All this month, the Tuesday Night Bloggers are talking about “firsts,” famous and otherwise. After writing about the first detectives in literature and the first Christie, it suddenly occurred to me that, if you’re going to take a purely historical approach to a theme, you had better know a damn sight more about mystery history than your humble servant does.
Fortunately, comrades like Kate at Cross Examining Crime and JJ at The Invisible Event have taken a more personal approach. Last week, Kate discussed the first novels she read of some very famous GAD authors – – and JJ talked about the first Christie he ever read –
Nobody mentioned Ellery Queen, so that’s where I’m heading this week. But first, Kate and JJ, along with all those who commented to them, have got me thinking about first experiences and how they can really propel you forward or trip you up. Look at how JJ glowed when discussing The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. What a way to break in to Christie’s canon! Whereas Kate described a more mixed experience, where the choice of where to begin often led to a strong, lasting reaction to an author.
How many times have I heard this? The person who chose Postern of Fate as his first Christie ended up swearing off, not just the author, but the entire genre for a long time. Kate came away from In Spite of Thunder with such a negative opinion of John Dickson Carr that she swore off reading him. I read seven or eight Paul Halter mysteries before I – oh wait, that’s my own little problem. Never mind.
This happens so much to people, and not just in the mystery genre, that I feel we should form support groups to urge readers past their initial fiascos with an author that all sense tells us is a good one. That doesn’t mean that we aren’t all subject to personal tastes. You don’t have to like Christie or Carr to have a marvelous lifelong experience with GAD mysteries. I believe that I will be very fine, thank you, with no more Sayers or Allingham in my life and without a whiff of Freeman Wills Crofts. My TBR stack will remain high!
I also have come to realize that, while we all have our trials and tribulations that we must face in our lives, when it comes to mystery reading, I’ve been pretty darn lucky. My first Christie was And Then There Were None. I know – why not start with the best, but since I was twelve years old, it was a matter of sheer luck, not judgment. The book is so good that even knowing the identity of the murderer (my babysitter spilled it two years earlier) did not deter me from utter enjoyment and from seeking out another Christie to sample. What title was that, did you ask? Murder on the Orient Express! When I got to the solution of that fine novel, I picked my jaw up off the floor and asked myself, is this what happens every time you read a mystery? That’s when I decided to try another author – Ellery Queen. And the first Queen I read was . . . The Greek Coffin Mystery. And my jaw dropped, fell to the floor, and rolled down the stairs and into the street . . .
Now we “old duffers” of all ages (because focusing your life on old books or old movies or old music tends to make you, at the least, an honorary duffer) know that not every mystery ends with a bang. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing! A good mystery leaves you satisfied at the end, weaves a plot tightly together, and reverses expectations just enough that you sigh with satisfaction at the denouement. It isn’t necessary that the killer be the baby, or the family dog, or the hero’s grandmother. Still, I believe that many readers agree with me that it’s more fun not to figure out the correct solution. Wasn’t it Willy Wonka who said, “True delight awaits the royally gobsmacked!” So, while a mystery doesn’t have to end like Crooked House or Roger Ackroyd does, the person who starts their reading career with a classic like that is likely to continue surfing for the same thrill.
And so it was with me and Ellery Queen. I mean, I could have picked The Spanish Cape Mystery. Or The Dragon’s Teeth. Or Blow Hot, Blow Cold, which was packaged the same way as any other book and said it was written by Ellery Queen but most certainly was not written by Ellery Queen. Nope. By random choice, this young person selected The Greek Coffin Mystery. TGCM is part of the first wave of Queen novels, the so-called “international set” because each title begins with a nationality. These nine novels were written between 1929 and 1935, and they constitute the first incarnation of the detective. I didn’t know this at the time, but this version of Ellery corresponds a great deal to an earlier famous detective, S.S. Van Dine’s Philo Vance, all of whose adventures have similarly constructed titles (The Bishop Murder Case, The Greene Murder Case, The Dragon Murder Case, and so on.)
