ELLERY QUEEN AND THE POISONOUS QUARTET

Great minds think alike! It’s the final week for the Tuesday Night Bloggers to dedicate their efforts to all things related to poison, and without consulting each other in any way, my buddy JJ at The Invisible Event and I both set our sights on Ellery Queen, one of the foremost American practitioners of the classic mystery. JJ did the dirty work: he reviewed The Roman Hat Mystery,which holds the dubious distinction of being Queen’s 1929 debut. Alas, it is also a big bore. Early Ellery is a pompous blowhard in the Philo Vance tradition, who observes his Inspector dad’s investigations with derision and offers lengthy explanations that come off as so much hot air even as they solve the case. I fear that time has not been kind to the First Period of the Queen canon, the nine international titles that comprise the author’s most purely puzzle-centered output. Although the puzzles themselves improve immediately, the characters in The French Powder and Dutch Shoe Mysteries are cardboard, and Ellery’s pontifications could test the patience of a saint. It all works better in The Greek Coffin Mystery despite the same flimsy characterization because at least here Ellery gets his comeuppance, having to “blah blah blah” through three surefire solutions before he stops falling into the killer’s trap and sets things right. Then we take a steep dive in quality with Egyptian Cross and American Gun, the first due to an excess of grotesqueries and a variation on the Birlstone Gambit that feels like a cheat and the second due to a fair amount of deductive silliness around shooting a gun at a rodeo. Things pick up a great deal with The Siamese Twin Mystery, and this signals that cousins Frederick Dannay (the plotter) and Manfred B. Lee (the writer) were heading toward a change of style that would veer away from pure puzzle but create a more humane detective and more readable text.

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Maybe it’s an American thing, but over the 42 years that the cousins wrote together, they resorted to poison as a weapon of choice only a handful of times. I had to do a quick rewrite of this opening after reading JJ’s post on Roman Hat due to the highly embarrassing fact that I had forgotten the victim was poisoned! Of the four novels that did come to mind, only one is from the aforementioned First Period, and this does not even feature Ellery Queen, detective. The second novel with poison – easily the least satisfying of the four – emerges from Queen’s brief Hollywood period. (I can see JJ’s face curdling with regret now at deciding to re-read the Queen canon!) The final two are back-to-back Wrightsville tales, and if the puzzle aspects of both of these stories are simplistic compared to vintage Queen, they both pack a wallop as novels with murder included, due to the richness of character, theme and setting.

One of the most interesting details of Queen’s career is the decision to publish four novels about another detective, retired Shakespearean actor Drury Lane, under the pseudonym Barnaby Ross. The cousins would tour the country, wearing masks and representing themselves as “Ellery Queen” and “Barnaby Ross” in order to engage in lively debates about mystery writing. The first of the Ross novels, The Tragedy of X, introduced the staple Queen technique of the dying message, and Drury Lane’s debut more interesting to read than Roman Hat. The Tragedy of Y is even better, emerging as one of the darkest and most twisted books in Queen’s entire career. The choice of poison as a weapon really serves to add to the horrifying atmosphere the author is trying to set.

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It concerns the doings of the Hatters, a family of grotesques inhabiting one of those New York City mansions you find in most S.S. Van Dine novels. In fact, Philo Vance himself would have felt right at home here. The family is dominated by iron-willed matriarch Emily Hatter, who has evidently driven her scientist husband York (the Y. of the title) to suicide at the start of the novel. Conrad, the only son, is a drunk whose children run wild in the house. Daughter Barbara is a genius, daughter Jill is a madcap, and Louisa, the favorite child of Emily by her late first husband, is blind, deaf and dumb.

The police are called in early on due to a case of poisoning. Emily Hatter has a glass of eggnog prepared for her each afternoon, and on Sunday, April 10 she arrives in the dining room to find her thirteen year old grandson Jackie standing at her place:

“He was holding the glass of eggnog and looking at it. The old lady’s harsh eyes grew harsher; she opened her mouth to say something. Jackie turned his head guiltily, all at once conscious of his audience; his gnomish face screwed up, a look of mischievous determination leaped into his wild eyes, and raising the glass to his lips he quickly gulped down a mouthful of the creamy liquid.”

Bad idea! For what follows in a horrifically rendered scene is that the eggnog has been liberally doused with strychnine. This failed attempt on Emily Hatter’s life is followed in classic fashion by a more successful one, and although she is not poisoned this time, a bowl of poisoned pears is found by her bedside, evidently intended for Louisa. This time, a different poison has been used. Another death by poisoning will follow before Drury Lane unmasks a killer and exposes the dark sickness at the root of the Hatter family. His discoveries leave both the sleuth and the reader shaken at an emotional level that most of the early Queen mysteries fail to reach.

