Not The Top Ten: Ellery Queen

As promised in my most recent post, I thought I’d apply my Not The Top Ten (Personal) approach to Ellery Queen.

Please be warned that this essay concerns works of detective fiction; part of their potential enjoyment is based on surprising the reader. If you read any further, you will learn something about quite a few novels of Ellery Queen. In at least one case the identity of the murderer will be obvious. If you haven’t already read these titles, they will have lost their power to surprise you to greater or lesser extent, and that would be a shame. So please go and read any book whose title is unfamiliar to you (I’ve put them in bold italics) before you spoil your own enjoyment. If you proceed past this point, you’re on your own.

Most overrated novel

472113f2176c6dff7e5e4c30bb818db3This is a tough call, but for me — and I emphasize this is based on personal factors — the most overrated EQ novel is And on the Eighth Day by a hair over The Fourth Side of the Triangle. Both, strangely enough, were written by science-fiction writer Avram Davidson under the direction of Messrs. Dannay and Lee; I’ve read his science fiction and it’s fairly … tepid. And yes, I am aware that And On the Eighth Day received the Grand Prix de Littérature Policière. Each to his own, as the old lady said when she kissed the cow.

To me, this book is gallingly annoying. It is clearly the product of a storyteller who is self-consciously constructing a parable; it pauses on the verge of breaking the fourth wall and addressing the reader directly, like the “Locked Room lecture” chapter in John Dickson Carr’s The Three Coffins, about the moral imperatives that underlie the agonizingly predictable activities of the book. “Look at me! I’m writing in metaphors! and look how abstract I can be!” Okay, not quite that far. But the authorial presence is clumsy and overbearing, at the “nudge nudge wink wink” level. Please, leave me alone and let me read the damn book.

I don’t like the intertwining of Naziism with religious parables; I don’t like the intertwining of the detective story with religious parables. (Let religions do their own work in their own way, say I, without coopting the forms of genre fiction. One of the conventions of detective fiction is that even the most basic assumptions must be verified and nothing is taken on faith.) And I don’t like an authorial presence that muscles its way into the moral high ground without allowing you to decide if it’s merited. So I’m the critic who likes this book the least, but there are a lot of smart people who esteem it highly, and you will have to make up your own mind what you think.

Most underrated novel

4e882a3ea7e348579188dc3e10dbaf48For me, the most underrated Ellery Queen novel would have to be The Murderer is a Fox (1945). I like the Wrightsville period of EQ because it represents the finest example of the Dannay and Lee trying to push the boundaries of the puzzle mystery. And I think The Murderer is a Fox is a better Wrightsville novel than Calamity Town. In Calamity Town the cousins had already established the focus on small-town America and its foibles; here in The Murderer is a Fox, I think they captured atmosphere better than in any other novel. You can see the dust motes dancing in the thick atmosphere of the attic, feel the weight of the heavy blue glass tumbler … and we can sympathize with the hero afflicted with “shell shock” who has to endure clacking tongues and being misunderstood, and with his adolescent self coping with a murdered parent. The solution is truly surprising and effective; it prompts the reader to real emotions and to sympathize with a character in an impossible situation. Just because it’s a book on a small scale doesn’t mean it can’t work on larger themes.

51cuw5ymffl-_sy445_A close runner-up would be Halfway House. I think if it had been called The Swedish Match Mystery as originally planned, we’d right now be acclaiming it as among the best of the Nationalities period.  As it is, it’s not quite Wrightsville and not quite bloodless logic, but in many ways it has the best features of both periods.

If the cousins had actually written A Room To Die In, instead of Jack Vance, I would have considered it in this category; it’s a smart little locked-room mystery that should be more widely read. As it is, it’s definitely the book that would have been better written by John Dickson Carr if I ever do that comparison.

