At some point any committed fan of the Golden Age must make an attempt on the oeuvre of Ellery Queen. The books’ influence on other writers, the complexity of the plots, the brave and unusual changes in style, the quintessentially silly name: all make it necessary to try out at least a couple. Besides, I think you get a badge.
But my own experience with Queen, until a few months ago, comprised one awful late-era novel (title and plot now expurgated from memory) read far back in the cobwebbed past and a few ebook samples that were briefly helpful with my insomnia. Also, JJ and Aiden’s attempts at chronological reading, while entertaining, are a salutary warning to the curious.
So, I started out with gritted teeth and The Greek Coffin Mystery, as it had had many favourable reports and an almost unanimous approval of the plotting. And there were, indeed, many good points about it. The central puzzles and the way they lead you into suspecting entirely the wrong person is excellent and genuinely intriguing; the reveal is genuinely surprising and actually works. And the fact that Ellery’s obnoxiousness is turned up to eleven in the first part of the book is clearly deliberate – in order to shoot him down thoroughly later – and shows self-awareness on the part of the authors. However, this doesn’t alter the fact that you have to put up with a giant dose of obscure quoting, patronising behaviour and sneering superiority before Ellery puts his foot in it, which doesn’t make for enjoyable reading. Not to mention the fact that the slightly quieter, humbler Ellery of the second part is an improvement only by contrast. The characters in general were unlikeable, including the police, who behaved as though dyspectic throughout, being unnecessarily aggressive with the suspects (and after some pretty traumatic events) but bootlicking, at least initially, towards the refined ‘aristocracy’ represented by James Knox. Added to which was the fact that this just wasn’t my style of writing – this one not so much the book’s fault, of course, as mere personal preference – and that it contained an unpleasant level of misogyny, with that tired old trope about women not being logical and a main female character, Joan Brett – supposed, I suspect, to be spunky and appealing – who talks in unconvincing ‘banter’; dissolves into ‘pearly tears’; fails at her (SPOILER: secret librarian espionage), having to rely on Ellery to see her through; and gets all sniffy once or twice because Ellery fails to sexually harass her. And then there’s the ‘romance’…
On the whole, then, it seemed probable that Queen wasn’t for me but one book is hardly a fair test. Next up was The Chinese Orange Mystery. There was, again, an intriguing central mystery and the set piece of the backwards room was original and striking. The writing was still stilted and unappealing but Ellery wasn’t quite so throttleable in this one, though he had his moments: musing throughout on the ‘little people’ for example, which was a grating theme of the book; acting as amazed as Doctor Johnson when a woman proved to have some signs of intelligence (if only through sharing the same assumption about the reason for the ‘backwards’ theme as himself). There was a hard-to-swallow amount of coincidence, much implausible behaviour of suspects and the final solution – and especially the culprit – wasn’t particularly satisfying to me.
After that, I’d decided to put Ellery Queen on the back burner for a while. And then, having read quite a lot about the phases of Queen and the radical differences in style and development, and feeling a spot of post-Christmas nihilism, I decided to try once again – this time picking from a different era.
‘Calamity Town’ begins with a much muted Ellery, searching for somewhere to stay in Wrightsville: which has taken his fancy, in all its Small-Town-of-America perfection, as an ideal place to write his next novel, using the (surprisingly dull and unliterary) pseudonym of Smith to avoid attention. It’s so small, however, and so insular a town, that the house rental possibilities are practically nil – unless of course, Mr Smith would care for a sweet little house which is all done up and dandy and only lightly cursed?
Ellery, of course, is above superstition and moves staight in to Calamity House and thus into the lives of the local nobility – the troubled Wright family – just as their troubles begin to multiply in waves.
I enjoyed this book a little more than the previous two, with the writing being nicely descriptive and generally more engaging (though the line about Chief Dakin’s mouth being ‘the mouth of a poet’ did lead me to wonder how and where (and why) you get the surgery and to hope that the poet in question was dead before donating). Ellery, too, managed to refrain from supercilious quoting and displays of intellectual superiority to the extent of being a different character (mostly, at least, though he slips in a grating ‘bravo bumpkin’ or two, perhaps for old times sake).
Unfortunately, this lack of showing off is mirrored by a lack of anything to show off about. Perhaps hampered by his not-overly-convincing feelings for Pat, Ellery misses some fairly obvious possibilities and avoids involving the police even when a life is at stake. The shape of the plot and the culprit were painfully obvious from the way the clues were set up and this, as well as the unsympathetic portrayal of Jim, detracted a little from the emotional impact of the ending.
I did like, however, the depiction of the town, which seemed so pleasant but became ugly, even monstrous, in the face of scandal. This was the heart of the book: that narrow, judging world which can form a mental torture of its own and nurture murderers on shards of gossip and slices of perfect apple pie.