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The detective Ellery Queen would not himself encounter a poison case until 1938’s The Four of Hearts, a second tier mystery that is at its best when it pokes fun at Hollywood, where the sleuth finds himself hired to work on a screenplay based on the passionate love/hate affair of two members of Hollywood royalty. (Hollywood itself was not particularly kind to Queen, with a series of low-budget adaptations that decimated the original works and re-molded the erudite leading character into a tough gumshoe.) The method of death here is striking, as both John Royle and Blythe Stuart down poisoned cocktails while they are flying a small plane. I confess that it has been a long time since I read this one, and I found it a bit of a drag at the time. It might be due for a re-read, yet if you are a person who merely dabbles in Queen’s work, I wouldn’t grab this one first. (Yes, JJ, I mean you!)

Most Queen fans are divided into those who prefer the puzzlers of the First Period and those who appreciate the author’s growth as a novelist in the Third Period, signified by the stories set in Wrightsville. (Significantly, Queen drops the subtitle “A Problem in Deduction” from these books.) I fully admit that the Wrightsville novels do not emphasize complex puzzle plotting in the manner of the early works, but they seem to me richer in every other way and far more accessible to modern readers. These are post-war novels that explore the changing mores of the nation and the loss of innocence on a grander scale than just the machinations of a murderer. The main trio of Wrightsville tales – Calamity Town, The Murderer Is a Fox, and Ten Days Wonder – all leave an emotional sting at the end that the reader feels rather than merely appreciates, and what is most fascinating is the cumulative effect these three cases have on the detective. It’s the first time in my reading history that I noticed a personal through line in a mystery author’s work, where it is truly advised to read these three novels in order (and not to read Cat of Many Tails until one has finished Ten Days Wonder.) Of course, modern mystery authors do this all the time, but I think Queen was one of the first to serialize his protagonist’s psychological and emotional progression as a detective.

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But to get back to the subject at hand, the first two of these books focus on a troubled marriage, resulting in death by poison. Ellery gets directly involved in the events of Calamity Town when he rents a house from John Wright, one of the leading lights of Wrightsville, in order to find the peace and quiet to write his next novel. The rental has the distinctly un-homey nickname “Calamity House” due to its having been built for one of Wright’s daughters, Nora, by the love of her life Jim Haight, who promptly skipped town, jilting Nora right into a nervous breakdown. To everyone’s surprise, Jim reappears one day soon after Ellery moves in, declares his love for Nora anew, and re-schedules the wedding. The embarrassed family offers Ellery a room in the main house next door so that Jim and Nora can have “their” house back.

Which should make everyone live happily ever after, except that it appears that Jim is slipping arsenic into Nora’s food. The poor bride gets sicker and sicker until, at a cocktail party to celebrate the wedding, death strikes. Since it appears that only Jim had the opportunity to poison the cocktail, he is arrested and put on trial, and it is up to Ellery to prove whether or not he truly is guilty of murder.

As a mystery, this is a pretty easy one to figure out, (I’m sure it will remind many of one of Christie’s tricks), but that does not detract from the book’s power as a novel. The Wrights are an essentially decent American family caught up in a terrible tragedy. The town of Wrightsville evokes Grover’s Corners in Thornton Wilder’s classic play, Our Town, and the many townspeople are brought to vivid life, many of them reappearing in subsequent stories. Again, this change in Queen’s style is all a matter of taste, and I’m sure many fans shook their heads in dismay when the author went in this new direction, but what it loses in complex clueing, it makes up for in emotional impact.

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The experiment continues in the next novel in the canon, The Murderer Is a Fox, which, if anything, is an even stronger character study but with a weaker puzzle plot. Its central character is war hero Davy Fox, who returns to Wrightsville broken by both the conflict he has just been engaged in and by vague memories of his childhood, when his father killed his mother. Now married to a loving wife, Linda, Davy cannot shake the deep-set belief that he has inherited his father’s propensity for spousicide. Clearly a victim of PTSD, Davy wakes up one night from a nightmare to find himself strangling Linda. In order to achieve some possible piece of mind, the Foxes contact Ellery Queen, who now feels an almost proprietary duty to the citizens of Wrightsville. Ellery agrees to help, and he decides that the best way to save Davy would be to prove that his father did not slip digitalis into his mother’s grape juice. What follows makes for one of the oddest and saddest tales in the Queen canon. Like Calamity Town, this is less a traditional whodunit than “a novel with murder.” The ending is quite a surprise, although it veers so radically from what has gone on before that  I’m not sure it will leave all readers feeling entirely satisfied.

After this, Queen went back to shootings, stabbings and stranglings as weapons of choice. Dannay, whose growing preoccupation with theological matters informed the last half of the Queen canon, continued to be experimental, creating intriguing new puzzles about criminals who worked off a pattern, the design of which became as much a major part of the mystery to be solved as the killer’s identity and explorations into such topics as fascism (The King Is Dead), McCarthyism (The Glass Village) and What The Heck Was That-ism (And On the Eighth Day) After Lee left the partnership, the novels lost a lot of the humanity he had imbued in the post-war novels, focusing on puzzles once more with results that varied in quality. For whatever reasons lie at the heart of a mystery writer’s preferences, Queen seemed to have little use for poison, but when he did incorporate this method, he produced some of his most intriguing and emotionally resonant work.

