#396: Little Fictions – The Impossibilities of Ellery Queen: ‘The Adventure of the Dead Cat’, a.k.a. ‘The Halloween Mystery’ (1946)

Calendar of Crime

Sometimes you go through every story in a collection and review them all.  Sometimes you just want to talk about one of them.  To engage in the second of these on a more thematic basis, I shall use my Tuesday posts this month to launch an occasional series of Little Fictions posts, and spend June with some of the impossible crime short stories written by Frederic Dannay and Manfred Lee under their Ellery Queen nom de plume.

Their disappearing house novella The Lamp of God, a.k.a. The House of Haunts (1935) is rather too wordy for this undertaking, so I’m starting with the first of their impossible crime stories as listed in Robert Adey’s Locked Room Murders (1992), ‘The Adventure of the Dead Cat’, a.k.a. ‘The Halloween Mystery’ (1946) published in doubtless many places but taken in this instance from the collection Ellery Queen’s Calendar of Crime (1952).

What’s It About?

Ellery’s secretary Nikki Porter — a character I’ve not encountered before, so I’ll assume she was accused of murdering her fiancé in an earlier novel and Ellery saved her skin, earning her eternal gratitude, etc — receives the following invite:

There is a secret meeting of the Charmed Circle of Black Cats in Suite 1313, Hotel Chancellor, City, Oct. 31.  You must come in full costume as a Black Cat, including domino mask.  Time your arrival for 9.05pm.  Till the Witching Hour.

…and drags Ellery along at her plus one.  They enter the completely dark room and stumble around over various obstacles — pillows, hassocks, furniture, a model skeleton — for a few minutes before someone turns the lights on (this, apparently, did not occur to genius detective Ellery Queen upon first entering the suite…).  A party ensues, with everyone dressed as black cats and Ellery hating every moment.  It’s only a matter of time before a Murder Game is suggested and — yup, you guessed it — the fictional victim ends up in the kitchen very really dead.

What’s Good About It?

Um…to be honest, the best part of this is Ellery’s complete dislocation from, and reluctance regarding, his presence — cursing the Druids and the Romans for their various cultural contributions that resulted in Hallowe’en to begin with, or speculating on the type of hostess who would send such an invite and throw such a party.  Upon meeting said hostess he mentally dismisses her as the “kind of female who would be baffled by an egg”, and reacts to the repeated proposals of Murder Games his presence seems to inspire with a weary reflection that people are operating “apparently on the theory that a busman enjoys nothing so much as a bus”.

It’s not just the jaded air of his disinterest and dismissal, but that’s the easiest way to sum up how much of a person he feels in such a short space.  Picking up on the fact that “Nikki had slapped Jerry Baxter laughingly once and British Johnny — not laughingly — twice”, or when, seeing the other party-goers lined up and ready to play the game, he “for a panicky moment…though of the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre”, it may sound bitchy and churlish in isolation, but he’s such a long way from the blithe, quippy smart-arse of the First Period novels it’s quite something to behold.

And certainly his interactions and asides are far more interesting than anything that happens in plot terms.

What’s Bad About It?

Sort of everything else, really.  The five other characters barely register — as the story progressed I got more confused about who was dead and who was speaking and who was married to whom — and it’s not entirely clear why any of the other people supposedly at this party couldn’t also be under suspicion.  You also have to question the intelligence of the killer, who commits a murder in a presumably unplanned way as a result of a situation that arises spontaneously purely because of the genius detective who is in attendance.

Dannay and Lee also dismiss one of their most telling deductions for no reason, building a certain amount of edifice upon it and then deciding it need not apply for the solution they offer.  And when the killer is revealed — in the final line, The French Powder Mystery-style  — the motive offered makes no sense and there’s no reason for Ellery to have decided it was sufficient for murder.  A better motive is offered for an equally credible suspect…but, nah.

