Finishing Ellery Queen’s The Origin of Evil two days ago and having looked through Francis Nevins’s fascinating if hagiographic overview of the Queen (and Barnaby Ross) books, Royal Bloodline, started me thinking about Queen, recently one of my favorite detective-story writers, and the Queenian worldview. It actually (and surprisingly) took me a long time to come around to Queen. When I was very young, I became a big Sherlock Holmes fan (still am!), and my Holmes experience, finding and reading The Adventures at a young age, is more than a little similar to Frederic Dannay’s. From Holmes, I discovered Agatha Christie’s Ten Little Indians and was caught up in the storytelling, leading to Christie’s becoming my favorite mystery author until I discovered (and, reading Douglas Greene’s brilliant biography, found that I sympathized more with) John Dickson Carr, the master of the locked-room mystery. While I explored the mystery and other genres (particularly the historical adventure–perhaps that can explain my sympathy with JDC!), Ellery Queen was kind of thrown to the wayside. I watched (and adored) Levison and Link’s 1975-76 TV series, also called Ellery Queen (starring Jim Hutton and David Wayne–I’m going to have to do a “best-of” list for that show one of these days), and read many of the short stories in a collection called The Best of Ellery Queen (I particularly recommend “The Bearded Lady” and “The Mad-Tea Party”). Sooner or later, I also took Calendar of Crime out from the library and enjoyed that too (more for the characters–Ellery, Insp. Queen, Sgt. Velie, and the always-delightful Nikki Porter–than the plots, though “The President’s Half-Disme,” “The Emperor’s Dice,” “The Black Cat,” and “The Dauphin’s Doll” are very good).
But the EQ novels always left me cold. Granted, they were clever as puzzles, but I thought that the writing was atrocious and that the characterization was about as developed as a jigsaw puzzle. The famous “Challenge to the Reader” sealed the deal: Dannay and Lee, clever though they were (And were they really all that clever? I asked myself, because they seemed less adept–methought–in the novel form), are just not enjoyable to read and have interest in nothing but sheer puzzle-plot.
I am happy to admit (*the blogger wrote in an attempt to be dramatic*) that I was wrong.
We are inevitably biased in what book we choose as our “favorite” in a series–more biased than usual, I mean. Often, it’s not just a simple “I like” choice: we are influenced by how we read the book, when we read the book, in what circumstances, etc. Like television and films watched at home (less so with movie theaters and live theaters, where some circumstances are controlled), our opinion of the critical object is based on circumstances both inside and outside of us. In this case, I bought Ten Days’ Wonder (1948) for $1 at a used bookstore in New Hampshire, with the cover falling off (book-jacket long gone) and someone (presumably a little child) having scribbled all over (some of) the pages with a red crayon. I read it quickly–it’s not a long book–and was caught up in every word. Let me tell you, it’s quite a ride and and extraordinary book. The book is an excellent detective-story, yes, with twists and turns around every corner and a brilliant plot, but…
(I will try to avoid spoilers as much as possible–difficult to do–but, if you want to go into this book without any preconceptions [which I would highly suggest], I would advise you to skip the following paragraph. I will point out when you can start reading again.) Nevins’s book illuminated the concept for me, though I had suspected it before: the book is in many ways a look into Nietzsche’s “death of God.” “God” is revealed at the end, in all His glory, but is no longer the kind and benevolent father but (in Nevins’s words) a “moral monster” who manipulates those around him, an insidious puppet-master playing with the lives of mortals. Even for a Christian like me, who doesn’t agree with the philosophy, this is a fascinating philosophical text–and, with Ellery’s incorrect solution and then guilt at the end (as a theocide, as Nevins points out in his critique of Cat of Many Tails), Ten Days’ Wonder is even more an anti-detective story than Bentley’s Trent’s Last Case or Borges’s (brilliant) “Death and the Compass” (which was, in fact, almost a parody of Ellery Queen, one of Borges’s favorite writers). It is an extraordinary, fascinating, and endlessly rewarding work, and note that I have said nothing of the poignant human drama that arises organically from how carefully Dannay and Lee have written their characters!
(You can start reading again.)
So I was wrong. And not only because of one (admittedly excellent) book: Cat of Many Tails is very nearly as good, not to mention something early like The Greek Coffin Mystery. I had read Greek Coffin before, criticized the characterization, and put it down as “puzzle-plot and nothing else.” Too, we hear (and I thought), the character of Ellery Queen changes so drastically that mystery critic Julian Symons (in his Great Detectives) thought there were two Ellerys, one actually being the other’s brother “Dan”! Thinking on it now, I must disagree. When Symons told his theory to Frederic Dannay, Dannay told him that he was not taking account of how people change. Not only do people change over time, but they become wiser and more thoughtful. The Ellery of “Period I,” who is a Philo Vance knock-off (as the cousins cheerfully admitted), is a well-read, snobbish, cynical young man, fresh out of college and invested in the theory that he is much, much more brilliant than his hard-working, probably not-college-educated (and very tolerant) father. (That’s why Ellery’s false solutions in Greek Coffin are so delightful.) He’s a bit like the “good” version of the two young guys in Hitchcock’s Rope, believing fully in the nonsensical and (look at this!) Nietzschean theories of professor Jimmy Stewart. Ellery’s progression from Vance-clone to human being, throughout Periods 1 to 4, makes complete sense. Ellery’s humanness–and fallibility–makes him so very likeable, and so very different from most of your “great detectives.” (Holmes is another example.) Not only that, but the Queen cousins are some of the most philosophically interesting of all detective-writers; I wonder how much they were influenced (like Borges) by Chesterton, something virtually undiscussed in most literature on the subject! (We always examine Chesterton’s impact on Carr and, to a lesser degree, on Christie. Certainly, in terms of subject [e.g., locked-rooms] Chesterton had a greater influence on Carr than Queen. Yet the amalgamation of philosophy and detective-story, something anti-Carrian but Chestertonian, is present to a great degree in Queen; even if those actual philosophies are different, the method of combining philosophy and detection is very similar.) I was reading some Chesterton stories with detectives other than Fr. Brown, and the similarities with Queen (even down to Lee’s prose, which is less poetic but highly influenced by Chesterton’s) are striking. Mike Grost discusses how Carr seems to be influenced by Queen; I wonder if, in fact, they are indebted to Chesterton as a common influence that expressed itself in different ways. I recently read, as I noted at the beginning, EQ’s The Origin of Evil, which I will keep myself from discussing in detail now but which I found fascinating even if less satisfying than Greek Coffin, Ten Days’ Wonder, or Cat of Nine Tails as a detective story.
There’s something, too, so poignant (I keep using the word, but no other would be appropriate) with Queen, especially with Wrightsville, which is as brilliant a portrait of a small town as can be and, in some ways, comparable to Booth Tarkington’s (and Orson Welles’s) portrait of a family in The Magnificent Ambersons. A feeling of what is lost, blown away like autumn leaves by the winds of time and relentless change, all in the name of the dread god “Progress.”
All in all, I think Ellery Queen deserves his place in the Holy Trinity of detective-story writers, with Carr and Christie; he is a master of the form, and I envy anyone discovering the books (especially Ten Days’ Wonder, though I suggest starting with the short stories, moving onto Greek Coffin and the nationality titles, and so on) for the first time.
As always, I welcome all comments and feedback.