What are the Bradley Awards? They are whatever I want them to be! I envision the categories shifting and changing faster than alliances on Game of Thrones. This time around, it’s all about a summing up of my month-long comparison between Agatha Christie, the Mistress of Mystery, and Ellery Queen, the, er, Queen of Crime! As always, spoilers may lurk around any corner, so read with care!
(P.S. I want to apologize for the lack of images in this entry! Either my server has changed the formatting, or WordPress has redesigned itself, and I can’t figure out how to put an image in the body of the text! If anyone can help me, I would appreciate it!!!!)
BEST SURPRISE ENDING
This one is difficult because, between them, Queen and Christie probably thought up virtually every surprise there can be. (Okay, Carr thought up a few delicious ones, and wait till you read Christianna Brand’s Tour De Force!) Ahem, moving on. Trying to pinpoint the best surprise ending ultimately becomes a matter of taste combined with an examination of the effect of a certain ending on an author’s career.
Christie: The Murder of Roger Ackroyd VS. Queen: The Greek Coffin Mystery
ARGUMENT: A surprise ending involves a complete reversal of all our preconceived notions. All mysteries attempt to misdirect us from the truth, so if you’re lucky, a certain amount of surprise will follow during the reveal. But a true surprise ending makes you jump out of your chair. Nobody could do this quite as well as Agatha Christie, but Ellery Queen is only a few steps behind. My chair and I parted company when I read both of these novels. Now, Roger Ackroyd disguises its stunner in what many scholars (such as Robert Barnard in A Talent to Deceive) call a pretty conventional mystery: small village, troubled household, dark secrets. Christie lulls us with all the trappings of a conventional Golden Age murder case until we are sitting in a comfortable easy chair with Hercule Poirot, and the little Belgian yanks the plush carpet out from under us! Greek Coffin, on the other hand, is a whirlwind of changes: a smallish conundrum – where did a dead man hide his will? – leads Ellery into a winding labyrinth of mystery upon mystery. He comes up with a brillliant solution pretty early . . . only to be proven wrong. So he fixes it . . . only to be proven wrong again. But Ellery’s humiliation is our gain, as he finally unmasks a secret killer. Oops, unseated again!
WINNER: Queen’s production is remarkable, one of his very best, but Christie’s novel was a game-changer – for her career and for the mystery genre! She wins, but heed this advice: read them both.
BEST USE OF THE SAME SURPRISE ENDING
Christie: Crooked House VS. Queen: The Tragedy of Y
ARGUMENT: Both mysteries concern the death of a family patriarch: in Christie’s novel it is Aristides Leonides, the strong-willed entrepreneur whose personality affected his large household both in life and death; the victim in Queen’s novel is York Hatter, a rather weak-willed inventor. Both men die of poison. Leonides’ death is clearly murder, while Hatter’s looks like suicide.
As the puzzles within both households unfold, there is no contest as to which household is creepier: the Hatters are so warped and twisted that it comes as no surprise when they start dropping like flies. The Leonides family is somewhat eccentric, particularly actress Magda and cool scientist Clemency, but they are a peaches and cream English family compared to the Hatters, who are dysfunctional with a capital “D.”
And that is why I name the winner . . .
WINNER: Crooked House! Was that a surprise to you? By the end of The Tragedy of Y, it’s practically a matter of course that the solution would be as twisted as it is. But, couched in the relative normalcy of English country living, the reveal in Crooked House is both sad and chilling. If you chose to read this entry without having read the novels, you face a problem: which to read first! I suggest Crooked House as it is superior and deserves to be read without prior knowledge.
BEST BOOK WITH A VILLAINOUS CAT IN IT
Christie: Murder is Easy VS. Queen: Cat of Many Tails
ARGUMENT: In the village of Wychwood-under-Ashe, a series of seemingly natural deaths are spotted as the work of a serial killer by one sharp-eyed old lady. Unfortunately, before Miss Fullerton can “get her Miss Marple on”, she is run over by a car in London, and her mission is taken over by Army vet Luke Fitzwilliam. He discovers that the victim’s cat, Wonkie Pooh, has become a weapon of destruction, responsible for at least one death. How? That would be telling. But it is a major strand of Christie’s novel, leading to another genuinely surprising ending.