Also, pity poor Inspector Richard Queen, who is treated so back-handedly that he has to play the Dunderheaded Policeman to a staggering extent…like, failing to consider that someone can’t be simultaneously unconscious in a cupboard and standing in a different room; gleeps, fellas, you could at least have given that line to Velie…

How’s the Impossibility?

As far as I can tell, the impossible situation presents itself because, well, the lights were turned off for the game and there’s all that impedimenta strewn about so, to quote Ellery:

“How did the murderer manage to cross this room in pitch darkness without making any noise?”

Now, that’s not an impossibility, son.  Were there flour all around the body with no footprints in it, or no way into the kitchen without the light coming on, fine.  But when the answer to your baffling conundrum of “How on earth could this be done?” is simply “Very carefully”, you have not written an impossible crime story.  There’s not even a Chinese Orange Mystery-style clause where you can sort of see why it would be considered impossible…I’m sorry to lock horns with the late, lamented Bob Adey over this, but listing it as such in his compendium is an error.

Anything Else?

Um…no?  This feels much more like a rushed attempt to complete some sort of pithy, detail-oriented writing practise than it does a story so chock full of invention that it was desperate to be told.  Hopefully things will improve next week with ‘The Adventure of the Dauphin’s Doll’…

~

I shall in the meantime, however, seize the opportunity to tick off something else on my Just the Facts Golden Age Bingo card, with this Hallowe’en-set murder fulfilling the category During a recognized holiday (the card is in American English, I feel I should point out, hence the ‘z’).

83 thoughts on “#396: Little Fictions – The Impossibilities of Ellery Queen: ‘The Adventure of the Dead Cat’, a.k.a. ‘The Halloween Mystery’ (1946)

  1. The Nikki Porter question is worth clearing up. As I understand it, she was first introduced in the radio series and then it was decided to quickly insert her into the books. So at the end of There Was An Old Woman (a fun read, imho), a character from the book announces she’s going to be Ellery’s secretary and for reasons I forget, is going to change her name to Nikki Porter. Such a smooth introduction…

    • Haha, seamless; still, at least it avoids the whole “Are the audio adventures canon?” debate that dogged Doctor Who for so many years, eh?

    • Not that Nikki was inserted in THAT many books… She’s in “There Was an Old Woman” and “The Scarlet Letters” and the short stories in “Calendar of Crime”. That’s all.

      Also, her origin story in “The Scarlet Letters” doesn’t jive with the one in “There Was an Old Woman”…

  2. I’ve not read this, even though I have a copy of Calendar of Crime knocking around somewhere.
    I’m always partial to a bit of short fiction; I have been reading a few of Ross Macdonald’s Lew Archer shorts recently and will be indulging in some more by other authors, probably later in the week. Sometimes I don’t feel like committing to a whole book and enjoy dipping in and out of various tales.

    • This is at least a little bit on my part an attempt to get more into the idiom of the EQ stories so that I can get more out of the novels. Short fiction can be a good way to explore an author, even if in some cases — Christie, say — the novels are arguably a mile above, or others — Stanley Ellin, say — the stories are actually their best writing.

      The four EQs I’ll be looking at in this series come from two collections and cover a range of about 8 years, I think, so it’ll be interesting to finish these and go into The Spanish Cape Mystery and see how I feel about the writing knowing what’s ahead.

      Fingers crossed, eh?

      • The Spanish Cape Mystery? That’s unanticipated – I didn’t expect you to still be doing period one. I assume you’re looking to pick up where you left off with The Chinese Orange Mystery and read in order?

            • He already read Greek Coffin and, I think, Siamese Twin. ST is one of the best Period Ones. Even Egyptian Cross, though frustrating, is better than SC! If he’s skipping ST in favor of Spanish Cape, then he needs to be drummed out of the LRRC (The Locked Room Readers Corp)!

            • You…you do realise I’m still here, right?

              And, jeepers, I did not enjoy Egyptian Cross, so things look dicey for Spanish Cape, eh? Well, it’s the short stories this month and Spanish Cape next, so hold onto your hats…

            • I have, however, already read Greek Coffin and Egyptian Cross, just so I don’t look like a complete coward.

