Three novels by Ellery Queen

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.

The Prince of Tides, by Pat Conroy

This 1986 work is not quite literature, but I am tempted to call it a great novel. Because it is so enjoyable—and I almost did not read it! It is a story of a family, of its Southern culture, and of madness. The narrator hero is Tom Wingo, shy and lacking in confidence in his youth, when much of the tale takes place, and a confident and mature football coach as he is telling his story. Tom has traveled to New York City as the novel begins because his twin sister Savannah, a young and successful poet, has attempted suicide once again. While there, he describes to Susan Lowenstein, Savannah’s psychiatrist, his own youth and the life that has formed himself and his sister, indeed his entire family. This tale, related in flashbacks, is the heart of the novel.

Tom’s family leads a fascinating life, and it represents both the major portion of the novel and its richest portion. It is rich because of Tom’s mother and father, his older brother Luke, his religious grandfather and his eccentric grandmother, as well as his twin sister. It is even richer because it captures the flavor of the small-town Colleton, SC, and contrasts it with the bustle of New York City. Savannah spends her life intent to get away from that town’s Southern culture, and Tom is unable to abandon it.

This has to be Conroy’s most ambitious novel, and, except for a small segment toward the end, he succeeds wonderfully. He does return to the violent, disciplined father of his earlier novels, but his portrait of Henry Wingo is nuanced, making him both a war hero and a dreamer who futilely seeks business opportunities that will make him rich. The author gives more effort, however, to the complexity of Tom’s mother, Lila Wingo, a woman who plans her every step and considers herself both perfect and superior to everyone else. A subplot follows her climb into the town’s upper crust.

And yet the heart of this novel is the relationship among Tom, Savannah, and Luke. They love each other and always support each other, whether their parents discipline them, Savannah attempts suicide, Tom thinks himself a failure at life, or Luke rebels against the government.

That rebellion is the only weak portion of the novel, as Luke retreats into the swamp to conduct a guerilla action against the federal takeover of his hometown. And this takes us out of the family story, even out of the clash of Northern and Southern cultures. Instead, the novel offers a brief, right-wing diatribe against nuclear war and governmental authority. It is even out of character for quiet, mild-mannered Luke. Of course, to balance the novel politically, there is a significant section when the football team Tom coaches rejects a black running back—until his speed helps them win a few games.

But it is the family story that makes this novel, plus its deeply felt portrait of the swamp, streams, and bay of the South Carolina low country, where Henry and his sons earn their living as shrimp-boaters and their reputation as less fortunate members of society. Mother Lila is in combat with that society, of course, as well as with her husband, and often with her children. Her children love her, however, even as she claims they do not. But her interesting portrait is really background to the children’s stories.

The primary portrait is of narrator Tom, who has a poor opinion of himself as a youth, but by the time he goes to New York to help Savannah he is much more aware of both his faults and his value. Estranged from his wife, whom he has discovered is having an affair, he still loves his three daughters, and feels a certain guilt when he is attracted to Savannah’s psychiatrist, Susan Lowenstein. We read to learn what will develop with Lowenstein, as he calls her, and find at the end a satisfying, if unusual in today’s terms, resolution.

Savannah herself is more real as a young girl yearning to escape what she considers a backward Southern culture and then fleeing to New York to be a poet. She is highly opinionated, and quite interesting to listen to. Luke is the quietest and steadiest of the group, making his final actions more surprising, even unconvincing, although he does lead an escapade in which the three kidnap a porpoise from an aquarium and then release it.

The most interesting scenes in this novel often evolve around Tom’s conversations, often adversarial. Such as with his parents and siblings, but also with Lowenstein and even such minor characters as wealthy Reese Newberry, who is trying to buy up all of the town of Colleton, and both Lowenstein’s son Bernard and her violinist husband, Henry Woodruff in New York.

I was particularly dawn in by Tom’s witty, cynical observations. They evolve out of his early disillusion with his own character. He calls himself “’the most dishonest person I’ve ever met. I never know exactly how I feel about something.” But these conversations also work because they turn in unexpected directions, consistent with each character, and the others often make excellent responses to Tom’s frequently sarcastic opinions.

