ELLERY QUEEN AND THE BRIDAL DISASTER

No, I’m afraid this is not a piece of meta-fiction. This is a problem, a burning question from one fan to many others. See, I don’t see why all our posts have to be reviews. I got into this racket to initiate conversation with others, and there is this question that has been burning a virtual hole in my virtual head for many years. In order to ask it, I have to warn you that SPOILERS ABOUND AHEAD!! So don’t read this if you are not intimately familiar with the works of Ellery Queen.

All of us who read a great deal of mystery fiction – and count among our favorites the more prolific authors like Christie, Queen and Carr – have come across a mystery that seems . . . familiar. We know we haven’t read it before, but we have a sense that the events unfolding are going to lead inevitably to a certain place . . . and then – they do!!! Call it, oh, the Ecclesiastes Syndrome, if you will, meaning that in mystery fiction there is inevitably nothing new under the sun.

Agatha Christie struck a chord early in her career by heaping a bunch of suspicion on her main suspect, only to have that person turn out to be totally, completely irrevocably guilty in the end! It was a twists, arguably the best thing about this novel, and it served her so well, that she revisited the idea over and over again. Of course, being the expert plotter she was, you rarely recognized that this was where she was going because she cloaked that particularly trope in a wide array of fashions. The same goes for the idea of a supposed victim turning out to be the killer. Or the helpful junior detective. Or the most unpleasant person in the closed circle. It didn’t always happen, but in each of these cases it happened multiple times.

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The same goes for Carr and his ilk. If you pore through the back of the book of Robert Adey’s invaluable resource Locked Room Murders, you can read hundreds of impossible crime solutions and realize that there are only so many variations on the sealed study or the snowy footprints or the invisible killer. The successful impossible crime novelist can re-dress a solution in a variety of ways, (and the key to a successful career lies partly in the creativity of those variances, right, Mr. Halter?), but modern authors have to acknowledge that it’s pretty near impossible to come up with a spanking brand-new method.

So we mystery fans read and read and read, and often we close a book contentedly and sigh, “You know, that was a nice variation on Peril at End House,” or “Didn’t he steal that bit with the keyhole from The Tiger’s Head?” And we move on to the next book and the next and all is well. Because somehow the ideas have been moved around or reconfigured or added to or subtracted from . . . and all is well.

Except . . .

(WARNING: HERE’S WHERE THE SPOILERS KICK IN!)

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There are three books that Ellery Queen wrote that I happen to enjoy very much. None of them are Period One books, written when the cousins Dannay and Lee were training for a long, successful career. No, these books are Period Three, my favorite period. They were written in 1943, 1949, and 1967, so they comprise a significant period of time – but not that significant. The first, There Was an Old Woman, is the only example in the canon of a screwball mystery farce, although it rights itself into a gripping mystery. The screwball aspects arise from the denizens of a large Van Dine-ian New York family, the Potters, who make – you guessed it – shoes. I’m not a huge screwball fan, but what I like is that much of the book consists of a sort of war between the crazy Potters and the sane ones, and I enjoy how this is used to serve the purpose of an insidious murder plot.

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The second book, Double, Double, is the last of the major Wrightsville novels. It is, like the other novel published that year (Cat of Many Tails) a mystery about a serial killer, which differentiates it from the first three, although it, too, contains some wonderful character studies, a hallmark of those village mysteries. I’m a fan of a good serial killer mystery, which often centers not so much on “whodunit” but on what connects the victims. Queen was very fond of pattern puzzles set up as a series of crimes where the reader has to figure out the pattern. Probably the most startling is Ten Days Wonder, where a series of odd events culminates in murder. Double, Double is different, in that you have to figure out why this disparate set of characters is being bumped off. It is wholly enjoyable for this aspect of the mystery, but it is admittedly the weakest Wrightsville tale, at least in terms of sleuthing, of the four.

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Finally, the 1967 novel, Face to Face, is a favorite of mine but probably divides fans more than the other titles, partly because the plot hangs heavily on a dying message. It was part of a final “retro” period of Queen mysteries where he hearkened back heavily to the pre-Wrightsville days to create good old-fashioned puzzles. There are echoes of past scenarios, most notably in the friendship Queen strikes with another detective, a relationship that is destroyed in the end by our hero’s solving of the puzzle – but not in the way you might think.

Three different mysteries, three different tones, three different plots and sets of characters.

Except they all end the same. Exactly the same. And that puzzles me.

I’m not talking here about a re-utilization of similar trope, like the “most-likely” or “least-likely” suspect-is-the-killer trope, or Queen’s own favorite “God Complex” trope, which he used over and over again, or my least favorite in mystery fiction, the Birlstone Gambit. These are solution “types” that can be shifted around, at least ornamentally, so that you don’t realize until it’s too late that your solution has been recycled. No, the three novels above end exactly the same way.

