Ellery Queen | The Roman Hat Mystery | The French Powder Mystery | The Dutch Shoe Mystery | Influence on John Dickson Carr | The Greek Coffin Mystery | The Egyptian Cross Mystery | The Tragedy of X | The Tragedy of Y | The Tragedy of Z | The American Gun Mystery | The Chinese Orange Mystery | Homages in Ellery Queen | The Spanish Cape Mystery | An Ellery Queen Plot Idea - and its Ancestors | The Adventures of Ellery Queen | The New Adventures of Ellery Queen | Halfway House | Short Stories in the tradition of Halfway House | Left Wing Politics | Cooperatives and Leftist Anarchism | The Hollywood Novels | The Dragon's Teeth | Relationships | Minimalism and Calamity Town | Radio Plays | Calendar of Crime | Impossible Disappearances | Q.B.I. | Cat of Many Tails | The Origin of Evil | The King Is Dead | The Glass Village | Inspector Queen's Own Case | Terror Town | The Finishing Stroke | EQMM and the Detective Story | Recommended Reading
A Guide to Classic Mystery and Detection Home Page
The Dutch Shoe Mystery (1931) (Chapters 1-10,30)
The Greek Coffin Mystery (1932)
The Egyptian Cross Mystery (1932) (Chapters 1 - 11, 17, 18, 26, 28, 30)
The Tragedy of Y (1932)
The Tragedy of Z (1933)
The American Gun Mystery (1933) (Postlude)
The Siamese Twin Mystery (1933)
The Adventures of Ellery Queen
The Chinese Orange Mystery (1934) (Chapters 1-4,17)
The Spanish Cape Mystery (1935) (Chapters 1-4, 8,15,16)
Halfway House (1936) (Chapters 1, 2, end of Chapter 4, finale)
The Door Between (1937)
The Four of Hearts (1938)
The Dragon's Teeth (1939)
The New Adventures of Ellery Queen
The Adventure of the Murdered Moths and Other Radio Mysteries
Uncollected Radio Plays
There Was an Old Woman (1943)
Calendar of Crime
The Origin of Evil (1951)
Q.B.I.: Queen's Bureau of Investigation
The Scarlet Letters (1953)
The Glass Village (1954)
The Finishing Stroke (1958)
QED: Queen's Experiments in Detection
The above list contains my favorite Ellery Queen stories and novels, the ones I personally enjoyed, and recommend reading. For a complete bibliography of his work, see the Ellery Queen web site by Mark Koldys. The Koldys web site offers well done critical commentary, and discusses movies and TV adaptations. It has links to other EQ web sites.
The Adventure of the Murdered Moths and Other Radio Mysteries and The Tragedy of Errors are available from their publisher, Crippen & Landru.
EQ's early works were strongly influenced by S.S. Van Dine. Gradually, he developed a more personal style, although he always was faithful to the puzzle plot, intuitionist tradition of the Van Dine school. Along with Agatha Christie and John Dickson Carr, he was one of the three major writers of the puzzle plot detective story.
The influence of the gifted, and today often underrated, Van Dine on EQ was extensive and profound. Ellery Queen is a genius amateur sleuth who works in close, respectful collaboration with the police, the same pattern as Van Dine's novels about Philo Vance. Both EQ and Van Dine set their novels in New York City, largely among its intelligentsia, artists, collectors and theater people. Both write in a rich, literate prose style. Both were early advocates of including non-stereotyped minority characters in their works, something discussed in detail in the article on Civil Rights in Mystery Fiction.
EQ likes boundaries involving space, time and knowledge. He is fascinated with rooms that have not been entered, lines that have not been crossed, apartments that have been guarded and watched. He is also concerned with who knew things and didn't know things, which in turn often depends on who has participated in events and who hasn't. These become boundary markers in the complex logical geometry of his plots.
The limitations of the novel, and its reason for still classifying it as a journeyman work, deal with the solution. Later EQ novels will often have the most startling surprises in their solutions; this book runs out of steam two thirds of the way through, and its solution adds only a single new clue, together with the identity of the murderer. These are logical and fair, but not the deeply creative finales of the great EQ books. EQ, as is his wont, has given partial solutions to the crime at several stages in the body of the book, so the reader gets a full mead of deduction and revelation in the novel. But there is almost nothing left over for the finale.
The furniture in The French Powder Mystery is probably Art Deco, although it is never called by that name in the novel. EQ calls it "modernist", and gives a vivid and accurate description of how it was viewed by its contemporaries, both artistically and sociologically. Considering the tremendous enthusiasm today for preserving America's great Art Deco heritage, with Deco societies springing up in every city, this book should be better known. EQ was deeply interested in the world around him. His books form a record of an important era in American life.
The book perhaps shows the influence of the Freeman school, with its medical setting, its background of a hospital, its timetable crime, deductions from physical evidence (the shoes of the title), and its solution through that Freeman-Crofts tradition, an alibi depending on "the breakdown of identity". However the story still has an intuitionist feel to it, not to mention one of the fullest imitations of S.S. Van Dine's mannerisms in the Queen canon. Unlike Freeman, medical knowledge plays no role in the mystery, although the hospital setting is deeply integrated into the plot. Most importantly, the logical precision with which the characters move through the floor plan seems very intuitionist indeed. It recalls Chesterton, and his rearrangement of characters and bodies in space and time.
The initial murder shows some of Ellery Queen's surrealistic flair, without reaching the flamboyant extremes of much of his later work. The book has a visionary quality, perhaps because it seems to be the product of something truly imagined, to borrow a phrase of Ursula K. LeGuin's. The book is organized around imagery of total whiteness, appropriate for a hospital of the 1920's. Together with the rectilinear architecture of the floor plan, it recalls the abstract art of its time, especially Malevich's Suprematism, and his painting "White on White". The effect of a "white-out", of a world turned totally white and disappearing into an haze of light, seems strong in this book.
A book like this shows much of the technique that would later dominate Ngaio Marsh's novels. There is the floor plan, and the wanderings of the characters through it. They are well defined and varied types, each with its own active interest in the outcome. The chapter titles are all schematic. I have wondered if Marsh is a Van Dinean; perhaps it would be more accurate to wonder if she were directly influenced by Ellery Queen.
Reader Mark Tilford sent interesting e-mail on this subject: "I was recently thinking about Carr's The Arabian Nights Murder, and realized it seemed to be rather Queen-like. In particular, Hadley's section (which was my favorite) reminded me of Queen's solutions: the detective notices several 'stray points': the disconnected beard, the fainting spell, etc., and puts them together with a beautiful chain of deductive reasoning which converges on the identity of the killer. The book also has two solutions, which EQ frequently did."
Another area where Carr's writings modeled themselves on Queen's was that of the radio play. EQ was apparently the pioneer author to move from prose fiction into the radio drama. Carr would follow along this path shortly after, as did Anthony Boucher.
EQ's later books are not formally organized around multiple solutions; in The Greek Coffin Mystery, the four solutions are the key structural underpinning and organizational principle of the book's design and storytelling. But he retains the technique of partial solutions growing into ever deeper solutions; it returns again and again as a key feature of his detectival technique.
Before either EQ or Anthony Berkeley, was an author who influenced them both. E. C. Bentley's Trent's Last Case (1913) contains three solutions to its mystery.
As in The French Powder Mystery, what people could have known, and not known, plays a key role in the solutions. These limits of knowledge are also sometimes tied to geographical areas, as in the earlier novel.
The map, which shows a whole New York City block occupied by the rich, was perhaps influenced by the maps in S.S. Van Dine's The Bishop Murder Case (1928).
Detection. The Egyptian Cross Mystery is one of the first stories in which Ellery finds a hidden pattern in a series of phrases or names (Chapter 5). This will become a prominent part of the EQ saga in such stories as "The Inner Circle" (1947; based on a 1942 radio play) and "Payoff" (1964), and is related to plot ideas in Ten Days' Wonder (1948), Double, Double (1950), The Origin of Evil (1951) and The Finishing Stroke (1958). This plot approach seems related to the Dying Message: in both Ellery has to find a hidden meaning or significance in symbols or phrases.
There is some good deduction in Chapter 26, which involves reconstructing one of the crimes, based on a logical analysis of a crime scene. This does not reveal the murderer, or much about the main plot of the mystery, but it is a nicely done set-piece of deduction all the same.
The solution to the mystery is set forth in the novel's finale. We get a final crime (Chapter 28), then a logical analysis and solution of the crime (Chapter 30). This detective work and solution are fairly simple compared to other early EQ books. Its simplicity, and effect of working within a tight plot with little room to maneuver, does anticipate the minimalist works of the 1940's, such as Calamity Town.
Themes. The Egyptian Cross Mystery (1932) contains ideas and techniques that will resurface in EQ's books starting in the late 1940's. Much of the imagery involves religion, as in The Dutch Shoe Mystery (1931) and "The Invisible Lover" (1934), a subject that will return in many post-1945 Queen novels, such as Ten Days' Wonder (1948), Cat of Many Tails (1949), The Player on the Other Side (1963), and And on the Eighth Day (1964).
The early scenes showing the effect that a killing has on a rural community, anticipate the more elaborate portrait of a killer's effect on New York City in Cat of Many Tails. The citizens of the country town Weirton ultimately come off better in EQ's depiction, than do people in New York in Cat of Many Tails, panicking less, and behaving more responsibly. Both portraits are somber, and attempt a reflective commentary on society.
Weirton: An Ancestor to Wrightsville. Weirton is very much a real city in West Virginia. So are other towns named in The Egyptian Cross Mystery, but not seen: Chester, New Cumberland and Pughtown (since renamed New Manchester). There is a nearby real-life town called Arroyo, but it is not on the New Cumberland - Pughtown road as in the novel, and it is unclear if EQ's tiny village Arroyo is supposed to be a portrait of this real town with the same name. All of these are in Hancock County, in the far northern tip of West Virginia's panhandle. These are all close to the major city of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, a fact that plays a role in the novel.
EQ creates an elaborate portrait of the Weirton area, including both a host of government officials, and many people with small businesses or farms. As is often the case in Ellery Queen, more attention is paid to people with very small businesses, than to factory workers. We get vivid portraits of a Weirton man with a small garage, and an Arroyo village storekeeper. The garage owner is sympathetically depicted as an archetypal poor American working man of the era. Not shown at all are the steel plants that were the center of Weirton's real-life economy, or the men that work there: a typical EQ omission. Citizens of Arroyo are shown as valuing education, and respecting their school teacher. The politicians come off less sympathetically, being depicted as pompous and trying to make political gain from the murder, and the local constable is actually caricatured, as the sort of hick lawman popular in books and films of the day. However, the politicians are lacking in malice, and the portrait as a whole is refreshingly free of hillbilly stereotypes. Instead, it comes across as a "typical American small town". In this, it is a precursor to the Wrightsville novels and stories EQ would write from 1942 on. While the portrait is inevitably less detailed than the multi-volume Wrightsville saga, the picture of Weirton and its environs is an impressively complex conception, with many interlocking business, cultural and political activities.
The region shows up in non-Queen works:
Dying Messages. The third murder contains the first "dying message" in Queen's books.
