General summer unavailability is resulting in the Tuesday Night Bloggers having August off (that’s what they’ve told me, anyway…) and so this final week of ‘Poison’ posts is an opportunity to right a wrong and launch on a new undertaking in my reading life. In short, to restart the Ellery Queen canon — all 40 (by my count) novels that had input from Dannay and/or Lee — from the very beginning, starting here with their first novel, the poisoning tale The Roman Hat Mystery.
This is motivated by a couple of things; firstly the general air of suppressed unrest at my not including them in my Kings of Crime, secondly the fact that I have a somewhat haphazard coverage of their output dating back some fifteen years, thirdly the fact that I’m reading Agatha Christie in order and getting a huge kick out of it, and finally the fact that people keep writing excellent Queen appreciations like this one from Brad at ahsweetmysteryblog that make me feel like I’m missing out on something despite having read about fifteen of their novels and two short story collections. And so, onwards…
Helpfully for the instigation of this undertaking, The Roman Hat Mystery is not one of the books I’ve already read, and it’s great to see that they’re playing their original trade early on: at a theatre showing a play entitled Gunplay in which there is a lot of, well, shooting effects, the sensible and easy thing to do would be to shoot your victim — instead, Dannay and Lee’s stooge is poisoned, and not just poisoned, but poisoned when no-one is sitting near him and there’s no real chance for anyone to have gotten near him to administer said poison, nor any sign of a receptacle for said poison on either the victim or anyone else in the theatre. And then to top it all off there’s a lovely Carrian flourish: the victim’s hat is missing, and how this is strung out into almost the entire plot of the book is another sign of just how brilliantly these two would come to approach this genre in the years to follow.
And let us not forget that this Carrian flourish predates Carrian flourishes, with It Walks by Night (1930) still some months away and so the detective fiction community still blithely unaware of the genius bearing down upon it. What a time to be alive! In fact, the obsession with top hats that runs through this rather brought to mind Carr’s own The Mad Hatter Mystery (1933), but that’s not about a poisoning so we’ll leave that here.
It’s easy to be surprised after the fact, because we know now what these guys would go on to do, but in spite these innovations this is also very much a product of its time and hamstrung by the usual conventions. It is exceptionally talky, and not in the spry and playful way that the later Queens would become but instead in a kind of “Let’s Recap the Facts to Date to Keep Our Reader Up to Speed” kind of way. It is also subject to the veneration of the rich — the financier Ives-Pope and his family are treated with dazzled awe by Ellery Queen detective and novelist alike — and treats its female characters as either paradigms of virtue and innocence (if wealthy, see above) or as the lowest of the dismissed worthy of the barest human consideration (one of them being told to “shut up until you’re spoken to” when under no suspicion and accused of no misdeeds).
Character-wise, too, it falls a little flat: had Richard Queen died at any point in this narrative, the medical examiner would doubtless cut him open and find him to be 87% snuff, as instead of allowing him to display characteristics and come to a conclusion on his character we’re simply told what his character is and then treated to the words “he took a pinch of snuff” every 20 lines. Ellery is…clever, apparently, and asks some questions. And there are a lot of very interchangeable policemen. No-one really stands out, and on this evidence the decision to make the author and lead character name the same so that readers could forget one but remember the other seems like a genius stroke, as I’d forget about this character solely on this evidence. Ellery, arguably, isn’t even the main character here: Richard Queen does most of the work and gets the final round-up. The Suspects are the Suspects, playing to type to a man, and fairly archetypal in a way that I’m not convinced Dannay and Lee every really transcended (but I’ll be able to assess the in time, of course).
