THE TRAGEDY OF Zzzzzzzzzz

One could write an amusing post about authorial pseudonyms and the reasons for them. How many writers donned a literary disguise out of a sense of shame that they were dabbling in an “inferior” genre? Surely a poet of great stature in the United Kingdom like Cecil Day-Lewis could not write thrillers under his own name; however, mysteries garnered a greater income than poems, so Lewis donned the moniker of Nicholas Blake and penned sixteen whodunnits.

Agatha Christie took on the alias Mary Westmacott so that she could explore a different, more serious, side to her writing that would also not confuse her readers or cause them to unfavorably compare the “straight” novels with the mysteries. Frederick Dannay and Manfred B. Lee knew full well that their debut whodunnit stood a better chance of selling if the author’s name was striking. Et voila! We got Ellery Queen, which in a stroke of meta-cleverness, was the name of both the detective story writer andthe detective, who made his living by . . . writing detective stories!

Gladys Mitchell did pretty much the same thing as Christie, writing three novels each in 1934 and 1936: two mysteries under her own name and an adventure novel under the alias of Stephen Hockaby. Then, between 1966 and 1971, she wrote one Mrs. Bradley mystery a year . . . and also wrote one mystery a year under the name Malcolm Torrie that featured an architect-detective named Timothy Herring.

19081026-dollars-pile-from-packs-of-money-3d

For the most part, though, taking on a pseudonym was all about the money. Those with the ability to write fast sought to increase their output and gather those royalties whilst they may! Yet they had to be wary of over-saturating the market with their work.

Thus, in 1931, Major Cecil John Charles Street published six novels: Tragedy on the Line and The Hanging Woman under the pseudonym John Rhode; The Menace on the Downs and The Three Crimes as Miles Burton; and Murder at Monk’s Barn and The Figure of Eight as Cecil Waye.

And in 1936, Patrick Quentin (itself a pseudonym that by this time stood for the partnership between Hugh Wheeler and Richard Webb) published under three monikers, introducing Peter and Iris Duluth in A Puzzle for Fools (as Patrick Quentin), introducing Dr. Westlake in Murder Gone to Earth (as Jonathan Stagge), and writing Death Goes to School (as Q. Patrick).

Likewise, between 1933 and 1938, John Dickson Carr published nineteen novels and one novella, averaging three or four books a year under his own name or as Carter Dickson, and, once, as Carr Dickson.

51c0kOio0hL._SX348_BO1,204,203,200_

Even the pseudonymous Ellery Queen had a pseudonym. And therein lies the tale of the day. For recently the topic of longevity came up in a discussion of Queen at, of all places, The Invisible Event. In his sojourn through the career of Ellery Queen, my pal JJ has frankly had an uphill climb, and I have found myself being alternately defensive, cajoling and – as is usual with me – the soul of wit and patience with my friend. I’ve even discussed with Noah Stewart and other wise men the possibility of holding an intervention with JJ on the subject.

Then at last, JJ found a Queen novel that he could enjoy with Halfway House, which serves as a transitional point from six years of puzzle-driven plots to something . . . different.  It was not the last time in a career spanning fifty years that Queen’s writing would transform itself, and it prompted JJ to ask the question: “Isit even possible to keep churning out the same stuff over that long a period with all the social change going on around them?”

Reading about cousins Fred Dannay and Manfred B. Lee, one can see that they were always restless for change, partly from their own maturation as writers, as Jews, and as Americans living through tumultuous events like World War II and the McCarthy Red Scare, and partly because they could read their audience. This was particularly true of Dannay, whose contributions to the mystery field as an editor were arguably more lasting than his work as an author and who was the “idea man” in the partnership. (Lee did the heavy writing based on his cousin’s detailed plotlines and scenarios.)

aeadaddc0c103c6c8093094562a5053e

And so we have these semi-distinct “periods” of work within the Queen oeuvre. But there is a fascinating subplot to the story, and it is the tale of Barnaby Ross. Dannay and Lee both had “real” jobs when they began writing as a lark in order to win a contest. The company that sponsored the contest went out of business before they could publish another person’s winning manuscript,  but their book had been automatically submitted to a literary agent, who loved The Roman Hat Mystery and signed the boys on as clients. It was their agent who urged Dannay and Lee to quit their day jobs and devote themselves fulltime to writing mysteries. But both men had young families to support, so in order to truly make a living at this, Ellery Queen had to publish a lot of books. And he had to do so without over-saturating the market.