They end with a wedding.

Of course we’re talking about different circumstances, different characters, and, as I mentioned, even different tones in each book. However, the way it works each time is thus: in the course of a case, Ellery befriends a person involved in the case who happens to be/fall in love. Thus, Ellery’s interests align with that other person as he seeks a solution to the case. He finds and presents a solution, thus paving the way for his friend to marry. And then, at the wedding, Ellery gets this sinking feeling, stops the nuptials, and exposes one of the affianced as the true killer.

The false solution followed by the true is a time-honored system in GAD fiction. I think I can speak for my fellow mystery fans when I say we love it. But why this method? Why a wedding? Why three times? Both Dannay and Lee were happy family men. Both were industrious plotters who often fought and disagreed about where a book should go. (Read Joseph Goodrich’s Blood Relations: The Selected Letter of Ellery Queen, 1947-1950, for a brilliant illumination into the mind and heart of their partnership.) Surely, between the two of them, they would have made sure that, while elements from past mysteries might be revisited, scenes from previous books wouldn’t be recycled wholesale like this.

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That’s about all I have to say. It has always bothered me. I wanted to get it off my chest. If anyone has a theory or – better yet – a factual explanation for this phenomenon, I am all virtual ears! I thank you.

11 thoughts on “ELLERY QUEEN AND THE BRIDAL DISASTER

  1. Interesting, Brad. And, of course, you’re absolutely right about the weddings. I don’t have a sophisticated answer to your question, but I do know that Christie did the same thing (a hint or promise of a wedding at the end of the story (e.g Five Little Pigs, The Hollow, and even Hickory, Dickory Dock) These aren’t exactly like the Queen novels you mentioning, but I thought of them right away. I ought to research that whole phenomenon. Thanks for the food for thought.

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    1. But Margot, I think that odd phenomenon is not the hint of a wedding at the end (after all, that’s a common cliche of all fiction and cinema), but rather the same disturbing reason why the wedding doesn’t conclude successfully.

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      1. There really is no parallel in Christie. Certainly, she wasn’t like Patricia Wentworth whose lovers were sacrosanct and always innocent. Both Poirot and Miss Marple occasionally broke apart the main romances by revealing one of the lovers as the killer, sometimes quite spectacularly. But here I’m talking about three endings that are almost identically scripted, save for the names and genders of the characters. (In two instances the groom is the killer, in one instance the bride.)

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  2. A lot of Patricia Wentworth’s Miss Silver mysteries cast suspicion on the lovers, as well as from a somewhat later era, the Brother Cadfael mysteries. Examples from both series have each of the lovers lying because they believe their beloved was the murderer. Which makes a conveniently available mechanism for obfuscation.

    I think from an external point of view, it’s because authors think (probably rightly) that there’s overlap between readers of mysteries and readers of romance. Though this seems less likely in readers of Ellery Queen.

    I can’t think of other examples of the detective intervening to stop the marriage, though. That seems so very Ellery, doesn’t it?

    Fun observation!

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    1. Reese, I can’t think of any other mystery writer who dashed romantic hopes more than Ellery Queen! Somebody always ended up heartbroken, but in this case the method of heartbreak is repeated again and again . . . and again!

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  3. I have nothing to say on your main observation, Brad, more than that you have found something interesting there.

    Instead I focus on nitpicking, as is my wont: Surely a couple of the Hollywood novels of Period Two are just as much screwball, if not more, than “There Was an Old Woman”?

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    1. I guess, Christian. Four of Hearts especially has a lot of craziness going on. I never found them particularly funny, though, but then I’ve never been able to embrace the Hollywood novels much, so I can’t offer much expertise on them.

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  4. This is a great observation! I haven’t read any of the Ellery Queen novels, though I have a few on my list for this year. I wonder if, at the time, the publisher received so much praise for the unique ending that it was suggested that it be worked into future novels, as well.

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  5. Big Ellery Queen fan. I have read all of their novels and short stories. One thing. Double,Double ends before the wedding. Not during like the There Was An Old Woman and Face To Face.

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      1. Actually it’s the other way around… in my edition of DD, the wedding takes place on page 157 and the last page is 215. The other two books are indeed ones where Ellery solves the case barely in time to stop an innocent person from marrying the murderer, but in DD the nuptials are on May 2 and Ellery doesn’t figure things out till June 11.

        I have a lot of affection for DD because it’s one of the novels where Ellery spends months in Wrightsville mixing with a wide variety of townspeople (rather than being there for a week or so and dealing mainly with the members of one family), but plot-wise it’s definitely the weakest book set there, as well as the weakest of the three featured in this post.

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