It is not known which mystery writer was the first to use this device. Conan Doyle included it in "The Boscombe Valley Mystery" (1891) in The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. It is found in Isabel Ostrander's The Clue in the Air (1917), the delirious woman's words in Donald McGibeny's 32 Caliber (1920), Carolyn Wells' In the Onyx Lobby (1920), Agatha Christie's The Mysterious Affair at Styles (1920) and Christie's Ostrander spoof "Finessing the King" in Partners in Crime (1924), the second section of Dashiell Hammett's Red Harvest (1927), and in Earl Derr Biggers' Behind That Curtain (1928), for instance. Aside from Doyle and Christie, all of these writers are American, and it seems to be an American tradition. Biggers' work is especially close to Queen's in that it involves a non-verbal clue.
The dying message is found in the works of several later authors, all American, most of whom were probably directly influenced by Ellery Queen. These include several of Anthony Boucher's tales, Robert Leslie Bellem's "Death's Passport" (1940), David Alexander's Murder Points a Finger (1953), Rex Stout's "The Zero Clue" (1953), William Brittain's "Mr. Strang Takes a Hand" (1970), Mike Barr's first published tale, "Crime at the Comiconvention" (1973), Patricia McGerr's "The Bloody Mustache" (1981), William L. DeAndrea's Killed on the Ice (1984), Jon L. Breen's Triple Crown (1985) (see the fourth section) and "Starstruck" (1987), James Yaffe's Mom Meets Her Maker (1990), Edward D. Hoch's "Waiting for Mrs. Ryder" (1994) and "The Trail of the Bells" (1985).
There is also a British thriller tradition, in which the dying person gasps out, not the identity of the killer, but some information about the thriller plot, often fairly cryptic. This is a fundamentally different kind of story. Examples include Valentine Williams' dismal The Orange Divan (1923), Victor L. Whitechurch's Murder at the Pageant (1930), Alfred Hitchcock's film version of The Thirty-Nine Steps (1935), and Agatha Christie's spy novel They Came to Baghdad (1951). Christie's book shows the greatest ingenuity among these thriller examples. Among EQ's works, "The Adventure of the Last Man Club" (1939) has this second sort of dying message.
The least interesting dying message tales in EQ are the pure ones, in which Ellery investigates the possible meanings of a message, and little else: such tales as "The Adventure of the March of Death" (1939) or "Mum Is the Word" (1966). The dying messages become more ingenious when the message concept is mixed in with more complex variations. These tend to be structural variants on the whole concept of the dying message. Trying to discuss such tales, or even name them, risks giving away that such stories are in fact variants on the dying message gimmick: something that is often not obvious at first in the tales themselves.
Despite all these similarities, Queen's book ultimately contains a frightening originality. It is one of the most surrealistic of all Golden Age detective novels. Its surrealism is not so much in the details of the particular crimes themselves, but in the slow melt-down the book eventually employs on the conventions of detective fiction.
Francis M. Nevins has pointed out that much of The Tragedy of Y can be read as a political allegory. The book paints an extremely negative picture of almost all aspects of human society, including capitalism, science and ultimately detective fiction itself. We are used to seeing writers of both left and right depict promiscuous sexuality and the Family as polar opposites. The Tragedy of Y is unique in literature in condemning both of them, painting both sexuality and the Family in terms of absolute horror and disgust.
Typically, Frederic Dannay plotted the EQ books, and Manfred Lee wrote them from Dannay's outline. The publication of Frederic Dannay's outline for The Tragedy of Errors (1999) gives us a chance to compare Dannay's style with that of the Ellery Queen novels. The outline in Act III of The Tragedy of Y seems similar in style: this might be the direct work of Dannay. Most of the rest of the writing in Y seems to be in Manfred Lee's richest prose style. Lee especially excels at the depiction of Barbara Hatter's poetic work.
The business of the disappearing gun is well done by any standards. Later, John Dickson Carr will introduce a similar disappearing gun mystery into Till Death Do Us Part (1944), but come up with a completely different solution for it.
The solution to this book is also unusual in that it involves a whole complex, public enterprise behind the crime, one involving both the rodeo and other aspects of show biz. So many Golden Age novels involve one solitary criminal dashing around the bushes of some country house, that it is interesting to see its exact opposite here.
I have always thought it was some sort of political commentary, that when it came time to add an "American" book to EQ's series of country titles, he choose The American Gun. Perhaps this reflects America's gun enthusiasm. The book takes place at a rodeo visiting New York City; a similar rodeo is featured in Stuart Palmer's Murder on Wheels (1932). I don't know much about the history of rodeos, but one must have visited New York in that era, and made a tremendous impression. The rodeos are clearly very similar productions in the two books, and probably share a common real life ancestor. The novel gives many details of the cowboy costumes, something which probably delighted most readers of the era, who loved cowboy movies.
I have always thought of this as the most John Dickson Carr like of Queen's novels, and regarded it as an experiment by its author in writing a "John Dickson Carr book". However, a comparison of the dates suggests that it was written before Carr became "himself", and if there were influence here it would be in the other direction. It is possible that it influenced the complexity of such Carr novels that followed, as Death Watch (1935), The Arabian Nights Mystery (1936), and above all, Carr's masterpiece The Three Coffins (1935).
The technique of the book is closely related to the "impossible crime", although EQ does not actually use it to create an impossible crime situation in the novel. Despite this, many historians of the locked room story seem to (falsely) remember it as a "locked room" book; it appeared on the poll of the top ten impossible crime books, for example, conducted by Edward D. Hoch for the Mystery Writers of America (see the introduction to Hoch's anthology, All But Impossible.) This false memory is a remarkable case of collective amnesia. On a deeper level, the mystery writers who told Hoch that it was one of their favorite locked room stories were essentially right: it does come straight out of the impossible crime tradition.
Agatha Christie and S.S. Van Dine are mentioned in Chapter 1 of The Four of Hearts (1938). EQ makes clear in The Four of Hearts who his closest literary relatives are by referring to the imaginary mystery writer Ellery Van Christie. Similarly, The Tragedy of Y (1932) describes the "deductive-intellectual detective" tradition of Conan Doyle, Agatha Christie and Ellery Queen himself. In "The Adventure of Napoleon's Razor" (1939) a character tells Ellery that he is his second-favorite detective, after Agatha Christie's Hercule Poirot. Both Poirot and Chesterton are mentioned towards the end of The Dragon's Teeth (1939). Van Dine's sleuth Philo Vance is mentioned in The Spanish Cape Mystery (1935). Doyle's Sherlock Holmes is invoked in The American Gun Mystery (1933) and "The Adventure of Mr. Short and Mr. Long" (1943). Rex Stout is discussed in The Finishing Stroke (1958) (Chapter 10). One also suspects that the use of the name Cazilis in Cat of Many Tails is in tribute to Mollie Casilis in Craig Rice's It Takes a Thief (1943). G.K. Chesterton's sleuth Father Brown is mentioned by Ellery in The American Gun Mystery (1933) and Halfway House (1936), and Stuart Palmer's detective Hildegarde Withers in "Mystery at the Library of Congress" (1960). "The Three R's" (1946) mentions Anthony Abbot, G.K. Chesterton, Doyle, Poe, and Israel Zangwill. All of the writers in the above paragraph are members of what can be called the intuitionist tradition, the tradition to which Ellery Queen belonged himself.
English writers with ties to the Scientific and Realist schools of detective fiction also receives tributes in Queen. Ellery refers to H.C. Bailey's sleuth Reggie Fortune in The Chinese Orange Mystery (1934). Dr. Eustace in "The Teakwood Case" (1933) could be a tribute to Robert Eustace, the collaborator on a number of important scientific detective stories. The publisher Dan Z. Freeman in The Finishing Stroke (1958) might be a homage to R. Austin Freeman, a writer Queen admired. The book explicitly mentions (Chapter 5) Anthony Berkeley's The Poisoned Chocolates Case (1929), a novel whose multiple solutions probably had a strong influence on Queen's own multiple solution mysteries, such as The Greek Coffin Mystery.
Private eyes and Raymond Chandler are memorably satirized in the opening of "The Ides of Michael Magoon" (1947). Dashiell Hammett is mentioned rather mockingly in The Spanish Cape Mystery (1935) (Chapter 7). This story also has comic references (Chapter 9) to thriller writers E. Phillips Oppenheim and Edgar Wallace.
"The Medical Finger" (1951) refers to Frederick Irving Anderson's The Notorious Sophie Lang. In the story "Cold Money" (1952), the bad guy keeps renting Room 913 of a hotel; as Francis M. Nevins pointed out, this recalls a similar situation in Cornell Woolrich's "The Room With Something Wrong" (1938), which also involves mystery in Room 913. The house dick of the hotel plays a major role in both tales, as well. This is clearly a homage to Woolrich and one of his best stories. I suspect that EQ has added little homages and in jokes to many of his works, playful references to other mystery writers' stories; I wonder if they are as numerous as Alfred Hitchcock's cameo appearances in his movies.
One can also see possible - but not explicit - references in The Player on the Other Side to Borges' "Death and the Compass". Ellis Parker Butler is quoted in the opening chapter of Halfway House (1936). Howard Haycraft is paid a charming tribute to in "Abraham Lincoln's Clue" (1965). And the suspects in The Chinese Orange Mystery and The Origin of Evil named Macgowan (with a small g) could be a reference to Kenneth Macgowan, who edited the anthology Sleuths (1931).
However, the solution of The Spanish Cape Mystery is fairly simple, the plot is not especially complex, and the body of the book is over long for the substance of the plot. The whole thing would be better as a novella, of around half the length of the novel.
The Spanish Cape Mystery has a memorable dream sequence (Chapter 8). It mentions that Ellery had hoped to get insight into solving the crime through his dream, but that this did not happen. Such dreams about a case will be a recurring event in the mysteries of Stuart Palmer.
The book shows EQ's ability to create a natural landscape, and integrate it into a story. It seems unusual for EQ, after the urban setting and delightful floor plans of so much of his fiction. "The Treasure Hunt" (1935) of the same year also has a dramatic, isolated natural location. Such lonely buildings in inaccessible settings are a tradition in 1930's mysteries: one thinks of The Phantom of Crestwood, Benighted (filmed as The Old Dark House), Rebecca, Ten Little Indians and Hangman's Handyman. The first four were made into movies, and the lonely mansion near the sea on a dark and stormy night is a staple of the 1930's Hollywood whodunit.
The Spanish Cape Mystery (1935) was made into a mediocre B movie that same year, with romantic leading man Donald Cook playing a suave, well dressed, often witty and humorous Ellery. Its best sequence has nothing to do with the novel. This is the opening, in which Ellery helps Inspector Queen solve a jewel robbery. This prologue is unrelated to the rest of the story.
Some short works in the above series, "The African Traveler", "Mind Over Matter" and the radio play "The Adventure of the Forgotten Men", all show interesting social commentary. One the surface, there seems no inherent reason why works in this puzzle plot tradition should involve social issues. But the plots and social ideas seemed to be linked in EQ's creative imagination.
A possible ancestor to all of the above EQ works is E. C. Bentley's Trent's Last Case (1913). Chapter 11 of Bentley's novel sets forth mystery solution ideas that bear some relationship to EQ's later mystery concepts. Bentley's plot seems both related to, and distinctly different from, Ellery Queen's.
Rufus King's first Lt. Valcour novel, Murder by the Clock, was apparently serialized in magazines in 1928, before its book publication in 1929. It has a simple plot idea involving men's hats. It is possible that EQ used King's work as a jumping off point for the far more complex ideas in The Roman Hat Mystery, and the subsequent works listed above. Another possible influence: one wonders if the name "Rufus King" affected EQ's choice of the pseudonym Ellery Queen. It seems like a natural progression from King to Queen. Also, G.D.H. Cole's The Brooklyn Murders (1923) contains a mystery writer turned amateur sleuth named Robert Ellery; he is called "Ellery" throughout the book, accentuating his resemblance to EQ.