Philo Vance is a very annoying character. (Ogden Nash wrote: “Philo Vance needs a kick in the pance”) due to his supercilious nature and long list of physical and mental affectations. The first version of Ellery was modeled after this prat. He wore pence-nez, drawled a lot and acted like he was smarter than everyone, including his father, the Chief Inspector of the N.Y.P.D. Homicide division. He was pretty insufferable, which I experienced later on when I read The Roman Hat Mystery, The French Powder Mystery and The Dutch Shoe Mystery (the first three novels).
I could barely get through Roman Hat, but Ellery didn’t annoy me in Greek Coffin. And the reason for this was that, although the novel purports to tell of an adventure that happened before the first three published adventures, it is also the tale of Ellery’s comeuppance. One wonders if this was the moment when the authors, Frederick Dannay and Manfred B. Lee, began to feel disillusioned with the model for their character. Lee would go on to call Philo Vance “the biggest prig that ever came down the pike.” Whatever the case, it must have been with great pleasure that the pair of cousins who made up the “Ellery Queen” brand decided to take their hero down a few pegs and, in the process, create one of their greatest classics.
Most of Greek Coffin takes place in and around the brownstone mansion of Georg Khalkis, a Greek art dealer, who has recently died and whose will is missing. The police are confounded by this turn of events, and all eyes turn to Ellery, who slinks around obnoxiously and finally comes up with the idea of searching Khalkis’ coffin! But when the box is opened, imagine everyone’s surprise to find no will but two bodies: Khalkis and a murdered ex-convict!
Ellery is on top of the matter and makes brilliant deductions, many of them revolving around a coffee service, all the while rolling his eyes at the thick-headedness of his father and the rest of the police. It culminates in one of those gatherings of all the great minds, where Ellery deduces step-by-step how he arrived at his solution and then reveals the truth!
Except it’s not the truth! Ellery is wrong! He stutters a bit, realizes where he was led astray, dusts himself off, and begins again. This leads to more and better deductions and a whole new solution. Ellery takes us through his thought process again, and a whole new murderer is unmasked – again.
Oops, – wrong again!
You see where this is heading? Only Anthony Berkeley’s The Poisoned Chocolates Case (1929) may contain more solutions. There, a group of amateur sleuths are grappling with a fairly simple set of facts and the author is spoofing how mysteries can pretty much spin such data in all manner of directions. Queen was not perturbed by such pastiche-ery; he’s playing for real here. His deductions are complex and interesting, and they fit in beautifully with each new solution. But as each set of ideas falls apart, Queen begins to realize two things: first, he is not infallible, and second, he is being played by a master criminal. Those of us along for the ride feel Queen’s growing frustration. Some of us might welcome it as a slap in the know-it-all’s face, while others may say, “Get on with it, man! Who exactly is the killer?” And that’s when the authors deliver their coup de grace, an ending so audacious, yet it has more than earned its audacity! And in a modest living room in San Francisco, California, USA, a newly bespectacled teenage boy dropped his jaw to the floor yet again!
Queen’s canon did not elicit this surprise effect with the same frequency as Christie and, later, John Dickson Carr. I was dazzled by The Siamese Twin Mystery for different reasons, and I was flummoxed by There Was an Old Woman and Face to Face, although I think in both cases this had something to do with my relative youth when I read them. The pleasures for me in later Queen novels lay in their psychological complexity and audacity of ideas rather than identities. In books like Ten Days Wonder and Cat of Many Tails, Queen was concerned with patterns and with the combination of method and madness that accompanies any person who chooses to end another’s life. These were still traditional mysteries, but they were after something bigger than just pinpointing whodunit.
I re-read The Greek Coffin Mystery a couple of years ago. I have to admit I found the prose much harder to penetrate. The pace of the early Queens feels slow, the characters cardboard. Ah, tastes change. But in terms of a mystery that was all about sussing out the who and the what, that ending still packed quite a punch. It was my first Queen, and it was marvelous!