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…
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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…