King and Queen in the 1920's apparently influenced other writers who used similar plot ideas. Dashiell Hammett in The Glass Key (1930) used plot concepts about men's hats related to Murder by the Clock and The Roman Hat Mystery. Stuart Palmer, in The Penguin Pool Murder (1931), "The Riddle of the Double Negative" (1947) and "Once Upon a Crime" (1950), also uses ideas related to King's and Queen's in constructing his puzzle plots. Palmer became interested in these ideas' potential for symmetry; EQ occasionally created symmetric plots, as well. In general, Palmer's plotting approaches often ran parallel to those of Ellery Queen: both men also wrote many tales of Impossible Disappearances, as is discussed below.
"The Teakwood Case" (1933) is a quintessential early EQ, investigate a situation in-depth puzzler. It adopts the same approach as such novels as The French Powder Mystery (1930). Ellery learns more, then deduces some more, then gets deeper in investigation, precipitating more things happening, followed by more deductions... The chain of deductions ultimately becomes very satisfying. The story also shows EQ's interest in symmetric patterns, and in surrealistically repeated crimes, as in The Egyptian Cross Mystery. Ellery eventually develops two whole solutions, a false (but insightful) earlier solution, then a deeper and correct solution to the crime. This recalls the four solutions in The Greek Coffin Mystery. The first solution is in the tradition of The Roman Hat Mystery, and other EQ works; the second involves complex riffs on this approach.
"The African Traveler" (1934) involves no less than four solutions. The solutions do not build on each other, in the manner of the more complex "The Teakwood Case", but simply exist as alternate explanations. Still, this is impressively ingenious. The first and fourth solutions develop the approaches found in The Roman Hat Mystery, and many other Queen works. In fact, the key idea of the first solution is related to the first clue in the finale of The American Gun Mystery (1933), also in this same tradition. The second solution is distinctly different: it is a scientific detection, based squarely in the work of R. Austin Freeman, and his microscopic look at dust. The fourth solution has an exciting series of deductions, in which Ellery eliminates large groups of people as suspects, eventually narrowing down on the killer. This too recalls deductions at the end of The American Gun Mystery, in which Ellery drastically narrows the pool of suspects down from the 20, 000 people present at the rodeo.
"The Hanging Acrobat" (1934) is poor, aside from some vaudeville lore; it reads as if EQ were trying to add some spice to his tales to increase their salability, an experiment he did not repeat, although he came close with the perversity of "The Bleeding Portrait" (1937).
"The Invisible Lover" (1934) has some good ideas, but the tale never really gels as a whole. One likes the way EQ makes the crime essentially be impossible, by having the hero insist that he had sole possession of the gun through the hours of the murder. But the central explanation of this breaks with the basic paradigms that make detective stories possible. It is clever, but it is more of a stunt than a fair play solution. Variations on this approach were used by Erle Stanley Gardner in several novels, and by Edmund Crispin in some of the stories in Beware of the Trains. Still, there is all sorts of plot inventiveness throughout the story
"The Two-Headed Dog" (1934) is a combination puzzle plot and Nancy Drew type adventure story (ghost and treasure at sinister cabin). The mystery solution is unveiled at the end, Agatha Christie style, without the sort of intermediate deductions of "The Teakwood Case". This story is quite entertaining, with good New England atmosphere, and its solution is clever. EQ includes more than one mysterious surprise in the solution - like several of his best short works, it involves multiple mysteries.
Some of the best tales in the collection are the last. "The Seven Black Cats" (1934) is very clever. "The Seven Black Cats" bears structural resemblances to "The Two-Headed Dog" of the same year, and "The Hollow Dragon" (1936) to come. All three begin with a long complex, strange chain of events, that seems difficult to understand or to explain logically. At each stories' end, Ellery gives a logical explanation of the events: an explanation that seems even more central to each tale's mystery plotting than the whodunit. The events do not seem at all impossible, but they do seem bafflingly strange and mysterious in nature, meaning and purpose until the solution. The stories also have somewhat similar storytelling gambits: they start off by characters narrating the history of the events, in cozy surroundings (the pet store, the inn, Ellery's apartment), then move to the sinister site of the events themselves for the rest of the tale. The stories also all have animals in their titles, and plots. Later, the radio play "The Adventure of the Murdered Moths" (1945) will also share some features with this animal-story tradition, although its central elements are never as seemingly strange or illogical as those in the three short tales.
"The Mad Tea Party" (1934) is a classic of misdirection. EQ picked it as his best short story; after Agatha Christie's "The Affair at the Bungalow", it is the subtlest and most deceptive of all detective short stories. It was made into a superb and faithful TV show, as an episode of the 1975 Jim Hutton Ellery Queen TV series. The story was first broadcast October 30, 1975 and was scripted by Peter S. Fischer, and directed by James Sheldon.
"The House of Darkness" (1935) and "The Treasure Hunt" (1935) show EQ's skill with elaborate, surrealistic backgrounds for his fiction. Both stories are also good mystery puzzles, not too realistic, but imaginative in their plotting. The estate of the retired General in "Treasure Hunt" recalls that of retired actor Drury Lane in The Tragedy of X (1932). The cubist inspired designer of the "The House of Darkness" is a Frenchman, and recalls the similar French designer of the Art Deco furniture in The French Powder Mystery (1930). The tale explicitly evokes the motion picture The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920), surrealism and cubism, as well as Alice in Wonderland, showing that EQ was linking his work to these anti-realistic artistic traditions. Another noteworthy feature of the early EQ stories is the presence of black people among the suspects. EQ is clearly trying to treat them in non-stereotyped ways. They are most fully present in "The House of Darkness".
"The Hollow Dragon" (1936) is another tale in the same mode as "The Seven Black Cats" (1934) and "The Two-Headed Dog" (1934). These stories start with an event whose significance is puzzling, and which is hard to explain coherently. Then Ellery eventually develops a logical explanation. The sequence in which Ellery elicits possible motives for the events, in a Socratic dialogue, seems directly modeled on a previous one in "The Seven Black Cats". Here, the initial strange events are simpler than those of the earlier stories, and the explanation developed is ultimately less creative too, although still inventive. However, as a compensation, Ellery solves this case twice, as in "The Teakwood Case" and The Greek Coffin Mystery. And once again, the two explanations interact in ingenious ways. The twin solutions are less complex than those of the earlier stories: this tale is constructed on a smaller scale than earlier works. But it is still a satisfying instance of Queen imagination. EQ would go on to use the ultimate solution as a subsidiary mystery subplot in "The Fallen Angel" (1951; based on a 1939 radio play).
"The Bleeding Portrait" (1937) has some good atmosphere in its first half, but never builds up much of a mystery plot. It is one of those stories in which detectives interpret trails of physical evidence, to reconstruct a crime. This is an ancient tradition in mystery fiction, going back to Gaboriau, and it was common in a writer EQ idolized, Melville Davisson Post. EQ offers more fair play clues than Post often did, showing all the physical evidence to the reader. EQ also gives this a Queenian twist, by solving the crime twice. Despite this technical skill, I confess this type of mystery plot is not my cup of tea, either in Post or EQ, and this story is my least favorite in The New Adventures. The grim story line does not help.
After writing 14 short stories, including a novella, in the three years 1933-1935, EQ largely gave up the form in the next three, publishing only two shorts in 1936-1938. In 1939 EQ returned to the short tale with a series of four stories, all with sports backgrounds. Each co-stars Paula Paris, with whom EQ fell in love in The Four of Hearts (1938). She is a good character, but unfortunately she seems never to have returned after these works. The first three stories are well done, and even the weaker final tale ("The Trojan Horse") is a game attempt with some pleasant mystery; like "The Treasure Hunt" it involves a long search for some stolen jewels. These are examples of the Impossible Disappearance tales that EQ did so well.
"Man Bites Dog" has some affinities with the minimalist tales of poisoning EQ was essaying in these years, such as The Four of Hearts and Calamity Town (1942). Its three solutions also place it in the tradition of multiple-solutioned EQ mysteries. Its setting, a box at a sports arena, full of suspects both from sports and show biz engaged in romantic triangles with each other, is similar in locale and denizens to the opening of The American Gun Mystery.
"Long Shot" returns to the turf of The American Gun Mystery (1933), with a tale combining Western characters, horses, and guns, the same elements as the earlier book. If "Long Shot" relates to The American Gun Mystery in subject matter, as a puzzle plot mystery it is closer to The King Is Dead (1952). "Long Shot" is a borderline-Impossible Crime tale, with amazingly successful actions happening at a distance. This sort of puzzle becomes a full-fledged Impossible crime in The King Is Dead.
A warning to readers: most editions of Halfway House contain spoilers on their back covers, that give away some of the novel's early surprises. One is advised to ignore these, and just read the book without glancing at them. This is good advice in general: most blurbs reveal too much!
The early surprises (Chapters 1 and 2) are foreshadowed by plenty of clues. This make their wild developments more pleasing and acceptable to readers - unlike the equally baroque (if very different) revelations at the end of The American Gun Mystery, which only had two slim clues to support the major plot twist.
Clues and Profiles. The finale depends on one strand in EQ's writing. Various clues to the killer's identity left at the crime scene are developed by EQ into a profile of the potential killer. Then EQ goes through the list of characters in the story, showing how this profile fits one and only one of the suspects.
It is similar to the deductions from the shoe in The Dutch Shoe Mystery, although the clues in Halfway House are less purely physical than those in Dutch Shoe. As in The French Powder Mystery, some of the best deductions turn on the flow of knowledge, such as who knew things and who did not. And also on what people might have known, had they been observant. The revelations in the early chapters recall The French Powder Mystery in another way: they deal with different geographical zones, and their boundaries.
Fans of pure detection will enjoy this, and the book follows in a honorable tradition of "deduction through clues" in the detective story. It pairs with The French Powder Mystery as a book with a continuous stream of interesting detection and deduction, with a special emphasis on investigation of a crime scene. But the finale seems mild compared to EQ's best work. There is no complex plot, no wild crime schemes or final revelations. Some of Queen's logic is interesting, especially his reasons for concluding one character is speaking the truth.
An early example in detective fiction of a "profile approach" is E. C. Bentley's Trent's Last Case (1913). Chapter 11 of Bentley's novel reconstructs hidden aspects of the murder, develops from this a profile of five elements that must fit the killer, then deduces a unique suspect who fits all five criteria for the murderer. This is the approach EQ will later use in Halfway House. Before Bentley, the technique can also be found in Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes story, "Silver Blaze" (1892). Doyle arranges his profile of the killer less systematically than Bentley and EQ will: both Bentley and EQ make explicit lists of profile elements, and Doyle does not. But the Doyle tale does unearth two hidden clues about the events of the crime, which in turn work together to indicate one and only one suspect. Doyle's work has the whole technique in its essential form.
"Miracles Do Happen" (1957) is another little short story, in the same mode as "No Parking". Both are tales in which three suspects visit a soon-to-be murder victim, a common paradigm in late Ellery Queen. Both follow the Halfway House approach of Ellery making deductions from clues at the murder scene. "Miracles Do Happen" is the simplest of the three: there is really only one clue. But the story is highly satisfying, partly because of the storytelling. It follows in the tradition of Halfway House, in showing the extreme difficulties faced by a sympathetic lower middle class family. "Miracles Do Happen" reuses as its main clue the central plot idea of "Cold Money" (1950), a short tale in Q.B.I.
