#446: Spoiler Warning 8 – Halfway House (1936) by Ellery Queen


Dearly beloved, we are gathered here today to pay our respects to the detective fiction novel Halfway House (1936) written by Manfred Lee and Frederic Dannay under their Ellery Queen nom de plume.  As the title suggests, there will be spoilers — lots and lots of spoilers, so only proceed if you’ve done the necessary pre-reading…

Halfway House SW

As it may have been a while since some of you read this one, here’s a quick recap of the plot:

Called to an urgent meeting at a mysterious shack in the middle of nowhere, attorney Bill Angell finds his brother-in-law, traveling salesman Joe Wilson, stabbed. With Joe’s dying breath, he manages to convey that his murderer was a veiled woman. Was it the wild-eyed woman who had sped past Bill on his way up the dark road to the shack? To help him unravel the mystery, Bill calls on his old friend Ellery Queen. But first Queen will have to unravel the victim’s double life—starting with the shack where he’s been found dead, smack dab between two very different worlds.

That oughta do it, you’re not going to need much more priming than that, so now we — and by ‘we’ I mean myself and Colin, who is more usually found discussing the films that fall under his purview at Riding the High Country, but who graciously agreed to help point out the error of my ways after a variety of unsatisfying experiences with Queen auteur et personnage — shall get right into it


JJ: Okay, everyone’s going to want to know how much I hated this, so let’s get that out of the way: I enjoyed it.  I really enjoyed it.  It moves at a good lick, the clues are thick and plentiful – I actually solved this one come the Challenge to the Reader – and the convolutions  of the plot work pretty well overall.  This is what EQ books should be like!

Colin: Well if you didn’t like this one, then I reckon it would have been time to just call it a day and admit EQ wasn’t for you. Ever. Under any circumstances.

This is the first non-Nationality book in EQ’s career — though it was due to be called The Swedish Match Mystery — and they ring the changes by dropping the J.J. McC introductions and splitting the narrative into five roughly equal parts.  I’m curious as to how stylistically different from their earlier work it seems to you: it struck me almost as five long-take scenes, and the decision not the divide these five parts into shorter chapters (as they do in other books) feels like Dannay and Lee really stamping a new intent on their writing.

This is a shift into a new phase of the Queen books, and I think the title itself is apposite in this regard. Sure it refers to the location of the house where the murder occurs, but I think it’s also something of an acknowledgement on the part of the cousins that this book hadn’t gone all the way towards where they were aiming to lead Ellery and their take on the mystery novel in general. Frankly, I see Ellery loosening up, not hugely perhaps but that’s the point isn’t it? It would be practically impossible to radically alter a lead character from one book to the next – it needs stages, a halfway house where aspects of the evolving interpretations can blend. I mean Ellery remains quite arch and has some of that artificiality about him that, I guess, turns off some readers but he is becoming more recognizably human, more akin to someone who might exist outside this fictional world, and I feel that grows through the story too.

That’s actually a pretty genius interpretation of the title, the idea of them going “halfway” to what they want it beautiful.  I feel like the structure is very different, as we get into later, but Ellery himself is somewhat of a prig and feels very out of place in what is going on around him.  How deliberate that is I don’t know, but the supercilious air he adopts seems to be more jarring in the context of the heartbreak and false imprisonment flying around.  As someone with limited experience of what comes next, I’m intrigued to see how Ellery develops to fit these new times.

Structurally, I like the section business well enough – there’s a logic to them and the development of the mystery. One thing though – what’s that you say about the removal of a JJ McClure intro? My copy – a 1947 Tower Books reprint – has one. I have a Pan copy too but not to hand now so can’t check if it’s in that. If so, that’s odd.

Wait, what?!?  I read the 2011 reprint from Langtail Press and it’s not in there.  I’ll be honest, I started skipping the introductions anyway because they felt like a smug chore that added nothing to the narrative (and, man, some of them were long)…but it’s very odd it’s not in there.  This is like discovering there’s  map at the beginning of The Judas Window by Carter Dickson, which my Rue Morgue edition did not include…well, okay, except that I would have liked the map at the beginning of The Judas Window.  I wonder if later imprints excluded it at the emergence of the thinking that this was no longer “early” Queen and so it was cut to make that point.

As I say, I’m unable to check my other copy of the book at present to see whether the foreword is intact there – perhaps some readers who have one of the later editions could confirm one way or the other? Had publishers later on given much thought to the idea of the Queen books falling into categories and eras? I mean I can see that kind of analysis being applied by 2011 but I’m not so sure about the 50s, 60s, 70s etc. It just feels like a more modern approach.

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JJ: I think the plotting here is excellent.  It moves with a decent pace, and the revelations are well-spaced and generally intelligently used.  The only really flawed section for me is the first one, with too much undislcosed — Bill finding the diamond and holding it back for no reason, Ellery running off to make a phone call we’re not privy to, the Big Secret of who the Gimballs are being delayed and delayed and delayed — but it’s almost like Dannay and Lee shake out all their old habits and then hone that wobbly start into a superb narrative.  Do you think this is helped by it being a rather prosaic crime with slightly more subtle clues, rather than something more esoteric where they’d be inclined to show off more?