Now contrast this with, say, The King is Dead (1952) which has a memorable setup with some very interesting characters but suffers with a dearth of plot (and certainly contains a mystery in no way requiring the Queens to take as long as they do over it). I know, I know, that’s not a good example of a Queen novel, but that’s sort of my point. In a way, you see Manfred Lee’s increasing influence as things wore on, so it’s interesting that he was the one to step away from the partnership for the likes of The Player on the Other Side (1963), And on the Eighth Day (1964), The Fourth Side of the Triangle (1965), and The House of Brass (1968). I started wondering a little while back whether Dannay produced plots too quickly for Lee to embellish (though the spacing of those books suggests that the startling rate of output wasn’t really the problem…), whereas now I wonder if this excess of enrichment to Frederick Dannay’s finely-honed plots lead to him drafting outlines for the likes of Theodore Sturgeon to write up, to keep the focus on the detection.
Either way, the plot and the turns thereof, while a little standard for the age, are what stands out at this nascent stage of the partnership ahead of the characters. And it’s…it’s not really that great. The huge amount of recapping throughout aside — even the final explanatory chapter starts with Richard Queen going over a load of points already cemented in the narrative, gaaaaah! — it’s just…not very good. This is perhaps typified for me by two things, both a “we’re searching for something and can’t find it”-style occurrence. The first of these requires the searching of a man’s apartment, which runs on for several pages and turns up nothing at all despite it being carefully catalogued just how many places they look in, and then the revelatory “Oh my god!” moment is…that they haven’t looked in the most bleedingly obvious place; and not even in a ‘Purloined Letter’ kind of way, it’s just stupidly obvious, easily among the first places you would look, and stupid to tell us that these characters are the finest minds on the Force and they don’t look there until despairing at the lack of any result.
THE NEXT PARAGRAPH CONTAINS ANGRY SPOILERS
The second is revealed in the final chapter, and frankly makes complete hogwash of the much-vaunted fair play of this particular mystery. They look everywhere for the hat. We’re told repeatedly they’ve looked everywhere for the hat. They can’t find the hat despite repeated searches. No, there’s definitely no hat anywhere. Absolutely not, we’ve looked everywhere. Definitely no hats. Uh-uh. Nope. Got that? No hats anywhere. And then — heaven preserve us — it’s revealed in the last chapter that Ellery conducted an off-page search we’re not privy to and found a hat. The search is loosely hinted at, sure, but the discovery of the hat is kept from you, the reader. And again it’s the most obvious place for a hat to be. But this is allowed to slip by through lazy implication, and so at the ‘Challenge to the Reader’ you’re assured you have information that you don’t. That is just not on. Unforgivable, in fact. If I’d started here, I would probably give up on Ellery Queen right there and never read another word. Furious. Absolutely furious.
SPOILERS END, ANGER REMAINS
So, where do we go from here? Well next up for these characters is The French Powder Mystery (1930) but I need a bit of a break after this to convince myself to carry on. As for Dannay and Lee, it’s amazing to think that they’d go on from this to become the titans bestriding the genre that they did. This is a duff starter, right? Or is anyone out there going to tell me it’s an absolute classic and represents the peak of their writing partnership? Because I’ve read others by them, better and worse, but I’m suffering a crisis of faith that this is something I want to persevere with. Your thoughts, as ever, are appreciated…
I’d like to take a moment to thank Sergio of Tipping My Fedora fame who helped me out, 140 characters at a time, on Twitter over an ordering query. His top nine Ellery Queen titles provides a pretty decent overview for anyone wishing to experience only the highlights. In about 6 years I shall (probably…) publish my own devastating overview and we’ll see how much we agree; watch this space.
And on that note…does anyone know the original publication order of The Greek Coffin Mystery, The Egyptian Cross Mystery, The Tragedy of X, The Tragedy of Y (all 1932), The American Gun Mystery, The Siamese Twin Mystery, The Tragedy of Z, and Drury Lane’s Last Case (all 1933)? I know that, taken separately, the “Ellery Queen” and “Barnaby Ross” orders are correct, but how were they published relative to each other? Any clarity eagerly sought!
Puzzle Doctor has less of an issue with this than I do, so I may be missing something, but we also share a few points of frustration. If this is any indication of the early Queens, I may just skip over The Egyptian Cross Mystery when its time comes; that was hard enough work first time aroud.