"Driver's Seat" (1951) is a tiny tale. It has the class conflict of Halfway House, the three suspects visiting the victim of "No Parking", and the rain, cars at the crime scene, and deductions from evidence of both stories.
"The Robber of Wrightsville" (1953; based on a 1940 radio play) is further away from Halfway House, in terms of its story action. But it once again is about class conflict, with the upper and lower classes surrealistically joined through romance. There is a crusading character of working class origin in the story too, as in Halfway House. The highly satisfying puzzle plot is also in the Halfway House mode, with detection from the crime scene emphasized, and the flow of knowledge playing a key role. Ellery builds up a two-clue profile of the criminal, which fits exactly one character in the story.
"The Death of Don Juan" (1962) brings us to Wrightsville again. This story also is based on deductions from elements at the crime scene, with Ellery creating a one-clue profile for the killer. The profile has some aspects in common with that in "The Robber of Wrightsville". The novella is too long for its material, which makes it drag as a reading experience after a bright opening in a Wrightsville theater, but it shows sound detection.
The Devil to Pay (1937) has another young left-wing crusader as its hero. And once again, his concrete political sympathies are not spelled out. When his well-to-do girlfriend accuses him of being a Communist, he seems outraged, or at least, dismissive of the idea.
The same year, in "The Bleeding Portrait" (1937), a suspect will invite Ellery to his home, promising him "intelligent arguments about Communism". In The Four of Hearts (1938), a Hollywood producer hails Ellery as "Kamerad", and Ellery's girlfriend makes a joking reference to Communism. There are references to Soviet Russia in Chapter 17 of The Greek Coffin Mystery (1932).
The later 1930's and early 1940's were probably the high point of popular acceptance of Communist ideas in the United States, and such EQ works perhaps reflect this zeitgeist. None of these EQ stories either endorses or rejects Communism - they merely mention it. The casual, noncommittal references to Communism in these stories seem superficial, little more than some incidental looks at the political activities of the era. By contrast Ellery Queen's concern with issues of class conflict and relations is deeper, and runs through numerous works.
EQ is certainly not a Proletarian writer of the kind once favored by the Communists. One might note that actual working class people with jobs in industry are fairly rare in Ellery Queen: the factory worker Harry Potter in "The Seven Black Cats" (1934) comes to mind, and left-winger Delbert Hood's brief employment in a factory in "The Robber of Wrightsville" (1953), but very few others. (Potter was named decades before the famous children's novels, and has become a popular Trivia question in recent years.) Queen tends instead to write about people with very small businesses, such as barbers or inn-keepers, or the garage-owner and the storekeeper of The Egyptian Cross Mystery. These people have to be classified as lower middle class, even if they are presented by EQ as financially struggling Average Americans. Working class Americans in EQ tend to be workers taking care of buildings: cleaning ladies, doormen, handymen at inns.
Odets' Waiting for Lefty is full of vignettes, showing poor people's desperate struggles to make a living, and stay afloat financially. Queen will look at similar subject matter in Cat of Many Tails (1949) and "Miracles Do Happen" (1957). Odets' vignette technique, giving brief looks at the entire lives of various characters, might also have influenced Queen's story-telling techniques in such works as Q.B.I. and Cat of Many Tails.
In the early 1950's at the height of both the Cold War and the McCarthy era, Ellery Queen produced his two most political novels: The King Is Dead (1952). and The Glass Village (1954). Both are written from a liberal point of view; both center on attacks against right wing villains; both also condemn Communism.
Earlier in The Tragedy of X (1932), actor-sleuth Drury Lane's theater director is named Kropotkin, recalling the anarchist leader Pyotr Kropotkin, and there is a suspect named Michael Collins, recalling the Irish revolutionary. The Tragedy of X also centers on the murder of a crooked stockbroker.
"The Disappearing Magician" (1940) is a radio play. It is set in a house owned by a group of poor ex-vaudevillians, who have pooled their limited savings to own it and live there. While no explicit meaning is attached to it in the play, this might be viewed as a form of cooperative: the economic form advocated by leftist anarchists. "The Disappearing Magician" is also an example of EQ's sympathy for the poor and economically struggling.
Other mystery writers examined cooperatives and worker-owned businesses:
In addition, the first novel, The Devil to Pay (1937), never builds up a really interesting detective plot. Its best section is the opening chapter, which sets up the romance subplot. EQ's mystery plot ideas about men's camel hair coats would find more logical expression in his short story, "Mind Over Matter" (1939).
By contrast, the second book, The Four of Hearts (1938), shows more of Queen's plotting artistry. It is also the only one of his Hollywood books to have a setting within the film industry itself.
The Dragon's Teeth is part of a series of EQ stories in which a family with a complex history all gather for sinister, suspenseful events in a remote estate in the countryside surrounding New York City; these works include The Egyptian Cross Mystery (1932), "The Bearded Lady" (1934), and "The Lamp of God" (1935). All of these works also contain plot twists and developments with a broadly similar approach. The millionaire in The Dragon's Teeth who spends most of his time on his yacht at sea reminds one of the similar character in The Egyptian Cross Mystery. There are also resemblances to the reclusive old millionaire in the previous EQ novel, The Four of Hearts (1938). The books develop complex plot twists around both men, plot ideas that share a family resemblance. I prefer the light-hearted riffs on the subject in The Dragon's Teeth; in fact, they are the novel's most ingenious mystery plotting.
Some of the early sections of the book take place in Hollywood; by this time, EQ is completely "at home" there, and it seems to be as much a home base for his fiction as New York City and its environs.
Ellery's meeting with the lawyer in The Dragon's Teeth is termed "the beginning of a beautiful friendship". Today, this phrase is famous from its use in the motion picture Casablanca (1942), made three years after The Dragon's Teeth. The line was reportedly added to the motion picture by its producer Hal Wallis, a month after principal photography ended. In both mystery novel and film, it is used to describe a special friendship between men. It is unclear whether EQ was the originator of this line. The EQ novels are full of quotations from famous authors, in a style familiar from E.C. Bentley and H.C. Bailey, and this phrase could be one. But a search of reference books of quotations and the Internet has so far proved negative. It might also be Hollywood slang - the Queen team had recently worked in Hollywood as scriptwriters.
Later the same year, in the radio play "The Adventure of the Black Secret" (1939), Ellery will have a friendly rivalry with the policeman turned insurance company investigator Mike Callahan. The young lawyer-private eye in The Dragon's Teeth comes from a police family, and is introduced to Ellery by Inspector Queen; Callahan is also an old friend of the Inspector's, and is introduced to Ellery by the Inspector at the start of the play, just like the opening of The Dragon's Teeth. Callahan reportedly appears in several EQ radio plays, but "The Adventure of the Black Secret" is the only one currently available. He differs from the private eye in The Dragon's Teeth in being a friendly rival, not a partner, of Ellery's. The play ends with a dinner to celebrate the special friendship between Ellery and Callahan.
In The Door Between (1937), Ellery and Inspector Queen have made friends, before the book opens, with young private eye Terry Ring. Terry is as broad shouldered as the lawyers Ellery meets in Halfway House and The Dragon's Teeth, but he comes from a downright slum background, has no police or legal background, being a former baseball player instead, and is a natty dresser, whose appearance is far from rumpled. Ellery notices his muscles in Chapter 13, the same section in which we learn most about Terry's friendship with Inspector Queen. This chapter also brings Sgt. Velie into the circle of friends, which will recur in "The Adventure of the Black Secret". Terry is associated with the color brown throughout the novel, due to his tan, the same as young rodeo cowboy Curly Grant at the start of The American Gun Mystery. Curly Grant is of the same well-built physical type, but he never develops any special friendship with Ellery. Brown is also the color linked to Big Bill Tree in "Man Bites Dog" (1939). Tree is a baseball player, like Terry Ring, but much more famous. Tree is hero-worshipped by Ellery, who emphasizes Tree's muscles in his dialogue.
It is perhaps odd that these male sleuths for whom Ellery develops friendships appear at the same time period as Paula Paris, Ellery's first continuing girlfriend in the series. Paris appeared in The Four of Hearts (1938) and the four sports stories of 1939. And with launch of the Ellery Queen radio show in mid-1939, Ellery's secretary Nikki Porter will be introduced. In the radio shows, she has an apparently unrequited crush on Ellery.
Other meetings: in The Four of Hearts (1938), Ellery bonds at the opening with young Hollywood executive Jacques Butcher. It is Butcher's downright slob-appearance that causes Ellery initially to like him: an extension perhaps of the rumpled clothes of the lawyer friends. But Butcher is far from being any sort of sleuth.
At the beginning of Ten Days' Wonder (1948), there is a flashback to 1940 Paris, and Ellery's first meeting with his friend Howard Van Horn. Howard is a similar physical type to the young lawyers and Terry Ring, a hugely muscular and well-built man, something Ellery once again notices in detail. And as in Ellery's analysis of Terry, Howard is classified by him into a special category of he-men: something Ellery is not, according to The Door Between. However, there is a disturbing undertone in Ten Days' Wonder not present before, with Ellery believing that these looks are deceiving, and hiding serious mental problems. Ten Days' Wonder shares imagery with The Four of Hearts: Ellery and Jacques Butcher undress and shower together, sobering up after a drinking bout, and Ellery's encounter with Howard opens with him stripping and bathing Howard after one of his mental attacks.
When looking at all these examples, which stretch over five novels, a short story and a series of radio plays, a conclusion is inescapable: Ellery Queen, the detective character, has a gay side. The actual stories read even more gay than do the above summaries, vividly depicting Ellery's feelings. They show Ellery attracted to well-built men of his own age, who come from the lower levels of society, are strong achievers, and who have a social conscience.
Most of the above works, Halfway House (1936), The Door Between (1937), The Four of Hearts (1938), The Dragon's Teeth (1939), "Man Bites Dog" (1939), "The Adventure of the Black Secret" (1939), take place in what Francis M. Nevins has analyzed as Period II in Ellery Queen (1936-1940). Even when EQ returned to the subject in Ten Days' Wonder (1948), he back-dated the material to 1940 Paris.
The subjects of Ellery's feelings, well-built lower middle class achievers with a social conscience, were something of a cultural ideal in late 1930's America, which had long been wracked by the Depression. In 1938, the debut of Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster's Superman created a nationwide sensation, turning comic books from a low circulation curiosity into a major industry. Superman was as strong and well-built as EQ's heroes. His secret identity Clark Kent was a reporter for a crusading liberal newspaper, making him a prototypical lower middle class man who was championing social justice. The original Superman tales also focused on Superman's liberal quest to right social wrongs.
In the Queen tales, we usually see Ellery's relationships with his muscle-men friends through Ellery's eyes. In the Drury Lane novel The Tragedy of X (1932), the opposite point-of-view occurs. Here we have an intellectual sleuth Drury Lane, who is as brainy as Ellery. And a policeman Inspector Thumm, whose big size and muscles are emphasized in his characterization. During the men's first meeting (Act I: Scene 1), it is Inspector Thumm who is suddenly seized with strange emotions about sleuth Drury Lane. Thumm does not fully understand what he is feeling, and wonders if it is hero-worship. "Hero-worship" was a fairly socially acceptable way for men to describe strong emotional feelings in favor of other men in this era: it shows up in the writings of F. Scott Fitzgerald, for example. Later, Drury Lane will impersonate Thumm (Act II: Scene 9), something he does looking at Thumm with "affectionate amusement". Actor Drury Lane's ability to impersonate other men, assuming all of their characteristics, can be seen as a form of homoerotic imagery.