Colin: I like the plot too. It’s simple enough yet still clever enough to keep you interested and wanting to find out what is going on. Is that first part strung out too much – maybe. I don’t mind it though as it’s all quite elegantly written and  there’s enough going on with the characters to hook me anyway. However, I don’t especially like Bill or the way he’s presented. In truth, I have a hunch this is something to do with the way Dannay and Lee offered everyman or identity figure male characters. I remember finding Beau Rummell in The Dragon’s Teeth/The Virgin Heiresses a fairly major pain in the neck, and while Bill is a lot lower down the irritability scale for me I didn’t particularly like his slightly bull-headed manner. I wonder if that’s something to be noted in other 2nd period novels – I’ve read all of those at some stage but I can’t recall anything but the most superficial impressions of those other books.

As someone who never baulked at a John Dickson Carr Romantic Subplot, the romance between Bill and Andrea here at least went through the mill a bit and tried to wring some new material out of a fairly careworn thread.  I even found myself suspecting, when he puts her on the stand in part 3, that she may end up spurning him.  Did I mind him?  Not so much.  He’s a fairly standard GAD Hero, though at least we get a sense of how the events impact upon him through his sister being found guilty of the murder – if anything, my frustration from these characters comes from how distant from events they seem to stand sometimes (which is why Carr’s romances never bothered me, because at least the couples were typically put through the mill in the process!).

Actually, the romance itself is fine by me. It’s credible enough, I think, and helps glue some of the plot strands together a little more firmly. It’s Bill as a character I’m not crazy about, but OK it’s not a deal breaker.

Gotta be honest – the only thing that really bothers me in the whole setup is the coincidence of Ellery happening to’ve met and remembered Joe Wilson/Gimball.  But for that, no book!

Well yes. So many mysteries of this (or any?) era depend on a happy or unhappy coincidence, but I seem to have trained myself to accept this. But for that, no Golden Age Detection!

Ha, sure – the convenience of the Great Detective being on hand just as the Baffling Crime is committed and leaves behind All Manner of Complex Clues in such a way that simply happens to play into their approach to solving crimes…and flying the the face of the Dunder-Headed Local Police at the same time.  Leo Bruce had tremendous fun poking at this in Case for Three Detectives (1935), so perhaps the time has come to accept this sort of bridge as preferable to some convoluted 50-page way of making the same link.  And I’ve swallowed worse coincidences in my time.

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Colin: Do you have any thoughts about Ellery’s interaction with the law enforcement people? I reckon there’s something of a different feel to the earlier stories with the New York guys, where Ellery could count more on the influence and pull of Inspector Queen to back him up. Chief De Jong comes across as a slightly harder nut to crack (less so Pollinger, I feel), not hostile but a step or two removed from the easy familiarity and all that accompanies it back in New York. Is this distancing perhaps paving the way for the later Wrightsville books?

JJ: It’s not so much that De Jong is hostile as he’s so dense that putting anyone up against him makes them seem like a genius.  When he suggests that Bill’s birthday present was opened by the murderer because  they wanted to get the letter opener to kill Joe…that’s the kind of thing you expect of a comedy constable in a Leo Bruce parody.  Given Ellery’s involvement with Richard Queen’s men, and the time given over to the redoubtable Sergeant Velie in earlier books, De Jong seems a deliberately unsympathetic policeman (and something of a letch, at that).  He feels rather too much like an antagonist who was forced into those opening stages to give it a bit of “bite”, especially in contrast to Pollinger, who just seems to be a man doing his job…and who is arguably far more responsible than anyone else for the misery inflicted in the book.  As for Wrightsville…when I read ‘em, I’ll tell ya!

While we’re talking characters, how do you react to Ella Amity? I’m not sure what to make of her, beyond seeing some resemblance to those go-getter girls who pop up in certain movies of the era – I know, again with the movies but it’s your fault for asking me to get in on this thing! – a sassy broad who is well able to mix it with the guys. I’m reminded a bit of Rosalind Russell in Howard Hawks’ His Girl Friday here (Carole Lombard, Myrna Loy and even Bette Davis could at times do something similar) so I’m wondering if the character was simply a concession to, or an attempt to capitalize on, a type which was clearly popular with the public at the time.

I’m still fairly aghast at the easy access she had to the crime scene – just waltzing on in and parading around like she deserved to be there!  Mind you, this was published the same year as Max Afford’s debut Blood on His Hands (1936), in which a detective gives three reporters a guided tour of a murder scene with the body still present before any other police arrive to start, y’know, investigating…so we should at least be relieved that there were witnesses this time.

However, the light and shade of Ella Amity seems to suggest all manner of things.  I got a sort of a Girl Friday/The Philadelphia Story vibe off of her at first appearance – “burrowing” into the crowd at the crime scene and “scribbling like mad” in her notebook, and she’s certainly presented as the more sympathetic end of the spectrum in the column she writes ahead of the trial.  Equally, there are elements of her treatment and behaviour – De Jong winking at Ellery before slapping “her round rump” (see above re: De Jong being a letch), and Ellery seeing her “tall figure seated on a man’s lap in one of the parked cars” as he flees the house to call the Gimballs at the end of part 1.  I suppose these details could be intended as evincing her her utilising her feminine charms to gain some sort of upper hand in a competitive arena, but it’s never really clear if that’s just acceptable treatment of the attractive female…which, if that’s the case, would run contrary to the utilisation of that popular “type” as you suggest and remove most of the agency that would otherwise have been implicit.