The novel’s movement from the present in New York to different pasts is effective, even when the shift occurs at suspenseful moments, but it also makes one aware of the author’s technique. And toward the end, it is somewhat confusing regarding the timing of Luke’s fate, Tom’s fate, and Savannah’s fate. Also notable is the absence of Luke in the later time frame, and the hints that something dire will soon be told. For a while, it appears to be referring to the simultaneous rapes of Lila, Savannah, and Tom, but that highly dramatic event is only an anti-climax.

Some critics have felt that too much happens in this novel. As Gail Goodman wrote in The New York Times, “ In The Prince of Tides, the smart man and serious writer in Pat Conroy have been temporarily waylaid by the bullying monster of heavy-handed, inflated plot and the siren voice of Mother South at her treacherous worst—embroidered, sentimental, inexact, telling it over and over again as it never was.” Except, I would argue that this is the South as it was to these particular characters at this time. It is a convincing South, a South attempting to preserve a way of life that belongs to the past, and a family of the South caught up in contradictions that follow their recognition of a changing world.

To me, this novel works, except for Luke’s melodramatic moment at the end. And it then recovers with a tender Epilogue that convincingly portrays a Tom who can love two women. Because each has met a need he has had in a certain period of his life, and he will not forgot this.

The Prince of the title is Luke, even if he is not the main character. But he is a major character, and he stands for the preservation of the local culture and local environment that is so lovingly evoked here. Moreover, the book’s climax that revolves around his actions will lead Savannah to create a new book of poems in his name.

While Henry Wingo converts to Catholicism when he is saved by a priest in World War II, neither religion nor Catholicism play a major role here. The closest is when Amos Wingo, Tom’s grandfather, parades up and down the local streets with a cross over his shoulder on Good Friday. But he is regarded as an eccentric by the community. He is also regarded as a good man, when he takes back his wife after she has left him for another man and then toured the world until she runs out of money. Amos is included more for Southern flavor than religious flavor, therefore, and Tom’s own faith never becomes a part of his failure to relate emotionally to his wife or a part of his success in relating to Lowenstein. Indeed, Tom’s emotional evolution into a caring rather than a cynical person, as a result of the events depicted in this novel, helps to bring an overall unity and resolution to this work.

To sum up, I found this a rich and entertaining novel. I relish those works in which a mature narrator looks back on a troubled and uncertain youth, and tries to make sense of it. I also enjoy the clash of cultures, here that of provincial South Carolina and sophisticated New York, although it is more from Tom’s viewpoint than Savannah’s, because his is more a search for values in the difference, whereas Savannah clearly made her decision for New York even before she left.

Yes, this novel piles incident after incident, from a revenging tiger to a saved porpoise, from a downed pilot to a downtown Good Friday walk with the Cross, from a manipulating mother to a failing and criminal father, from the feminist grandmother to the socially ambitious mother, from hatred of one’s parents and one’s culture, to love, and then from the evocation of Southern swamp country to sophisticated New York offices and restaurants.

Even if Tom himself says that what he is relating is a “grotesque family melodrama,” the reader who buys into this tale as I do will appreciate the rich imagination that creates worlds of hate, ambition, violence, cunning, despair, and denial, alongside worlds of love, hope, courage, integrity, and this family’s search for self-acceptance.

This may be Conroy at the peak of his powers, offering his final exploration of a disruptive family. It does leave me uncertain, however, about whether or not to pursue his works further. (April, 2015)

Conversation in the Cathedral, by Mario Vargas Llosa

I have read 150 pages of this 600-page novel from 1969, and I am not sure I shall continue. I have read much of Vargas Llosa, and have done so because I have enjoyed and esteemed his work. But not this one, which many call his greatest work.

My problem is that I believe that Vargas Llosa is trying here to convey history in the form of fiction. That he does not care about his characters. That they exist only to convey his portrait of corruption, cruelty, and incompetence in the Peru of the 1950s.

