Three novels by Ellery Queen
by Robert A. Parker
My favorite author as a teenager was Ellery Queen, a pseudonym for two cousins, Frederic Dannay and Manfred B. Lee. What appealed to me was the blend of their literate style and the intricate crime puzzles they created. I was particularly fascinated by the challenge they offered each reader in their early novels. For just before their detective solved the crime, the authors stopped the story and told the reader that he or she now had all the facts that Ellery had, and challenged the reader to solve the crime before reading on. This appealed to an adolescent mind just encountering the challenge of the adult world.
Since I had read most of the Queen mysteries before making my literary comments, I began wondering how I would evaluate Queen’s works today, more than seventy years later. Would they justify my adolescent interest? Or would they expose the shallowness of that early focus? So I decided to read one early work, which featured the reader challenge, one later work that developed the humanity of the chief characters, and a final work that, as I recall, showed author Queen at the height of his literary powers.
My three comments follow.
The Greek Coffin Mystery (1932)
As a literate description of a wake and funeral open this mystery, followed by the discovery of a murder victim, I realized I was evaluating this work with an eye on the past as well as on my reaction today. That is, I was analyzing what was there that made me love Ellery Queen so much in the past. Now that I know that when Dannay and Lee created their works, that one was strong on the literary side and one strong on the puzzle side, I can separate those aspects and realize that it was the puzzle side that originally intrigued me.
In the opening third of this work, the focus is on Ellery puzzling out how a dead body could have been placed in a coffin. It is a variation on the locked-room mystery. And he puzzles out what did not happen to find his way to what did happen. It is still today an intriguing process that Ellery goes through, but also a very self-aware one. In addition, the authors stress that this is Ellery’s first case chronologically, that he is still wet behind the ears, and this is why in the investigation he takes a subsidiary role to his father, Inspector Queen.
Written in the early 1930s, the work is set in the 20s, and its structure reflects its era of detective fiction. The main characters belong to a central household, in this case an East Side, Manhattan mansion. Also, the characters are portrayed more in their relationship to the victim or the crime, than in their relationships with one another. And, like the detectives of the era, they have their own idiosyncrasies. In this case, Inspector Queen has his snuff box, while Ellery has both his pince nez and an obnoxious tendency to quote classic literature as he summarizes or comments on the latest scene.
In the center of this work, Ellery begins coming up with potential solutions, but in each case a new fact negates his solution. Each new development is logical, but for me each also reflects an intrusion by the author to complicate the situation. What is interesting is Ellery’s approach to these solutions. He reaches them by a process of elimination, by explaining what could not have happened, how a particular person could not have done such and such. Until, finally, he is left with one conclusion, that only this could have happened and only this person could have done it. It calls for a painstaking explanation in each case, but what Ellery calls his logical approach is intellectually convincing.
An art context helps to make interesting the pursuit of the villain, and adds cultural seriousness to the story. The key to the villain’s motivation is a painting by Leonardo. Parallel to the search for the villain is the search for the painting. Where is it? Is it real or a copy? Why is it in New York?? Who is its legitimate owner? Will it be returned to London?
During this work, Ellery comes up with four different solutions, each more complicated that the preceding one. One solution is even a false one intended to trap the true killer. And the final solution, in fact, becomes so complicated that the final identification of the killer is a complete surprise. It is truly the least expected person. And yet, also, it is so surprising that, despite all the logic, it carries an air of being contrived by the author rather than by the actual circumstances.
Concerning the challenge to the reader, it is true that the reader has all the facts. But a number of such facts are slipped in so casually that the reader does not make anything of them at the time. So, yes, the authors are strictly fair, but they are also too clever by half. No one can be expected to pick up such clues when they appear, although one can recall many of them in retrospect. Such challenges, I think, were made simply to separate Queen’s mysteries from his competitors.’ And they certainly were the element that intrigued me.
This has been an exercise in logic more than an adventure in crime, more about the actions of its characters than the characters themselves. But the writing is in keeping with the genre of those times. And the emphasis on logic not only separated it from other detective stories of that era but also appealed to my interests of that time. Which was that of a youth unaware of the emotional connections among people but becoming aware of his own intellect and the means it offered to understand more about people and about life. (September, 2015)
Halfway House (1936)
This is much better, a far richer mystery novel. Because the characters are real. Because their relationships are real. Ellery is merely an observer, remaining in the background until the dénouement.
Ellery is a friend of Bill Angell, whom he meets casually during a stop in Trenton, New Jersey. A murder immediately occurs, that of Joe Wilson, Bill’s brother-in-law. The uniqueness of the story is that Joe is really Joseph Gimball of a wealthy New York family and he has been living a double life with his middle-class wife Lucy in Philadelphia. The title of the work comes from his regularly changing his identity at an abandoned shack in Trenton about halfway between New York and Philadelphia, and in this shack he is killed.