The novel containing the best hook

siamese_twin1This one has to be The Siamese Twin Mystery, which starts with the realization that Ellery and his father are going to have to confront a forest fire in the course of the novel. It’s got everything, as the saying goes, “excepting Eliza running across the ice floes with the bloodhounds snapping at her ass”. I can’t think there’s a single reader who could stop reading once the Queens in the big old Duesenberg take that first fateful turn up to the top of the mountain hoping to escape the blaze… I was hooked like a trout and I think every other reader was too. A skilled authorial presence is saying, “Have I got a story for YOU.”

It’s also really difficult to start your novel with a bang, and then keep it rising steadily until the end; lesser talents can’t avoid a sag in the middle. Siamese Twin makes that work, and the finale is beautifully handled and truly exciting. It pays off every promise of the story hook and then some.

d4fb6aa891c234f7961d426e6e6f2090I suspect many people would suggest that The Chinese Orange Mystery was the best hook — except that it takes so long to get to, for me the little corpse with the spears stuck into his reversed clothes doesn’t really qualify as a story hook but more like the midpoint of Act One. A story hook starts bang! in Chapter One, and you’re either hooked or you’re not. It doesn’t count as a story hook if you expect it in Chapter Five because you read about it on the jacket flap’s précis. There’s a similar problem with The Lamp of God — yes, the vanishing house is a gripping plot development, but it doesn’t happen until too late in the story to qualify as a hook.

The novel containing the best murder method

Queen-Avon425This is a difficult topic that requires a little logic-chopping. The word “method” means, to me, “cause of death”. This lets out novels like The Chinese Orange Mystery, where the scene of the crime is truly outre — but the corpse was prosaically biffed on the head with a poker. The King is Dead certainly has a complex method, but is it “best”? No, it’s just overwrought.

The Egyptian Cross Mystery with the multiple decapitations is certainly a strong contender. I also like the methods in The Door Between, and The Dutch Shoe Mystery; they’re inventive and logical.  But for me the winner is The Tragedy of X, with the ball of needles coated with nicotine stuffed into the coat pocket of the victim. That method was produced by a creepy and inventive turn of thought. And best of all, it has a specific contribution to the book that helps identify the murderer (you’ll understand this if you remember the ending).

The novel containing the best motive

br02b_tragedy_of_yI struggled with this one because I wanted to be sure I understood what “best motive” meant. After much thought, I think “best” means the motive that you would never guess, but that arises organically out of the material.  So that means I’ve dismissed novels where the motive is to get a lot of money, or escape from a terrible relationship; those motives are commonplace. EQ occasionally has a plot structure where someone commits a bunch of actions or murders in order to conceal the only murder they wanted to commit — what you might call the ABC motive. This is a little bit fresher but honestly, in EQ’s hands most often it just means that the actions of the book are strained out of proportion in order to include whatever improbable linking structure the authors thought appropriate. (Ten Days’ Wonder and The Finishing Stroke come to mind.) So I’ve eliminated those, and I’ve also eliminated novels where the murderer is simply insane.

01d_RomanThat leaves me with kind of a tie, for different reasons. The Tragedy of Y is my winner by a hair — the murderer is following the written instructions of a dead man without understanding why. No one could intuitively grasp that, but it actually does arise organically from the characters and setting. A very close second is The Roman Hat Mystery, but the reason that no one would guess that motive is quite different. The book was published in 1929, and back then, it was actually a feasible motive that a person would commit murder because they had “just a drop of coloured blood” and wanted to keep that a secret. Wow — just, wow.  And thank goodness we’re beyond that now.

The novel containing the most stunning surprise ending

ac6b6a80250c6057f2ff0499a38e931bThe French Powder Mystery is well-known for having its final words reveal the name of the murderer for the first time. That was kind of a stunt, but for me it was a very surprising ending and a very surprising way of revealing that information. The other novel that truly surprised me was Drury Lane’s Last Case. EQ managed to build that ending organically until the reader is at a pitch of excitement before the reveal of what should be a very surprising murderer … the only trouble is, I didn’t really believe it was psychologically reasonable.