I think it is a combination. What I mean is she’s operating in what was, and would remain for many years, a very male-dominated environment and profession. I don’t see it as anything other than natural for someone, under those circumstances, to use whatever they felt they could exploit to gain a bit of leverage for themselves. And I’m not convinced that the characters’ blasé assumption of how to treat pretty girls in such situations negates that. I mean, I see it hard to have one without the other – Ella can’t exploit her charms if there’s not a ready-made audience there for her to practise them on. I tend to see that type of thing as a tacit acknowledgment of how things were and how to work around them. Granted, this would have been cold comfort for the homelier types.

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There’s a real savagery in the scene where Ellery and Andrea visit Lucy in prison — the smells of “carbolic acid, sour bread, starch, old shoes, and the stench of wash” with the visitors “clutching at the mesh like monkeys in a zoo…so fixed and quiet that they might have been spectators at a play”.  It’s a very restrained and effective move into the sorts of areas that aren’t typically the concern of GAD, and perhaps indicative of the direction and ideas Dannay and Lee wanted to explore.

OK, you’re going to have to indulge me a little here as I have a cinematic approach or way of looking at things, a habit of tying up pop culture trends, references and motifs in my mind which might seem odd if one usually comes at stuff from a wholly literary position. Please bear with me though as it’s something I’ll want to return to in a bit.  Firstly I agree that the prison visit sequence does feel different to the popular conception of what a GAD book ought to contain. It’s telling the story on a different level, the wider consequences of a killing for everyone concerned; this adds a (for me) welcome sense of depth to the writing, proving that GAD can be more than some formulaic exercise in puzzle mechanics.

Anyway, I mentioned cinema, didn’t I? OK, this book was written/published in 1936 and 1930s Hollywood was not averse to examining social issues on occasion. The likes of Warner Brothers in particular went in for a fair bit of consciousness raising with regard to the aftermath of crime. Once the gangster movies lost some of their luster and appeal there were a number of crime pictures which took us inside the prison system – 20,000 Years in Sing Sing, Invisible Stripes, Each Dawn I Die, San Quentin etc – and looked frankly at what the justice system was like from the other side of the bars. My feeling is that this cultural sensibility was to some extent buzzing round the minds of Dannay and Lee when they penned this material about the traumatic and dehumanizing effect incarceration was having on Lucy.

That’s a pretty nifty idea, do you know if it’s something that is borne out in other American authors in this genre at that time?  So much of what I’ve read from this era in this genre is from the English School (Berkeley, Carr, Christie, Crofts, Sayers, etc) who would be largely unaffected by this sort of Hollywood code influence.  Would you say, Rex Stout (who I’ve read patchily) or Erle Stanley Gardner show more of an inclination to include and confront these ideas?  And could that be the leverage point of difference between the British and American approaches to GAD?

My honest answer to that is: I’m not sure, not off the top of my head anyway. It’s just a hunch I had reading through the book, thinking of the era in which it was written, other cultural mores of that time, and the fact EQ was looking to Hollywood more and more – the first EQ film was made in 1935 and more would follow in the 40s, and even the books were heading there in this 2nd period. I think Stout does edge in this direction (the feel, not the Hollywood pitch) too, what with the periodic grillings Archie has to endure from the cops or the DA’s office. This isn’t hardboiled territory by any means but it does present a slightly rougher edge than a lot of English GAD seemed to; Stout is interesting of course for blending elements of both the more genteel and harder schools, and I think EQ had a stab at this on occasion. None of this should really be surprising though; the pulps and the whole hardboiled school were such a big part of American crime writing that some crossover influence on US writers seems inevitable.

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What are your thoughts on the use of disguise by the killer? In one way I rather like the notion of a murderer adopting and using a disguise to take out a victim who has also essentially been living his life in disguise; there’s something quite fitting about that. The whole affair is logically explained away and reasoned out (pretty neatly too) but this is not a ploy I’m ever completely convinced would work in reality. I’ll grant you this is one of the better instances of such a trope being exploited, and as I said the deductive process which leads up to the conclusion is fun and seems airtight enough. Still, an idea like this, whenever it’s used, smacks a little of Scooby Doo with me.

My problems with the disguise are probably more acute than they should be.  I don’t mind Grovsner Finch dressing up as a woman to mislead the garage attendant – that’s all perfectly explained.  But the only reason to remain dressed as a woman when killing Joe seems to be so that Joe can give Bill the message about a “veiled woman”.  I worried for a little bit that this was going to be some obscure dying clue (hey, c’mon, it’s Ellery Queen…), but it turns out it isn’t and so I find that element of the commission of the crime odd.  Surely Finch didn’t need to disguise himself for the murder, because the only witness was going to be, well, murdered.  Wouldn’t he discard the disguise once he got to the house, wait for Gimball/Wilson and go “Joe, you bastard, I love Andrea and you’re making a fool of her!” and then stab him?  Because that seems more likely to me.  The idea of his sitting there waiting in partial cross-dress, smoking a pipe with his veil on is…unintentionally comical.

Incidentally, I’m delighted at the completeness of the clewing here – all perfectly fair – but the “The criminal smoked a pipe and so had to be a man!” is delightfully nonsense.  I can imagine Dorothy L. Sayers having a good ol’ chuckle over that one.

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So, if you had to sum up this book to someone who’s yet to read it, what would your elevator pitch be – how would you convince someone it’s worthy of their time?

I’m going to go back to the title for that one. I like it so much – it just fits and works on so many levels. I mentioned earlier how it feels appropriate for the book’s position within the EQ body of work. I also think I’d use that title as a selling point due to its place within detective fiction overall, existing somewhere on the path between Van Dine traditionalism that preceded it and the more complex, character-driven crime novel that lay ahead.