Most mystery authors shooting for literary longevity and a desire to avoid writer’s fatigue created a second (and maybe a third or fourth) sleuth to vary the workload. This is exactly what Dannay and Lee decided to do by the time their third book, The Dutch Shoe Mystery, had proven that their success was no fluke. They went to a second publisher and proposed a series of novels featuring one of the most pretentiously eccentric sleuths ever created: Drury Lane, the elderly/deaf/Shakespearian actor/nudist/sleuth, with his upstate New York castle and his hunchback butler, Quacey. And this time, the cousins didn’t have to look far for an authorial alias: in the prologue Roman Hat, they had given a Holmesian nod to an old, unpublished Queen case, the Barnaby-Ross affair. Thus, in 1932, Queen published four of his strongest puzzle books from his first period. Two Queens: The Greek Coffin Mystery (a true classic), The Egyptian Cross Mystery (bloody and weird and ultimately not to this reader’s taste) – and two Ross mysteries: The Tragedy of X and The Tragedy of Y.

This burst of literary output made the boys famous, helped along by their talent for self-promotion. They donned masks and, pretending to be the two “separate” authors, engaged in public debates about the genre before delighted audiences. Public demand led to four more novels in 1933: another pair of Queens (American Gun and Siamese Twin– again, one just okay and the other fantastic) and two by Ross. And the forward to The Tragedy of Z offered a hint of numerous pleasures to come:

“The publication of this third novel in the Drury Lane trilogy makes a brief word of explanation necessary. The cases entitled The Tragedy of Xand The Tragedy of Yoccurred very close to each other in point of time. But The Tragedy of Z took ten years in the making. By that I mean that a full decade elapsed before a problem arose which made possible a title consistent with the titles of the first two. In the intervening period Drury Lane solved many strange perplexing cases, the most interesting of which will be recorded at some future time.”

Alas, it was not to be. At the end of 1933, Barnaby Ross and his creation breathed their last in Drury Lane’s Last Case. Dannay and Lee had argued with their Ross publisher and published Lane’s final adventure in a pulp publication. Perhaps, also, the struggle of producing four full-fledged puzzle-plot novels a year was wearing on them. From then on, Ellery Queen would be Ellery Queen only and in a couple of years would begin a slow evolution into a different kind of writer.

19231605063

Although their publication  spanned over only two years, the four Barnaby Ross novels are a study of a prolific career in miniature, for each one is strikingly different from the others. The Tragedy of X could just as easily have been called The New York Streetcar Mystery: it has the urban quality of the first four international mysteries, the same cardboard suspects, the same strong alliance between a Homicide detective and an uppity amateur sleuth, and it features a major gambit, the dying message – complete with a lecture – which would feature so prominently in The Siamese Twin Mystery and go on to become a Queenian motif for the remainder of his long career.

 

As modern as X seems, The Tragedy of Y is steeped in the macabre mood of Grand Guignol. The book reminds us tenfold why fans consider S.S. Van Dine to be the main progenitor of Ellery Queen, for Yis the most Van Dine-ian of all Queen novels: a Manhattan brownstone, a monstrous family, a bizarre murder plot with a shocking twist of an ending! Ywas a distinct improvement as both mystery and reading experience, at least for this reader, but the ill fortunes of the literally diseased Hatter family make for an eerie and unpleasant reading experience.

BR03f_Tragedy_of_Z

And then we come to The Tragedy of Z, and everything changes once again. Z is one of only two Ellery Queen novels that I had not read until this post. It is unlike either of its two predecessors in a multitude of ways. It echoes the work of a brilliant contemporary in the field. It is the only Queen story in the entire canon that is told from a woman’s point of view. And it is, by and large, a failure. But a failure with features of interest!