The novel you should avoid 

9780451045805-us-300I’ve had my say about the awfulness of A Fine and Private Place elsewhere, but I think I have to give pride of place to The Last Woman in His Life. This book is significantly ugly and ill-informed on the topic of homosexuality. It’s probably damning with faint praise to say that, you know, I don’t blame Dannay and Lee all that much (actually Lee probably didn’t have much to do with this one, since he was nearing the end of his life) — I think their hearts were in the right place even if the outcome was atrocious. They were trying to be forward-thinking and liberal, and they got it wrong, wrong, wrong.

This novel was written in 1970, two years before I came out, and even then I already knew that the stereotypical gay man they present either didn’t exist or had ceased to exist before I was born. Is it that the cousins never bothered to actually, you know, talk to anyone gay? Or that someone had filled their heads with these weird stories of guys built like football players who liked to wear evening gowns, and they accepted second-hand information rather credulously? Perhaps they were told about a bunch of different sub-groups of gay society and somehow conflated them all into one ghastly stereotypical gay equivalent of Little Black Sambo. We’ll never know.

The other problem with this book is that it is really a very poor mystery per se. EQ here offers a puzzle that is very Queenian, as it were: there are three obvious suspects, ex-wives A, B, and C, with little to differentiate them. The plot doesn’t go very far to make us think that any of them is guilty either. Speaking as someone who’s seen this EQ pattern many times before, it was crystal clear that the killer had to be none of the above. And since there are virtually no other people in the book who fit a few other crucial criteria, such as being present during the murder, it’s quite obvious whodunit. The rest is just foofaraw. And it’s foofaraw that EQ went to preposterous lengths to set in Wrightsville, which merely drags down our understanding of Wrightsville instead of adding anything.

This book is irredeemable. It is not merely poor, it is poor and offensive. It’s an ugly stain on a great body of work by two masters of the genre, and I hope no one ever reads it again.

The one you must read in your lifetime even if you only read one by this author

UnknownThe Greek Coffin Mystery is definitely a superb puzzle mystery; I think it’s the finest of EQ’s “Nationalities” series. It’s beautifully plotted, subtly clued, it has one of the least-likely murderers ever, and the book’s structure is one of the finest examples of leading the reader down the garden path in English literature.  (Yes, seriously. THAT good.) I’ve praised it even more extensively here. And yet — this is not the one I think you should read in your lifetime, even if you only read one Ellery Queen book. That honour belongs to Calamity Town.

Since I’ve said above that it’s not even the best Wrightsville novel, let alone the best EQ novel, you may be puzzled at this point. But I do have a reason. EQ mysteries like Greek Coffin and Chinese Orange are brilliant examples of the Golden Age’s finest achievement, the strict-form puzzle mystery. But they did not change the genre, they were merely among its best examples.

Dannay and Lee, writing as Ellery Queen, tried something that only Agatha Christie and Dorothy L. Sayers had achieved thus far; they pushed the boundaries of the genre and changed detective fiction, not merely exemplified it. Christie did it by “breaking the rules” in The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. EQ did it by boldly trying to add emotions to detective fiction in the United States, in much the same way that Dorothy L. Sayers created her “literature with bowels” in England with novels like Gaudy Night.

Calamity Town is the book where the creativity really happens. (I think of Halfway House as a kind of false start; the two books have many similarities.) It might not seem like much to readers who have grown up with every detective revealing his or her inner humanity, but merely trying to write about people realistically was a great step forward. At the same time, they tried to use the town of Wrightsville as a kind of character in the book, giving us the massive ebb and flow of a small town on a large scale, from Emmeline DuPre to the depths of Low Town. It’s a huge step forward in the idea of putting characterization and reality into detective fiction, because the technique tries to mirror reality.