In New York City, another serial killer strikes in the night as a horrific heat wave seizes Gotham in its grip. These victims have definitely been murdered, strangled with a silk cord. The murderer has been dubbed “The Cat” by the press, and it is up to Ellery Queen to figure out what links these victims together in order to stopping this killer. The investigation leads to one surprise and then another, with devastating results for the city and for Ellery himself.
WINNER: I love Murder is Easy, and the final showdown with the killer sends chills up my spine. But Cat of Many Tails is easily one of Queen’s finest, with an emotional resonance we never find in Christie’s work. Queen’s cat wins this by much more than a whisker!
BEST VILLAGE MYSTERY
Christie: A Murder Is Announced VS. Queen: Calamity Town
Christie and Queen divided their settings between the big city – Hercule Poirot lived and practiced in London, while Ellery Queen was New York born and bred – and the country. Sometimes Poirot’s investigations landed him in the suburbs, but for real country feeling, one only had to travel in Miss Jane Marple’s circle. Whether in her home in St. Mary Mead, or on one of her jaunts to visit an old school friend or the vicar’s wife, Miss Marple’s novels are the crème de la crème of village mysteries. As for Ellery, in 1942 he escaped the wartime travails of the big city and stumbled upon Wrightsville, a ThorntonWilder-esque small town that became the setting for five novels and a handful of short stories and served as the setting for some of Queen’s finest work.
ARGUMENT: Both books are milestones in their respective authors’ careers. A Murder Is Announced was Christie’s fiftieth novel and proof positive that, not only were her skills in top notch order, she still had a few new things to say. In this case, it was the effect of war on village life. In Chipping Cleghorn, neighbors valiantly attempt to maintain the lifestyles of an earlier era: people keep their doors unlocked and trade foodstuffs and seeds as needed. Neighbors drop in for a glass of sherry, and everybody seems to know everybody’s business. And yet, the English village has changed. The sons of landowners and servants alike have been lost to war. Whole families have moved away, to be replaced by strangers whose outward respectability might be hiding deadly secrets. This is the community Miss Marple finds herself in when an advertisement in the local paper brings neighbors together for what is ostensibly a murder game but turns into a triple murder. These kindly villagers have their share of secrets, which Miss Marple, with her understanding of village life, unravels like a skein of wool to reveal a plot that is both cunning and ultimately pathetic.
Wrightsville is a town in New England surrounded by war yet, at the start, seemingly unaffected by it. It stands for the decency that is middle America, the values that have made this land great. Like its British forebears, however, Wrightsville contains its secrets which, time and again, erupt like a sickness to overpower the denizens of the town. When Ellery Queen chooses Wrightsville as a refuge from the city in which to write his novels, it signals a profound change in the character of the EQ novels from strict puzzles to more character-driven and occasionally profound examinations of the human condition through a criminal investigation. In future visits to the town, Ellery will meet some truly evil people, but here, in his first foray to Wrightsville, Queen stumbles upon an enclave of decency. The people in Calamity Town are flawed but good, and the subsequent crime and its unraveling is as much a human tragedy as it is clever mystery.
WINNER: A Murder Is Announced is arguably the best Miss Marple mystery, beautifully plotted and clued; in fact, it’s almost too much of a good thing, with perhaps one or two secrets too many piled on. Some would say that Calamity Town represents the best of Ellery Queen, not so much in the clueing department – the mystery itself is rather loose – but in the depth with which it portrays its characters and setting, and the effect that lies can have on a group of basically good people. The result – a draw! These novels almost defy comparison, and therefore I declare them both winners!
I wonder what the rest of you would come up with if you could invent your own Bradley category! I’d be interested in hearing your choices. Meanwhile, it has been a fun three weeks putting Christie and Queen together. Any self-respecting GAD reader no doubt has some familiarity with Christie’s work. Don’t let the relative scarcity of Queen’s novels stop you from discovering one of America’s finest practitioners of the classic mystery. In this season of Thanksgiving, I, for one, am thankful to have discovered both authors at a young age and to have enjoyed their work all these many years.
Happy Thanksgiving everyone. When the Tuesday Night Bloggers return, we will be tackling Ngaio Marsh. I’ve got some brushing up to do!