The Tuesday Night Bloggers have dedicated the month of May to variations on the theme of transportation, travel, and vacation. Ah, vacation! What educator doesn’t thrill to the sound of that word in early May? I have exactly four full days and three half days of work left before mine starts . . . not that I’m counting or anything. Other people earn their two weeks a year and travel whenever they like. But I’m a teacher: I get ten weeks (eleven this year, suckers!) and, like school children everywhere, I’m conditioned to believe that vacation = summer! (Cue music and cool video here.)
My favorite place to go is New York City! The theatre, the sensory overload pervading the streets, the friends I’ve made there – there’s always a ton of stuff to do. (I’m going again this summer and will blog about my trip, including the ten shows I’m seeing, in July!) The only problem is that New York in the summertime resembles a foul stew: you are jostled about amidst the other fetid lumps of beef and vegetable as hot, sour air drenches you in humidity the moment you step outside your frigidly air-conditioned hotel. It’s pretty awful, and I’m honestly looking forward to visiting the Big Apple in autumn when the city is cool and beautiful and the new theatre season has begun – after I retire!
Detectives don’t have it so easy when they go on vacation for the simple reason that a detective’s vacation always – ALWAYS! – turns into a busman’s holiday! Miss Marple learns that an idyllic Caribbean island is the same moral cesspool as her beloved St. Mary Mead. Nero Wolfe can’t relax on a dude ranch without being nearly gored by a bull! Ellery Queen, the consummate New York detective, is a writer by trade, and so his travels are usually connected with work. He spends four somewhat problematical novels (and several short stories) in Hollywood, trying to write a screenplay and romancing assorted damsels. He seeks inspiration in Wrightsville, a Thornton Wilder-type New England town with a dark side, and finds it – not so luckily for Wrightsville’s citizens, since a visit by Ellery means that the charming village streets will soon be awash with the blood of murder victims.
In two notable Queen novels, 1933’s The Siamese Twin Mystery and 1949’s Cat of Many Tails, the author/sleuth is on vacation when he and his loving dad, Inspector Richard Queen, get involved in murder. Since these books appear in markedly different periods of the author’s career, one finds many differences in their style, tone and plot structure. Still, there are enough fascinating thematic similarities between these two – and both are, in some ways, milestones in the Queen canon – so that they deserve a closer look together.
The Siamese Twin Mystery is the seventh of the nine “international” titles that make up the First Period of Queen’s career. These nine novels, plus the four Drury Lane mysteries written in 1932-33 under the pseudonym Barnaby Ross, are, as Queen fans know, pure Golden Age “fair play” thrillers, complete with a “Challenge to the Reader” feature, that stress ratiocination around highly complex and bizarre goings-on in colorful settings. Ellery, the detective, acts as unofficial deputy to the Homicide division his father runs, and he traipses about in a supercilious fashion, rolling his eyes at the police’s lack of success over cases that no human being in his or her right mind would every plan or carry out. This Ellery is hardly human; rather, he’s a walking compendium of irritating mannerisms, a chip off the Philo Vance block.
Until Siamese Twin. Here, it’s as if when Ellery goes on vacation, he can shove the smarty pants character in a trunk and calm down. There’s a marked change about this novel that, although firmly planted in the First Period, seems to be a harbinger of different things to come. Many readers, myself included, have pointed to The Greek Coffin Mystery as the best of the period. It certainly is a clever book with a brilliant ending and, due to a series of mistakes Ellery makes during the case, it succeeds in bringing his overweening self-confidence down a few pegs. But the characters are, for the most part, mere sticks for the author to manipulate, and there is a sameness to the many scenes of Ellery, his father, and the members of the District Attorney’s office arguing the significance of tea services and oil paintings, of Ellery gathering suspects together, expounding upon the evidence and then offering a brilliant – albeit incorrect – solution!
The Ellery we find in Siamese Twin is more human, the attention to character and, especially, to atmosphere more detailed and thrilling. Here, the author literally turns the heat on a murder case where the deadline for finding a solution is truly a matter of life and death. Father and son are traveling in late July through the Tennessee Valley when they notice the air around them getting warmer, and a disturbing smell in the air. Trying to maneuver the Duesenberg to safety, they discover a horrifying fact:
“The whole mountainside below them was burning. The mantle was ripped in thousands of places and the little orange teeth and the long orange tongues were greedily nibbling and licking away at the slope, hostile and palpable in their own light. An entire landscape, miles long, seen in miniature from their elevation, had suddenly burst into flames. In that numbing moment as they rushed back along the crazy road they both realized what must have happened . . . A camper’s carelessly trodden fire, or a forgotten cigarette, even the friction of two dead limbs rubbed against each other by a breeze, might have started it.”
With no recourse, the Queens drive up the mountain until they come upon the sprawling house of Dr. John Xavier, the “Mayo of New England,” a handsome mad scientist. Up until this novel, the settings in Queen’s works have been sprawling but interesting for their novelty: a theatre, a hospital, a department store, a rodeo. This is the first true example of a “country house” novel in the Queen canon, and the house, with its eccentric inhabitants and lurking monstrosities, along with the fact that it has been encircled by a rapidly growing ring of fire, makes for a fascinating milieu (as well as a big dud of a vacation!)
