#502: The Door Between (1937) by Ellery Queen

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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.

51sc8lksxwl.sx316.sy316Weirdly, 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.

~

See also

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.

51 thoughts on “#502: The Door Between (1937) by Ellery Queen

    • I read a large handful of Queen many years ago, but didn’t really keep track of titles and so my memory is hazy. I remember Greek Coffin, Four of Hearts, and possibly Dragon’s Teeth as being pretty darn good. Also enjoyed some of their longer short fiction. But then I lost touch with them and got into a Robert Crais/Harlan Coben vibe while at university and ended up making my way back to the classics after a while. So I’m convinced there’s good in them — oh, and Halfway House was very good, too — it’s just unfortunate that I’ve chosen to return to them at a time when they don’t seem to do what I’m after.

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        • Oh, a long time ago — shortly after I discovered Christie, in fact, since someone mentioned they were contemporatries and if I liked her I’d like Queen. Which, upon reflection, makes no sense, but I was young and eager to learn, and so probably told myself I was having more fun than I really was.

          Which, now I come to think about it, is the pattern of almost everything I’ve done in my life to date. Wow, I need to go away and give this some serious thought.

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    • Read GCM years back, very very (perhaps a little too…?) clever, and really enjoyed HH last time around. If Brad’s gonna commit to Paul Halter, I can’t bail on Queen 😂 I just require a little patience on behalf of my audience while I continue to get it so wrong…much like Brad and Halter 🤣

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          • Who the heck is this pundit called Brad whose good opinion means so much to the community? This is a Period Two book, one of the better ones, but it still feels “less than” the best of Queen. In other words, not as strong as, say, The Siamese Twin Mystery. Has anyone ever recommended that one to you???

            I read all of Queen many years ago and will admit in returning to him that his early style hasn’t aged well. But I won’t defend his considerable merits to you because you’re entitled to the reactions you have. You, who extol Crofts for the very tedium he inspires, and love all sorts of Unreadables, are entitled to your opinion. I will defend that to the death!!!

            A (Rupert) penny for your thoughts?

            Sent from my iPad

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            • Firstly, thanks for that update about your iPad.

              Secondly — yeah, it’s weird, innit? I see how someone like Crofts bores people, but then I love the effort that has gone into the convolutions of his plots. I rated the last couple of Crofts books I read the same as this one, so let’s not pretend I’ve unquestioningly loved everything of his I’ve read (and, hey, there’s that one short story of his that I still don’t even understand…), but I cant deny that FWC seems to elicit more joy from me than Quees does, despite Queen being on the surface more my kind of books.

              Someone like, say, Rupert Penny writes the sorts of books (to my eye) that fans of Queen seem to think Dannay and Lee wrote, and the handful of Rhode/Burtons I’ve read are equally largely reliant on some complex schemes and canny misdirection, so I’ll acknowledge that something gets lost in the translation with Queen…and I don’t know what that is!

              But rest assured, Brad, I’m here for the long haul. I may not always lilke it, but I’ll not let you down.

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  1. “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…”

    Mr Queen, tell me about your sex life.

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  2. I have only sketchy memories of this, although the ending stayed with me, which isn’t so surprising I suppose.
    Anyway, without a reread, I can only talk in terms of impressions. I recall this as OK (your 3/5 rating makes sense to me) but a bit light and lacking some of the punch I’d been hoping for. Mind you, I think I read it at a time when I had a whole lot of other stuff vying for my attention so that may have colored my judgment to an extent.

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    • Yeah, between your ropy memories and my recent ones we’re agreed here — doesn’t overreach itself, ends up being successful on the terms it sets, but the genre and the Queens had seen (and saw) far better, more ambitious books.

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      • I noticed you mentioned in some of your replies that you remembered The Virgin Heiresses/The Dragon’s Teeth as being good. I think the general consensus, for what its worth, is that iit’s one of the weaker entries. I reread it maybe 12 months ago and found it fine, with one of those slightly irksome leads but rather fun overall. Sometimes that’s as much as I need, to be honest.

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        • Huh, well, there you go. I mean, we’re going back to 1999-2000ish, so a lot of reading in the genre has been done since then, but I take your point on not needing everything to be brilliant (or even notable) in order to enjoy a book.

          I’m making peace with not being on message over EQ, and I apologise to the wider GAD community for my lack of line-toeing, but in time I’ll have enough of an overview in recent memory to make some declarations on the subject, so holod onto your hats for that. It’ll be a way off, though, so don’t, like, anticipate it any time soon.

