As I write this, it’s the beginning of my second week of summer vacation. For laymen, (read: non-educators) it’s the gravy in the crazy tureen of my professional life. Residing as I do in the middle of Silicon Valley, it’s not unusual when I meet a person and they ask me what I do for a living (the California question; New Yorkers ask you what you pay for your apartment) and I tell them I’m a teacher that their eyes flick up and down me in vague dismissal.
“How fine of you,” they murmur. “I don’t think I could do what you do,” they demur, before moving on to find another grown-up person to engage in techno-babble with and to compare the resident chefs at Google and Facebook. For really, a man who works with children and gets ten weeks off work in the summer (and two in the winter and one in the spring) and doesn’t have to commute to the job in a double-decker bus isn’t really employed.
I don’t dismiss these people because, yes, I have a better vacation plan than they do. They have their goals and dreams, perhaps to start their own company or to develop something that will both benefit humankind and make them a lot of money. Even the beginners more money than most of my colleagues ever will and can afford comparable housing to what I live in at less than half the age at which I purchased it.
The modern norm is that tech workers will shift employers or positions multiple times during their career. The irony is that a handful of them will retire young and decide to dedicate themselves to charity work . . . like becoming a teacher. From what I have seen so far, a fair percentage of those folks will run screaming from their first teaching assignment! This is actually work, they’ll realize.
This is me surfing last week – for the very first time!
The next image you’ll receive is me getting off my high horse. I’m reveling in the second week of summer vacation. I’m sitting at my laptop in my dining room, contemplating the lush green of the foliage and the pleasantly rippling waters of the lagoon that makes up my view. I took my first nap in a year today. I have time to read and play bridge.
Life is good.
I thought it might be fun to reflect on some of the mystery fiction I have read that takes place in the summer. Detectives occasionally do go on vacation although, to our relief and delight, it invariably becomes a busman’s holiday. When Hercule Poirot gazes out at the sunbathers in Evil Under the Sun, he remarks, “Regard them there, lying out in rows. What are they? They are not men and women. There is nothing personal about them. They are just – bodies!” Forty pages from now, his time will be taken up investigating the death of one of those sun worshippers, and we will rejoice in having taken this holiday with him
I have looked at Poirot on vacation before. Inspector Cockrill, too.. Later this month, we’ll go on a jaunt with Miss Marple. But now it’s time to check out how they spend their summers in urban America, especially those who can’t afford to take a vacation.
“Back of my neck getting dirty and gritty
Been down, isn’t it a pity
Doesn’t seem to be a shadow in the city . . .”
I have grown preoccupied with the idea that while the 1930’s are when the puzzle was the sine qua non of a classic murder mystery, the 1940’s were the time when my favorites of the classicists wrote their most mature work, and when new voices (Christianna Brand, Helen McCloy) ushered in the Silver Age, where puzzles co-existed with a new emphasis on human psychology and thematic ideas. The prose writers used changed, too, influenced by the gathering dark of world events, the changing trends of the literati, the rising influence of existentialist thought, and the competition for readers with radio, cinema, and television.
It’s fascinating how many of my fellow GAD fans who prefer their mysteries neat– focused with laser-like clarity on the puzzle and free of the effluvia of novelistic devices that infiltrated mystery fiction as the Second World War reached fruition – how these fellow readers get so pissed off at Ellery Queen. As a pure puzzle maker, he delivers the goods in Period One, but this is accompanied by a total absence of characterization or theme, as well as prose that strikes modern readers as impenetrable.
We must remember two things here: 1) this is exactly what people wanted at the time (hence, Queen’s popularity when he was published), and 2) nobody changed with the times as purposefully as Queen did. As much as I want my friends to like Queen as much as I have since I first picked up The Greek Coffin Mystery at the age of thirteen, I sympathize with their struggles. Yet I fear that when they get to my favorite Period Three – ifthey choose to get to Period Three – they will decry the loosening of focus on pure puzzle and snicker at the attempt Dannay and Lee made to grapple with the brightest and darkest impulses of human beings.
Compared with Christie (17 novels and three plays) and Carr (18 novels and dozens of radio scripts), Ellery Queen only published five novels during the 1940’s. There are many reasons for this. They were occupied writing for radio. They were raising families. Dannay was busy throughout the decade with Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine. They were raising families and dealing with the war, the volatility of their professional relationship, and their own neuroses.