Other types of form and content in Ellery Queen, which can be seen as expressing a gay sensibility:
At the start of There Was an Old Woman (1943), Inspector Queen introduces Ellery to another young lawyer, whose father the Inspector once again knew, just as in The Dragon's Teeth. However, the differences turn out to be more numerous here than similarities. The lawyer comes from an upper middle class background, not lower middle class, and he shows no signs of social idealism or rebellion. He is not a sleuth of any sort, Ellery pays little attention to his looks, and while he and Ellery strike up an acquaintance, there is no sign of any real friendship.
The Origin of Evil (1951) introduces two glamorous women, in the first two chapters. After this, four macho men make entrances: Roger Priam, Alfred Wallace, Crowe Macgowan and policeman Lieutenant Keats. None of these bond closely with Ellery, although Ellery and Lt. Keats form a close working relationship. The book once again emphasizes how muscular these men are, and how broad their shoulders and big their torsos are. The most physically impressive of all the men, Crowe Macgowan, also has curly hair and is associated with the color brown (his tanned skin), like cowboy Curly Grant in The American Gun Mystery. Also, the relationship between Roger Priam and Alfred Wallace perhaps has gay undertones. Among other things, it repeats the bathing imagery: Wallace gives Priam sponge baths.
The Glass Village (1954) contains a portrait of a somewhat effeminate man in art critic Roger Casavant. He is likely intended to be gay, although this is not explicit. Casavant is a bit prissy and pedantic, but he is basically a sympathetic character and one who helps other people.
Some of Queen's short stories fall in this category, such as "Man Bites Dog" (1939) and "The Medical Finger" (1951; based on a 1939 radio play), as well as the radio play "The Scorpion's Thumb" (1939). Another minimalist poisoning tale is the radio play, "The Adventure of the Bad Boy" (1939). This disturbing tale combines imagery from The Tragedy of Y, ideas on poisons from R. Austin Freeman's "Rex v. Burnaby", and a strange but well constructed minimalist plot about poisoning. The story shows the sense of dark tragedy that will soon be found in Calamity Town and The Murderer Is a Fox.
Such Anthony Berkeley short stories about poisoning as "The Avenging Chance" (1929) and "The Wrong Jar" (1940) contain plot twists that show up later, with further variations, in the "minimalist poisoning" stories Ellery Queen wrote in the 1940's, such as Calamity Town (1942) and The Murderer Is a Fox (1945).
A possible model for the minimalist poisoning stories of EQ is C. Daly King's Obelists Fly High (1935). The Four of Hearts (1938), the first of EQ's series, has an airplane background, just like King's book. EQ was an enormous King enthusiast: see Queen's Quorum. There are also elements of King's solution that recall EQ books, such as There Was an Old Woman (1943).
The otherwise routine EQ radio mystery, "The Adventure of the Lost Child" (1940), takes place in a New England city, somewhere between Boston and New York. This medium size city looks like a rough sketch of Wrightsville to come, two years later in Calamity Town (1942). The local newspaper publisher is a principal character; the town hotel is a major setting; various local landmarks such as the Three Oaks Memorial are mentioned, and the town even has a Lower Village. All of this anticipates Wrightsville, with its profusion of specific places, civic leaders and local institutions. Like Wrightsville, this locale is a full-fledged city, with all the issues and social problems that beset other sizable American metropolises. The plot of the story also separates Ellery from working with the police as a whole, just as in the Wrightsville tales. Earlier, in "The Invisible Lover" (1934), Ellery had solved a mystery in a very small town in upstate New York. One can find traces of the Wrightsville approach to come here as well, although Wrightsville is a substantial city.
When EQ went to Hollywood in The Devil to Pay, he became separated from Inspector Queen, the New York Police, and the whole investigative mechanism of amateur sleuth working with the police that EQ had inherited from S.S. Van Dine. EQ does much of his investigation under a pseudonym in this book, further changing his normal modus operandi, and eliminating any attempt to appeal to his reputation to get him entrée into the police investigation. This situation is made even more extreme in the Wrightsville novels that followed Calamity Town. I confess that today I regret all of these changes in EQ's approach. I like the old EQ better, in general. I am impressed with the minimalism of EQ's 1940's novels; it is a one time tour de force, and somebody had to do it. But as a whole, my heart is more with complexity, and I would have preferred many more of the old style early EQ novels.
Calamity Town is the best of the Wrightsville books. This tragic novel has a remarkable sense of structure. The whole novel seems to built on railroad tracks, with events leading on with powerful logic.
"The Adventure of the Lost Child" (1940) involves a child's kidnapping. So does "Child Missing!" (1951), which is based on a radio play, "The Lost Child" (1939). Neither is a poisoning tale. But both have the sort of solution that will also emerge in the minimalist poisoning tales, in which the inner possibilities of an apparently tight plot are explored to find an alternate culprit. A family with parents and a child is central to these stories. Such a family is also the subject of The Murderer Is a Fox. Slightly more complex family situations also play roles in The Four of Hearts and Calamity Town.
There is an interlocking suite of ideas in these stories: poisonings, kidnappings, families and children, small towns, and minimalist solutions that maneuver to find hidden variations within apparently tight plots. All of the creative ideas seem to be linked in the creative imagination of EQ.
Some of the radio plays are startling for the amount of sheer mystery they contain. "The Adventure of Napoleon's Razor" (1939) has both the impossible disappearance of some gems, and a full murder mystery. The two plots are essentially separate from each other, and the reader gets two entire and very clever mysteries for the price of one. This is one of the most delightful of the EQ radio plays. The murder mystery seems like an unusual variant on the concepts in The Roman Hat Mystery and many subsequent works. It brings out aspects of symmetry in these concepts.
"The Adventure of the Black Secret" (1939) has three separate mystery plots, all fairly clued. While two of them are easy to solve, albeit well-constructed and imaginative, the actual murder mystery is a humdinger. It involves a clever dying message, and other ingenious situations to boot, only tangentially related to the message. The book store setting recalls "The One Penny Black" (1933).
"The Adventure of the Last Man Club" (1939) recalls several EQ works, especially The Greek Coffin Mystery (1932) and "The House of Darkness" (1935), as Francis M. Nevins pointed out. 1) Its clue used to identify the killer recalls a twist used to explode the second solution in The Greek Coffin Mystery, and a subplot in "The House of Darkness". The subplot is not fully integrated into the main mystery in "The House of Darkness", and gets a more central workout here. In both stories it is logically linked to some of the characters being involved in the arts. In "The Adventure of the Last Man Club", it reflects a much used approach in EQ: find characteristics of the killer, and match them against the suspects in the tale, to identify the villain. 2) The mechanism used to create a Least Likely Person in "The Adventure of the Last Man Club" recalls the second solution in The Greek Coffin Mystery. The complex, ingenious pattern also seems a bit related to a similar intricately plotted misdirection in "The Two-Headed Dog" (1934). The plots are different, but both build up a circle of causality among a pair of criminal events, and both move towards the same Least Likely Suspect. Margery Allingham had used a somewhat similar approach in Police at the Funeral (1931). 3) EQ would go on to rework plot ideas from "The Adventure of the Last Man Club" in "The Gettysburg Bugle" (1951; based on a 1942 radio play). Not only is the central story line situation recycled in "The Gettysburg Bugle". The mechanism used to create a Least Likely Person in "The Adventure of the Last Man Club" undergoes a nice variation in the latter tale. It leads to a different, but related, choice of killer. 4) "Last Man to Die" (1963) is a late work, sharing a central subject with "The Adventure of the Last Man Club" and "The Gettysburg Bugle". It is much simpler and shorter than all of these, but still a delight with its good storytelling, and clever solution. Its detective methods relate it more to those works in which EQ uses deduction to interpret the history of events at a crime scene, such as Halfway House.
"The Adventure of the Dying Scarecrow" (1940) deals with a series of corpses found in grotesque situations, like The Egyptian Cross Mystery. While the imagery in the earlier novel is startlingly original, in this radio play the imagery seems derived from Frederic Arnold Kummer's The Scarecrow Murders (1936-1938). On the other hand, Kummer perhaps found partial inspiration in EQ's The Egyptian Cross Mystery (1932) - so this situation could be a two way street. The radio drama is mainly interesting in the long history of the killings, with hidden events and motivations eventually emerging to fill in the story - an EQ specialty.
"The Adventure of the Mouse's Blood" (1940) is a radio play with some good storytelling, and a sports milieu like the Paula Paris stories of 1939. Its mystery plot recalls Melville Davisson Post's "The Straw Man".
"The Adventure of the Murdered Moths" (1945) investigates a crime scene, using some clever scientific ideas to interpret the history of the killing. It is a story in the tradition of "The Two-Headed Dog" (1934), "The Seven Black Cats" (1934) and "The Hollow Dragon" (1936). As in those tales, investigating the mystery surrounding the title animals proves more central to the puzzle plot, than the actual whodunit parts of the mystery. The tale shares a nocturnal, roadside cabins setting with "The Two-Headed Dog". The villain's motive, and relationship to the victims, is similar to that in "The Seven Black Cats", and once again, it proves to be a surprising alternative to more obvious motives of other characters in the story. And like the short tales, "The Adventure of the Murdered Moths" opens in cozy surroundings, here the restaurant, before moving on to creepier crime scenes. The puzzle about the moths is less purely absurd, baffling and incomprehensible in its initial appearance, than the title puzzles in the earlier stories, and this separates this tale from its predecessors. Still, it is a welcome addition to an important creative strand in the EQ tradition.
Many of EQ's previous stories had elaborate quasi-historical backgrounds, based in a family history, or an earlier crime. In "The President's Half Disme" (1946; based on a 1942 radio play), EQ takes the plunge into fiction involving actual historical characters, solving a mystery involving George Washington. Later, he was to write a similar story about another US President, "Abraham Lincoln's Clue" (1965). The collectors who show up in these stories remind one of those in "The One Penny Black" and "The Glass-Domed Clock". Although W.W.II is not mentioned in the story, it reflects the atmosphere of wartime patriotism prevalent then. Arnold Schoenberg would pay a similar tribute to George Washington in his musical composition Ode to Napoleon Bonaparte. The tale is set in a lonely farmhouse in Pennsylvania. The solution of the puzzle involves mathematics, as did such earlier EQ tales as The Tragedy of Y (1932), The American Gun Mystery (1933), "The Glass-Domed Clock" (1933), and "The Hollow Dragon" (1936). EQ's first mathematics-based solution, in The Tragedy of Y, seems modeled on the similar math-based deductions in Chapter 9 of S.S. Van Dine's The Benson Murder Case (1926), which follows a tradition leading from Gaston Leroux's Le Mystère de la chambre jaune (1907). EQ would also use mathematical patterns in "The Gamblers' Club" (1951). The use of mathematics seems related to EQ's deep commitment to logic and reasoning.
"The Three R's" (1946; based on a 1939 radio play) is EQ's take on an R. Austin Freeman style plot. Like several stories in Calendar of Crime, it has elements of parody of standard mystery approaches - parodies that recall H. C. Bailey's use of comic subversion to come up with surprise mystery solutions in the 1920's. Like "The Inner Circle" (1947; based on a 1942 radio play) and "The African Traveler" (1934), it has a University setting, something that always results in sophisticated wit and satire in EQ's work. "The Inner Circle" is especially satisfying as a work of storytelling.
