I admire my fellow bloggers who are able to read and post reviews for one, two, even three books a week (how do you do it, PD and Kate?!?) I’m too slow a reader to get that job done. I’ll also admit that reviewing books, most of which others have been far more insightful about, doesn’t satisfy me as much as nerdy nitpickingacute analysis of various aspects of GAD fiction.
Today’s topic: the classic detective as literary protagonist. Discuss amongst yourselves.
We’re talking today about the author who makes JJ verklempt!
The prevailing concept is that the detective is the protagonist of a mystery. It is, after all, his or her journey that we are following, a journey that takes him – and the reader – from obfuscation to enlightenment. As a lifelong student of literature, What I find so fascinating about this is that detectives, at least old-time ones, make for very odd protagonists. How so, you ask? Well, let me count the ways:
- Unlike mainstream protagonists, classic detectives rarely, if ever, undergo a major change. A few of them fall in love and get married. We can see that Harriet Vane caused Lord Peter Wimsey to mature, and Peter Duluth’s rocky marriage to Iris was as compelling as the mysteries he solved. On the whole however, marriage does not make a new man or woman out of a detective. Nor does rising in the ranks of the constabulary. I fancy that E.R. Punshon’s Bobby Owen is boyish and charming from being a constable to leading the police force.
- A mystery revolves around a circle of characters, one or more of whom possesses wealth or knowledge or is terribly odious or in some way an impediment to the happiness of others – all to such an extent that only their elimination can effect positive change. Then there is the circle of people who each have reason to want the victim’s demise. And yet . . . none of these people is the detective. In fact, it is common understanding that the detective stands on the outside of the action that begets a mystery, that she intrudes on a community and is seldom welcome, that the change the sleuth effects is on other people, and that when her work is done, the detective walks away emotionally unscathed. (The tortured Poirot you meet at the end of Murder on the Orient Express does not appear in the book!)
- Sometimes the detective does not appear until the middle. Miss Marple doesn’t make an entrance in The Moving Finger until fifty pages before the end! And yet she provides that story’s conclusion, despite the fact that it is the fortunes of Jerry and Joanne Burton that we have followed throughout the novel; they are the people we care about, just like . . . oh, the protagonist of a novel! And yet the cover of the book says “A Miss Marple Mystery.” Go figure.
- As I said above, the detective stands outside the main circle of action, and this outsider status is, of course, necessary for the whole schemata of a mystery to unfold. The series sleuth can’t go about investigating his or her family over and over, although many sleuths are allowed a single adventure doing so (see Wimsey and Alleyn); otherwise, the clan would be decimated (victims and murderers alike) and the whole continuity of a series would be precarious going. The detective stands outside the ravaged community of a murder, applying an objective eye and his or her own set of super-skills to one case after another. The mystery is solved and the detective retreats, allowing the closed circle to (hopefully) recover from the devastation that murder and other assorted perfidies have wreaked upon the group.
- Since the best detectives appear in a series of novels, what are we to make of the fact that they protagonize (new verb!) one book after another and that, in each case, the pattern is the same, even if the names are changed and the ship becomes a plane becomes a country home. Unless a sleuth works for Homicide or Scotland Yard, there is something wholly inauthentic about running into one murder case after another. Some authors even joke about this, allowing their suspects to remark nervously when they see a sleuth that murder must be rearing its head just around the corner. How many other protagonists have their journey repeat itself on an existential loop?
This isn’t how mysteries work nowadays. The life of the modern sleuth is brimful of drama worthy of the finest soap opera. Even if a detective is not a twice divorced depressive with a grown alcoholic daughter, a checkered record at work, and an address book filled with neighbors who are destined to become victims, murderers, or suspects, our hero is guaranteed to Suffer at the end of every case. In the 1930’s and 40’s, readers picked up the latest Sir Henry Merrivale or Hercule Poirot novel because that name represented the type of ingenious puzzle we would get; that we also enjoyed the main character was gravy. Nowadays, we pick up a Kinsey Milhone or Armand Gamache or Dalziel and Pascoe novel in order to find out what happened to Kinsey, Armand or D&P! Now it’s the mystery itself that’s the gravy!
