I’m following up my prize-winning post on Agatha Christie books one should read before they are spoiled with something along the same lines for several reasons. First, it’s Sunday and I’m fighting a cold, so while I have nothing better to do but suck down zinc lozenges and write, I’m not feeling particularly creative. Secondly, my mystery reading during those formative years consisted mainly of a triumvirate of classic writers: Christie, Carr . . . and Ellery Queen. Which brings me to Reason Number Three: I’m performing this service for two friends of mine. You know JJ of The Invisible Event and Ben from The Green Capsule, don’t you? Bloggers fair, both of them! Well, independently of each other, both men made a vow to track down, read and cover the Queen’s entire oeuvre. Alas, things are not progressing as well as could be hoped: Ben has found himself bogged down in the first two investigations, and from the gagging sounds emanating from his corner of London, JJ seems to be having an even worse time after the first three novels.
This may have something to do with Queen’s style, which, perhaps more than any other mystery writer, changed frequently and dramatically throughout his career. This has to do with the author himself – or themselves, as most of you probably know. Queen was the nom de plume for a pair of cousins, Frederick Dannay and Manfred B. Lee. They began writing mysteries simply to win a contest, and to find their source of inspiration one need look no further than the (at the time) popular works of S.S. Van Dine.
Van Dine wrote a dozen mysteries that all shared a number of features: the titles were comprised of a word or name (Greene, Scarab, Dragon, Casino) followed by “Murder Case;” the detective was a brilliant but supercilious ass named Philo Vance, and the stories were told strictly from the point of view of the investigators, with little to no frivolous extras like characterization or drama. Instead, Van Dine loaded his novels with scholarly trivia, often placed in lengthy footnotes, that were meant to give the genre that he disdained a lift but tended toward the pretentious and slowed things down considerably. The novels were intellectual exercises, pure and simple. And as their publication continued, they got more and more sterile and boring until Van Dine basically gave up and died at fifty of drink.
Scholars tend to divide Queen’s output into distinct periods, and in Period One we find, at least on the surface, that Queen was attempting to become heir apparent to Van Dine. His first period also includes a dozen mysteries, nine of them featuring a brilliant but supercilious ass named Ellery Queen. The titles of the Queen adventures feature a nationality (French, Egyptian, Chinese, Spanish), an object (Hat, Shoe, Cross) and the word “Mystery.” And the authors began their series by focusing strictly on the investigation, which nowadays can translate into a very dry reading experience.
I have some thoughts on this, however. I think that, for a while at least, the Queens found themselves trapped in the creation they had wrought. Once they realized that they wanted to write for real rather than as a lark, things started to change, most importantly the personality of their hero sleuth. A real attempt was made to humanize the fictional Ellery, first by making him fail miserably and then by creating stories that tapped into his humanity as well as his intellect.
The other thing that I believe loosened the boys up as writers was their simultaneous creation, under the nom de plume of Barnaby Ross, of a very different kind of sleuth. Meet Drury Lane, a Shakespearian actor, who decides to quit the stage after he goes deaf in order to help the police with their inquiries. In a series of four novels published between 1932 and 1933, we see Queen-as-Ross experiment a lot with atmosphere and style, and this sense of experimentation starts to carry over to the First Period Queens around Book Five, The Egyptian Cross Mystery.
In 1936, facing heavy pressure to merge their puzzle-based approach with the heavy popularity of women’s slick magazines, the Queens instituted a new style. Many people decry Period Two, and there are some credible reasons for it that I won’t go into here. (Read Francis Nevins’ wonderful study of the Queens, Ellery Queen: The Art of Detection, if you can.) But the atmosphere is definitely looser, more emotion-based, and Ellery is a far sight more attractive a figure.
In 1942, the Queens entered their Period Three phase, which completes a transformation from purely puzzle-based tales to novels that cover deeper mysteries than those found in simple detective stories. Again, I won’t go into all of this right here. Suffice it to say, some fans think Period Three covers the Queens’ masterpieces while others find themselves somewhat annoyed by what they perceive as lackadaisical puzzle-plotting. I’ll leave it to Ben and JJ to discover their own preferences for themselves. Still, coming up with five (and only five, remember) titles to be read before they are spoiled is a bit challenging here because, given this substantial variance amongst the Periods, the reasons not to have a novel spoiled differ from year to year.