"The Dead Cat" (1946; based on a 1939 radio play) has an intriguing background of a crime committed in near darkness, reminiscent of "The House of Darkness" (1935) and "The Adventure of the Mouse's Blood" (1940). "The Dead Cat" and "The House of Darkness" share the same three part structure: 1) a richly realized description of a complex, original environment - so imaginative that it anticipates the Environmental Art of the 1960's; 2) the hidden howdunit aspect is brought to the fore by Ellery; 3) Ellery solves the howdunit ingeniously. Howdunits - trying to figure out the unknown, mysterious physical mechanism of a crime, that seems absolutely bewildering - are related to the Impossible Crime. S.S. Van Dine wrote some howdunits, and it is a perennial plot approach in Stuart Palmer, in such works as Murder On Wheels (1932), The Puzzle of the Blue Banderilla (1937), "The Riddle of the Brass Band" (1934), "The Riddle of the Whirling Lights" (1935), and "The Riddle of the Tired Bullet" (1948). However, EQ's howdunit approach here is a bit different from Palmer's, focusing less on the actual killing, and more on the strange environment of the stories. Another relevant author: Robert O. Saber (pseudonym of Milton Ozaki) tackled a similar problem of murder in the dark in The Black Dark Murders (1949), coming up with a solution that is jaw-droppingly weird (and very different from EQ's).
The pirate tale "The Needle's Eye" (1951; based on a 1939 radio play) has an island setting, just like "The Bleeding Portrait", but otherwise it seems far more similar in its detailed enjoyable storytelling to "The Treasure Hunt" (1935). The islands in these tales recall Oyster Island, in The Egyptian Cross Mystery (1932). The New England seafaring atmosphere also recalls "The Two-Headed Dog" (1934). "The Needle's Eye" is a richly plotted story, that has no less than three mystery subplots, each reflecting a different one of EQ's key plot traditions. The clue to the pirate treasure is not a Dying Message - it comes from a hundreds year old letter. But it functions in a similar way to a Dying Message: Ellery has to interpret the meaning of a cryptic statement, to solve a mystery, the location of the treasure. The other two EQ traditions in "The Needle's Eye" are the mastermind villain manipulating the plot, and an impossible disappearance of an object, despite an extensive search.
"The Fallen Angel" (1951; based on a 1939 radio play) has a none-too-original murder gimmick. But the tale is surprisingly readable, due to a series of subsidiary mysteries along the way, that offer unexpected plot twists. "The Bleeding Portrait" (1937), "The Fallen Angel" (1951), Ten Days' Wonder (1948), and The Scarlet Letters (1953) all share story elements. Each focuses suspensefully on a wife who is involved, innocently or not, with another man, and concerns that her husband might find out, precipitating a tragedy. In all of these stories, we share the slow concentration on this situation, before any sort of complex denouement occurs towards the end of the tale. The romantic situations are subtly different in each work. And the ultimate direction of each story is completely different, underscoring EQ's fertility with plot. The first three works also share a background in the visual arts, with one character's studio being a story locale.
"The Medical Finger" (1951; based on a 1942 radio play) is one of the last and least of EQ's minimalist poisoning tales. It features the same sort of perverse personal relations as "The Bleeding Portrait" (1937).
The radio plays and Calendar include a new character, EQ's secretary and gal Friday, Nikki Porter. She only shows up here and in a few novels, such as the excellent The Scarlet Letters (1953), but she seems an important part of the EQ saga. I first read the Calendar stories while I was a young teenager. They made a curiously long lasting impression on me: they seem to be the archetypal EQ tales. In fact, they seem in some ways to be embedded in my memory as the archetypal US detective stories. This is not to say that I regard them as better than other detective stories, either by EQ or other writers; some of the tales are weak, and even some good ones are not totally great. Yet if someone were to ask me to name some "typical" American detective short stories, I would immediately think of Calendar of Crime. It is unclear why this is so. Part of the answer to the impression these stories make, is in their portrait of EQ as a detective. He is helpful, responsive, flexible, with a full support team of Nikki, the Inspector, Sgt. Velie, and so on. He is open minded, intelligent, investigatory, exhaustive in his searches, fertile in coming up with new ideas, and deductive in his solutions.
These impossible disappearance stories intergrade with another EQ specialty, the exhaustive search. For example, stories about searches for the disappearing will in The Greek Coffin Mystery (1932), the vanishing gun in The American Gun Mystery (1933), the concealed fortune in "The Lamp of God" (1935), the stolen gems in "The Trojan Horse" (1939), "The Treasure Hunt" (1935) and "The Adventure of Napoleon's Razor" (1939), secret information in "The Black Ledger" (1952; based on a 1943 radio play) and the hidden money in "The Lonely Bride" (1949), "Miser's Gold" (1950) and "Object Lesson" (1955) are halfway between the Impossible Disappearance and the search tale. The disappearance of these missing objects does not at first look impossible, but as they elude the most intensive searches, their vanishing looks more and more like a sheer impossibility. EQ's searches tend to be fascinating reading. They are extraordinarily surrealistic. They clearly fascinated EQ himself: see his comments on the search in Gaboriau's early tale, "A Disappearance", in Queen's Quorum.
SPOILER WARNING: WE WILL NOW DISCUSS SOLUTIONS OF THE CONCEALED OBJECT TALES: The ancestor of these stories of search for a concealed object is Edgar Allan Poe's "The Purloined Letter" (1844). Poe was one of EQ's favorite writers. However, Queen's solutions to the concealed object problem are slightly different from Poe's. In "The Purloined Letter", the missing letter is concealed in a conspicuous place, one that is so "obvious" that no one looks there. EQ's approach is related, but somewhat different. In EQ's tales, a public ritual of some sort is often taking place. There is a container at the center of this ritual, and the missing item is hidden inside the container. For example, in "The Trojan Horse", there is a football game about to begin, and the missing gems are hidden in the football itself. The football is the central object around which the whole mechanism of the football game revolves. The game is an elaborate public ceremony, and all eyes will be fixed in the football at its center. And hidden inside the football are the missing gems, unknown to everyone watching ... The containers can seem like womb or egg symbols. Often they will be propelled or ejected outside the perimeter of the main search area. The propulsive device is often another object, one with phallic or male symbolism. In "The Trojan Horse" these propulsive figures are the football players themselves. END OF SPOILER DISCUSSION.
"No Place to Live" (1956) is not an Impossible Disappearance tale. But money is stolen in the story, and the mechanisms of the mysterious theft recall the approach just discussed in the Concealed Object stories. This theft in turn intergrades with the murder mystery in complex ways, giving the "two levels deep of explanation in solution" much employed by EQ. The whole story, while short, is intricately plotted, and breaks paradigm with standard detective tales in some ways. The congested apartment setting of "No Place to Live" recalls a bit the rooming house of "The Invisible Lover" (1934), and both involve a shooting in which possession of the gun is key, but the two stories otherwise have no plot resemblances.
EQ also used searches for a different kind of puzzle plot, especially in some of his later works such as The King Is Dead (1952). Here EQ conducts an in depth search among a dead man's clothing, looking for some item that never shows up, but which should have been there. The reader has to try to figure out which item is missing from the long list of clothing. Francis M. Nevins calls this approach the "negative clue". It was also noticed as an EQ trait by John Dickson Carr in his essay "The Grandest Game in the World" (1946), and delightfully burlesqued there. EQ was not the only author to use this approach; it also shows up frequently in Agatha Christie, for example in her novel Death in the Clouds (1935).
Although they did not specialize in impossible crimes, many members of the Van Dine school occasionally wrote about them, starting with Van Dine himself. Van Dine's The Dragon Murder Case (1933) is also about an Impossible Disappearance, as are Stuart Palmer's "The Riddle of the Dangling Pearl" (1933), "Green Ice" (1941), and several of the stories in Palmer and Craig Rice's People Vs. Withers and Malone, such as "Once Upon a Crime" (1950), "Rift in the Loot" (1955) and "Withers and Malone, Brain-Stormers" (1959). These Palmer stories are all about objects which disappear from view, and which cannot be found through extensive searches, like EQ's Concealed Object tales. EQ was also familiar with Impossible Disappearance stories by early writers. L.T. Meade and Robert Eustace's "The Man Who Disappeared" (1901) was reprinted by him in EQMM, causing this hitherto uncollected story to be rescued from obscurity.
The stories in Q.B.I. deal more with the underworld than is typical of EQ. The stories move very fast and are quite compressed. Often this is done by humorously invoking clichés of underworld stories, films, and news accounts. The invocation is often done with wit and clever phrasing. Events are often more synopsized than dramatized, usually considered a second rate approach, but one that works beautifully here, partly due to EQ's skill with le mot juste. This allows tremendously complex stories to be told in a small space. Even the detection often gets ingeniously summarized. The stories in Q.B.I. have a cumulative effect that outweighs the impact of any single story. It is probable that they should be read as a group.
Many of the tales focus not on murder, but on crimes such as robbery or impersonation. Three stories of 1951, "Driver's Seat", "Double Your Money", and "The Gambler's Club", all deal with ingenious swindles.
"Double Your Money", and "Money Talks" (1950) portray poor, ethnic, working people in New York City, whereas "The Robber of Wrightsville" (1953; based on a 1940 radio play) shows class conflict in the "typical" American town of Wrightsville. This is one of the most left wing of EQ's tales. Most of Q.B.I. strives for relative sociological realism. There is little overt surrealism, although the disappearances in "Double Your Money" (1951) and "Snowball in July" (1952) have their moments of magical strangeness. This realism might not have been entirely a matter of EQ's personal preference. By the 1950's, when these tales were published, Golden Age flamboyance was considered old-fashioned by most mystery critics. Realism was regarded as the most important trait of a detective story, and EQ obliged here.
The Q.B.I. series perhaps was modeled on William MacHarg's The Affairs of O'Malley (collected 1940), which is a similar series of brief tales set against authentic New York City backgrounds, with "ordinary people" as characters. Some of MacHarg's tales, such as "Broadway Murder" and "Murder Makes it Worse", include swindles as well as murder, although EQ's approach to swindles is far more mathematical than MacHarg's.
There is also coverage of Civil Rights issues in these early chapters (1-4). A reporter for a black newspaper in Harlem makes some pointed pro-Civil Rights comments. These sections (Chapter 3) are consistent with EQ's introduction of non-stereotyped black characters in his 1930's works. There are also some brief but pointed remarks on Anti-Semitism.
The vignette technique in EQ, also recalls Clifford Odets' play Waiting for Lefty (1935), which EQ praises in Halfway House (1936). Odets' play is full of brief but detailed vignettes, showing the struggling lives of poor people in New York City. One wonders if Queen modeled his approach on Odets. (One might note that Odets was not the first left wing playwright to use such a vignette approach: variants can be seen in Elmer Rice's play Street Scene (1929).) Waiting for Lefty is also full of fierce condemnations of Anti-Semitism, making it even more a potential model for the opening of Cat of Many Tails.
In Chapter 1, EQ rails against pundits who claim that radio crime fiction programs are causing juvenile delinquency. EQ had such a radio program himself, so this was a personal issue. Clearly, long before violence on TV was a national concern, violence on radio preoccupied people too. Violent comic books were also a national obsession - in 1948 there was a mass comic book burning in Birmingham, New York by the community leaders, for example. The surviving examples of the Ellery Queen radio program I have read are distinctly non-lurid. They are well crafted mystery puzzles in good taste. It is hard to imagine them promoting crime or juvenile delinquency. Cat instead goes after sensational news coverage of real crime by both newspapers and radio, suggesting that such non-fiction sources were more often to blame than mystery fiction.