This isn’t to say that some classic writers didn’t experiment with audience perceptions of their detective. For instance, as their own relationship to the public, to the art of writing, and, frankly, to each other developed, Fred Dannay and Manny Lee reinvented Ellery Queen again and again. From 1929 to 1935, the Ellery on the page was a distinct homage to S.S. Van Dine’s Philo Vance, an assemblage of annoying tics and unmitigated ego who approached each baffling case with all the emotional energy of a computer. (The same applies to the four 1930’s novels featuring the vaguely ridiculous Drury Lane.) The few times Ellery has an emotional reaction – beyond irritation that he hasn’t solved the case – make for some of the most interesting moments of the “Nation + Noun” years. The comeuppance he receives from the killer in The Greek Coffin Mystery springs to mind, as does his genuine sense of fear and hopelessness in The Siamese Twin Mystery as a forest fire encircles the house in which he is trapped. (Even then, however, Ellery seems most concerned that he solve the case before he and his father are engulfed in flames.)
This Ellery is the consummate outsider. He is, in fact, mostly so cloaked in priggish superiority that nobody wants to spend time with him except the cops. It’s no wonder Dannay and Lee grew tired of this incarnation and began to soften him in 1936. In addition to being a co-author, Dannay had become a renowned editor in the genre, and he knew what audiences wanted. Ellery Queen in the late-1930’s was a romantic figure. He crossed the country and settled in Hollywood. He found a girlfriend. He felt a genuine fondness for many of the characters whom he would ultimately send to the electric chair.
Some of this might have had to do with the fact that the character itself had actually branched out to the movies and been radically transformed into a romantic semi-action hero. Most mystery fans will lament that movie mysteries rarely aspire to the complex heights of the best puzzles. Most of the Queen films seen between 1935 and 1942 are either severely pared down versions of early novels or are wholly original in concept. They were cheaply made – and showed it! They catered to the public’s love of Cagney-type gangsters. But the influence these films had on the novels cannot be overstated. Ellery Queen of the 1940’s was not only more humane, he was more human. He began to mildly resent his outsider status. And then Dannay and Lee found a way to play with that status: they invented Wrightsville.
In 1938, Thornton Wilder had written Our Town, his favorite of all his plays. It was essentially a response to the ornately produced but emotionally arid well-made plays he claimed Broadway was churning out, much like the Silver Age of mysteries, with their emphasis on character and tone, was a response to the puzzle-dominated Golden Age. In its first production –asserted by Wilder in his stage directions as the correct way of performing the play – the playwright stripped his tale of sets and props and focused on the people of Grover’s Corners. In much the way, most of the 1940’s Queen novels eschewed a lengthy list of physical clues for a more psychological approach to murder.
Ellery meets Wrightsville in 1942’s Calamity Town, and the authors take pains from the start to describe the New England town of Wrightsville as nearly a duplicate of Grover’s Corners. Our hero enters the town with a plan to escape the Manhattan craziness and, under cover of a pseudonym, get the job of writing done. From the start, however, his quest for outsider status is tainted by local curiosity and just-plain-folksiness. He rents the calamitous cottage next door to the Wrights and is welcomed by that illustrious family. Circumstances eventually force him out of Calamity House and right into Hermione Wright’s guest room. He falls in love with one of the Wright daughters. And this time, when murder occurs, Ellery has an emotional investment in handling the matter that he has never had before, a high-stakes insider status that makes him think twice about revealing the truth once he has discovered it.
To me, it doesn’t matter that the puzzle mystery here is negligible compared to the twenty-five clue Rubik’s cube that is The French Powder Mystery or that we trade a dropped jaw for a tightening of the throat at the climax. It’s a beautifully written novel, and it sends the protagonist into a decade long spin where a series character – maybe for the first time – changes radically but consistently from book to book.
At least, that’s how I remembered it from my long ago reading. When I decided to revisit the second Wrightsville case, 1945’s The Murderer Is a Fox, I did so with vague memories of my first read over thirty years ago whirling about my head. When I wrote the following on this blogspot over two years ago, I did so from memory:
“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 mariticide. 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.”
All of the above is essentially true, but after re-reading the novel, I don’t feel quite as strongly about it. Well, I do for the first five chapters, which constitute a riveting portrait of post-WWII PTSD. The tension between Air Captain Davy Fox, the emotionally savaged war hero returning home from Japan, and his loving small-town wife, Linda, whose adoptive parents, Davy’s aunt and uncle, virtually raised these two together, is magnificently rendered. The depiction of Wrightsville here, at least at the beginning, is less benevolent than deluded, as the belief that a home town parade can wash away the horrors of war is revealed as a sham by Queen’s acute depiction of the inner workings of Davy’s tortured mind.
One of the hoary Golden Age tropes that has always bothered me is the notion that murderers beget murderers. Christie overused this hereditary fallacy to death, I’m sorry to say. The Murderer Is a Fox utilizes the same idea but gives us a beautiful reason for it: it is the suffering he endured as a soldier that awakens Davy’s concern that since his father murdered his mother, he is destined to harm the lovely Linda. Nothing can shake him from this belief, but you can understand this, since Davy has so far refused any real help to heal the unseen wounds he garnered from the things he saw and endured as a war pilot.
