of Ellery Queen’s first nine novels, the “international” mysteries, only focus on a domestic situation; the rest usually begin at a place of business – a theatre, a department store, a hospital, a rodeo – and then move out to encompass the length and breadth of the city or state. The list of characters in these early mysteries is often two or three times as large as in a Christie novel, although most of them are merely sketched in since the puzzle trumps characterization. The plots are incredibly elaborate, strewn with clues by the bucketful. It takes Ellery over fifty pages to elucidate the solution to The French Powder Mystery. It takes three lengthy tries at an explanation throughout The Greek Coffin Mystery before Ellery gets it right the fourth time. (Though, believe me, it’s worth the wait!)
In Christie, people murder for gain or to cover up a past secret. They kill very often for love, although love is usually mixed with gain or self-protection. One of the author’s favorite plot devices concerns the romantic entanglements of a group of people. Christie can play faster and looser with the love triangle/quadrangle than any author I know, and she makes it nearly impossible for her audience to read a love affair or marriage right side up! Many of her clues in these cases are small things, little events or phrases of conversation that catch a person in a lie. Then the astute reader has to ask, why did that person lie, which leads to a complete rethinking of our impression of that character and a reconstitution of the love relationship. (Of course, sometimes a love triangle is just a love triangle, so be warned.)
One of my favorite clues in all of Christie: a green Malachite table!
Queen’s criminals kill for enormous gain. They kill for revenge. They rarely kill for love, although the books where love is the motivating factor tend to be doozies. They plot like masterminds, with schemes as grandiose as their motives. In contrast to the down to earth values of Christie’s murderers, Dannay and Lee explore in increasing depth the concept of a killer “playing god” with the lives of other people. This could take up a whole other blog, but suffice it to say it’s the pervading motif of Queen’s last and best period, and it was introduced as far back as one of the first Queen novels. (Which one I cannot say!)
A perfect clue is one that dangles a false interpretation for us to snap at, then reveals the true meaning. Christie and Queen excel at this, but with Queen, clues become elaborate snares, with the false meaning of a clue giving way to another false meaning before the truth is deciphered. In Christie’s After the Funeral and Queen’s There Was an Old Woman, for example, a killer is tripped up by a slip that indicates knowledge or access that the suspect should not possess. In Christie’s case, the clue is straightforward, but it’s buried so cleverly that most people miss it. In Queen’s case, a truly clever reader is most likely to feel a tug toward the clue and perhaps even guess its meaning. I know because I did! However, that is the trap! This “revelation” is only the beginning of what the clue really means, and Queen takes us on a dizzy ride before the entire truth is revealed.
Even Queen’s victims are elaborate thinkers, evidenced by the multitude of dying messages that proliferate throughout the novels and stories. Dying messages are problematic: if you are on the verge of expiring, you’d think you would want to send a clear message to the police as to who killed you! That means that the author has to take great pains to establish a good reason for the obtuseness of a message. One of the best examples of this occurs in an early book, The Siamese Twin Mystery. The playing out of the dying message here may be fantastical, but it is absorbing and (somewhat) believable. By the end of his career, however, some of Queen’s late examples of this device bordered on insanity. Take The Last Woman in His Life: the thought process required of the victim before he utters his dying message is so convoluted as to boggle the mind! Christie rarely used this device, perhaps disdaining its artificiality, and when she does, the message is more direct. In Ordeal by Innocence, a young stabbing victim manages to utter two Biblical quotations, and Christie lets her hero overcomplicate the situation by waxing far more poetical than the victim ever intended.
Agatha Christie and Ellery Queen are, to me, two of the most enormous talents of the mystery field, with careers that stretched successfully past the Golden Age. Christie, in her style and preoccupations, maintained a comfortable and classic status quo that, only until the end, was hugely successful. Queen was forever an experimenter, and most would argue that this made his work get better and better. Frankly, it boggles my mind to read in our current blog responses how many readers are unfamiliar with Queen. I close this post with a list of my ten favorite Queens (in chronological order). I urge you to sample the waters from this list! Hurry! The Tuesday Night Bloggers wrap up their look at Queen next week!
BRAD’S FAVORITE TEN QUEEN NOVELS
- The Greek Coffin Mystery
- The Siamese Twin Mystery
- Calamity Town
- There Was An Old Woman
- The Murderer Is a Fox
- Ten Days Wonder
- Cat of Many Tails
- Double, Double
- The Fourth Side of the Triangle (ghost written, I believe)
- Face to Face