            • I went from French Powder (well, about a third of the way into Dutch Shoe, actually) straight to Chinese Orange and did not pass Go and did not collect $200. It was partly to save my sanity and partly because I needed to read Chinese Orange for mine and Dan’s podcast on the Hoch list.

          • Yeah, I probably worded that poorly. I was attempting to say that I hadn’t anticipated you keeping on with the Period One books since you had already skipped so many of them. I had figured you might start to peck around the other periods. I’m about to make that leap myself, having temporarily given up on Period One after Greek Coffin failed to excite me.

            I would personally love nothing more than seeing you review The Tragedy of X…

            • Well, I hear good things from Noah and Brad about Halfway House, and there’s only Spanish Cape and Lamp of God between me and that…so it seems sensible to at least carry on from where I am and see how we go. I like the idea of retaining some vestige of my chronological intentions, even if it’s ot a strict “first to last” experience.

          • The main problem with “Spanish Cape” is that the main problem is dead-easy to see through. Otherwise, it’s a bit transitional. Together with “Halfway House”, they complete the change-over from Ellery the academic to Ellery the romantic hero.

            • Boy am I going to feel stupid if I don’t see through this scheme that I’m repeatedly being assured is transparent. In fact, let’s just cover myself now: I haven’t read the book, and I don’t know what it’s about, but I’ve already seen through it. So obvious. What were they thinking?

  3. I was a bit more positive than you when reviewing the story, but I definitely agree with you that it’s not really an impossible crime. I still say that it’s very improbable that 1) either the killer knew that they would have an opportunity for murder beforehand and therefore set everything up this way, 2) or that the killer managed to take an unexpected opportunity to carry out their murder.

    I do think it’s rather obvious that the story had its origins in a radio script, because I can picture (a fairly unfortunate word considering it’s radio) this being played out with actors. Probably it’d be a bit more successful as such.

    My main problem with Calendar of Crime as a whole is that it’s so incredibly uneven. I don’t know if you have the whole collection, but if you do and have read it, I’m sure you’ll agree.

    I think that you’ll enjoy your next dip into the EQ short stories quite a bit more.

    • I’ll probably come back to the remaining stories at some future point — at the moment my interest is simply this one and ‘Dauphin’s Doll’. It would be churlish to refuse to read any others, and I do have an interest in EQ’s output beyond their impossibilities (in spite of this being my most recent focus — I’m just trying to find a way in!).

  4. I’ll go Christian one better: I think you had better enjoy “The Dauphin’s Doll” or I’d suggest you give up EQ for lost. The fact is, The Spanish Cape Mystery is arguably the weakest of the first period, and I cringe at what you’ll make of it. Or listen: wait to review it until I get my hands on the latest Halter, and together we will take these fakers down!!

    • Okay, well that’s worth knowing. I see it’s a long-old story, too, so it’ll be like a novel in miniature…

      Here’s hoping it goes well, eh?

      • I second Brad on The Spanish Cape Mystery. It’s one of the most transparent mystery novels EQ ever wrote and remember my surprise at how easily it was to solve. So, yeah, you might as well go ahead and post a blank review with just one or two stars. You’ll save Brad and Ho-Ling a lot of heartache and teeth gnashing.

        The only thing I remember from “The Dead Cat” is the scene with Ellery, in cat costume, taking the elevator and a man starts pulling on his tail and saying “puss, puss.” Or something like that. A weird scene that has always stuck with me. Anyway, I think you’ll like “The Dauphin’s Doll” and “The Three Widows.”

        • Huh, oh well. Things get better again after that, right? And I don’t mind something being easy to solve so long as it’s interesting and/or well written (hell, Norman Berrow is a delightful read, but his plots won’t fool most people…okay, the might, but only because you’ll assume it’s going to be more complicated than it turns out).

          And I have The Lamp of God to look forward to after Spanish Cape, right? Right?!?!