Quite apart from the enjoyment inherent in finding something pleasing from an author who has disappointed in a variety of ways, it was also a real joy to knock this back and forth with Colin, and I thank him for taking the risk of potentially just having to listen to me jabber and tear out my hair.  But, well, that’s us…what about you, dear reader?  All thoughts on this one appreciated, so get involved below…

69 thoughts on “#446: Spoiler Warning 8 – Halfway House (1936) by Ellery Queen

  1. Well, it’s been a while but I found this one adequate in the Queen canon. But I enjoyed the something something mysteries a lot more than you do and find the later Wrightsville stuff a bit of a drag so while you might see this as the start of a change for the better, I see it as the opposite…

    Oh and if I recall, the episodic nature was something to do with being serialised in a women’s magazine before publication… But that might be nonsense.


    • Man, the amount of GAD stuff that was serialised in magazines before publication is prety amazing — the authors who gave this kind of work away in that manner makes quite the Who’s Who of the form.

      And, sure, this may be the start of something good, but I’ll wait until I’ve read a few more before jumping in either way. False dawn or not, the important thng is the presence of some light…!


    • I like EQ generally and can find material that gives me pleasure in all the periods – the shifting tone and emphasis at various points throughout the long career possibly appeals as there’s almost always something in the body of work that will fit whatever mood I happen to be in at a given time.


      • This is on of the things I generally like about long-career authors: the shifting in tone and focus is surely a necessary part of being able to write for many years in a very narrow idiom. I’m emerging a a huge fan of Freeman Wills Crofts, and adored The Sea Mystery, but if he’s written that 40 times I’m going to get pretty sick of it after a while. That variation, while also betokening a variation in quality, is always nice to help keep things at least a little interesting and — as you say — cater to a variety of readerly moods once you have an overview.


  2. Well, well…I didn’t expect that. Given how much you hate the highly regarded French Powder and Chinese Orange,I thought you would tear into this. What a pleasant suprise!

    I think this is an Average EQ; very enjoyable but they wrote many better books. Having said that, I find even Average Queen to be better than most authors’ top works. 😛

    I have the same copy as Colin which has an introduction but the Kindle edition doesn’t so I guess it’s a modern approach as this title is usually not considered Period One.


    • I find even Average Queen to be better than most authors’ top works.

      I quite agree, and that’s usually what distinguishes the top tier writers, isn’t it? Even if we find a book that we consider weaker in relation to our own view of their overall output, the fact it blows away much of the opposition tells us a lot.


    • I’d call this not the best EQ I’ve yet read, but rather more an exciting opening of the potential they rperesent. I think Colin’s point about this being a ‘halfway house’ towards the kind of book they wanted to be writing is a superb one, and I’m very keen to see how it plays out.

      So, yeah, I was surprised and delighted to find out how much I enjoyed this, and I shall remain hopeful for the next couple. Plus ca change!


  3. Well done you to, a terrific duologue here – hope you can do many more. My edition of HALFWAY HOUSE also omits the foreword – I have a Signet reprint from 1983 that brings it together with FOUR OF HEARTS. It keeps the Challenge to the reader at least but am feeling somewhat deprived – it certainly makes the transition into period two even softer than I first thought. What is true is that they simplified the plots and spent more time with the characters, not least to help sell their wares to slick magazines (in this case, a lucrative sale to Cosmopolitan of a condensation of the novel).


    • I’m intrigued now – I wonder when the intro was first omitted?
      Yes, the plot is a bit more penetrable than some of the outrageous density and complexity that came before but, as I said in reply to PD above, I’m good with all approaches.

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    • Thanks, Sergio, it’s always fun to be able to get into the details of something, and the details are the thing that make these books so good (or, well, also bad…).

      Even as someone who doesn’t read the introductions — they always struck me as something unsustainable, even when I first read Greek Coffin — I would have liked my edition to have at least not omitted it…but, well, I’ll take enjoying a book without an introduction over hating one with!

      And, good heavens — Cosmo? Really? Not the name that jumps to mind these days when one thinks “potential places to publish detective fiction”…but, then, I’m not fashionable to buy Cosmo on anything close to a regular basis 😀

      Liked by 1 person

      • According to Wikipedia, Cosmo used to publish a LOT of fiction in the first half of the 20th century. It says Arthur B. Reeve’s detective Craig Kennedy was a mainstay of the magazine from 1910 to 1918 and that in the Forties, an issue might have one novelette, six to eight short stories, and instalments of two serials!


          • Hmm, a quick look at the FictionMags website tells me that the next three Queens (Door Between, Devil to Pay and Four of Hearts) also appeared in Cosmo as complete-in-one-issue novels. Obviously there was serious money to be made for the cousins in books that stepped up the romance! The issue after the one containing Halfway House began a five-part serialization of S.S. Van Dine’s The Kidnap Murder Case… haven’t read it, so I don’t know how much of a love story there was in that one… Van Dine was against having them in mysteries, but I bet he wasn’t against collecting a large paycheque!


        • I did a little further digging… the next three Queen novels (Door Between, Devil to Pay and Four of Hearts) were all published in condensed form in Cosmo as well. The Queen authors obviously had a solid financial incentive to start playing up the romance in their Period Two books!


