Brad has threatened to drum me out of the GAD Club Members’ Bar for my lack of kow-towing to the work of Ellery Queen. In fairness, I really rather enjoyed Halfway House (1936), but here I am fighting for my rights. And I think he’s timed this deliberately, being well aware that The Door Between (1937) was up next for me, because Gordon’s beer is Eva MacClure, the heroine who finds herself at the centre of an impossible murder plot, one of the most frustrating perspective characters I’ve yet encountered. Goodness, she makes one positively ache for the company of Noel Wells from The Saltmarsh Murders (1932) by Gladys Mitchell.
But, well, think positive. The plot honestly feels a little slim, but at least the situation is an interesting one: Eva’s stepmother-to-be, the reclusive author Karen Leith, is writing in her study while Eva waits for her in the sitting room next door. It is not possible to get to Karen without passing through the sitting room, yet when Eva goes to investigate a phone ringing unanswered she finds Karen with her throat slit. No-one went past Eva, no-one could get into the room by its other door — leading up to Karen’s private attic — since that was bolted shut and the bolt was too stiff to hoax, so, uhm, howdunnit? There’s an economy of setup here, coming, alas, after a lot of Eva flouncing around, thinking about her life with her dreamy, dull, doctor fiancé Richard ‘Dick’ Scott, and generally being an over-privileged pain.
We’re clearly in a new phase of Queenian writing, and not just because Ellery himself is far, far less of a prig here than he was in the Nationality Noun books. This seems to mark a move away from detection and into crime for the cousins — witness how for all the very entertaining developments that emerge once Ellery is finally a) brought up to speed and b) on the scene of the crime, not a single one was presented in advance for us to ruminate over. There’s nothing you see in advance that Dannay and Lee come back to and up-end your expectations over, you’re simply told “Here, look at this handwriting, this means X” and “Good heavens, because of this dump of backstory we can deduce Y”. It’s entertaining, and it’s smartly constructed, but the gamesmanship has gone (so has the Challenge to the Reader, because no way in hell do you have the information to solve this) and it feels rather rushed as a result.
The writing is very smooth, and it goes down easily in places, such as Eva’s father, the cancer specialist Dr. John MacClure, described early on as:
[A]n unkempt, absent man. No one could remember the time when he had not worn a certain ancient brown suit, unpressed, depilated, and edged with fuzz, which clung to his shoulders plaintively. He was a strong man, and a tired man, and while he did not look his age he nevertheless contrived to seem a hundred.
Character-wise, with the exception of Eva and Dick who you sort of feel deserve each other, we’re on pretty good ground. Sure, I don’t love the way the maid Geneva O’Mara is always referred to in terms of how stupid she appears, and the casual slurring of the Japanese people is disconcertingly front and centre, but the core cast of Ellery (on good form, seeming a far more interested and human presence now), John MacClure (juggling the death of his fiancée with the accusation of murder Richard Queen seems intent to pin on his daughter), and the P.I. Terry Ring (he starts out annoying — and a little misogynistic — but grows on you) make three sides of a very interesting square.
The fourth, alas, is Eva, and she the drippiest drip who ever dripped — content to do what she’s told, wander about in a daze thinking how terrible it will be if her fiancé disowns her (the phrase “She couldn’t imagine her life without Dick” crops up so much I started thinking either Dannay or Lee had a complex about something) and fall for anyone who shows even the slightest interest in her existence. This novel was serialised in Cosmopolitan magazine in 1936 and the focus on “a woman’s problems” was something Dannay and Lee felt would appeal to their new audience, but would anyone enjoy reading about the spoiled socialite and her First World Problems? She’s such an idiot (Ohmygod! Japanese people have tear ducts!) and such a child (all Dr. Dick has to do is buy her a chocolate ice cream soda and she’s forgotten any argument they might have had) that, were I part of Dannay and Lee’s intended new audience, I’d be insulted that this is what they thought I’d enjoy reading about.
In terms of solution…well, it’s…fine, though a clear case of Occam’s razor and relying on an act of happenstance so hilariously beyond the control of anyone that you almost want to admire the chutzpah it took to make it a core part of the puzzle. And, worst of all, Dannay and Lee have the gall to then present us with an additional ending that is nothing more than pure, unfiltered guess-work and imply that there’s even a smidgen of logic behind any of it. There’s a little fun to be had with the tropes of low-end locked room scenarios — a laugh was wrung from me when Ellery meets the appalled suggestion of a secret panel with the bon mot “Well, why not? … You don’t spit on your great-grandmother just because she’s hung around a long time” — but that would be a lot more compelling were their own answer one for the ages. It’s not. It’s really, really not.
Weirdly, then, this is a book that’s composed mainly of disappointing parts and yet one I blitzed through in no time at all and didn’t thoroughly hate in the process. It’s about as good as the more highly-regarded The Chinese Orange Mystery (1934), though constructed with half the care and a third of the skill, perhaps winning through on the simplicity and clarity with which everything ties together come the close (because, man, the solution to TCOM is anything but, right?). I’ll remember more about this in a year than I do of Chinese Orange now, though mainly because of how it under-delivers where it matters. The Queens and I may not always see eye-to-eye, but if this is what sees my bar privileges revoked, well, I wouldn’t want to be the member of a club that venerated it in the first place.
Puzzle Doctor @ In Search of the Classic Mystery Novel: Anyway, so far, so fine, but now we come to the big problem with the book – Eva Maclure herself. I’m not a violent man in any way, shape or form, but if I could have reached into the book, grabbed her by the shoulders and yelled at her to grow up, I would have done. She’s absolutely unbearable – moping, falling for the first man who shows her interest, falling for the second man who shows her interest… and with the book written mostly from a spot just behind her head, tuned into her deepest thoughts… well, it doesn’t help. I presume the book was, like Half-Way House, serialised in a magazine that wanted the romantic elements as well as the mystery, but it got on my nerves throughout the book.