#401: Little Fictions – The Impossibilities of Ellery Queen: ‘The Three Widows’, a.k.a. ‘Murder Without Clues’ (1950) and ‘Double Your Money’, a.k.a. ‘The Vanishing Wizard’ (1951)

QBI

Okay, the first one of these I took on wasn’t an impossible crime, and the second wasn’t any good.  So, a new collection, shorter stories — hence two this week — how did we get on?

What Are They About?

‘The Three Widows’ concerns the apparently impossible poisoning of a step-matriarch who stands in the way of her two step-daughters accessing their dead father’s fortune (“Penelope, to whom money was nothing, and Lyra, to whom money was everything, consequently each required large amounts of it.”).  The thankfully neat problem is summed up by Ellery with a delightful adroitness:

“You’ve bought your own food. You’ve done your own cooking in this room and you’ve eaten here alone. … Further, you tell me you’ve purchased new dishes, have kept them here, and you and you alone have been handling them. … How then was the poison administered?”

‘Double Your Money’ would at first appear to be about the apparent fiscal acuity of Theodore F. Grooss, who is able without fail to make a 100% return on any financial investment laid in his hands.  However, upon being confronted by Queen Sr. and Jr., Grooss stages an impossible disappearance from a room with only two exits: “the doorway to that outer office where Inspector Queen and I were waiting for him, and the window there overlooking Amsterdam avenue”.  Simple enough — he must have gone out the window.  Aaah, Watson, you see but you do not observe: the window was, of course, locked on the inside…

What’s Good About Them?

They’re brief!  Good, sweet, judicious Mercy, these are the sort of one-two punch stories that Leo Bruce produced for the Evening Standard, or can be found in Edmund Crispin’s shorter works.  Each is clearly the result of a single idea, and the story is appropriately written to fit that idea, with no extraneous maundering or muddled profligacy of verbose scenery.  By the time the setup has tantalised you with possibilities, the solution is upon you, and Dannay and Lee’s less than meritorious attempts at the impossible crime are far more palatable in this quickfire format.

Not allowing themselves too much background or an excess of attempted verisimilitude — and it seemed to me that the more they wrote the less believable it all became — they’re forced into actual good writing.  Who knew they had it in them?  The pithiness here pays off perfectly: stepmother Mrs. Hood II, the third widow, being described as “a cathedral-like lady of great force of character” or the simplicity of the statement that the conundrum here was “the kind of problem which Ellery’s thinking apparatus, against all the protests of his body, cannot let alone”: gorgeous.  That he makes a mistake in this first story, too, and we’re not subjected to any agonising or gnashing of teeth just to pad out a word count.  Ah, bliss!

And the second, slightly longer, tale is also not without its own sly wit: removing from the record the epithet by which Ellery refers to the vanishing “Wizard of Amsterdam Avenue”, or the danger of the man’s apparent dishonesty lightly conveyed by the range of people crowding outside his office when the Queens call on him — abrogated are the memories of hideous prolixity of ‘The Dauphin’s Doll’ and it’s wonderful to see: setup, problem, execution, solution follow in quick succession, and it’s like Dannay and Lee finally cracked the short story by working out how many words an idea will support.

What’s Bad About Them?

Well, they’re not exactly super-complicated, but to my way of thinking it’s a small price to pay given the improvement in craft these represent.  After two weeks of complaining, I’m going to vouchsafe no greater difficulty than that.

How Are the Impossibilities?

The first doesn’t quite make sense — given what happens, and how it plays out, it would make more sense for things to be played in an entirely different way by a particular person — but then impossible poisonings are very difficult to get right (hell, why do you think I haven’t written up my impossible poisoning short story?  It’s such a good idea, but, man lining up those figurative, narrative ducks…).  Beyond Carr’s The Red Widow Murders (1935) has there actually been a brilliant deployment of the poison in an impossible crime story?  And, yes, as soon as I post this I’ll think of eleven of them…

The second is smart, at least makes some sense in having been anticipated in the narrative itself.  Sure, neither of them offers anything new to the genre, and you’ll spot the culprits easily, but that’s less of a problem for me when it’s done in four minutes of reading against 30-odd.  Besides, most of Clayton Rawson’s short stories are pretty easy to solve — steady now, I said most — and are considered classics today, so there’s no shame in writing a brief and enjoyable story that’s easy to play along with.  It is supposed to be entertainment, after all.

Anything Else?

It’s true that we have less in the way of incidental contemporary details in ‘The Three Widows’ than elsewhere, and you’re not picking it up for its fascinating social milieu or the sidelong look they provide at the mores of Upper East Side living in the early 1950s.  In reality, it could be taking place anywhere between about 1840 and 1967, but that’s hardly a fault of the story and more a comment on the constant nature of this sort of plot — it was used a good many times for a reason, as it admits much filigreed additions to bend it to any purpose.  Here we’re just stripped of all that, and for the better.