Inventively, EQ use intense recomplication in this book as a story-telling method — the sections where we get a whirlwind of comments and reactions from a wide variety of minor characters, and even newspapers and radio broadcasts. Not an absolutely original method of telling the story, since E.C. Bentley’s Trent’s Last Case did it in 1913 and Philip MacDonald did it in 1930 with Rynox and 1931’s Murder Gone Mad. EQ, however, have a really nice take on the technique by stretching it out into a longer, less frenetic process, and using it to build the rising tide of the action as part of the plot.

All things considered, Calamity Town is not a magnificent book. But it is an original and ground-breaking book and it took the American detective novel a great step forward in 1942, breaking the grip of the Golden Age forever. So it’s an important book, and if you only read one Ellery Queen title, it should be this one.

Penguin Pool Murder (1932)


Penguin Pool Murder

Author: Based on characters (Miss Hildegarde Withers, Inspector Oscar Piper) created by Stuart Palmer in his novel of the same year, who also has story credit here.  Story by Lowell Brentano and screenplay by Willis Goldbeck.  Brentano also collaborated with Frederic Dannay and Manfred Lee the next year on the story for “The Crime Nobody Saw”, based on a play by the three called “Danger, Men Working”.  Dannay and Lee are better known as Ellery Queen, of course, and this screenplay sheds a little bit of light on their Hollywood period — but that’s another story.  Just interesting to note that Brentano got to work on two different detective brands of the 1930s. In a similar interrelationship, Goldbeck went on to write perhaps a dozen Dr. Kildare films and directed a couple of them.

Stuart Palmer  became a well-known writer of perhaps the second rank with his Withers novels.  Six of his stories were filmed between 1932 and 1936 but he would not sell a screenplay until 1936, at which point he became very productive and popular in both fields.  Penguins became his personal trademark, a kind of icon or signature block.

Other Data:  December 9, 1932, according to IMDB.  Directed by George Archainbaud, a long-lived workhorse who directed silents from 1917, B-movies for decades and then made the move to TV episodes until 1959.  Note that while the film’s poster calls it The Penguin Pool Murder, and that is the title of the book as well, the title card leaves out the “The“.

Cast: Edna May Oliver as Miss Hildegarde Martha Withers, the quintessential maiden schoolmarm. James Gleason as Police Inspector Oscar Piper.  Supporting cast includes Robert Armstrong, Mae Clark, Donald Cook, Edgar Kennedy, and the familiar face of Gustav von Seyffertitz.

the-penguin-pool-murder-movie-poster-1932-1020143334About this film:

This is the first in a series of Hildegarde Withers mysteries; both the first novel and the first film are from 1932.  Edna May Oliver took the role and made it her own, although she only appeared in the first three films in the series.  She was followed by Helen Broderick, Zasu Pitts, and Eve Arden.  The secondary character is long-suffering Inspector Oscar Piper of the Homicide Squad who must become accustomed to Miss Withers attempting to do his job.

The character concept underlying the films is that Miss Withers and Inspector Piper have a love/hate relationship.  Miss Withers really solves all the murders but Oscar takes the credit, begrudgingly permitting her to run things as she wishes. Hildegarde is censorious, old-fashioned, prim, proper and really very bitchy, when it comes right down to it.  If you pay attention, you’ll note that she tells nearly every single person with whom she comes in contact how they should be living their life/behaving/dressed. Since it is 1932, she is crabby with blacks and Jews (when they are her students), girls who wear too much makeup, people in uniforms who aren’t doing what she wants them to, slutty-looking women in spangled evening gowns, men in business suits, waitresses, and — well, just about everyone.  Amazingly enough, this is actually funny, partly because it is constant and partly because it is gentle.  Oscar Piper is gruff and aggressive with everyone, as befits a hardboiled cop, but there is considerable subtext indicating that he and Hildegarde are an item. Actually at the end of this particular film they head off to be married, but this is conveniently forgotten by the beginning of the second film.

