Here we go with some more Ellery Queen–nothing wrong with that, I suppose.
Today’s book, Ellery Queen’s The King is Dead (1952), has gotten a largely negative reception from mystery fans, which is (a) too bad, for it’s a fine book, and (b) not entirely unsurprising, since it’s not really a mystery. Oh, it has clues and alibis and all that, as well as a fine locked-room puzzle, but this is the crime-story-as-allegory, something we detective-story buffs have been warned against, lest the detective story fall into the psychological musings of “crime writers” who do not care a whit for plot. I sympathize with fellow fanciers of the noble literary art of detection (“the grandest game in the world,” as Carr puts it), but such a view may blind us to the best parts of the non-mystery and send us falling down the rabbit hole of obsession with one genre at the expense of the great tapestry of what books in general have to offer. I adore detective stories, but I have no more desire to go step-by-step through the monotony of detective work, à la Crofts at his weakest moments, even to find a surprising solution any more than I wish to read about nothing but than the psychological problems of the main detective. Many authors do not deserve to be considered “humdrums,” as mystery critic Curt Evans notes beautifully in his Masters of the “Humdrum” Mystery (2012), but I do not wish to read the true humdrum any more than I do the modern “cozy” or “psychological crime drama.” I own an edition of Carr’s first Dr. Fell novel, Hag’s Nook (1933), in which mystery critic Anthony Boucher writes that Carr’s achievement was making the detective story “fun”–exploring what can be done with it. Exactly. Many modern writers and critics (The Washington Post‘s Michael Dirda being a conspicuous exception) err in throwing plot out the window entirely, but many modern mystery buffs also err in throwing traditional literary virtues out the same window. Characterization is a very good thing, mystery fans. Plot is a very good thing, modern critics. The sooner we lose the radicalism taken up by both sides, the sooner we can learn how good a book, mystery or otherwise, can be.
Which brings us to The King is Dead.
It’s really an extraordinary book, and I keep using that adjective with each of the Queens I read. It may not possess the power and characterization of Ten Days’ Wonder (1948), perhaps the Queen cousins’ masterpiece (and their finest amalgamation of the virtues of the mystery and of the novel), or the brilliant plot of The Greek Coffin Mystery (1932), but it is a fascinating look into power and responsibility in a changing world. The book recalls Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane (1941), right down to naming the focus character “Kane,” and prefigures Welles’s Mr. Arkadin (1955). The similarities to Welles are almost eerily significant and indeed prescient, being that Welles played the focus character in Claude Chabrol’s adaptation of Ten Days’ Wonder (1971). One wonders exactly who inspired whom.
As for the plot… Kane “King” Bendigo is a billionaire who influences the affairs of nations. He has been receiving death threats, about which his brother and “prime minister,” Abel, is very worried. Abel Bendigo, a letter from the president himself in hand, takes (read: “kidnaps”) Ellery and Insp. Queen to Bendigo’s private, secluded island to investigate…
And I shall tell no more. If you have read it, you know the plot. If you have not, stop reading this post, for I shall begin with spoilers. If you have a chance, do read it and then post a comment below. It will be interesting to know all opinions on this interesting and unusual book.
I will probably write another post, with spoilers, analyzing the book in greater detail. As always, all comments and opinions are welcome below.