Ten years have passed between the horrific murders in The Tragedy of Y and Drury Lane’s next case, and unlike the lives of most series detectives in the Golden Age, everything has changed. Lane himself has aged significantly and is ailing. District Attorney Bruno has become the governor of New York state, and Inspector Thumm has quit the police force and hung up his shingle as a private investigator. He also welcomes home his daughter Patience, who has spent most of her childhood being schooled in Europe, for frankly lousy reasons:

“Mother had packed me off to the Continent in the care of a chaperone when I was too young to protest; the dear thing had always been of a sentimental turn, I suspect, and vicariously steeped herself in the dripping elegances of continental life through my letters. But while poor father never had a chance, our growing apart had not been entirely mother’s fault. I recall dimly getting under father’s feet as a child, pestering him for the goriest details of the crimes he was investigating, reading all the crime news with gusto, and insisting on popping in at him in Centre Street with preposterous suggestions. He denies the charge, but I am sure that it was with relief that he saw me packed off to Europe.”

And while Patience chronicles her life as a madcap, having “stormed the gates of Rome . . . tested absinthe in Tunis, Clos Vougeot, in Lyon, and aguardiente in Lisbon . . . and with lustful enjoyment gulped in the enchanted air of the Sapphic Isle” all leading to her failed attempt to smuggle a copy of Lady Chatterley’s Lover through New York customs, she is not some pretentious missy destined to serve as a high-living Watson to Drury Lane. She turns out to be a smart and promising sleuth in her own right. She demonstrates this over and over again, much to the Neanderthal astonishment of every male in the book (and to the delight of Mr. Lane), and she actually helps solve the case, or at least guide Lane to the proper shoreline.

md18795445376

There are moments of great power in The Tragedy of Z, and I can’t help feeling that Queen was, to some extent, influenced by one of the great writers of the day: Dashiell Hammett, whose output of novels numbered just one more than that of Barnaby Ross. Yet every one of them is 1) completely different from the others, and 2) a gem! In Z, we find the political corruption element found in Red Harvest and The Glass Key, the private eye’s wide geographical journey replacing the closed circle of suspects in the family manse, a la Maltese Falcon, and elements of humor emanating from Miss Thumm as they do in The Thin Man.

Some of the characters bear the grotesqueries of many of Hammett’s more colorful characters, particularly a madame named Fanny Kaiser:

“She was immensely tall and broad and husky, an Amazon. I put her down at once as forty-seven, and did not applaud my own acumen – she made no effort whatever to disguise her age. There was no powder or rouge on her heavy masculine face; she had not bleached the prominent hairs of her broad upper lip. Her hideously carmine hair was covered with a felt hat which I was sure had been purchased at a haberdashers rather than a milliner’s. (N.B.: I love what this distinction says about Patience.) She made no style concession to her sex; for she was dressed in startlingly mannish clothes . . . And there was something aside from the bizarre which was arresting in this extraordinary creature. Her eyes were like diamonds, keen and brilliant. Her voice, when she spoke, was very deep and soft, with a remote hoarseness that was not unpleasant. And, despite the grotesquerie, she was a woman of intelligence – if of a crude, natural sort.”

I’ve abridged this description of Fanny, although passages like these – and descriptions of the murder setting, a house which stands in upstate New York under the literal tower of a looming state prison, and of the prison itself, which figures prominently in the novel – make up some of Queen/Ross’ best writing of the 30’s. Yet Fanny is a fitting symbol of The Tragedy of Z as an example of an enormously missed opportunity.

BR03c_Tragedy_of_Z

For despite some great set pieces and compelling characters – including an inmate named Aaron Dow who is either a fiendish killer or one of the great tragic figures in Queen’s canon – and some clever detective work throughout (the initial examination of the first murder scene reminded me of Poirot scouring through Emily Inglethorpe’s bedroom in The Mysterious Affair at Styles), the novel bogs down again and again and ultimately disappoints.