The story here is — well, at this point I have to say that although this is a clever and funny movie, the mystery itself is not especially interesting. Indeed, I’ve had a peculiar thing happen with this film, in that the plot seems to just melt in my mind before I can make sense of it. To me, this indicates the kind of production where the mystery is not as important as other aspects, like characterization and background.  When it comes right down to it, there is not much to this mystery that you are going to care about or remember in any detail.

A beautiful and extraordinarily well dressed young woman has a mysterious lover who needs money.  All she has is her stockbroker husband, and all he really has is his life insurance policy, which only pays off if he dies.  The stockbroker promptly quarrels with everyone in his life, in the way of such things, and is found face down in the penguin pool at the aquarium, which coincidentally contains a mob of people and Miss Withers and her young charges. One of the mob is a pickpocket; another is the aquarium’s director, with whom the stockbroker has history.

Miss Withers remains involved partly because her thin nose cannot be kept out of a mystery, partly because of her burgeoning relationship with Inspector Piper, and partly because it is soon discovered that her lost hatpin (my younger readers can look that item up in Wikipedia) ended up in the victim’s ear.  The pickpocket seems to have acquired some crucial information and also ends up murdered.  The plot rolls along and we end up with a dramatic courtroom scene in which Hildegarde listens carefully and figures out whodunnit from something that is said in the courtroom itself.  Then as noted, Oscar invites her to be married and the story ends. You might be surprised by the identity of the murder, but to me that person was the only one of sufficient intelligence and determination to even be considered as a potential killer.  And, as I said, the plot itself is not all that important. It’s more like a series of set pieces that sketchily indicate a killer rather than lead directly to him. A crucial element in this is that Hildegarde and Oscar do not work out logically who the killer is and then find evidence to prove it; instead, they lay a plot so that the murderer self-incriminates by knowing a detail that only the killer would know, but the murder self-incriminates by accident, almost.  Had that not happened, the case might remain unsolved. This is not a puzzle mystery a la Ellery Queen, this is more like the early efforts of Erle Stanley Gardner, where Perry Mason bulls around and muddles up the clues until someone makes a mistake and reveals his guilt in the courtroom scene.

There’s a wonderfully inventive moment at 0:50 where, in a familiar way of conveying backstory, the camera pauses on a still shot of a newspaper lying on the pavement displaying a significant headline .  However, half the screen beside the newspaper is taken up by a black cat lapping up spilled milk.  An elegant gloss on both a visual and a spoken cliche.  In many ways there are some delightful little moments here and there in this film. Little moments of dialogue — “I’m a schoolteacher, and I might have done wonders with you if I’d caught you early enough!” — little pieces of costuming, such as what to me was an astonishing haute couture evening gown worn in the earliest scenes of the movie, and little scenes that shine with Hildegarde’s gently relentless mockery. “I would like to ask you a few questions.  That is, if you can talk through all that make-up!”

I suspect that the original audience for this material asked nothing more than to be pleasantly lulled for a bit more than an hour with the antics of the leads and the machinations of the suspects, without paying much attention as to whether the mystery made sense or not. In this case, I’m the same. Give me some gentle humour, a charming series character or two, a wonderful supporting cast and some nice things to look at, and I’m prepared to not work too hard to figure out whodunit. Although I usually offer my readers the service of paying close attention as to whether the mystery is capable of one and only one solution, in this case I haven’t bothered — it’s not the point.  In the phrase “a Hildegarde Withers mystery”, the accent is definitely on the Hildegarde.

Notes For the Collector:

Copies of the film seem readily available.  If you’re a spendthrift, you can get one from Amazon for $24.99 as of the date of writing; it’s also readily available in various compendia of old mysteries for as little as $3.99 for a pack of four films.  As I noted above, Turner Classic Movies showed it recently and re-runs it perhaps once a year.  I am not aware of any uniform edition of the handful of Hildegarde Withers movies (but I became aware recently that Rue Morgue is reissuing the books in trade paperback, which means I might finally get to read The Puzzle of the Blue Bandillera, so hurray for Rue Morgue).