One wonders, in fact, if Queen changed his title format with this volume—from the more austerely titled Egyptian, Greek, and Spanish, etc. mysteries to Halfway House—because he decided to change his approach to writing mysteries. That he wanted to make them closer to true novels by emphasizing character and relationships, which in turn opened the door to a more literary treatment.
And I believe the naturalness, the believability, of this tale stems from this more novelistic approach. For it is not Ellery’s role here that intrigues us, nor his relationship with Bill, which keeps him on the scene. What draws the interest of the reader is the tensions between the Wilson and Gimball families, and, even more, within the Gimball family in New York. From beautiful daughter Andrea Gimball, who likes Bill and whose relationship warms up and humanizes this mystery, to her mother Jessica, to her fiancé Jones, to the family lawyer Senator Frueh, to family friend and advisor Grosvenor Finch. These people are continually discussing and debating their proper response to the revelation of Joe Wilson/Joe Gimbell’s double life and murder.
Interest is also enhanced by the seventy-page description of a trial in the center of the book. It is the trial of Lucy Wilson for the murder of her husband Joe. The police theory is that she was angry at the deception of her husband, but the reader suspects, despite incriminating evidence, that she is not guilty. What is impressive, however, is that the trial is so brilliantly and suspensefully presented—with both the prosecutor Pollinger and Bill, who is defending his sister, making telling legal points in both presenting evidence and cross-examining witnesses. Seldom have I come across a trial scene that presented both sides so objectively and so effectively, with the outcome constantly in doubt.
Ellery remains basically a witness to events until the solution to the murder is revealed. He is also more self-aware of his celebrity, and has thankfully toned down his quotations from the literary classics. What is remarkable, however, is that when he finally stands front and center, when he begins his explanation of the crime and it stretches out to more than forty pages, I remained continually engrossed. For rarely does one come across such a fascinating and dramatic dénouement, one so different from the dry, long-winded explanations that top off many a detective story.
The dénouement is basically in two parts, first a description of the crime itself, related at the actual crime scene with all the suspects present; and then a presentation to the judge and prosecutor at Lucy’s trial, describing the characteristics of the killer, showing that it is not Lucy but another who fits all of Ellery’s requirements to be the killer. And Ellery does this without revealing the actual identity of the killer until the absolute end, while the reader keeps shifting his choice back and forth among the suspects. It is a marvelous feat of writing, sustaining the drama to the end.
As for Ellery’s solution to the crime, he again challenges the reader before revealing the criminal’s identity. And the key discovery comes from six match stubs found at the murder scene, a discovery he highlights but which appears to mean nothing until he logically explains their significance. Is it an irony or a coincidence, by the way, that it is pipe-smoking Ellery who reaches this logical conclusion? Then, as in earlier works, the detective’s logic is confirmed by apparently innocuous seeds of evidence that Queen, as the author, has carefully planted. Which is not a criticism, merely an observation.
I do have one criticism, however. I cannot find, through rereading, how the killer knew the victim was going to the Halfway House on that particular evening. Plus that the victim was going there to reveal his double identity. For such knowledge was needed in advance to enable the killer to set up the patsy for the crime. Did the telegrams come to light, for example? Otherwise, why would the murderer have been there exactly then? In addition, the killer’s motive is generally stated, as revenge for Joe’s betrayal of the New York wife, but it does not seem to be a driving force in the killer’s life.
These would seem to be negatives that require an editorial adjustment, but author Queen was so popular at the time, and his logic so mesmerizing, that his publishers may have refrained from suggesting any editorial change. Who knows? Maybe, somewhere early on, my objection is accounted for. But I just could not find it. (September, 2015)
I now surprise myself by discovering at the end of this volume a commentary I had written in 1988. Which means that this is the third time I have read this novel—suggesting that the positive impression it made on me earlier is why I have read it again. Here is my 1988 review, one that is basically consistent with the above:
“A return to Queen proves very entertaining and rewarding. This book works because of the human relationships: Queen to the hero, the hero Bill to his suspect sister, the victim’s dual relationship to two families, and the wealthy family’s internal relationships. The puzzle is not great, although adequate, the solution not truly surprising (yet logical), the setting of Trenton not vivid.
“But the book works because this is a group of people caught up in interesting, crossing relationships, with a murder committed in their midst. Plus, the pacing is good, the trial scene well done, the dialogue mostly effective, and Ellery has a tongue-in-cheek attitude toward himself—all contributing to the book’s effectiveness. This may have been a transition point in Queen’s writing career, as it was for the victims in the story. One should read more Queen to find out, first back, and then forward.”
Which I am now in the process of doing.