Some of the satirical dialogue about Monica and her well to do father reminds one of such Calendar of Crime stories as "The Inner Circle".
The Detective Plot. The first four chapters of Cat offer a well done mix of detection and social portrayal of New York City. However, after this point, the book becomes much more suspense oriented, and much less like a true detective story. The mystery plot of the book resumes in Chapters 8 and 9. These chapters help explain the patterns Ellery discovers in the early part of the story.
Serial Killers, and a City in Fear. Cat is not the first novel about serial killing. In fact, we can cite John Rhode's The Murders in Praed Street (1928), Philip MacDonald's Murder Gone Mad (1931) and The Mystery of the Dead Police (1933), Francis Beeding's Death Walks in Eastrepps (1931), EQ's own The Egyptian Cross Mystery (1932) and Agatha Christie's The A.B.C. Murders (1936). Of all of these works, Cat is especially close in format to Christie's novel. There is the same emphasis on an intellectual search for common factors behind the series of crimes. As in Christie's book, the victims' relatives get involved, and take part in the investigation as an auxiliary. In Chapter 5, Ellery even brings in what he calls the "ABC theory of multiple murder", which seems to derive from Christie's novel.
Jerome and Harold Prince published their first detective short story, "The Man in the Velvet Hat" (1944) in EQMM. It benefited considerably from editorial suggestions by Ellery Queen, according to the authors' later introduction in the anthology Maiden Murders (1952). The story has features that anticipate EQ's later Cat of Many Tails (1949). Both deal with a serial killer preying on a large city. Both feature a diversity of victims, drawn from all social classes and ethnic groups, including a black victim. Both show realistic sociological detail in describing such victims. In both stories, the crimes are over-publicized, till a panic breaks out at a public function, and people are killed in the disturbance that follows. In both stories, the mayor works with the police, demanding a solution to the crime. In both tales, a trap is laid for the killer. These similarities are all in what might be called the "public" aspect of the stories, dealing with how the crimes are perceived and dealt with. The actual puzzle plots in both tales about the guilty party are completely different.
Behind many of these writers stands Fritz Lang's motion picture M (1931). In Lang's film, a whole city is terrorized by a serial killer, and the whole city becomes a protagonist in the story, with many small vignettes showing life in the city. A government minister and the police chief are characters in the story, directing the man hunt; we see the Mayor and police head in EQ performing the same role.
How Good is this book?. Cat of Many Tails is often cited as Ellery Queen's best book. I have to disagree, although I think it has much merit. I usually judge mysteries by:
By these standards, Cat of Many Tails is a good, but not great, work of mystery fiction. The puzzle plot is genuinely clever. But it is not as complex or as imaginative as the very best work of Ellery Queen, or other top Golden Age mystery writers. Admittedly, this is judging the book by very high standards, indeed. Similarly, the storytelling is rich in the opening chapters showing life in New York City, but less well developed in later sections of the novel.
Mystery. The Origin of Evil has an abundance of mystery plot. There are many separate mystery puzzle ideas:
The Finishing Stroke (1958) will also be an EQ novel with a major mystery in the Ten Days' Wonder "find the pattern in a series" mode, and an "impossible disappearance of a person" subplot. The impossible disappearance will play a larger role in The Finishing Stroke than in The Origin of Evil, however.
Some of the characters turn amateur detective in the middle of the book, recalling the amateur sleuths who assist Ellery in Cat of Many Tails. These sections involve some decent detective work, tracking down the origins of objects used in the attacks on the house (Chapters 6,8).
Themes. The book expresses pessimism over the arms race, and describes Yugoslavia and Iran and Korea as possible places where war could break out: 50 years later this seems frighteningly prophetic. The Origin of Evil shows the start of the Korean War on the US home-front, just as Calamity Town did for the beginning of World War II. One suspects that EQ chose the Los Angeles setting, largely for these aspects of the novel.
In addition to the arms race, there are two depictions of high tech environments in The Origin of Evil.
The Origin of Evil is blunt in its depiction of sexuality, like some other later EQ novels. Mickey Spillane was dominating the best seller lists at this time, and EQ was clearly writing in tune with the zeitgeist.
The Origin of Evil, like Ten Days' Wonder, has a younger man in love with the beautiful wife of a powerful paternal figure of a man. In The Origin of Evil, the young man in love with the wife is Ellery himself. In both novels, the romantic triangle has undertones of an Oedipal conflict. These books, along with Cat of Many Tails, are the main products of EQ's Freudian psychoanalytic period (1948-1951). One suspects that such Oedipal symbolism was consciously intended by the author. I confess I don't believe in Freudian psychology at all, and don't see the artistic value of such imagery in the novels.
Characters. I did like the young hero. His name, Crowe Macgowan, seems to be inspired by Cro-Magnon Man, suggesting he is an evolutionary throwback. Crowe Macgowan is one of the eccentric, non-conformist characters, that often make Golden Age mystery fiction so interesting. Such characters have almost disappeared from most contemporary English-language crime novels, which instead glorify conformity.
Alfred Wallace is also an unusual character, who seems odder and odder as the novel progresses, and we learn more of his back-story.
Suspect Mr. Collier wanders through The Origin of Evil, making recurring appearances, and sometimes philosophizing about life. A similar recurring philosopher character is the young black man in The Tragedy of Errors.
The book is radically different from many of today's crime novels, which stick to an old-fashioned novel, soap opera-ish approach throughout their length. One implication of this difference: While today's writers often resort to endless padding to fill up their 300 required pages, each section of The King Is Dead is compactly written, trying to set forth its own mountain of material in concise fashion.
Impossible Crime. The Impossible Crime (Chapters 10, 11) has an unusual double structure. First, it is presented as a locked room mystery, of an archetypally classical and traditional type. In fact, EQ underlines this view, loading the room with locks, guards and high tech features, trying to create the "ultimate locked room."
But then Inspector Queen offers a partial solution to the problem (middle of Chapter 11). He can explain the locked room. But as Ellery immediately points out, that turns the mystery into a second kind of puzzle: the Impossible Disappearance of an object. Such Impossible Disappearances are an EQ specialty, running through many of his books and short stories.
The two different views of the mystery, the Locked Room and Impossible Disappearance, are in a strong logical relationship. In fact, their logical links recall pure mathematics. In proving a theorem in mathematics, an attempt to prove one theorem is often shown to be possible if one can solve a second problem. The first theorem is shown to be "equivalent" to the second. Mathematicians also often speak of "reducing" the first theorem, to solving the second problem. That is exactly what is happening in The King Is Dead.
The analogy to mathematics can be pushed a little deeper. In mathematics, the second problem often looks simpler or smaller than the first theorem - at least at first. The same is true in The King Is Dead. The Locked Room looks grandiose as a puzzle, the locked room to end all locked rooms. Whereas the Impossible Disappearance seems simple and tiny: all the sleuths have to do is find the missing object, and they have a complete explanation of the case. But as Ellery and the Inspector search, it gradually becomes apparent that finding this small object is...seemingly impossible. Such is often the case in mathematics too: that simple looking second problem can be very hard to solve, even if it looks much smaller and less pretentious or sweeping than the first theorem.
After this initial investigation of the Locked Room and Impossible Disappearance, Ellery and the Inspector are in an inconclusive logical state. They don't really know if an Impossible Disappearance actually took place, or is the real, if partial, explanation of the Locked Room. Maybe the Locked Room was caused by an entirely different criminal scheme, one having nothing to do with an Impossible Disappearance. Or, maybe the Impossible Disappearance is the right answer - and all they have to do to prove it is find that elusive missing object. This ambiguous situation is common in mathematics too, with mathematicians being unsure whether the second problem is ultimately going to be solved, or whether the first theorem will eventually be proved by some reasoning having nothing to do with the second problem.
Ellery eventually solves all. But not until the end of the book.
Mystery Subplots. The King Is Dead also has two mystery-puzzle subplots, that have nothing to do with the main Locked Room problem.
The subplot about the business, recalls a little bit the final switch in The Origin of Evil.
A second subplot involves an incident in the characters' past.
Links to Chesterton. The King Is Dead (1952) has elements that recall G.K. Chesterton's "The Arrow of Heaven" (1925):
Links to Edgar Wallace. Edgar Wallace's The Four Just Men (1905) is an early story in which messages threaten a crime at a certain time. This gambit has been used by many books, films and comic books. The writing in The King Is Dead about this deadline is skillful.
Getting In. In his early Hollywood books, The Devil to Pay and The Four of Hearts, Ellery keeps trying to get into see the studio boss who employs him. Accessing this big-shot is difficult. This comic gambit returns in The King Is Dead, with Ellery demanding to see the King (Chapter 6). This is played more seriously, and unexpectedly, more violently, in The King Is Dead.
Hollywood in the early novels is portrayed as a major center of male power. It is also full of crooked businessmen in The Devil to Pay. Both aspects are pushed to the extreme in The King Is Dead. The King Is Dead is obsessed with maleness: almost all of the employees we see on the island are male.
Major characters in The Devil to Pay include the father, a handsome wealthy amateur sportsman who excels at a profusion of sports, and his devoted trainer and sports expert Pink, a muscular working class stiff. Variations on these two men recur in The King Is Dead, with the sports-excelling King, and his working class bodyguard and sparring partner Max'l. However, the characters in The King Is Dead are meaner, with a nasty, violent edge. If the father in The Devil to Pay is handsome, the King pushes this to extremes, being the ultimate in male good looks and sartorial splendor.
The Island. Early on, we get a detailed look at the island as a high-tech environment (Chapter 2).
Most of the buildings sit in a valley in the center of the island, just as Shinn Corners will be an isolated town hidden in a valley in the hills in The Glass Village.
Mystery: the Subplot Puzzles. The Glass Village also has a subplot about a disappearing object. While not impossible, it has strong links in technique to the Impossible Disappearances of objects that run through other Ellery Queen. That is, while there is no public ritual taking place during the disappearance, there is a container holding the missing object, and there is a propulsive device taking it outside the main search area.
This disappearance subplot also has some alibi aspects, which are different from the alibis in almost all other detective fiction. The whole subplot is far more original than the main "whodunit, killer's alibi plot".
Linked to this is a subplot about a painting. Such a subplot resembles in general terms those of some other writers, which are about photographs rather than paintings. See Freeman Wills Crofts' Fatal Venture (1939), and John Dickson Carr's "The Clue of the Red Wig" (1940). Queen's specific ideas are original.
The trial scenes recall the execution finale of The Tragedy of Z. The defendant in both is a figure of pathos. In both sequences, the mystery is figured out right in the trial area.
Links to Christie. The Glass Village recalls Agatha Christie's The Murder at the Vicarage (1930):
Christie's novel has some genteel people who live off of inherited money, including sleuth Miss Marple. By contrast, everyone in The Glass Village works for a living, and are mainly doing badly at it, economically speaking.
Intelligentsia. Painter Aunt Fanny Adams is an example of the intelligentsia that runs through the Van Dine School authors, including Ellery Queen. Such artist characters reflect the Van Dine School's deep commitment to culture. Although Aunt Fanny is the victim, she is a major presence throughout the novel. Related to her is a pretty good portrait of an art critic, in Roger Casavant. Casavant's testimony also highlights Aunt Fanny's work and character.
Judge Shinn is a conduit, transmitting American political ideas to a new generation. He too is thus a member of the intelligentsia: his ideas are social and political rather than artistic.