          • I mean, this actually might be one of the most insightful comments yet made. Does this imply that Peiod Two, then, was no so much Dannay and Lee wishing to alter what they were doing for internal reasons — dissatisfaction with the genre, etc — but in fact pecuniary, widen the readership, ones? Whaddaya think?


            • Thanks, but I’m not showing any particular insight here. In Nevins’ Ellery Queen: the Art of Detection, he quotes Frederic Dannay, whom he interviewed extensively for the book, about the novels of what Nevins would call Period Two. Here’s Dannay:

              “We loosened the construction…; we put more emphasis on character development and background; we put more emphasis on human-interest situations. And what we were doing, frankly, was to aim at getting magazine serialization, which paid very good money in those days, and to sell to the movies, which was the only other means of getting extra money… we turned to commercialism because we frankly wanted to make more money.” (Ellipses are Nevins’.)

              Straight from the horse’s mouth!

              By the way, the first comment I made above (the one that mentions Kidnap Murder Case) did not appear (at least to me) for several hours after I made it, so I figured there had been a glitch and put in the second one. Just in case anyone thinks I like to repeat myself!


  4. Nice commentary, guys.

    It’s a simpler, cleaner problem than the early ones, with more character interest, as you point out. I, though, solved it pretty easily, to my disappointment (with Dragon’s Teeth, it’s one of the more transparent problems in early Queen), and didn’t think it gripped; I broke off halfway through to read the new Terry Pratchett. (Well, one would!)

    I want to read your comments on The Door Between (even more character interest, but still with Period 1 trappings – could have been called the Japanese Dagger Mystery) and The Four of Hearts (the best of the Hollywood novels).

    There are some grim prison scenes in Stuart Palmer, among American writers. As for the Brits – you’ve got Wade’s Hanging Captain next on your list. Some of his other books look at the workings of the legal / penal system; Released for Death follows two criminals (one a likeable burglar, the other a killer) from in clink. H.C. Bailey, too, is full of wrongful arrests and police corruption; his instincts were liberal, even if he was writing for one of the UK’s more conservative papers.

    I’m fairly sure I remember Sayers commenting on the pipe (unless I’m thinking of her using pipe cleaners apropos Murder on the Orient Express).

    Speaking of the prison scene…

    What struck me is how LEFT-wing the book is (another blow to Symons’ theory that the detective story was reactionary and Tory). I’d be interested in your thoughts.

    Let me quote my review from a few years back:

    “What is it you suspect, gentlemen—a bomb in my right pocket and a copy of The Daily Worker in my left?”

    That’s Ellery Queen talking to the bloated plutocrats, snobbish bluebloods, frigid viragoes, and living corpses who govern New York.

    Halfway House (1935) is the most class-conscious Ellery Queen novel so far. The early books were brilliant fair play detective stories, but their backwards rooms, crucifixions, nude men, Siamese twins, and bearded ladies were hardly realistic depictions of American society.

    Here, Queen the writer tackles the class system “in the fifth year of the depression”. And Queen the sleuth devotes as much time to awakening class consciousness and compassion in the ingénue as he does to solving the murder.

    To make her speak, Ellery takes Andrea out of her sheltered upper class world, and shows her how the other half live.

    He takes her to a settlement house on Henry Street, the city lodging house, and Clifford Odets’ Waiting for Lefty; gives her William Faulkner’s Pylon to read; and jestingly suggests they visit the Rand School of Social Science, founded by the Socialist Party of America in 1906.

    And then he takes her to the jail where Lucy Wilson has been imprisoned.

    This is a remarkable scene. Queen shows Lucy’s numb anguish; the shocked compassion of Andrea, realising for the first time just how harsh life can be; and the callousness of the Amazonian warder. The closest Queen had come to this grim, naturalistic depiction of misery was in The Tragedy of Y. That novel was too overblown to convince; the York family, that clan of syphilitics in thrall to a hellish matriarch, owed more to S.S. Van Dine and the Julio-Claudians than contemporary American life. Here Queen depicts an average American woman in a realistic but unusual situation, and the result is powerful.

    “It is not Lucy Wilson who is on trial for her life, it is Society,” writes energetic woman reporter Ella Amity.

    “Society, which makes it possible for a man of wealth and position to marry a poor girl of the lower classes in another city under a false name, take ten of the most precious years of her life, and then—when it is too late—decide to tell the truth and confess his hideous sin to her. Society, which makes it possible for such a man to commit bigamy, to have a poor wife in Philadelphia and a rich one in New York, to spend his time calmly between the two wives and the two cities like a commuter.

    “Innocent or guilty, Lucy Wilson is the real victim, not the man who lies buried in a Philadelphia cemetery under the name of Joseph Wilson, not the heiress of millions who took his real name of Gimball in vain at St. Andrew’s Cathedral in New York in 1927. Will Society protect Lucy from itself? Will Society make amends for the ten years it took from her life? Will Society see that the crafty forces of wealth and social power do not crush her beneath their cruel heels?”


    • I’m not going to shy away from your question about the politics of the detective novel, Nick — and thanks for your kind words, by the way — I’ve just never really thought of it as a political medium. I suppose, given my at-best-tenuous grip of the general shape of political sidings, the Right Wing candidates might champion how rule and order is restored by some social superior (Wimsey, ranked police officers) and thus trumpet the rights of organisations in involving themselves in the lives of individuals. Equally, the Left could see the champion as the onest worker — the Amateur Detective from my Criminous Alphabet the other week — who is able to escape the bounds of their limited social milieu and show up the falsity of the oppressor (the upper class, policemen…).

