When you Google “the Queen of Crime,” guess who comes up? That’s right – Agatha Christie! But we members of the Tuesday Club Bloggers have put Christie aside for the moment and are plunging forward with a year’s worth of other authors to ponder and peruse, a list compiled by my learned colleague, Noah Stewart, right here: http://noah-stewart.com/2015/10/09/the-tuesday-night-bloggers-where-do-we-go-from-here/ . Noah will be in charge of posting links this month, so check out his blog, as well as the amazing writings of Moira, Helen, Bev, Kate, Jeffrey and our founder, Curtis Evans!
My participation in this group will become ever so sketchy as we progress through the list! I have a huge learning curve to fill before I can discuss Phoebe Atwood Taylor or Arthur Upfield, for instance. (Like reading one of their books!) However, for the next three weeks, our focus will be on Ellery Queen, and here I’m on safer ground. I began reading Queen around the age of twelve, soon after I started Christie, and, as with Dame Agatha and And Then There Were None, my first Queenian experience was a doozy: The Greek Coffin Mystery! Since it is so hard for me to let Agatha Christie go, I thought I would provide a sort of comparison between these two authors, at least in terms of my own experience and appreciation of them both. This week, let’s look at how both authors approached their series detectives.
Agatha Christie varied her use of her detectives, but two reign supreme: Hercule Poirot, who is featured in thirty-three novels and dozens of short stories, and Miss Marple (12 novels and many short stories). Ellery Queen wrote primarily about a detective named Ellery Queen. There are two novels where Ellery’s father, Inspector Richard Queen, is the protagonist (Inspector Queen’s Own Case and The House of Brass) and four Drury Lane novels, published under the pseudonym of Barnaby Ross. (I hope at least one of my fellow Nighters will be writing about Drury Lane!) But thirty-one novels and a great many shorts center on the adventures of Ellery Queen, so Ellery is clearly the authors’ hero of choice.
When you compare Queen to Poirot and/or Marple, an interesting differentiation arises. Throughout her writing career, Christie provides little to no variance to the personalities and personal lives of her sleuths. I did not read Christie’s books in chronological order, and, as it turns out, that makes little difference to one’s experience of the books. Arguably her most fertile period was between 1934, when Murder on the Orient Express was published, to 1950 and the publication of her 50th novel, A Murder Is Announced. During that period, neither detective really changes a jot. Miss Marple might be said to change a bit from A Murder Is Announced to Nemesis: she becomes less fluffy, more aware of the changes in the world around her, and more actively desirous of righting wrongs to the point that, in two of her final novels, she actually assumes the mantle of “Nemesis.” She travels more as well, from a visit to an old friend at Stonybrooks School to a Caribbean holiday to a tour of English gardens. Most of her new acquaintances foolishly dismiss her as a harmless old lady, but we know better. Poirot changes even less. He never ages until his final book, Curtain. The only real difference is that he tends to appear later and later within the pages of his late-career cases, but it was widely known that Christie had grown tired of the Belgian, so this was her compromise to his fans.
Ellery Queen’s early books were republished in paperbacks (covered with sexy girls, remember?) in the late 1960’s, which sort of forced me to read him pretty much in chronological order. What emerges is that Queen’s work embodies three distinct “periods” where the style of writing and the personality of the detective vary significantly. The First Period (1929 – 1935) comprises the nine “international” mysteries: Roman Hat, Egyptian Cross, Dutch Shoe, and so on. They are pure Golden Age mysteries: complex plots, focusing on puzzle over character, with twisty surprise endings. At the center of these investigations, the figure of Ellery Queen stands superciliously, adjusting his pince-nez and looking down his nose at the police and all others who stand in his way. (In fact, he resembles another Golden Age sleuth, S.S. Van Dine’s Philo Vance, in that both are brilliant but insufferable.) These are fair play puzzles to the nth degree, filled with maps and clues and a formal “Challenge to the Reader” to try and solve the case before all was revealed. In most cases, those solutions dazzle! The climax of The Greek Coffin Mystery literally made me jump out of my chair with one of the most astounding surprises I would ever read. (Queen performed the same stunt in his Drury Lane novel of 1932, The Tragedy of Y.) Sometimes, the author nearly trips over his own cleverness, as in the Chinese Orange or Spanish Cape mysteries. But by then, I think that cousins Frederick Dannay and Manny Lee, who wrote the books, were beginning to feel that the emphasis on puzzle constricted their creativity.