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          • I’m just delighted that there’s an expert around who feels as I do about EQ. I keep hoping for more from the next one I try on someone’s recommendation, and then it doesn’t happen. I’m all over the other GAD titles and authors, but it seems he and I were not made for each other.

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          • Yikes, was I just called “an expert” after my first rude intrusion into this longstanding conversation? Be still, my heart! (Somehow I didn’t discover this and other similarly-themed blogs until this week. But I’ve been reading Christie, Carr, et al since the 1960s.)

            It’s too long ago for me to remember details, but in 3 or 4 EQ titles that I tried, there was an obvious possibility or question that nobody was exploring, and I kept waiting for someone to bring it up, and then in the end it turned out to be the secret that revealed the solution, which left me disgruntled. (This never happens to me; I’m not someone who tries to guess the solution, I’m delighted to be passively surprised, but it happened repeatedly with EQ.) And then I bumped into THE LAST WOMAN IN HIS LIFE, which was enough for me to write EQ off for good. (In the end I didn’t, because I don’t live up to my own principles.)

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            • Rinaldo – I’m not going to try to change your mind about Queen; we’ve both been reading him for about the same amount of time, and you are more than capable of choosing your own path! However, I just wanted to be clear: The Last Woman in His Life is an abomination, no matter how
              much I like Queen! Do we are agreed!

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            • @Brad — as I said, I do keep trying, from time to time. For my birthday in December, a longtime friend sent me the recently reprinted Chinese Orange Mystery, which I read, hoping for the best. Which didn’t happen, no point going into detail. But there are still titles I haven’t tried, maybe one will turn the tables for me. As GB Shaw said in another context, such reputations are not to be had for nothing.

              And of course there’s no possible doubt that TLWIHL is an abomination. When I tell friends about it, they’re sure I must be making it up. (And quite aside from everything that makes it detestable, didn’t EQ return to that “dying word/action, the essential clue could we but interpret it” well a few too many times? I’ve noticed that even the TV series was over-reliant on it.)

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            • I like dying messages as a rule, but they need to be an adjunct to a richer mystery (like in The Siamese Twin Mystery.) The problem here is two-fold: there’s the obvious one, where Dannay and Lee have embraced a vision of the killer that appalls every decent modern reader. I have to treat that the way I treat Christie’s casual anti-Semitism. I don’t have to like it, but I figure they didn’t know any better. The second problem is that the final page, where Queen deduces exactly why the victim uttered this particular word, is so ludicrous and laughable and ridiculous and stupid that you have to wonder at the gall of the writer for creating this situation. (The third problem is that the book is actually pretty boring.) In a way, I want JJ to read this book so that he can unleash his inner beast on it. But I’m trying to help JJ find some positive ground with EQ, so I am urging him to leave TLWihL alone for a very long time!

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            • (Brad said ” I have to treat that the way I treat Christie’s casual anti-Semitism. I don’t have to like it, but I figure they didn’t know any better.”) I guess I feel that in the case of TLWIHL, by 1970, they *should* have known better. I mean I read it only half a dozen years later, and it felt positively (and horrifyingly) prehistoric. Admittedly those had been years of great societal change, plus I had a personal stake in this one, so maybe my perception of the distinction isn’t to be trusted.

              One thing I do recall for sure: in addition to the overall premise (didn’t they know ANYONE they could check this stuff with?), and that preposterous final page, there was a page earlier on, containing what we’d now call an info-dump: a blunt listing of the authors of the books in someone’s study (no, I’m not going to find a copy to recall the details), the composers of the recordings, probably the painters of the pictures. This was apparently intended to be where the subtle clue slides by the reader, only to be explained later — but there’s not another page in the book like this, and it’s so idiotically obvious (and, by the way, misinformed in a couple of cases) that I wanted to throw the book across the room right then. (I should have.)

              Ah well — at least I don’t have to worry that masses of people have read it and been misinformed by it.

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            • Do you think it at all possible that they were trying to “enlighten” the world on a topic to which most people hadn’t given a thought? To the average reader, this list wouldn’t have counted as a clue, and this is supported by the fact that they were left out in plain sight while that damned statue was hidden!!!

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            • If they were, they did it too ineptly to get credit for it. And the list was so blatant (it took up the better part of a page, as I recall), all but yelling “I am a clue in the form of a list!”, even an uninformed reader would suspect that something was up. And might well know what the something was, as even at that date the word was getting around on many of those artists/authors/composers.

              However. Ahem. I didn’t mean to derail this conversion, when the book in question isn’t even the topic of the page! I do sincerely apologize.