      I just wanna enjoy myself, y’know?

      The crime story became increasingly interested in social mores, certainly, and thus a more left-wing carrier, but does that mean the detective novel couldn’t have left-wing elements? I remember Noah making a point about a J.J. Connington book (I believe) in which the characters reflect on how difficult it is to find a suitable class of forelock-tuggning serfs to respect their elders and obvious betters after the War (I forget which War…), which would be an inherently right-wing perspective, but that doesn’t really sound like the common content of a detective novel. Is it not just an apolityical medium that can be exploited either way?

      Also, please forgive my complete ignorance on this front. I really am just here to enjoy the stories and look at the nice floorplans… 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

      • Enjoying yourself is a typically decadent bourgeois attitude – an adherence to the pleasure principle!

        Are detective stories the opiate of the intelligentsia? Solving imaginary conundrums rather than grappling with the real problems of class struggle? 😉

        Seriously, though, I was thinking specifically of Queen’s Left-liberal politics in Halfway House.

        The detective story is an apolitical genre, but each writer necessarily brings their own worldview to their fiction.

        Connington’s definitely Right-wing; his SF book Nordenholt’s Millions proposes quasi-fascism as the answer to a global catastrophe.


        • Oh, sure, sorry — I got a bit lost inside my own imaginings there, and began to realise how shaky the ground I stood upon was. I like to think I do my best thinking out lod, but sometimes it really is just automatic typing 🤣

          In other news, I’ve been up since 3am writing an SF novel in which Breixt is resolved to the satisfaction of literally everyone on the entire planet.

          Liked by 1 person

  5. This is one of the best Queen novels that I’ve read so far. The plot is very clever and though the solution disappointed me due to it having a rather dull culprit with a semi uninteresting scheme, it’s still miles ahead of books like The Roman Hat Mystery.
    I feel like character interest really is the main focus here. We have to delve into the character of Joe and see whether or not it was Joe Wilson who was killed or Joseph Gimball; a fascinating question that really make this book stand out. You kill one man and yet you kill two, so who was really killed and who was really collateral damage?
    Thinking back on the book, I was a little disappointed by the lack of full study into Joe. We get information in the beginning and I don’t think there ever is another mention of his past of motivations till the very end.
    The courtroom scenes and the jail scenes are brilliant. They both written in a way that leads to a devestating impact and kept my eyes glued to the page continuously. Lucy really stands out here, as I said in my review, she comes off as one of Carr’s prosecuted woman. Can we be sure that she is really guilty of a crime? or is she completely innocent? Perhaps the most developed character Queen had created up to this point.
    I hated the romance here. It just seemed very uneeded and dragged out the plot too much for poor old me. I can appreciate a romantic subplot – but Queen usually can’t make them good (except for Calamity Town).
    And yes – my edition was a ebook that decided to omit the introduction. Perhaps even the editors got tired of Queen’s smugness 😀


    • I’ve added a link to your review since people reading this may be unaware you’d started a blog — I was myself until you linked to review to my SW announcement. Welcome to the fold!

      The courtroom scene are phenomenal. I have a slight sinking feeling whenever GAD goes to court, partly because of the sheer number of pointless and/or mind-numbingly stupid inquests I’ve had to sit through in my time, but that section herein was a real rip-snorter, which by and large does everything these sorts of scene should: introduce doubt, introduce peril, make us care, make us feel the impact of the decisions (man, when he called Lucy to the stand…). To go from the shifting cardboard plot-enablers of the Early stuff to so rich and full an experience as this trial was a delight.

      But, yeah, after all that’s said, done, and chewed over, the romance is a complete duff. Sure, your fiance is a dullard and a moron. Maybe take a little time once you;re free of him. Go on a sightseeing trip. Don’t just throw yourself at a GAD protagonist, woman, have some self respect…


      • If you think this romance is a duff – well lets just say that The Door Between would like to have a word with you on that topic ( a book that I assume is your next Queen read?). Queen really wasn’t able to do decent romance until the Wrightsville period, where he creates several gorgeous relationships that break and mend our hearts constantly. The mysteries in the Wrightsville novels are slight and so are very easily solvable, but they are all so rich in character, setting, and twists that sometimes the lack of mystery isn’t even upsetting (Can’t wait for the discussion in whether or not Calamity Town is an impossible crime novel).
        Queen is very good with court scenes. He adds twists and turns that keep each trial alive without them collapsing into monotonous testimonies and dissections of witness behavior. The scene here is very good, and reminds me of the trial in Suddenly at his Residence in a sense.
        Many Thanks for the addition of me to your blogroll. Viewing numbers are already up tenfold 😃!


        • I’m not entirely sure how my persepctive on this has evolve over time, but my feeling now is that I’ll happily take an easily-solvable mystery if the book containing it is good enough. Hell, I’ve been aying that about Norman Berrow since I started reading him! Love a complex puzzle thought I undoubtedly do, it would be disingenuous of me to claim that Puzzle Is All — if that were the case, The Dutch Shoe Mystery might not have left me as cold as it did.

          Calamity Town is a potential impossibility/ Interesting. I see it’s about five books ahead. Six if I read Siamese Twin first. Seven if I read The Lamp of God. Hmm, best stop counting now, else I’ll never bloody get there… 🙂


          • Does someone being poisoned with the only people with the opportunity having a alibi seem impossible 😁? The Lamp of God is a very decent story, the impossible crime is interesting – if flawed, but it has a absolutely stunning culprit.
            Look at me, trying to add more books to your TBR pile, I should be ashamed.