However, ‘Double Your Money’ does tease a beautifully succinct summation of an economy not at its strongest, providing amply sufficient background for the motivations and reasoning of those who are at risk from such potential chicanery, implicitly motivating the Queens to get involved.  This is, for my (ahem) money, the best written of the four stories thus far encountered this month, feeling very much like the first time the authors are trusting their audience to pick up on the details without feeling the need to repeat and rephrase and rehash every little detail, dictum, and development.

Well, this is nice, isn’t it?  Not sure now if I’m keen to get to next week’s story or if I want to bask in this enjoyment for a bit longer…

40 thoughts on “#401: Little Fictions – The Impossibilities of Ellery Queen: ‘The Three Widows’, a.k.a. ‘Murder Without Clues’ (1950) and ‘Double Your Money’, a.k.a. ‘The Vanishing Wizard’ (1951)

  1. I used to lap these up in my teens. Been a very long time since I read any of their short stories but you certainly have me interested now! Do you have that Pan edition? it’s lovely 🙂

      • Ahhhh – that’s the one I’VE got! Nyyyaaahhhh!

        So you like Queen as long as he’s 3 – 5 pages long. Well, it’s a start . . .

        • We all start somewhere; you enjoyed parts of The Night of the Wolf, remember. There’s hope for both of us.

          I feel we’ve each learned something about us by this comparison, I’m just not sure what it is.

  2. So, what will be the story/stories for next week?

    Good to hear that you enjoyed these a bit more. I’d say that something you commented last week – that EQ create a “too tight” impossibility – is actually true for these ones as well. Or at least for “The Witch”. The situation there is so impossible that it certainly only leaves one possible culprit.

    • I completely agree, but at least in doing so, as I said, the situation is resolved quickly. I would have enjoyed every moment of ‘The Dauphin’s Doll’ if the ending had been in any way as clever as that much investment requires; here, there’s less of a payoff, but also less of an anticipation. I guess it’s about balance: does the solution warrant the setup? Here the solution is simple, so a simple setup is perfect.

      Next week, er, I think it’s ‘The Black Ledger’ and if there’s not much to say I can add in ‘Object Lesson’ from QED, I believe.

  3. I have a huge love for TTW for exactly the reasons you list.There is no complex and painful Queenian writing to deal with and instead you’re treated to pure puzzle with a fun setup and a enjoyable shock ending.It is a very slight novel in miniature with its features and that makes the story my favorite Queen story so far.
    Haven’t read Double Your Money,but I think I will soon.

  4. Hallelujah for Queen stories with a word count! I need to check when I get home (as I have this paper back) but I believe there area few more impossibles in this collection.

    And in terms of good impossible poisonings (yes Red Widow wins them all in my experience so far) I would pose Chinese Gold Murders by van Gulik as one I always loved. Although the solution to the real life impossible poisoning that the story was based on in a way has a better solution!

    • I seem to remember there being possibly more EQ short impossibilities than Adey claimed — in fact, Christian’s posts would be the obvious place to go for that information. But, hey, I’m happy wherever it comes from!

      I read a Van Gulik, I think it was The Chinese Maze Murders. Stands to reason he’d have some good trick in his books somewhere, now I just have to work up the enthusiasm to read a second one by him…!

    • The main impossibility here is “Snowball in July”, but that’s been anthologised here, there and everywhere so maybe that’s why J.J. is skipping it? There’s also “Diamonds in Paradise”, but the impossibility is overshadowed by the dying message (which is, admittedly, not bad at all).

      And then there’s “E = Murder”… I can almost imagine seeing J.J.’s head spinning so wildly it would fall off his shoulders, so he should probably skip it.

      • Who’s skipping anything? 🙂 I’m going chronologically, on information received. My list is:

        1. The Dead Cat (1946)
        2. The Dauphin’s Doll (1948)
        3. The Three Widows (1950)
        4. Double Your Money (1951)
        5. The Black Ledger (1952)
        6. Object Lesson (1955)
        7. Snowball in July (1956)
        8. E = Murder (1960)

        However, it turns out that ‘Diamonds in Paradise’ is from 1954 and so would be in the next post if that’s a twofer. So if it is then I’ll do that instead of ‘Object Lesson’ and I’ll just have to fit those other three on here at some other time… Sound like a plan?

    • So here’s a thing I just realised: I don’t consider the murder of Sir Richard in Suddenly at His Residence to be an impossible poisoning. I mean, sure, he is poisoned and it is an impossible crime, but the impossibility is to do with access rather than poison per se: were he found stabbed, the problem would be exactly the same — the problem is how anyone got in without leaving footprints, and nothing do to with the poison itself, in my head.

      Is that…weird?