JJ recently wrote about the experience we all have had reading mysteries and finding the ending anti-climactic. It’s hard to ascribe that word to the finale at the end of Z, which draws all the surviving characters to the prison’s death chamber where a man is about to be electrocuted for a crime he may not have committed. Drury Lane has put a man’s life in danger in order to choose the exact psychological moment to spring his truth on everyone. He bursts into the execution chamber, flanked by Patience and the Governor himself . . . and then, like young Ellery in The French Powder Mystery, Lane begins to talk . . . and talk . . . . and talk! He never stops talking until he has ground our patience into the dust! (His Patience does just fine.) I recognize that the logical summing up is a trope of classic mystery, but when Queen got going in the early novels, he could squash the momentum like a bug!

41qlyXiEWqL

The killer’s identity may come as a surprise to most, and while the revelation of identity is come to fairly, the whole effect is patently unfair in that certain things – like motive – are left out until after the reveal. I hate that sort of sloppy clean-up, and since my own Patience (get it?) had worn thin by the end, I had no compulsion to forgive Queen/Ross for this self-indulgence.

The character of Fanny Kaiser turns out to be something of a waste, but I will say two more things in favor of this one: Aaron Dow might be something of a cliché in the annals of prison fiction, but he is an honestly tragic figure, and who’s to say he wasn’t a fresh idea in 1933? And secondly, I liked Patience throughout. Maybe it’s the time we’re living in, but she seemed fresh and modern. So I have to disagree with Francis M. Nevins, the premiere biographer of Queen’s career, who had no patience with Patience, hating her feminism and finding her dialogue akin Ellery Queen’s pomposity  in drag. The final page of the novel reveals the author’s admiration and affection for his one and only female narrator. Patience appears one more time – merely as a character, though – in Drury Lane’s Last Case, which is, alas, a mighty slog indeed.

And so, I have to make that presumptive “half-hearted recommendation for Queen purists only” that so many bloggers make over the lesser works of their favorite authors. I might suggest listening to the book rather than reading it, since narrator Rachel Dulude does a wonderful job of bringing Patience – and Queen’s often stilted early 30’s prose – to life. And I have to ask the question: is there a risk an author runs being this prolific? Is there an author who successfully maintained the highest quality of writing at such a pace? Even today, most writers make a relative pittance doing their job, pushing them to produce more and more – sometimes ending up with a product of vastly inferior quality. We’re not talking about the hit and miss of any artist’s career, but the risk one runs drawing water when the well is creatively dry. Sometimes, you have to wait for it to rain . . .

Advertisements

17 thoughts on “THE TRAGEDY OF Zzzzzzzzzz

  1. Oddly, this was my favorite of the Barnaby Ross books, perhaps because of Patience. I thought it was far livelier than Y, which I generally enjoyed and whose ingenuity I admired, and Last Case, which I quite enjoyed but thought was nothing special. X had me reaching for the cocktail sticks to keep my eyes open.

    Which is the EQ novel you haven’t yet read? Your eager fans are desperate to know.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. That’s an odd one, all right. I remember picking it up with a cry of glee during a business trip to the US in the 1970s as an EQ that to my knowledge hadn’t published in the UK, and being very . . . puzzled by it.

        But isn’t it one of the ones that were written as paperback originals under license by other authors? (I don’t mean the ghostwritten ones that were plotted by Dannay and written by the likes of Ted Sturgeon.)

        Like

      2. No. It is a normal Ellery Queen authored novel written by the original pair Fred and Manny. However. It does not have the character Ellery Queen or his father.

        Like

      3. It’s a very unsubtle treatment of McCarthyism. I’ve read some harsh criticism of it. I actually have a copy, so one of these days when I’m in the mood for something different . . .

        Like

  2. I have to say, Brad, that I’ve never been as much of a fan of the Barnaby Ross books. Perhaps it was because I liked the original (is that the term?) books better, and the others suffered by comparison? Hard to say. Either way, I know what you mean about the well running dry. Sometimes, you really can’t prime the pump…

    Liked by 1 person

  3. There is one thing I found absurd here. It is revealed that the prison chaplain is carrying messages to and from the prisoners. The method used is highly absurd and unworkable. It can work once but not continuously as an ongoing process.
    Also several clues are withheld until the end and hence it is not a fair play mystery.
    Several deductions are made through unrealistic intuitive leaps rather than logic.
    In my opinjion, a mediocre book.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. No, it is definitely not fair play, although I do like the initial deductions Patience makes at the murder scene. That whole Vietnam bit comes out of nowhere, and as I mentioned above, the motive issue is . . . well, it’s an issue!