One’s enjoyment of the case that follows depends on how much one likes the trappings of Queen, especially the dying message, more than one of which can be found in these pages. This was my first dying message novel, and I found that aspect to be extremely clever, but I recognize that some folks are not enamored of this accessory at all. What you will find is a tightening of suspense as the fire rages out of control and approaches the house. That’s when Ellery has to measure his obsessive need to solve the crime against his impending death, and the life or death issues that in classic detective fiction tend to be unemotionally distilled into pure puzzles take on a deeper existential tone. Ellery reflects:
“His thoughts veered from death to life, from barely glimpsed vistas of remembered fact to flitting phantoms of his aroused fancy. Pieces of the puzzle returned to annoy him. They persisted in invading his brain cells and storming his consciousness. At the same time he chuckled mirthlessly to himself at the instability and inconsistency of the human mind, which stubbornly wrestled with problems of comparative unimportance while the big things were ignored or at best evaded. What did one murderer more or less matter to a man facing his own extinction? It was illogical, infantile. He should be occupied with making his private peace with his private gods; instead he worried about trivialities.”
We read mysteries as an escape. We sit on beaches or in airplanes and relax from the cares of our lives by immersing ourselves in the perils facing a closed circle of people who are being slaughtered because we know that some sleuth is going to fix things and restore order. For the first time in the Queen canon, the author brings us to the brink of utter disaster, where finding a killer may turn out to be a footnote in the lives of people about to be snuffed out by the cruel vagaries of nature. And yet, this murder still must be solved. In fact, we find nature colluding with Ellery to force a confession from the killer and, on every level that matters, restoring order to this society.
In Cat of Many Tails, Ellery is on a self-imposed “vacation” from detection. This Period Three Mr. Queen is significantly darker and more three-dimensional than the character we met in Siamese Twin. Gone are the tics and mannerisms peculiar to many Golden Age detectives. This Ellery has been transformed, both by his authors and by the cases he encountered in Wrightsville, into a man filled with doubt and worry. Compare the Queen of Greek Coffin, who stumbles badly and comes out a shade more contrite and humbled but with most of his insouciance intact, with the Ellery of the case that precedes Cat – Ten Days Wonder – where the sleuth blames his own ego for the deaths of innocent people.
At the start of Cat, Ellery intends to take down his detective shingle and concentrate on writing. But, as in Siamese Twins, the best-laid plans of our detective are stymied by the heat. Here is the New York that I know so well from my numerous July sojourns:
“The City was blackly quiet, flattened by the pressures of the night. Eastward thousands would be drifting into Central Park to throw themselves to the steamy grass . . . wherever there were tenements – fire escapes would be crowded nests in the smother, houses emptied, streets full of lackadaisical people. The parkways would be bug trails. Cars would swarm over the bridges . . . hunting a breeze. At (the beaches) . . . the sands would be seeded by millions of the sleepless turned restlessly to the sea.”
The metropolis is presented as a stagnant yet teeming powder keg just looking for a spark to set off a conflagration. Enter the Cat, one of the first of the modern serial killers to be found in American fiction. His victims are seemingly random: male and female, rich and poor, black and white. The only thing they seem to have in common is that they are strangled with the same silk cord. The police seem incapable of finding the pattern that would explain the killer’s motivation and, hopefully, lead to his identification and arrest. When the killings cross racial lines, the overheated fears of the populace threaten to erupt into massive mob violence.
By the 1940’s, the authors Queen, and Frederick Dannay especially, became increasingly committed to using the mystery genre to explore the kinds of deep psychological and moral issues found in “legitimate” fiction. While Ellery had to weigh solving crimes against his own mortality in Siamese Twin, the modern Ellery has spent the post-war 1940’s grappling with heavy existential matters, never more so than in Ten Days Wonder and Cat of Many Tails. The Ellery who is dragged from his self-imposed “vacation” to assist his desperate father is filled with doubts that we never find in the make-up of a Hercule Poirot or a Nero Wolfe. Like Poirot does in his own battle with a serial killer, the 1936 novel, The A.B.C. Murders, Ellery gathers a small posse of support from the relatives and lovers of the killer’s victims to aid in his efforts. Both investigations suffer setbacks, but when Poirot’s trap in Doncaster ends in an attack on an innocent person, it is seen as a brief glitch before the investigation soldiers on. In the Queen novel, these setbacks cause nearly irreparable damage to the emotional psyche of the city and the detective. No “what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas” here! On this vacation, all actions have consequences, and the repercussions of these consequences leave permanent scars.
Likewise, both novels feature a false solution, followed by the true one. In Christie’s novel, the police fall into the killer’s trap and arrest the wrong person, but Poirot is never fooled. The false solution in Cat is a snare made by someone specifically for Ellery, to which our hero succumbs temporarily. In the end, Queen reveals the true killer by traveling across the world to visit a world-renowned psychoanalyst. Yes, this character has a crucial piece of evidence that will help prove Ellery’s case. But more important, Dr. Bela Seligman turns out to be the only possible savior for Ellery himself, as the sleuth has been so broken by yet another investigation that he cannot move on until he is given absolution for the mistakes he has made.
Many of us enter into a vacation more or less bent, even broken, by the vicissitudes of daily existence. We seek a chance to “get away from it all” to find rest, at the very least, and if possible, some sort of rebirth and renewal of our vow to take on the challenges we face in our professional and personal lives. Many of us read mysteries to find solace, for in these artificial worlds, all that is wrong is made right. The killer is caught and order is restored. The Siamese Twin Mystery and, to a greater extent, Cat of Many Tails, reflect a darker vision of the detective’s world. During both “vacations,” Ellery Queen risks his sanity, even his very life, and although he succeeds at solving both cases, the social order does not revert back to normal as is usually the case with a classic mystery. Instead, these “vacations” exact a heavy toll on Ellery’s soul.