Of these novels, it’s possible that one – There Was an Old Woman – was partially written or at least developed in the late 1930’s, then abandoned for a while and seriously reworked when its premise coincided with Christie’s And Then There Were None. Three of the others form the main Wrightsville Trilogy, arguably constituting – depending on your taste in Queens – most of the team’s finest work. And the decade closed out with 1949’s Cat of Many Tails, which, if not the finest, is the most epicnovel Queen ever wrote, not just in scope but in how it advances the continual transformation of its protagonist and contributes mightily to the development of the “tortured detective” model of crime fiction that dominates today’s readers’ market.
“All around, people looking half dead
Walking on the sidewalk, hotter than a match head . . .“
I’ve been making visits to New York City periodically since 1985. I’ve been there more than a dozen times to take in theatre and visit with friends. I sadly admit I took a break of almost ten years after 9/11, not only from visiting the Big Apple but from flying altogether. But I was drawn back by the pulse of a city that truly never sleeps. I venture to guess that if I lived there, New York would either devour me or I would have become a very different person – for good or ill – from the sweet-natured mensch I am today. But I don’t have to worry about that. I’m just a visitor, and I love the city in small doses.
Unfortunately, I have only experienced NYC in the summer, mostly in July, when you truly can bake an egg on the sidewalk, and when you have to pack double the underwear because . . . but I digress! I have seen the city change dynamically over the past thirty-eight years, from a gritty jungle where Broadway theatres shared the street with seedy porn joints and where you could watch a pair of cops navigate the sidewalks of an evening, stepping without comment over dozens of unwashed, unconscious bodies. I once had a homeless man chase me when, having asked me for change, I replied sweetly, “I’m sorry, not today.” It works in California, but this guy chased me down the street, demanding, “Not today? When then? Thursday? Should we make an appointmen
I tend to guess that the city of 1949, as depicted in Cat of Many Tails, in many ways resembled the city in the 80’s. It was fiercely democratic, teeming with people of all shapes, sizes, colors and pocketbooks, coexisting if not in harmony then in a shared post-War need to make this enormous Gotham run as smoothly as possible. People inhabited penthouse apartments and tenement slums, hopped into taxis or piled into subways, dined post-theatre at Sardi’s or grabbed a dog from a kiosk on the corner.
And everyone sweated.
“Come-on come-on and dance all night
Despite the heat it’ll be alright . . .“
The Lovin’ Spoonful had the right idea about the city at night. You could dance . . . or you could stroll along the embankment in Brooklyn like I did with my friend Helen, where all the families were out playing at 10:00, children unleashed from the forbidding heat, soaring on swings like maniacs and waving glow-in-the-dark toys in the air.
But the Spoonful hadn’t figured on the Cat.
“The strangling of Archibald Dudley Abernethy was the first scene in a nine-act tragedy whose locale was the city of New York.
“Seven and one-half persons inhabiting an area of over 300 miles lost their multiple heads all at once . . . The panic seizure caused far more fatalities than the Cat; there were numerous injured; and what traumata were suffered by the children of the City, infected by the bogey fears of their elders, will not be comprehended until the psychiatrists can pry into the neuroses of the next generation.”
And so it begins.
Ellery Queen was certainly not the first mystery writer to fashion a mystery around the machinations of a serial killer. Philip MacDonald specialized in it. And, as we shall see, Cat bears certain similarities to Christie’s The A.B.C. Murders (1936). In that classic novel, Hercule Poirot was transformed from an armchair detective into an action hero (I’m being only partly facetious here), and in Cat of Many Tails Queen turns the hunt for a killer into an urban epic
Many classic mysteries offer a cast of characters at the top. In Cat we are given an index at the end containing nearly a hundred names. It’s telling that these names include as characters Kelly’s Bar, Registrar of Records and Mayor of New York City, as well as an international assortment of head doctors. Cat of Many Tails spans two continents in its telling and includes an entire city not only as a major character but as a suspect in the crimes. President Trump – if he could read – would have a field day with the blame Queen assigns the media, newspapers and radio, for exacerbating the tragedy:
“The defense that ‘we give John Public the news as it happens, how it happens, and for as long as it happens,’ as the editor of the New York Extra put it, is plausible but fails to explain why John Public had to be given the news of the Cat’s activities in such necrotic detail . . . The object of this elaborate treatment was, of course, to sell more newspapers– an object which succeeded so admirably that, as one circulation manager privately admitted, ‘We really panicked ‘em.’”
