‘The Black Ledger’ concerns the transportation of the eponymous book — “its dimensions were six inches by eight and one-half inches, and it contained fifty-two thick, limp ledger pages” — containing sensitive information regarding those responsible for “the spreading epidemic of dope addiction which was plaguing the forty-eight states”. Ellery is charged with transporting it, immediately intercepted by those who wish to keep it from the hands of law and order, and despite being subjected to a rigorous and spare-no-quarter search nevertheless has the ledger upon him and is able to deliver it without its being discovered.
Thematically, then, ‘Diamonds in Paradise’ makes the perfect companion-piece, as it too involves the impossible hiding of something — in this case the fittingly-named Lili Minx’s diamond earrings, removed from her at an illicit casino conveniently raided by Insp. Richard Queen just as she tumbles to the theft. The thief is captured, “peeled to the buff” and a similar search conducted on “every mother’s son and daughter on the premises” but the diamonds are nowhere. The thief tries to escape, tumbles to his death, and is able to croak out as his final words “Diamonds…in…Paradise” — not the most helpful direction, given that the casino is called Paradise Gardens. Nevertheless, Ellery is able to apply to himself to what “if wasn’t his greatest case, it was certainly his shortest” and solve the mystery of the dying words behind the impossible disappearance.
What’s Good About Them?
We are swift approaching the as-yet-undefined point in history past which the puzzle plot lost its sheen, and began courting accusations of possessing an odour not unlike old soup and your grandfather’s favourite past-time. As such, one feels that the traditional trappings of the detection milieu are somewhat passé, and Dannay and Lee have made a very deliberate effort with ‘The Black Ledger’ to aim for a slightly more grim-faced, flint-edged, steely-eyed, and other such desirable adjective-nouned tone. This could almost be a minor episode from a James Bond novel, with Ellery suffering through certain untold indignities (the precise actions of the character Doc, for instance, that leave the main antagonist here reflecting that the ledger “wasn’t on you, it wasn’t in you”…imagine away at will!) and admitting his discomfort and fear whilst also coming away triumphant. All told, it’s a pretty effective telling of a minor trick — usually all reframings of ‘The Purloined Letter’ irritate me with their basic simplicity, but this one pulls it off very well indeed.
‘Diamonds in Paradise’ is one of those one-idea stories where everything is deliberately manufactured so that the central trick will work, and it manages to still feel like a natural and sensible narrative without too much coercion behind it. If we’re going for comparisons to classic stories I dislike, this is essentially an updating of Chesterton’s ‘The Invisible Man’, though it again manages that deliberate overlooking of a key detail mostly — mostly, see below — very well. And I have to admit, the solution here did make me chuckle; it’s delightfully Crispin-esque and reveals a impish playfulness that has until now seemed to be lacking from the Queen canon. Their fun has always been so serious and po-faced in my mind, but here’s they seem to be enjoying the ludicrous nature of what they’ve cooked up.
What’s Bad About Them?
Is it necessary to pull up the first story for its not quite playing fair? I think the concept of “We’ve searched everywhere and it ain’t here!” is familiar enough that some people might still twig to the eventual solution without really understanding the how until it’s spelled out come the end. But, in all fairness, I didn’t sigh or roll my eyes come that revelation, so I’m going to say I enjoyed it and let it go at that.
However, as much as ‘The Black Ledger’ juggles its change of tone very neatly, ‘Diamonds in Paradise’ feels horribly out of time, with prose like “Lili Minx’s collection was the natural target of every creep out of the jug” making it feel very much like something trying to ape a popular idiom. Or maybe it didn’t stand out at the time and has just dated badly both in this context and against the other work Dannay and Lee did. And the key detail is buried in a…well, in a way of burying something that I’m still not entirely sure of my opinion on. But, really, it’s another brief and enjoyable blast, and as such difficult to find too much fault with.
How Are the Impossibilities?
As I say above, the fundamental trick of ‘The Black Ledger’ is familiar to everyone, but it’s done here with a brevity and a very deliberate focus of trying to be a different genre of story, and those two factors go a long way for me. What’s especially pleasing is the intelligence with which you are misdirected while the solution is hidden: these “search everywhere” stories typically fall down because in failing to find the hidden MacGuffin the author usually fails to obscure the hiding place. Dannay and Lee throw possibility after possibility at you, giving a situation where a number of possibilities are available and then knocking them down one by one…until there appears to be nothing standing (I didn’t spot it, others will). That’s difficult to do, and certainly helped by the speed with which this goes past.
The trick isn’t all that different in the second story, and the final line is a lovely little wink to allow the impossible disappearance to cross over with the dying message trope…no mean feat in the comparative brevity of this one. I think I’ve covered that I generally like this one, there’s not really enough going on to be able to talk about one aspect without covering the central crime and solution.
I learned that the US has been composed of its full fifty states for a much shorter time that I had supposed — with Alaska and Hawaii being admitted to the union in the January and August of 1959 respectively. Sure, I didn’t learn this in the story itself, but that mention of 48 states got me scouring the interwebs for an explanation.
Equally in ‘The Black Ledger’ there seems to be a slight melding of Ellery Queen character and Ellery Queen author. It’s mentioned at one point that Ellery’s pockets contain “a dues receipt from the Mystery Writers of America, five business cards and seven jottings of ideas for stories”. Given that the novels were “written” by J.J. McQ and the short stories appear to be written in the third person — and to relate actual cases, no less, rather than being framed as stories in which Ellery is a overseer — at what point was Ellery writing fiction? Is this some sort of radio crossover again? If there’s an acknowledged point in the canon where Ellery is a published author of his own fiction, I’d be interested to hear about it.
Er, I can’t really think of anything else from ‘Diamonds in Paradise’.
On the whole, the stories from Queen’s Bureau of Investigation have gone some way to help rescue this undertaking. I definitely think I go for Dannay and Lee in smaller bites — their shorter shorts have found me much more receptive, let’s not deny — and I’ll return to the remainder of that collection at some point in the near future. And, of course, at some point I have to polish off their remaining impossible short stories, but since there don’t seem to be enough to fill a month of similar posts I don’t know how I’ll go about reporting on those.
Aaah, well, that can be a problem for another day…