Even in this tiny village, there is a place to buy paperbacks and comic books.
Architecture. The town buildings and map form an instance of the Golden Age fascination with architecture. So to a lesser degree does Aunt Fanny's house. Most of the most interesting settings in the town are in the town's North quarter, which includes Aunt Fanny's house and the church. This might be described as the town's "cultural district".
Twin processions set out from Aunt Fanny's house: one happy (near the end of Chapter 1), one sad (end of Chapter 3). These are another example of the surrealist echoes of plot that run through Ellery Queen.
Politics. The Glass Village is an attack on McCarthyism; its cultural background is discussed in the article on Charlotte Armstrong. Queen is not afraid to name McCarthyism directly, right in the first chapter. The judge's speech centers on a denunciation of McCarthyism. It also contains a stand in favor of racial equality, also a burning issue of the era.
The Glass Village portrays right-wingers as loving to inflict violence and torture on racial others. Such ideas were directly reflected in the Civil Rights era, with bigots attacking black protestors. The Glass Village is also eerily prophetic of the George W. Bush era, in which a huge war was waged by right-wingers killing vast numbers of Arabs, all over alleged "weapons of mass destruction" that never existed. The torture scenes in Chapter 2 anticipate the use of torture as government policy by the Bush Administration. Just as the Iraq War was caused by right-wing Bush Administration lies about Arabs, so is the violence and torture in The Glass Village caused by false allegations of guilt about an ethnic "other".
The previous Labe Hemus killing that caused all the trouble, is linked to the villagers' right-wing ideas of "women as property of men". Queen had previously explored the ugly side of this in The Scarlet Letters.
The Glass Village denounces Communism: first in the Judge's speech (end of Chapter 1), then in a talk by Johnny (Chapter 2). It also suggests that the right-wing actions of the villagers are actually similar to the depredations of Communist regimes, such as Mao's China. Similarly, The King Is Dead points out the related behavior of its right-wing billionaire villain, and those of Communist regimes, both of which it condemns (Chapter 9).
The Glass Village refers back to the Salem Witch Trials. It is likely that this was inspired by Arthur Miller's play The Crucible, which debuted on Broadway in January 1953 - The Glass Village was published in August 1954. The Crucible uses the Salem Witch Trials as a metaphor for an attack on McCarthyism. By the time of the publication of The Glass Village, the televised attacks on McCarthy by Edward R. Murrow and Joseph Welch had also taken place, although the book was perhaps written simultaneously with them, or even earlier.
Times are horrible in the small town. This reflects a general economic decline in parts of New England. It also reflects the US Recession that started in July 1953, and bottomed out in May 1954. Especially creepy is the way the town has de-industrialized: it used to have a factory, that is now closed and in ruins. EQ's Wrightsville is an industrial city in New England: Queen was especially interested in industrial communities.
The teenage boys in the town are mainly unpleasant. This portrait perhaps reflects concerns about juvenile delinquency: teenage males in this era were sometimes portrayed as a source of violence, conformity and social decay. Even the most sympathetic, Drakeley Scott, never breaks out of his shell or becomes a genuine good guy. Drakeley says something sympathetic about the presence of religion in the Soviet Union (Chapter 2), and is promptly ridiculed for it by the other boys.
Inspector Queen's Own Case has problems that make it an unpleasant reading experience, despite some decent-enough mystery plotting. The story is repellent, filled with sick, nightmarish events and suspects. The book cannot be recommended.
Also, the way Inspector Queen starts concealing evidence and lying about events to the police, is wrong-headed. His motive - so that he can solve the case himself as an amateur detective - does not justify such obstruction of justice. This also seems unlike Inspector Queen in other novels, who is always presented as a professional's professional, one whose identity and skill as a homicide cop is deeply engrained in his personality.
All of this is unfortunate, because there is some good writing in Inspector Queen's Own Case. The long opening chapter shows Queen's skill with storytelling and setting.
Mystery Plot. There is a "disappearance of an object" subplot. It involves an extensive search - but it is not presented as a impossible crime. Its solution is fair, but also somewhat simpler than those of EQ's more creative Impossible Disappearances in other stories.
The whodunit main-plot aspects are quite "minimal", with a paucity of suspects. This minimalism is likely a deliberate strategy of Queen's, and is keeping with the minimalist plotting that runs through some of the later novels. However, the killings do not involve poisoning, and the book is fundamentally different from such "minimalist poisoning" works as Calamity Town and The Murderer Is a Fox. Unlike those novels, which seem to have only a single solution that permits no alternatives, the crime in Inspector Queen's Own Case is a murder that could seemingly be committed by anyone on Earth.
SPOILERS. Aspects of the choice of killer, and the detective steps used to reach the truth about whodunit, echo ideas used earlier in Cat of Many Tails.
The book's third main mystery puzzle, the antecedents of the baby, is fairly clever. In general terms, they involve ideas used before in Calamity Town: hidden relationships between characters who introduce themselves into the plot as strangers. END OF SPOILERS.
Landscape. The opening chapter presents Nair Island, a millionaire's retreat that recalls the setting of The Spanish Cape Mystery in its layout. Such areas embody the Golden Age interest in creative landscapes (and often architecture). However, Nair Island and its geography wind up playing little role in the puzzle plots of the tale. And the Nair Island setting tends to recede to the background in the rest of the book.
Sociology. Inspector Queen's Own Case is less political than some other EQ novels of the early 1950's. But it does keep up the focus on New England and its traditions, found in so many EQ works. An ancestor of the chief suspects the Humffreys came over on the Mayflower, and the couple represent everything about the WASP old money elite. It is a very negative portrayal, and perhaps there is an element of left-wing social commentary here.
The Humffrey estate has many servants, and we duly learn where they are during the time of the crimes. But the servants are largely kept off-stage, talked about rather than seen, and we never really get to know them as people or characters. This has the effect of eliminating them as serious suspects. It cuts down on the number of suspects in the story, aiding the tale's minimalism.
Its depiction of a serial killer at work, and the panic it creates, recalls Cat of Many Tails. But the two stories are very different. Cat of Many Tails is about a deranged killer, who irrational mind is responsible for an a series of killings based on a maniacal obsession. By contrast, "Terror Town" ultimately comes up with a completely rational explanation for its events, including the serial nature of the crimes. In this, it seems quite different from most serial killer works before and since.
The structure of "Terror Town", with seemingly irrational, hard-to-explain events finally given logical explanation at the end, recalls a bit the basic paradigm of "The Seven Black Cats" (1934) and "The Two-Headed Dog" (1934), which also focus on explaining similarly absurd and meaningless happenings. The solution in "Terror Town" is thus less a matter of deduction from evidence at a crime scene, but rather involves coming up with a new idea that can explain the overall structure and pattern of the crimes. "Terror Town" shares its rural locale with "The Two-Headed Dog". Both "The Seven Black Cats" (1934) and "The Two-Headed Dog" featured repeated events, which perhaps have some formal similarity with the repeated killings in "Terror Town". "Terror Town" also looks at intricate, but hidden, structures of cause and effect, a bit like "The Two-Headed Dog". However, there are no animals in "Terror Town", unlike the earlier stories, and the tale has a different feel from the earlier works.
The way a seasonal change of landscape reveals a buried clue recalls an incident in "The Robber of Wrightsville" (1953).
However, a recent re-reading makes clear that the book is a rich source of Queen ideas and plotting. It develops mystery themes in Queen's previous tales in new and interesting directions. The subplot echoes earlier ideas in The Tragedy of X, The American Gun Mystery, The Siamese Twin Mystery, "The Teakwood Case", "The Seven Black Cats", "The Two-Headed Dog". It is one of the most fully developed treatments of this theme in Queen, with many different plot ideas and situations spun off it. It also extends these into the realm of the impossible crime, including Queen's specialty of the Impossible Disappearance.
The main plot echoes "The Mad Tea Party", with a series of mysterious presents in an isolated house party in a country home. The whole idea of "series" also invokes such later Queen novels as Ten Days' Wonder, Cat of Many Tails, and Double, Double. However, the solution, while formally ingenious, is less meaningful than the solutions of those novels, which deal with more resonant and significant material. This makes the book seem more abstract, more purely formal, than these earlier works. However, the solution also has its own interest. The series approach is merged with others here. The cards and doodles, while not Dying Messages, also require interpretation by the detective in a way that formally resembles the Dying Message kind of mystery story. The doodles are the sort of non-verbal message running through many of Queen's works, such as The Tragedy of X and The Scarlet Letters.
There are other echoes in the novel of Queen traditions. The way the story takes place on holidays reflects Calamity Town and The Calendar of Crime. The scene with the clothes (Chapter 7) recalls the search through the main character's vast wardrobe in The King Is Dead, the most memorable episode in that book.
The Finishing Stroke is one of EQ's few attempts to write historical fiction, along with the brief opening flashback to 1940 Paris in Ten Days' Wonder, and investigations into characters' past, such as the long section in The King Is Dead. Most of the book takes place in 1929. It is a detective novel in the Golden Age style, and EQ has set it in the era of Golden Age fiction, the 1920's. This gambit was unique and original when EQ published the book, but since has become widely imitated, with contemporary authors frequently setting their Golden Age pastiches in the 1920's. EQ's method of evoking history is mainly to make a rich survey of the arts, letters and politics of 1929, all of which are mentioned and discussed throughout the novel. Since EQ books in general are full of historical cultural background on their events, the feel of the book is actually not that different from Queen's contemporary works. A story like "The Dauphin's Doll", for example, while set in the present, opens with a historical account of dolls and dollmaking.
All of these authors' stories, and many others, owe their existence to Dannay and his EQMM. It played a major role in American culture.
The Sound of Detection: Ellery Queen's Adventures in Radio (2002), by Nevins and Martin Grams, Jr., is a detailed history of the Ellery Queen radio program, with a complete listing of all the shows. It also contains biographical information on the Queen cousins. Nevins' introduction to The Best of Ellery Queen (1985), edited by Nevins and Martin H. Greenberg, contains much useful biographical information.
Francis M. Nevins' book Ellery Queen: The Art of Detection (2013) sums up his ideas and research on Ellery Queen.
All of the dates for EQ works in this article are taken directly from the above scholarly writings by Nevins and his colleagues, something I wish to acknowledge with gratitude.
The second half of The Tragedy of Errors (1999) contains reminiscences of the Queen cousins by people who knew them, along with highly informed overviews of their work. This book is available from its publisher, Crippen & Landru.
During each month of 2005, the Centenary of the birth of Ellery Queen in 1905, EQMM ran articles on the Queen cousins, and different aspects of their work. These are valuable, both critically and biographically.
A Silver Anniversary Tribute to Ellery Queen from Authors, Critics, Editors and Famous Fans (1954) was a booklet published to celebrate the 25th anniversary of EQ's first novel, The Roman Hat Mystery (1929). One hopes that it can be reprinted, along with the recent EQMM articles, in a way that would make it currently available to all. It contains praise of EQ from virtually everyone in the mystery community, in a series of brief quotations. The booklet reveals the central importance EQ had in mystery writing and editing. The contributions are surprisingly substantial, if brief, and offer much food for thought about mystery fiction, its significance, and its historical state and status in 1954. Hugh Pentecost wrote in part: "The mystery writer in our generation has had a hard struggle to keep dignity and quality alive in a mass production period. If there is one personality in the field who has done more than any other to maintain these qualities for all of us it is Ellery Queen."