      Like

  4. I liked this one – although I understand people’s caveats! I was impressed by the prisonhouse solution, eliminating everyone – but then I enjoyed the similar scene in French Powder!

    One correction:
    “Gladys Mitchell did pretty much the same thing as Christie, writing three novels each in 1934 and 1936: two mysteries under her own name and an adventure novel under the alias of Stephen Hockaby”

    1933 – Marsh Hay (Hockaby)
    1934 – Death at the Opera; Seven Stars and Orion (Hockaby)
    1935 – The Devil at Saxon Wall; Gabriel’s Hold (Hockaby)
    1936 – Dead Men’s Morris; Shallow Brown (Hockaby); Outlaws of the Border (Hockaby for children)
    1937 – Come Away, Death
    1938 – St Peter’s Finger
    1939 – Printer’s Error; Grand Master (Hockaby)

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for the correction, Nick. Damn that Wikipedia! I don’t know much about Gladys Mitchell . . . and I think I’d like to keep it that way!

      I much prefer the ending to The French Powder Mystery, which was genuinely surprising and whittled down fifteen suspects. In Z, as soon as we understand stand where Lane is going with this, there are really only two possible suspects – and one of them is absurd. So all that build-up is like a drum roll without a crescendo at the end.

      Like

  5. I don’t really know what to say about “Tragedy of Z”.

    It was a while since I read it, but on the whole, I think it’s largely a disappointment, though not completely for the same reasons you give. I’m one of those who really like “Tragedy of X” (and “Y”), so I think that the Barnaby Ross books are an example of diminishing returns.

    It’s interesting that many here seem to enjoy Patience Thumm, because to me she’s always come across as a very Mary Sue-ish character. It doesn’t help that she comes across as that chipper, perky archetypal All-American girl, who’s so irritating in large doses. 🙂

    The plot and mystery have their moments, but fail to live up to the best of the era.

    I guess I did know what to say. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. ” . . . she comes across as that chipper, perky archetypal All-American girl, who’s so irritating in large doses . . .

      If “perky, All-American girls” smuggle porn in their valises and reject All-American studs because they have a thing for 70-year old deaf actor-detectives, then you are right, sir!

      Like

      1. If “perky, All-American girls” smuggle porn in their valises and reject All-American studs because they have a thing for 70-year old deaf actor-detectives, then you are right, sir!

        Sounds like the kind of perky, all-American girl I need — wheeze — to meet . . .

        Liked by 1 person

  6. I got a good solid laugh out of your title for this post. I was expecting you to slay the book on how tedious it was, but I didn’t quite get that out of your take on it. I’ll admit that I was hoping that you caught a whiff of the monotony that I experienced with The Tragedy of X and the earliest Ellery Queen books.

    I will say that the Barnaby Ross books seem to be an interesting chapter in Queen’s career. The Tragedy of X is excruciating in its detailed investigation, yet is almost made awesomely bad by Drury Lane’s strange character. The Tragedy of Y is a 180 and provides a mostly gripping read that left me shell shocked at the end. This review suggests that The Tragedy of Z goes in a completely different direction. That’s interesting given that the four Barnaby Ross books were dropped over the course of just two years. That’s an astounding amount of variation given that the other Queen books over the same period are… somewhat the same (monotonous, but each with different minor charms).

    You have some great book covers in your post. I have two editions – the yellow one with the Z block, plus one you didn’t include; an Avon with Drury Lane in black cape chasing after a woman. I can’t find a year in the edition but I’m guessing it’s early 60s. Anyway, the Barnaby Ross books are surprisingly tight in their cover art. The first era Queen books definitely all have one killer cover, but the Barnaby Ross books seem to have 2-4 quality covers each. I wonder why that is.

    Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s