 But history should not be the purpose of fiction. The purpose should be to explore and reveal the hearts and souls of his characters through their personal interactions. Their primary motivation should concern the love, the hatred, the dependence, the need that prompts the actions of the characters.

Now, I recognize that mine is an old-fashioned approach to literature. When I believe that a novelist should begin with character, then with a story about the relationships among these characters, then with the social setting in which the characters act, and finally with the style that most effectively conveys those three objectives.

But Vargas Llosa has approached this work using the reverse order. What distinguishes this novel the most is the manner in which he portrays the two social movements that drive the beginning of this work. The first movement is a world of youth, of rebellious youth, at the university. Its lead character is Santiago, the confused, searching son of a wealthy man, Don Fermin. The second group is comprised of military and civilian leaders who run this Peruvian dictatorship of the 1950s.

Some might trace the stylistic manner of this novel to Joyce or Faulkner, but even that is elusive. For what Vargas Llosa has done here is interweave into a single paragraph multiple time zones and multiple conversations—with no typographic indications of that a conversation between two characters, such as the title conversation Santiago has with the chauffer throughout the book, is overlapping with a conversation among government leaders who are plotting against Santiago’s student friends.

It seems to me that Vargas Llosa may have emphasized the manner of his telling precisely because his major purpose is the political story he is telling of the two societies. That he recognizes that a history lesson is not going to work as literature, and so he turns to this unique literary technique. But technique does not work for me, nor does history, as a source of literary success.

I have now skipped ahead 50 pages to Part 2. The narrative technique has changed, moving now from complete scene to complete scene, from character to character, every two or three pages. The story is now easier to follow, since there is no jumping back and forth in time and among the characters within a single paragraph. (Or almost none.)

There are three basic stories to follow. There is Amelia with Ambrosio the chauffeur, and with the boss’s mistresses. There is Ambrosio dealing with his boss, and the bosses’ other aides. And there is the maneuvering among the top members of the government.

But there are still no characterizations to make these dozen or so characters memorable. They do not react to one another. They react only to the situation they are in. With a sense of helplessness. And so it is still difficult to follow the story, which appears to center on the impact on these characters of an intended revolution.

Part 3 introduces a new narrative strategy. Now, it advances the story by means of four episodes, each the length of a chapter. First, we follow Santiago as he is assigned by his paper to report on the murder of Hortensia, the mistress of Don Cayo, the brutal strong man behind the dictator. Then we follow a revolt against the dictator, and how Don Cayo maneuvers to put it down. Next, we return to Amelia, and through her winess Hortensia’s downfall. And finally, we follow a revolt in Arequipa, and the government’s bungling, resulting in its fall and the exile of Don Cayo.

Here, it is much easier to follow the narrative than in the previous parts, even though the chapters do not appear in chronological order. And interspersed in these chapters are moments from the future that explain or comment on the current events. This is a return to the multidimensional technique of the opening part, but here it is under control, and helps the reader’s understanding.

Part 4 becomes a blend of the previous narrative techniques. The narrative is presented in long takes, but there is a continouous change in perspective and going back and forth in time. The main characters are Santiago the reporter, Ambrosio the negro chauffeur, with whom Santiago is having a conversation (a conversation which began the novel, and continues throughout), Queta, the beautiful whore, plus the wife of Ambrosio and the soon-to-be wife of Santiago. There is no clear direction this narrative is going, especially because the events take place before the narrative in the earlier parts, such as the death of Hortensia and the aborted revolution. The emphasis is on the frustrations of both Santiago and Ambrosio in finding their role in society.

Meanwhile, it becomes more clear that Ambrosio is telling to Santiago the events in Santiago’s life. He is, of course, relating this information to the reader, but why is he telling Santiago what Santiago already knows? He is also narrating the events in his own life, which is much more understandable. This is the conversation in the cathedral, the cafe, of the novel’s title. But why? Why is this young author resorting to a technique that for me just doesn’t make sense? I have read later Vargas Llosa novels that I have enjoyed. But this one confuses me.