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  3. I don’t understand why you gave it three-stars. You pointed all the problems of the plot and should drummed on how truly awful the locked room-trick really was, but you gave still gave it a pretty average rating. Going by your review and track record, it should gotten one-star for the disappointing plot and an extra one for readability. And not hating it. So where did the third star come from? You’re trying to appease Brad, aren’t you?

    Brad might not drum you out of the community for this review, but I can still stuff you in a gibbet cage and hang at a dirt crossroad in the countryside, where you can think about what you’ve done.

    I second Sergio’s recommendations for The Greek Coffin Mystery and The Siamese Twin Mystery. Great early EQ mysteries.

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    • Maaaaan, I can’t please anyone…. 😂

      I think it’s a perfectly servicable book — it’s not trying to be too vast or too spectacular, and it succeeds in the minor puzzle it sets out. Sure, the “logical” epilogue is nonsense, but for crime novel reversals the middle section takes some beating…even if it loses some prestige by not enabling us to play along. I put it with Chinese Orange in quality because that posits far more and underdelivers, whereas this remains small and delivers pretty much what I’d expected.

      But, well, you and I agreed on Cat’s Paw last week, so a schism was on the cards, I suppose…

      I enjoyed Greek Coffin, will get to Siamese Twin at…some point. I think the “in order” might be about to go out of my “Ellery Queen in Order” undertaking, anyway.

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    • I just want to say we shouldn’t hang JJ for not liking Queen.

      It’s a moot point anyway since he should already have been gibbeted for preferring Crofts to Carr!

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  4. Thanks JJ for the review; how cruel of Brad to threaten to throw you out. 😅

    Anyway, finally a Queen novel that manages to secure a passing mark out of 5 stars on your blog! 🤩 I’ve heard only rather middling comments about this title – even those who commend its puzzle nonetheless deplore the female lead. Looks like I definitely should read this before taking hold of “Halfway House” or “Four of Hearts”.

    I read “Greek Coffin Mystery” late last year, and I confess I enjoyed it slightly less than I expected. I say “less” because it has a remarkable reputation, and although I concede the choice of culprit was quite staggering, the story stayed on longer than it was welcome. But I also say “slightly” because I’ve had depreciating enjoyment of Queen’s novels over the years. When I first started reading beyond Christie, Queen and Carr were natural choices. And while I liked Queen more at first, Carr caught up quickly, and has by now superseded Queen considerably.

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    • Halfway House passed, more than readily. I guess it didn’t get a star rating on account of it not being a review, but that was easily a 4-star book.

      I’m starting to suspect that my early enjoyment of Queen came largely from my not knowing quite what to expect from the earlier school of detective fiction when compared to the crime and thriller fiction I was reading at the time. Hey, look, it’s all stones on the road that brought me here, so I’m not going to whinge too much, but I’m with you in appreciating Carr above Christie and then a long gap to Queen into which we can cram more than a few others.

      I’m fact, there may even be a few between Carr and Christie…

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  5. I recall not being enamored of this one. When I was a Queen fan I very strongly preferred the early Country Object books and the short story adventures. I am finding EQ a struggle these days to read or reread. I did like Egyptian Cross the second time some years ago, but not Greek Coffin last year.

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    • I have fond memories of some of the short stories, so perhaps a more catholic reading of those — rather than focussing on the impossibilities as I did last year — would yield more favourable results.

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      • Impossibility and mechanical cleverness are not EQ’s strong suit. That is the close attention to detail in deductive sequences. (I suppose that’s a Crofts strength too, but EQ is imaginative.) That might be why I don’t enjoy him as much as I used to: I no longer have the patience to read 30 pages explaining why the note being in green ink rather than blue ink proves the murderer was left handed.

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        • Yeah, that’s a perfect encapsulation of the difficulty this sector of GAD suffers with — the inductive reasoning is often very enjoyable in principle (“Here’s how the fact that six cats were all found with their tails shaved proves the murderer must be a six-foot, Saggitarian, horse-riding Communist”) but veers into characterlessness in its desire to be so clever-clever

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    • Thanks for the link, Mike — you’re spot on (in my opinion) about the mixing of the types of story and the disappointment that results.

      As much as this transitional period gave rise to a new syle of Queen novel, it’s interesting that Dannay and Lee themselves don’t seem entirely sure what they’re trying to turn into. As evolutionary steps go, this feels rather retrograde after the focus and invention of Halfway House. More like the Awkward Teenage Years than any conscious development of a plan.

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