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10 thoughts on “ELLERY QUEEN AND THE POISONOUS QUARTET

  1. See, Brad, this is what I’m talking about — this is awesome work, and shows a great understanding of the development of the characters, plots, approaches, and other aspects of the series that can only come from having a full overview of the series. And that’s what I don’t have. I shall persevere through the early puzzles — a lot of them will be new to me, anyway — and (believe it or not) I’m looking forward to the charatcer side coming out as things progress; given how badly they fared in Roman Hat, I’m delighted to think the gradual development of their writing will lead onto works which resonate as you describe.

    I read Ten Days Wonder very early, for instance, but have virtually no memory of it, and only a vague sense of it being good….but, and let’s be honest, this was at a very early stage of my own detective fiction education (hell, I still feel like I’m at an early stage now, a decade and a half later…) and so most of the really great stuff about the high-end Queen books I read will have passed me by anyway.

    I go on from this even more enthused than before — many, many thanks.

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  2. I’ve never really got into the Queen novels, despite having read 6 of them and not ones which are particularly early either. However, your comments on the Barnaby Ross novels do intrigue as they seem different from the EQ ones. Do you think they would be my sort of thing? And if so which would you recommend as a first read?

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    1. I don’t want to give a lot away, Kate, but it is a difficult question to answer. Unlike the first nine Queens, the four Drury Lane novels were meant to be read in sequence, yet I don’t think the first one is the best one. So you might want to go with “Y” and see if you actually like it. (I’m not necessarily convinced you will!) And if you do, go back to “X”. “Z” introduces a new female character who becomes the Watson figure, sort of, and the final case, Drury Lane’s Last Case, is a tour de force which you have to read IF you like these books. If not, give me a buzz and I’ll let you in on the ending of the series.

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  3. I’ve read most of the EQ canon, with the exception of some of the late books, and I agree almost entirely with your judgments. I’m not sure whether that’s a good thing, but I thought I’d mention it.

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  4. Very impressive. Like JJ, I’m in awe at your ability to draw links through the entire series. The only author I think I’d be able to do that with is Christie, but I expect you’d have me beat there too!

    I wish I could like Ellery Queen, but the books are always filled with such broken logic and bizarre factual errors that I just get infuriated.

    I think I’m just not tuned in to how I’m supposed to be suspending my disbelief, both with plot details and whether Ellery is supposed to be a genius or a total idiot.

    It’s a shame, because I really like the weirdness of the plots, and it is interesting to see the character develop. But the rules that govern the world and characters seem so arbitrary.

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    1. Rich, Joe Goodrich, who I believe to be a true Queen aficionado (and whose play of Calamity Town I would love to read and/or see and/or direct!) edited a group of letters between Dannay and Lee, which was the way they both worked. It’s called Blood Relations and was published by Perfect Crime Books. It is a fascinating glimpse into the (deeply) dysfunctional creative relationship between the cousins, and after reading it, I am amazed and baffled that they managed to grind out the books they did. I wonder if that constant stress between them translates into some of the confusion you feel about the rules they play by. I don’t think THEY agreed on the rules.

      As I said to JJ, Queen is the author I read throughout my childhood who has, for me, aged the worst. I’m still discovering new Carrs that delight me (He Who Whispers) and will be doing some re-reading of him. I plan on re-reading the Patrick Quentin books and the Christianna Brand books and may discover the same thing has happened with them as happened with Queen. But I don’t think so. Still, I find a great deal to admire about that middle period, and so I’ve explored these titles again. Not sure I will ever revisit the first period, having re-read Greek Coffin and found its prose difficult to wade through. But I did put French Powder on my Kindle and will get to it one of these days.

      We all struggle with authors (I’ve kept my feelings about Paul Halter a huge secret . . . not!), yet I know how it feels to struggle with an author whose career and reputation make you really WANT to like him more than you can.

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      1. Thanks Brad. I’ll try and check it out. Even though I don’t much enjoy the EQ books, I’m fascinated by how they must have come about – it’s one thing for an author to not much care about fair play, clues, etc., but the EQ books (at least the early ones) are crammed with appeals to logic, mathematical and psychological certainty, etc., and it’s almost always codswallop! It really feels like the cousins must have had completely different ideas about what made a good mystery, and the compromise they reached often ended up being the worst of both worlds.

        Christianna Brand has a lot of ups and downs, and of course some of her solutions stretch credulity well beyond breaking point (*cough* Tour de Force *cough*), but I don’t think you’ll be disappointed if you re-read them. I’ve never found anyone as good at concealing the usually clunky mechanisms of an impossible puzzle plot behind real human characters without sacrificing complexity.

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