      • That’s a fair point to make. I suppose that the poisoning in John Dickson Carr’s The Burning Court would be similar. Here are a few other thoughts:
        Till Death Do Us Part – I don’t know why I didn’t think of this poisoning immediately. I guess you could make the same argument though that the poisoning itself isn’t impossible.
        Seeing is Believing – There is a poisoning that could be thought of as impossible, although I won’t even bother analyzing it because it is fairly weak.
        Below Suspicion – This story involves a poisoning that does qualify as impossible. I won’t go into detail since I think you haven’t read this one.

        • This is an interesting distinction that I hadn’t thought of before. Poisonings that are in a locked room, and ‘impossible’ poisonings. Chinese Gold Murders counts as there is no way that the poison could have been administered and that’s the focus. A subversion of this I just thought of is in the Foreign Bodies collection the short story Venom of the Tarantula by Sharadindu Bandyopadhyay, which features a character who is able to somehow keep ingesting a hallucinogenic drug even though everything he does is watched.

          • Yeah, ‘The Venom of the Tarantula’ is an impossible poisoning, but it’s a terrible one — just a rehashed ‘Purloined Letter’ or Roman Hat Mystery (“We’ve looked absolutely everywhere!!!“). CGM sounds like it might be promising, however; I’ll slowly overcome my aversion to Van Gulik and check that out in, like, 2021 or something.

        • Below Suspicion is one I haven’t read, yes, though I do now own three copies… Goddamn, my TBR is a nightmare. I’ll be sure to try and keep this in mind for when I do eventually get to it…but, if I foreget, can someone please remind me? 🙂

            • The pile is chronological. The only sliding done there is by Jerry O’Connell and John Rhys Davies.

              Oh, wait, that was parallel dimensions, wasn’t it? Or something? Anyway, welcome to the way my brain works: outdated 90s references a speciality.

      • I guess a device like a locked room or missing footprints won’t mesh as easily with poison as a weapon, because with poison, the presence of the murderer is not necessary for the victim to die. The impossibility will usually arise from something else… “nobody went near that pitcher between the time X took a harmless drink from it and the time Y took a fatal one,” something like that.

        If you’re looking for more impossible-poisoning stories, Edward D. Hoch wrote several in the Dr. Sam Hawthorne series. All titles start with “The Problem of…”

        The Boston Common
        The Courthouse Gargoyle (both in More Things Impossible)

        The Sealed Bottle
        The Dying Patient (in Nothing is Impossible)

        The Poisoned Pool (in All But Impossible)

        And there is one Carr impossible poisoning that nobody’s mentioned in this thread… should I say which one it is?

          • Hey, instead of reading MacDonald and Keeler and whathaveyou, just get yourself a Hoch collection and get started! 🙂

        • Is that Carr impossible poisoning Death in Five Boxes?
          I remember The Problem of th Emperors Mushrooms by James Yaffe as being a particularly enjoyable impossible poisoning tale.

          • Five Boxes is a very good impossible poisoning…but it’s totally not fairly told; maybe the key detail would be considered implicitly obvious at the time, I dunno, but there’s a very specific point where it could have been mentioned just for the sake of clarity and completeness and…nup, nothing. And it would be a brilliant poisoning if proper clewing were observed.

            ‘Emperor’s Mushrooms’ is…fine, but, well my thoughts on it can be found here…

            • Interesting… (The rest of this comment may partly spoil Death in Five Boxes, even though I’m going to be as vague as possible, and should be skipped by those who haven’t read it.)

              I thought the impossible-poisoning puzzle was completely fair, but perhaps that was because I knew more about… a certain field of activity… than most people would. I suspect you’re right that that key detail would have been more obvious to a reader in 1938 than more recently.

            • Certainly the, uh, poison delivery system is not explicitly mentioned, shall we say. Maybe people knew it was there, maybe trying to do what is done without it present would never occur to anyone and so it gets by on implication alone…but it challenges the fairness for its lack of mention, which is about the only blight on that superbly clever book.

  5. “Beyond Carr’s The Red Widow Murders (1935) has there actually been a brilliant deployment of the poison in an impossible crime story?”

    This comment seems to have garnered more reaction than the review of Ellery Queen per se. 😊 I suppose my first reaction, unlike some of the other bloggers/ commenters, would be that I might not use ‘brilliant’ in relation to “Red Widow Murders”? I personally didn’t enjoy it very much.

    Now that I’ve vented – am I right in thinking that “Reader is Warned” featured a poisoning? I haven’t read it, but I seem to recall a review mentioning the use of poison? In any case, I’m quite sure Carr would have written about impossible poisonings more than once.

    I agree with Ben that “Below Suspicion” is worth reading – I purchased a copy in response to his review, and enjoyed reading it. 😊

    • The deaths in The Reader is Warned are all committed in the same way as far as I remember, but none of them are poisonings. Precisely how it’s done would be spoilers, though…

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