In addition, like Christie and Carr, Queen was fond of certain gambits that he liked to use over and over, and he has a few titles that contain shocking surprise endings. I wanted to try and cover some of these (being careful, as before, to relegating any analysis of these aspects to the third part of each entry – and being as vague as possible even there.)
Two things happened that I want to mention in passing. First, I ended up including no novels from Period Two. If I could have a sixth place, I would definitely add The Door Between (1937) because I think it does something at the end that is quite unique for Queen (and isn’t found in a lot of mysteries.) Yet I didn’t find it a gripping enough read to include it here, especially considering the problems JJ and Ben have been coming up against.
The other thing I want to mention is that Queen was the – er, King of the Dying Message, and quite a few of his novels center around this type of clue. Now, I happen to like dying messages very much, but I know how much they annoy people as clues: you have to set up a reason why a victim wouldn’t simply look someone in the eye and say, “X killed me!” And then you have to set up a reason why the victim would couch his message in terms that tend to obfuscate rather than reveal, else where would the mystery be? This creates such an artificial situation that even fans of this most artificial genre can find the things cloying. Taking this into account, I did not include any of the novels that depend upon the dying message to take the mystery home. This includes novels I really like (The Siamese Twin Mystery, Face to Face).
Okay, here we go. Once again, I’m listing the books chronologically because that’s the easiest way. Please remember that if you choose to read part three, you face the possibility of coming up against vague spoilers.
- The Greek Coffin Mystery (1932)
What it’s about: The fourth in the international series from Period One concerns the death of a Greek art scholar and the disappearance of his will. Ellery is consulted, and he makes quick work of the problem: the only place that seemingly hasn’t been searched is the dead man’s coffin. But when the body is exhumed, instead of a will, the police find . . . two bodies, one of them definitely murdered! It’s the first in the series to focus its action on a domestic setting rather than a business (one of the distinct pluses of the first three novels). This places the book more firmly in Van Dine territory, so it’s a relief that Greek Coffin is better by a mile than its predecessors.
Why you should read it: The characters are still pasteboard, but it feels like one of the purposes of this novel is to begin transforming Ellery into a better person or, at least, a less insufferable one. He starts out his usual smug self, exercising a series of remarkable deductions over a tea service and exposing a killer. Except – he’s wrong! Thus begins a series of misadventures that cut Ellery to the core, causing him to vow for the rest of his career to keep his ideas to himself until he is sure. Yet, like Anthony Berkeley’s The Poisoned Chocolates Case, it is fascinating to observe a sleuth at work, grinding out in logical fashion one false solution after another.
Why you should read it fast: The final, correct, solution is fabulous. I read this one soon after reading Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express. Both endings made me jump from my chair and cry out. The problem is, I thought this was what all mysteries should do. You want to get to this one before the ending is ruined for you.
- The Tragedy of Y (1932)
What it’s about: The second mystery featuring Drury Lane reminds us of Van Dine only in its setting: a posh mansion in the fashionable part of New York. Queen provides us with a gallery of grotesques in one of the most dysfunctional families ever created. Seriously, these people are twisted and unpleasant! Maybe that’s the reason the patriarch, scientist York Hatter, has committed suicide at the start. After a number of attempts to kill other family members result in a second horrible death, the D.A. calls in his friend Drury Lane to trap a killer.
Why you should read it: As I stated above, the Queens started loosening up under the guise of Barnaby Ross. The first in the series, The Tragedy of X, still focuses too heavily on the investigative aspects of the case, although it does contain Queen’s first example of the dying message, complete with a Dr. Fell-like lecture on why dying people like to leave them! The Tragedy of Y contains much more atmosphere, reminiscent of early Carr, and while the characters truly are grotesques rather than people, they are an interesting lot.
Why you should read it fast: First, Queen was very fond of a certain gambit that he used over and over again. As his career progressed, this gambit took on powerful spiritual overtones. Here it is in its simplest – and to my mind – most effective and chilling form. In addition, there is an aspect to this novel that only a few mystery authors have attempted. Honestly, I don’t think this is the best example, but it does provide a shock, and I think you should read this before that shock is exposed.
- There Was an Old Woman (1943)
What it’s about: Another grotesque family here, almost the comical equivalent of the Hatters in the last novel. The Potts family made its fortune in shoes; hence, the giant shoe in the front yard, warning visitors of the nasty old matriarch living in the house who henpecks her husband and runs her six children’s lives as ruthlessly as she runs her business. Three kids are “normal,” while the other three are eccentric as hell. Guess which ones Mother Potts favors? Ellery is called in to prevent a silly argument from ending in tragedy and ends up watching the family get decimated, one by one, before his eyes. Can he stop the madness?