          • Things get better again after that, right?

            Well, you’re edging closer to my least favorite period in the series, when Ellery goes to Hollywood and Wrightsville, but you always disagree with me. So you’ll probably like it.

            And I have The Lamp of God to look forward to after Spanish Cape, right? Right?!?!

            Well, I liked “The Lamp of God” as much as the international series, but you always disagree with me. So you’ll probably hate it.

  5. I’m typically a sucker for the typical short story collection reviews where people do a paragraph per story. With that said, I really enjoyed this much deeper dive and I’d love to see more of these in the future.

    • Cheers! I thought a slighlty more structured look at an individual story might be worth a punt — and I’ve committed to a month of them, so I hope I find a bit more to say about the others. At any rate, I’ve tried to keep the categories braod enough and specific enough to introduce something that’ll be worth talking about. Hopefully the others will actually be impossible crimes, that would be a start…

      • I think you might have a problem with making an entire post around “THe Three Widows” or “Snowball in July” (just guessing that these are the stories that you’ll be taking on after “Dauphin”). They really are too short to say much more on than whether you enjoyed the main puzzle problem or not. I mean, they’re about five pages long and contain cardboard characters that simply exist to make up a problem. You may quote that sentence in your review. 🙂

  6. OK, it’s been a good few years but I seem to remember I didn’t mind Egyptian Cross. I think the setup is a doozy and that kind of thing covers a lot of weaknesses for me.
    Also,I think I remember kind of liking <American Gun too, even if it was basically preposterous.
    I’m also fully aware that this kind of stuff may well lead to my being drummed out of the club.

  7. I presume you are going to read The three windows after The Dauphin’s Doll?
    I think you will like that one!

    • Indeed, the other two will be ‘The Three Widows’ and ‘Double Your Money’. I’m very heartened that there seems to be such quality ahead — not that I doubt it at all, I’m not that much of a sucker for punishement — because I want to see these guys produce the brilliance that’s clearly within their capabilities.

    • Sorry, that should be ‘widows’, not ‘windows’. Still ‘three windows’ seems like an appropriate name for a locked room short story. 🙂

  8. I’ve fond memories of ‘Egyptian Cross’. It was my first Ellery Queen and my first ‘Green Penguin’ . This was 50+ years ago and I was about 14 so I’ve no idea how I would rate it now but it certainly kept me reading crime fiction in general and probably got the life long love affair with puzzle detection boosted, I won’t say started, because I’m one of those who remember the ‘Five Find Outers from Enid Blyton and I’d already read a bit of Sherlock Holmes by then.

    • Greek Coffin was my own first Queen and first green Penguin — I remember picking it up and thinking “Hmm, these green covers mean some sort of…something” (hey, I was young and foolish, okay?). And foolishly I gave it away! It was in beautiful condition, and would be worth a small fortune now…

      • Yeah. I love going to bookshops and seeing the shelf (if lucky) or half shelf of green penguins. The trouble is I can miss other stuff because I concentrate on them. Like when I was younger yellow-jacket Gollanczs dominated the eye in the fiction part of the public library and I looked at them before anything else. Well they did publish Queen and Dorothy Sayers among others.I think my Egyptian Cross was a library book. I certainly haven’t got it now. Greek Coffin is the only one of the ‘nationality’ Quuens I’ve never read so must rectify that soon

        • An interesting turn of events there, given that Greek Coffin is often considered among the must-reads of the early period. If you’ve read the rest, it’ll doubtless be a complete delight to you.

  9. I’ve started my own perusal of detective/mystery shorts at the moment and today enjoyed I Can Find My Way Out by Ngaio Marsh – her shorter works cut out the tedium that can creep into the novels and this was quite fun. Also, I had an absolute blast with the Craig Rice Stuart Palmer collaboration Rift in the Loot and I now want to track down People Vs Withers and Malone as the story I sampled was pure delight.