            • Weeeell…maybe. I guess it depends on how the poisoning is achieved. If it’s ye olde poison hidden in something to be eaten later when everyone else is not in the room…no (see my alibi breakdown from last week for more on this). If it’s How On Earth Did They Die Whn We Were All In The Same Boat a la The Red Widow Murders, I’d say it does. So, obviously, don’t tell me which, but there’s definitely scope.

              As for the TBR, don’t worry: it adds books to itself, so at least when these appear on there I’ll have some sense of where they came from!


  6. Looking at my copy, which is part of the complete reprint done by Gollancz in the 1970s, I see that it does not have the introduction, so I would suppose that that wasn’t in the first British edition either.


    • I wonder how late the title was changed. Maybe it was going to be Swedish Match in the US and so got included despite the change, and then it was published in the UK as HH from the off and thus the introduction was deemed good for excision. Pure surmise, and spun from your own surmise that it wasn’t in the UK first edition, but whaddaya think?


      • It’s actually bugging me now that I don’t have that Pan edition to hand – I’m itching to know now whether the intro was retained or dropped in that one.


  7. Your dialogue was great, gentlemen. and I’m glad you found a Queen to your taste, JJ. But let’s be real here, sir: it’s all a matter of preference and not a mathematical theorem to prove that Queen is finally getting good! You call this, “an exciting opening of the potential they represent. I think Colin’s point about this being a ‘halfway house’ towards the kind of book they wanted to be writing . . . . ” How do you know that? You may hate Wrightsville. And you haven’t read The Dragon’s Teeth yet! Yeesh!

    HH was certainly a transition into something different. This style shift is pure Queen, as throughout their careers, the boys emulated/aped/homaged/whatevered the styles they deemed popular: Van Dine to ladies slick magazines to naturalism to self-homage. I read this in late high school/early college and, according to my own tastes, I missed the lunacy of the international titles. But even I could tell by American/Chinese/Spanish that the writers were getting tired. I do think I would get more out of this now, especially having read Nick’s brilliant comments above. I happen to be reading now one of the only two Queens I have never read before, and I am struck by some of the political parallels to today. Pure entertainment indeed!

    You’re lucky I’m working all weekend, man, or this comment would have been a LOT longer!


    • I’m guessing you’re not a fan of The Dragon’s Teeth then? Does no-one have a good word to say about that book? I reread it earlier this year, some time in the spring I think, under its UK title The Virgin Heiresses and I thought it was fine – OK, the Beau Rummell character got on my nerves a tad and the mystery itself was nothing special, but it still entertained me for the most part.


          • Well, as I said, there’s no truly bad EQ novel. I did enjoy reading it, it whizzed by quite nicely. But there are some obvious problems, as Brad pointed out. And these problems are – to my mind – bigger than in most other EQ stories.

            If I had to say which are the worst novels, I think I’d choose this, “Devil to Pay”, “House of Brass”, “Last Woman” (which is the closest thing to bad EQ wrote) and pooooossibly “Fourth Side of the Triangle” and “A Fine and Private Place”.


            • I’d never try to claim there were no problems with the book – that would be foolish or dishonest. I suppose what it comes down to is the fact I’m one of those glass half full guys, focusing more on the positives, unless of course the negative aspects are overwhelming. OK, I still have a number of EQ books to read but I have to say that, as yet, I’ve not found one that I actively disliked.
              Mind you, I did struggle a bit with And on the Eighth Day. But that may have been a ghost-written effort? I recall finding it…different and a bit odd, but I should probably give it another go with my expectations adjusted accordingly.


        • Aside from the aforementioned problems, I kind of liked the setting and atmosphere. Also, Ellery, when he appeared, was again showing yet more signs of becoming increasingly human, and I rather liked the way the heroine was written – that Carr-like sense of empathy was in evidence again.


    • I mean, you cut off what I said at the key point: “…is a superb one, and I’m very keen to see how it plays out.” So, no, I’m not claiming to know, but this feels like a very conscious decision on the part of the authors to write something more…personable, let’s say, and I trust the judgement of yourself, Colin, and others who have said that the later titles are different still. Hence “I’m very keen to see how it plays out” — this is me reserving judgement, but being open to the notion that yet more change is on the way.

      C’mon, man, I’m more respectful of this genre than to make definite sweeping claims about stuff I have no experience of. Hell, I still consider myself at least ten years of reading away from being able to blog on GAD with any confidence.

      Onwards to The Door Between, or backwards to Siamese Twin, who knows? The key thing is that I don’t dread it quite so fully any more.


  8. I have the same edition of this as Sergio does, and can thus confirm that the introduction is not there, though I knew that the novel is supposed to have one from having read it elsewhere, possibly in one of Francis M. Nevins’s works on the authors.

    As for Colin’s comments on the characters of Bill and Ella, I think those are pretty archetypal for EQ. All of the period two novels have a “Bill character” (though I’d argue that in “Four of Hearts” that character is female), and they pop up here and there after that as well (in “Cat of Many Tails” and “The Origin of Evil” just off the top of my head). And the “Ella character” pops up here and there – in “Calamity Town” and “Double Double”, just to mention two novels that I remember well.