A strangler is loose on the streets of New York City, and as the bodies pile up it begins to appear that the selection of victims is random: they vary in age and wealth, they cross racial lines, and the only variation in their deaths is that the males are strangled with blue silk cord and the females are killed with pink. With virtually no clues to help them, the Homicide Division is at a standstill. Fortunately, the lead detective, Inspector Richard Queen, has an invaluable resource occupying the second bed back home: author, amateur sleuth, and son, Ellery.
Except Ellery won’t play the game anymore. The 1940’s may not have been a prolific time for his crime-solving, but the three cases he took on in a deceptively bucolic New England village have pierced him to his very soul.
“In the Wrightsville Van Horn case Ellery had run into stunning treachery. He had found himself betrayed by his own logic. The old blade had turned suddenly in his hand; he had aimed at the guilty with it and it had run through the innocent. So he had put it away and taken up his typewriter.”
Faced with a mounting list of victims, the constant pressure of both his father and the endless newspaper and radio coverage, and his own ever-working thought processes, Ellery finally agrees to take on a minor consulting position. Given that only Ellery can begin to figure out the Cat’s plan, he will eventually find himself leading the charge against the insidious creature. To that end, he comes up against a mighty long list of people, many of whom come to life in quick sketches and others who will figure prominently. There is one false note – an overly obnoxious news reporter named Jimmy Leggitt, who seems to have burst out of the film His Girl Friday and should have been sent to cover the murder at French’s Department Store in 1930. He stands out as a sore thumb amidst a panoply of trenchant characters.
Cool cat, looking for a kitty
Gonna look in every corner of the city
Till I’m wheezing like a bus stop
Running up the stairs, gonna meet you on the rooftop . .. “
The novel shares another plot point with Christie’s opus: faced with mounting pressure to get something done, the detective forms an unofficial task force comprised of relatives and friends of the victims. The upshot of their efforts both conforms with, and diverges mightily from, what happens in Christie’s novel. Both novels contain a crowd scene as a dramatic centerpiece. In A.B.C., it’s the hunt for a killer in Doncaster during the races. Catcontains a scene of a town hall meeting which ends in a nightmare and illustrates the power of Queen’s writing here. It’s actually striking to me that the murder spree in Christie’s novel evokes absolutely no panic among the citizenry. One of the highlights of Catis how brilliantly Queen presents the mounting fear that grips New York in the wake of the Cat’s assault and the multiple destructive forms it takes.
The differences between these two novels only serves to make Queen’s accomplishment all the more remarkable. I do like The A.B.C. Murders very much, but what appears on the outside to be something different for Poirot turns out to be fairly standard. It starts big and gets small. In her typical fashion, Christie toys with her readers, providing a set-up that will twist and turn into quite a different shape in the denouement. Finally, despite having been personally challenged by a serial killer and witnessing death first hand, Poirot changes not a jot at the end.
Cat starts big and stays big. Queen does offer us a whodunnit, but the book is about more than the unmasking of the Cat. Where A.B.C. ends in Poirot’s flat, with the detective gathering the suspects together for the ritual reveal, Cat ends in a darkened parlor in Vienna, where a broken man haltingly exposes a killer before his potential savior. The idea that the villain and the hero are both psychologically damaged by the case provides a visceral emotional thrill, as well as the template for countless crime authors to come.
Just as I don’t want to spill any of the secrets of the plot for you, I also don’t want to spoil the surprise of what happens to Ellery. Suffice it to say, those of us who have followed this character from the priggish egotism of The Roman Hat Mystery, to his glib romantic adventures in Hollywood, to his new emotional openness in Wrightsville come to care about Ellery as a man as much as we cheer on his exploits as a detective. For twenty years, we have admired his skills. In Cat of Many Tails, we care for his soul.