Why you should read it: The Third Period, which began in 1942, is marked by a strong sense of naturalism that was inspired in part by Thornton Wilder’s 1938 play Our Town. You see this in the series of Queen adventures set in the New England village of Wrightsville, and you see it in the hard-hitting urban tales that follow. This novel is having nothing to do with that! Rather, it’s the Queen’s closest homage to screwball comedy, something you might expect from fellow author Kelley Roos. It’s fun to see Ellery as exasperated by the zaniness the proceedings as he is troubled by their fatal consequences. You may or may not see the trick coming, but it’s a jolly ride along the way.
Why you should read it fast: Not only does this one employs a common Queen trope in high style, but (SPOILER ALERT) the solution unfolds in a scene that the author evidently enjoyed creating because it shows up again and again with little variation. This is the first and best use of that scene. (END SPOILER)
- The Murderer Is a Fox (1945)
What it’s about: Wrightsville is a New England town that Ellery discovered when he needed a place to get away and write. But in mysteries, things are never so simple. Wrightsville citizen Davy Fox is haunted by the fear that he will murder the wife he loves. Is this a PTSD-inspired delusion brought about by his recent experiences in the war? Or does Davy have reason to fear he has inherited a streak of madness – his father currently resides in prison after having been convicted of the murder of his beloved wife, Davy’s mother. The village turns to Ellery, who has helped them before, to solve this mystery from the past before it ruins more lives.
Why you should read it: I’m on the side of those who deeply admire Queen’s novelistic ambition in Period Three, even when it doesn’t always work. It certainly works here. The first Wrightsville novel, Calamity Town (1942) is a lovely novel with murder in it; some fans of pure mystery complain that an author as renowned for his adherence to puzzle plots should play so fast and loose with his clueing. It’s all a matter of taste. Fox, one of the very few “murder in retrospect” stories in the Queen canon, is a stronger puzzle and an equally powerful novel about post-War village life and its effect on the younger generation. The introduction of Wrightsville also brought about a fascinating exploration by the author into the psychic toll that being an amateur sleuth takes on a person. This issue would haunt Ellery for the rest of his career.
Why you should read it fast: For everything I just described about it and for the ending. When it comes, its delivery may be traditional in structure, but it throws a dramatic punch that only the most emotionally distant of readers will be unable to feel.
- Cat of Many Tails (1949)
What it’s about: Fresh off his third Wrightsville mystery, Ten Days Wonder (1948), Ellery is so devastated by the result that he retreats back to Manhattan, determined to never again meddle in affairs of crime. But in the midst of a terrible heat wave, a mysterious strangler is terrorizing the city. The crimes of the Cat touch off a wave of panic, even racial unrest as the victims cross the color line, until Inspector Queen begs his son to come out of retirement and unmask the killer. But first Ellery has to figure out the pattern to the crimes.
Why you should read it: No, it’s not the first example of a mystery featuring a serial killer, but it feels like the first modern one. Queen’s rendition of the city as both a literal and a figurative powderkeg is riveting. We get as incisive a portrait of a city on the verge of social chaos as we get, in a different way, from Christie’s post-war villages. The cast is huge, as befitting a Manhattan crime wave, and some characters work better than others; it’s the workings of the mob that the author conveys with real passion. Plus, this novel holds an important place in the biography of its hero. Wrightsville has put Ellery through the emotional meat grinder, and it begins to look like the case of the Cat will either lead to Queen’s redemption or his destruction. Another example of a book that is both a powerful mystery and a fine novel!
Why you should read it fast: Because it’s really really good! Oh, and there is a movie of it that was made for TV. In a simplified manner, it follows the plot of the novel, taking care to extricate everything that makes the book special. The Cat becomes the Hydra (only for the reason that a snake seems to make a better graphic on TV). The time period is moved up to the 70’s, and Peter Lawford, as Ellery, is just wrong. He gets romantically involved with a suspect, and it hurts the viewer more than it hurts him. The rest of the cast is fine, however, and they get the ending right. It’s on YouTube, and don’t you go near it until after you have read the infinitely superior novel.
Once again, I’d love to hear from other Queen fans about the titles they think belong here. I suspect that Queen might generate more arguments than Christie did. And remember: JJ and Ben are just starting their Sojourn with the Queens, and they’re both in a fragile state. So be careful with your spoilers.