Bring on The Second Period, (1936 – 1939), the shortest and, by certain standards, the weakest point in Queen’s career. Queen’s personality is a looser, more romantic figure. In fact, two women gravitate toward the detective: a Girl Friday in his short stories named Nikki Porter, and a gossip columnist named Paula Paris with whom he dallies in two novels, The Devil to Pay and The Four of Hearts, set in Hollywood where Ellery goes to try his hand at screenwriting. These middle-era books have their charms – I especially like the twisted conceit underlying the solution of The Door Between – but these books pale slightly in comparison with the First Period puzzles or the masterpieces yet to come, largely because they seem padded by shenanigans more inclined to appeal to readers of The Ladies Home Journal than Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine.
THE DRAGON’S TEETH gets a snappier title (above!)
Some fans will always prefer the first period, but it is with Calamity Town (1942) – Ellery’s first trip to the outwardly charming New England village of Wrightsville – that Ellery Queen truly emerges as a gifted writer as much as a fine plotter. The emphasis on fair play and clueing in The Third Period doesn’t go away so much as it takes a back seat to something more multi-layered. Characters become richer, but even more revealing is the way Queen writes about the effect of murder on a community and on his investigator. Nowadays, mysteries are all about the toll the case takes on a tormented policeman or private detective. Ellery Queen was one of the first series characters whose torment was made manifest throughout this third period. In books like The Murderer is a Fox, Ten Days Wonder, and The Origin of Evil, we see Ellery’s growing sense of his own inadequacy in dealing with crime and criminals. We see him do things that few Golden Age detectives – certainly not the Ellerys of Periods One and Two – would do: feel a sense of responsibility when a killer remains uncaught and people die. The Third Period novels are linked and should be read in order as they delve into Ellery’s growing existential crisis regarding his abilities as a crime-solver and expiator of evil. In some of these cases, Ellery gets played, and played badly, by the killer, and his sense of guilt nearly drives him to forsake further investigations.
The Wrightsville novels put Ellery through the emotional wringer, but nowhere do we see the detective in crisis better than in Cat of Many Tails, one of Queen’s masterpieces and one of the best serial killer novels around. The Ellery Queen at the start of this novel has no desire to meddle anymore in police matters, due to the terrible events of his previous case. But people keep dying during a New York City heat wave, and when the killer crosses the color barrier and violence threatens to break out throughout the city, Ellery reluctantly joins his father’s investigative team. Immediately, he sees patterns that everyone else missed, and he is able to lead the police right to the killer’s door. Queen fans hope that Cat of Many Tails would show the rebirth of Ellery’s confidence. But the book lays out a much darker road for Queen to follow, and it ends with a brilliant double twist and a very dark night of the soul for the detective.
Compare this later book with the earlier classic, The Greek Coffin Mystery. In what is arguably the best of the international mysteries, Ellery proposes four separate solutions throughout the book. I’m not talking about guesses. I’m talking about “end of the novel” full-fledged solutions that would be wonderful in any other mystery. Three times, however, Ellery is proven wrong. His reaction is basically one of annoyance, like a scientist witnessing an unwanted reaction in an experiment. With each subsequent solution, he maintains the same attitude of superiority that he did before. In the third period, however, the false solution has deeper effects, both physical (sometimes more deaths follow) and emotional, especially on Ellery the sleuth. At the end of Cat of Many Tails, Ellery journeys to Europe, to the office of a famed psychologist. His purpose is two-fold: to figure out the truth behind an alibi and to seek guidance at a terrible moment of personal crisis. The solution of the novel is almost overshadowed by the passionate exchange between the doctor and the detective. Here, the author displays a willingness to explore the torments of the soul, something Agatha Christie, for all her magnificence, never did.
Next week, I’ll compare some of the techniques of both authors. (Guess I’m finding a way to keep Dame Agatha around!)