    • I need to track down some Rice, but, man, see my ealier comment following your earlier comment re: funds and availability. Wow, that was very well timed…

      • I *think* the only Craig Rice title I have access to right now (or the near future anyway) is Trial By Fury, which I’m pretty sure is kicking around my parents’ house somewhere. Will have to rummage when I visit them.

  10. Thank you for pointing out that it’s a mistake to classify “The Dead Cat” as an impossible-crime story. I think you’re going to enjoy “The Dauphin’s Doll” – which is genuine impossible-crime – a lot more. According to Francis M. Nevins, it’s the only Ellery Queen story written entirely by Manfred B. Lee. I won’t say more about it till I know you’ve read it…

    The 1941 movie Ellery Queen and the Perfect Crime (and its novelization, which of course was not by Dannay/Lee) gives Nikki yet another origin, one that’s at odds with both There Was an Old Woman and The Scarlet Letters.

    I first read The Spanish Cape Mystery as a yellow-jacketed Gollancz reprint. One of the quoted reviews mentioned that the reviewer got to the Challenge to the Reader, thought things over, and solved it! I wonder if even in the Thirties, it had a reputation as “not as baffling a Queen as usual”?

      • Spanish Cape is so easy to solve that I’m tempted to think that the authors intended it that way, that they were more interested in baffling the reader with the howdunit than the whodunit aspect.

        It’s still more enjoyable than Egyptian Cross *shudder*

          • Oh, yeah, there are a lot of good things about it. Julian Symons, in Bloody Murder, said it was one of the four best early Queens (his other choices were Powder, Coffin and Cross, for what that’s worth). I wonder if the cousins decided to write a relatively easy one to win back readers who might have come to feel Queen novels were always too complicated to solve.

            • That is a very worthwhile point — maybe there’s some validity in not making one’s books too damn complex; people do like to feel smart, after all.

            • That’s…actually a pretty decent notion. In all honesty, I remember very little MSW from a clues and solutions perspective, and since I haven’t had a chance to watch any since becoming more involved with clue-centric detective fiction it’d be interesting to go back and watch some to see how they stand up.

              I seem to remember being told there’s even an impossible crime early on; wonder if I could track that down and give it an analysis in the manner of John @ Noirish…

            • I did not watch a lot of Murder, She Wrote… I don’t remember an impossible-crime episode, although I have fond memories of that Ellery Queen one where the tycoon is killed in the elevator. I hope you can track down the MSW one, if it does exist.

          • So there is at least some merit to it? Okay, this sounds a bit more promising.

            You know what, I think Spanish Cape might actually end up being your favorite international title. I don’t remember it has any of the problems you had with novels like French Powder. And if you fail to spot the solution, it may even be the one that makes you fall in love with Queen.

          • So there is at least some merit to it? Okay, this sounds a bit more promising.

            You know what, I think Spanish Cape might actually end up being your favorite international title. I don’t remember it has any of the problems you had with novels like The French Powder Mystery. And if you fail to spot the solution, it may even be the one that makes you fall in love with Queen.

            • Hahaha, that does sound llike the kind of thing I’d do. Eveyone will be like “Well, thank the good mercies they didn’t write any more like this” and I’ll be all “This is AMAZING!! Dammit, the rest of their work is going to be a trudge…” and throw myself into the arms of Georges Simenon for some consolation.

  11. This may be extremely overdue,but the Murder She Wrote episode We’re Off to Kill the Wizard features a impossible crime-albeit not a very good one from what I remember.

    • That’s the one! Even if it’s not especially good, I hope to track it down at some point. Scientific curiosity, if nothing else. Many thanks for the reminder.

      • No problem 😄.
        Incidentally,I used to be a huge MSW fan and I watched every single episode on Netflix when it was available on it.I for some reason distinctly remember a impossible poisoning episode that I cannot find record of anywhere and has been a source of confusion for a year or so.
        Can’t wait for your post on The Three Widows tomorrow,I find it to be my favorite Queen short because it’s basically a novel in miniature.

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