The novel winds down with the stories of Santiago and Ambrosio, their wives and family, their finances, and their eventual fate. But there is no connection to the political story of Peru. There is no explanation of the death of a significant character. Yes, one is implied, but neither Santiago nor the reader is certain. Life simply goes on for these characters. Which is perhaps a statement, but like the entire novel it contains no emotion, no irony, no sense of completeness. What is intended, it seems, is showing the hopelessness of these characters in determining their lives, in finding satisfaction and happiness. But this is a political statement, the one I cited at the beginning; it is not a literary achievement that is based on character.

Indeed, the finale of Part 4 focuses on the personal lives of the main characters, leaving behind the political story of Peru. Thus, many of its events here appear to have occurred before the events of the earlier Part 3. Moreover, Part 4’s focus on the personal relationships carries little of the scope, the significance of the earlier more political parts. In fact, their personal fates recall the manipulations of a soap opera.

On the other hand, the novel ends where the first chapter begins. We have come full circle. So in this sense, there need be no ending. The rest of the novel that we have read is the ending. However, it is still a letdown. It is not satisfying emotionally. At least, not until we begin to think about the entire novel. Perhaps even to reread it?

The best explanation of the novel I have read comes from Efrain Kristal: “The narrative axis of the novel is a four-hour conversation between Santiago and Ambrosio in a bar called La Catedral. Revolving around this conversation are many other conversations, stories, and situations. The encounter is accidental—Ambrosio has returned to Lima after many years of hiding from the law in the Peruvian provinces—but the conversation is pressing for both of them. Santiago wants to understand why Ambrosio loved his father, and Ambrosio wants to understand why Santiago has rejected his father. The conversation does not lead to an understanding between the two men, but when it concludes, the reader comes to terms with the world that shattered their aspirations.”

The political environment of this work is clear: the separation of the classes, the helplessness of the lower classes, the guilt of Santiago, the abuse of women, the ruthlessness of the dictatorship, etc. Rather, it is the style of telling that I cannot accommodate to, plus the inconclusiveness of the story. No, there is still the lack of emotion among the characters that I cited earlier. I do not feel them interacting with or affecting one another. There is too much coldness in the telling.

One reviewer comments that a second reading brings a much clearer understanding of the novel. Undoubtedly, this is true. One reason is that one can better grasp the sequence of events that are not told chronologically. And therefore one can better understand some characters’ actions. For example, a precise understanding of how and why Hortensia died as she did.

In the face of what seems to be overwhelming praise of this novel by the critics, I can respond only by reverting to the traditional values of literature. Character, emotion, and story. Whereas the heart of this novel is based on politics, not on character. Its characters are for me puppets being manipulated by the author. And the strings are the innovative technique that sacrifices individual cause and effect to an understanding of the political fates of these characters.

This work makes quite clear Vargas Llosa’s commitment to political and economic justice. It also makes more clear his later decision to campaign for the presidency of Peru. What troubles me is his sublimation of literary values to his political and economic message. Such a messages is valid in literature, but it should not be at the expense of the free interaction of the characters.

What also becomes clear is that my reaction to this work matches my reaction to such works as Three Trapped Tigers (Cabrera Infante), A Change of Skin (Fuentes), and The Obscene Bird of Night (Donoso). All broke the traditions of literature in search of a modern technique that searched behind surface reality.

Here is my evaluation of The Obscene Bird of Night: “This is a novel about writing, about the imagination, about the impossibility of turning the imaginary world into the real world—except in the mind of the author. So of course the people who will admire this work the most are writers themselves. And the critics who write about them. For such an approach speaks to both of them more than it does to the average reader.

“To sum up, this is a highly imaginative novel that sacrifices the warmth and humanity of its characters to the author’s exploration of his own imagination. For me, its originality is a marvelous achievement, but it is too committed to the complexity of art at the expense of conveying the complexity of life.”

The Time review concludes: “It would be a pity if the enormous but not insurmountable difficulties of reading this massive novel prevent readers from becoming acquainted with a book that reveals, as few other have, some of the ugly complexities of the real Latin America.”

My only reply is: what is the purpose of literature. Is it to create a political world, or a personal world? (March, 2014)