Calamity Town (1942)
I must precede this commentary with an anecdote. I was so impressed by this mystery as a teenager that I mentioned it to a college colleague, a fellow writer. Oh, yes, he said, and I never suspected that so-and-so was the killer, naming that actual killer. Oh, no, I said, I had forgotten who it was and wanted to read it again. He apologized, but it did me no good. Because from that day to now, nearly seventy years later, I have not forgotten the name of the killer. And so I read it today with that foreknowledge. Which perhaps will enable me to appreciate better the artfulness of the telling. We shall see.
Ah, what fools these mortals be! For all these decades I have misinterpreted what my college friend said. He had been surprised, he said, that Pat—and I quickly interrupted, assuming from how he began that he was naming the killer. And so I had not wanted him to continue. Because I wanted to read this work again, and wanted to be able to rediscover who was the actual villain.
Except, my new reading reveals that the killer was not Pat. That I had forgotten who was, and that this reading enabled me to discover again who truly was. Which I will get to—with the caveat that my mistaken memory has not affected my response to this work.
For now, I suggest that what may have impressed my friend, and prompted his opening comment, was the surprising relationship that developed between Ellery Queen and this girl named Pat. Never before had Ellery become emotionally involved with one of the characters in a mystery story. Yet here it was, beginning with casual flirting, and then evolving into an emotional connection.
What, I wondered, was author Queen going to do with this? (Of course, I was also wondering how on earth, given the events, Pat could be the murderer.) Well, in truth, author Queen ducked out on the romance issue —and not that convincingly. For Ellery simply returns to solving the crime, and to demonstrating the emotionless brain power that he has long been known for. So the starting of the relationship was a surprise, but not its ending.
But to the novel itself, and the fond memories which prompted me to revisit it. I can see why. Because the setting is so different. Author Queen has created at entire town, Wrightsville, presumably located in upstate New England or New York. It is so different from Queen’s metropolitan environments that one was used to encountering. It is a town filled with taxi drivers, hotel clerks, a newspaper publisher, reporters, pharmacists, real estate brokers, bar owners, nosey neighbors, and a town drunk, as well as a police chief, prosecutor, coroner, and judge, as required by mystery stories.
Another difference is the family that the author has created at the center of his mystery. This is the Wright family, whose ancestors founded the town, and who represent the pinnacle of society. There are the older parents, Hermione and John F., daughters Lola, Nora, and Pat, Nora’s former fiancée Jim who fled on the eve of their wedding and has now returned, and Jim’s sister Rosemary. Complicating the relationships is that the newspaper publisher Frank Lloyd still loves Nora and the county prosecutor Carter Bradford loves Pat.
Ellery becomes involved with this family after choosing to settle in Wrightsville to write a novel, and he rents a house that originally was to be the home of Nora and Jim. And then he gracefully gives it up when Jim returns and Nora accepts a new marriage proposal. The family is grateful to Ellery, draws him into their home, and then he becomes fascinated when, first, letters appear that threaten the life of Nora, and then another person is killed, apparently in her place. It is an intriguing situation that involves the reader as well, and I can see why I liked this work so much—both the rural setting created by Queen and the involved family relationships—and why Ellery himself was equally drawn into the situation.
There is again an interesting trial for murder. In this case, Jim is accused of murder, and prosecutor Bradford tries to prove his guilt, while Ellery, his rival for Pat’s affection, looks for evidence that the reader assumes will exonerate Jim. The evidence is more circumstantial than in Halfway House, while the trial itself ends abruptly after an arbitrary action by one of the characters. Or should one say the author? In any event, we then come to the ending, and to Ellery’s detailed logic that explains who is the villain. And I must say it is richly complex, and fascinating in its complexity. Its twist, in fact, is worthy of an Agatha Christie.
But while it ties the actions of these characters together as a logical possibility, it is not convincing to me as the only possibility. It involves, for example, a major moral change in one of the characters, a sudden psychological weakness on the part of another, and a false identity for two additional characters. This is a lot to chew on, as Ellery lays out his surprising theory of what actually happened.
The result is that I remain impressed but unconvinced. Impressed by the writing, the family dynamics, and the setting, but not convinced by the solution. Nor by the deaths at the end that re-enforce the tidy solution. I sense that author Queen wanted to create a surprise ending that turned the story back on itself. And in theory he did. But, with the two arbitrary deaths capping it off, it was simply too much for me. (September, 2015)
With this reading, I complete my brief current review of Queen’s works. I explained earlier what drew me to this series. And I remained interested as author Queen stretched the usual parameters of the mystery format. He wanted to move beyond the genre level, and one can only admire him for that literary ambition. On the other hand, I can see why Ellery the detective is often seen as too egotistical, too detached, and too comfortable with his own logic—even with the humanizing introduced in the third work here. It is this emphasis on logic that primarily concerned me in the last two of these works, in that it leaves no room for other possibilities. It appears to be a hallmark that author Queen introduced in order to make Ellery distinctive, but I believe he emphasized it too much.