    Otherwise, good to see that J. J. finally found an EQ novel he could like. I’m not sure why, but I’ll take it! 🙂

    What do you guys think of my contention that HH is more of a Period One story than a Period Two one? J. J. still hasn’t read any other stories from Period Two, so it’s hard for him to comment on that, but what about Colin, or any other visitor for that matter?


    • To me, this feels markedly different once you get past the opening section. For that whole first chunk I was sweating bukllets over what I’d let myself in for, but once Part Two started it was a much more character-focused, compelling story with far less extraneous waffle than the early Period One stuff and less conscious showing off than the later Period One stuff. But, sure, that’s only the case for, like, 75% of the book, so I can see your thinking.


      • I see your point, but I also think that your point is coloured by the fact that you haven’t read the other Period Two books. To me, they are markedly different from HH. I will absolutely agree with you and Colin that there is a shift in tone already in this book, but to be honest, this could be seen to a lesser extent already in “Spanish Cape”, and I also think that this shift is much larger in the coming books.

        The character Ellery of this novel is still the same Ellery as before, while the Ellery in the coming books is an entirely different person, as I pointed out when discussing the four sport short stories from “New Adventures”.

        But we’ll just have to see what you think when you read “The Door Between” or “The Four of Hearts”.


        • Oh, no doubt. I don’t think anyone would claim that this was a Nationality title in strucutre or tone, and it makes sense that Dannay and Lee, having changed the character and approach of their books, wouldn’t stop after the small change herein. If anything, this manner of change would make me suspect that there’s very little that stays trult static in the EQ books from this point ont but — as always — we’ll have to wait and see what I perceive in them before I can have that conversation in any depth.

          Twenty years from now, I’ll be ready to contribute something to that discussion…!


    • I guess it does have characteristics which are more readily identifiable with the first group of novels, but the shift in tone is evident I think. OK, that shift gets a bit more pronounced as we move to other books but it’s clear enough for me to have no problem saying it signals the start of another stage in the development of EQ.


  9. “Had publishers later on given much thought to the idea of the Queen books falling into categories and eras? I mean I can see that kind of analysis being applied by 2011 but I’m not so sure about the 50s, 60s, 70s etc. It just feels like a more modern approach.”

    I believe Nevins in Royal Bloodline (1973) was the first critic to divide Queen’s works into those four periods we all know so well.


    • Yes, I wasn’t trying to suggest that the approach was unheard of before, just that it feels like the kind of thing which would have been a lot less widespread.I mean, the kind of discussion we’re having here today, our varied contributions and our placing of books in what now feel like clearly defined categories, just feels like a very 21st Century affair. It’s something I reckon belongs firmly in the internet era. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

      • Except that Nevins categorized Queen periods in ‘73. Puzzle Doctor recently pooh-poohed the idea, and it’s true that “Period Two” is brief. I like the idea that the change was more gradual than exact, putting both Spanish Cape and Halfway House as transitional steps toward a different phase.

        Liked by 1 person

        • Oh I don’t dispute that about Nevins, nor do I have any issue with the eras chosen. I just wonder how widely the matter would have been discussed and consequently how much publishers would have taken such questions into account.


            • Oh, man, can you even imagine the beauty of a time when publishers used to churn out this kind of material despite not being entirely aware of the fan base that was rabidly buying, dissecting, and nerding out over it? This sounds like bliss…


        • Out of interest, can anyone think of a lon-career — say 20+ novels — author who didn’t evolve the type of story they wrote as they went on? Like, is it even possible to keep churning out the same stuff over that long a period with all the social change going on around them?

          Because, honestly, that would seem like something worth categorising, as opposed to a series of incremental steps forwards, sideways, and occasionally backwards as the novels someone puts out morph and merge around some core ideas. Just a thought…


  10. I find it interesting that this and the Queen novel immediately previous (Spanish Cape) both come in for criticism along the lines of “Gee, this one was so much simpler to solve than the earlier ones.” Maybe Spanish Cape, even though it has a Nationality-Object title, marks the authors’ first moves toward a new period of novels that emphasized other considerations above complexity of plot?


  11. Dannay’s frank acknowledgement that the style was altered in order to increase the commercial value of the stories and make more money sounds reasonable to me. I think anything else would be odd, to be honest, as any professional writer has to be in it for the money unless he fancies setting himself up as some kind of martyr to art. Ultimately, there’s no point in writing material few people want to read – that EQ moved in another direction due to economic necessity doesn’t mean that there were no artistic considerations though.


    • Van Dine had stopped selling, and Dannay and Lee were restless and eager for a bigger audience. The movies were made, but they were not very good and the experience was unsatisfying. Their writing dynamic and relationship with each other was fiery. (See Joseph Goodrich’s collection of the letters between the cousins. It’s fascinating!)

      They were, as you say, Colin, artists who wanted to be successful and rich. Lee suffered for his art more than Dannay and gave it up. Dannay the editor was one of the greatest contributors to the world of short crime fiction who ever lived. He saw the way audiences fluctuated and changed with the times for much of his career.


    • Oh, sure — I’m not entirely sure who you’re responding to here, but I don’t think there’s anything wrong with adapting to the expectations of the time inside of one’s own idiom. It’s still possible to write popular fiction well, even if “good” writing is not what attracts people to it in the first place…. 🙂


  12. Pingback: THE TRAGEDY OF Zzzzzzzzzz | ahsweetmysteryblog

  13. Pingback: Halfway House (1936) by Ellery Queen – Dead Yesterday

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