Despite the growing unraveling of his sanity, to the point that he actually attacks her, Linda remains true to her man. Maybe this smacks a bit of 1940’s radio soap opera, but no matter! Linda is determined to help Davy, and she decides that they will consult the man who two years previously had helped with that terrible trouble over at the Wright place.
It is when Linda and Davy visit Ellery in New York and beg him to return with them and find a way to prove that Bayard Fox didn’t murder his wife Jessica that memory and reality began to knock against each other a bit in my brain. Now I want to get something off my chest right away because it might have seriously influenced my enjoyment this go-round: as I re-read the novel, I also listened to it on audio book, and I found the reader, Mark Peckham, pretty insufferable. His decision to read the part of Ellery as if he were still a 1930’s fop, with a mildly British-sounding sense of condescension seemed all wrong, as did his playacting of the female voices.
If I am to analyze only the words, however, the middle section of the novel when Ellery comes to Wrightsville is a bit of a drag. Perhaps I couldn’t help but compare this to another, far better, retrospective mystery that had appeared three years earlier: Christie’s Five Little Pigs. We have the same basic situation: on the eve of finding marital bliss, Caroline Crale is haunted by the “fact” that her mother killed her father. She fears her husband and in-laws will always feel a divide because of this. But Caroline has a strong reason to call Poirot in to reinvestigate, and that is the letter her mother wrote to her from prison, professing her innocence. Linda Fox has nothing like this to go on: she just wants it to be so, for if Bayard is innocent, Davy has no reason to be tortured by the past. Yet this completely obviates the true cause of Davy’s mental torment – the war – which young Fox has to get a grip on.
For no reason than that he misses Wrightsville and likes the young couple, and with nothing whatsoever to go on in terms of proof, Ellery agrees to look into the matter. He gets Bayard Fox sprung from prison and gathers the five Foxes together, where for fifty-five pages he focuses primarily on the state’s evidence that Bayard Fox, and only Bayard Fox, could have poisoned the pitcher of grape juice from which his wife drank on the day she died.
This segment reminded me of the bit about the samovar in the early part of The Greek Coffin Mystery: whenever a sense of possibility emerges that something could have been misinterpreted, someone is there to step forward and dash it. In the end, Ellery proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that the evidence is good. We’ve still got half a book left, however, and even though I remembered the solution, I still felt a mounting frustration that nobody voiced the possibility that even if Ellery’s reasoning about the pitcher was sound, his logical case against someone dropping poison in the glasswas comparatively specious.
There’s a little bit of hokum included to provide members of the family with possible motives for Jessica’s death, but most of the rest of the novel feels oddly claustrophobic compared to Calamity Town, where the village’s reaction to the death of Jim Haight’s sister reverberates throughout the case. Ellery is practically family to the Wrights in that case; here, he’s back to being an outsider. His emotional connection to the Fox family more resembles that of Papa Poirot, and while he handles the solution in a way that will spare the family further pain and allow Davy some much-needed healing, it’s telling that as soon as he solves the case, he flees the Fox home to spend the day with the Wrights.
After Ellery’s intense series of deductions leave him in a worse place than he started, some modern day stuff happens that opens up new possibilities. But there’s not much given to piece a rich case together, and most of the revelations that occur in the final third of the book reek of lucky breaks. The clueing around the pitcher is quite clever, even if it hearkens back to the arid aspects of Period One Queen. The “big” clue that leads Ellery to the truth appears quite late and requires a great deal of supposing on the part of both sleuth and reader. And the “surprise witness” who bursts the case wide open is as obvious an example of deus ex machinaas you can get!
I stand by my previous words that “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.” It makes for a poignant goodbye to the second chapter of The Wrightsville Chronicles, but it also felt anti-climactic this time. And frankly, I was struck by how little Ellery was affected here. Again, the audio book reader might have had something to do with it; his version of Ellery was way too arch and unemotional. The choices he makes in the end are bold and unconventional, and yet they didn’t seem to command the same powerful reaction I had when I read the book in my 20’s.
Frankly, though, it makes me curious to re-read the third chapter: Ten Days Wonder (1948). I seem to recall that Ellery’s emotional investment in the troubles that plagued the Van Horn family seemed stronger. And I remember well that Ellery’s temporary downfall as a detective was a direct result of this case, and that this murder plot was the rebirth and blossoming of a thematic bombshell that had long burned in Fred Dannay’s brain, one that would recur in plot after plot for the rest of his writing career.
I’ll get to that someday.