Saturday, September 8, 2012

The Japanese Fan Mystery

"Somehow she had never thought of a Japanese as capable of emotion. It struck her suddenly that just because their eyes were shaped differently, (sic) was no sign they possessed no tear-ducts
"The Door Between

Being asked to vote for a list of best mystery novels (both Japanese and foreign) of all time resulted in a long, long discussion and a lot of politics at the Mystery Club. It sounds fun in theory, but just imagine the efforts needed to compress everybody's opinions and favorites in two lists of ten titles. Keeping in mind that the publisher of the list asked several other mystery circles, as well as famous writers, to vote too, 'our' list included quite a lot of strategic choosing (No need to 'push' a certain famous title, because it will come up anyway). Which explains why Christie didn't make the cut in our list. And Queen has a very, very ambigeous spot in the list. But skipping dinner and talking for about four hours about all kinds of detective fiction is... actually closer to hell than heaven. Glad we're done.

And talking about Queen: I read The Door Between recently. Karen Leith is an award-winning novelist who spent most of her life in Japan before moving to New York. She usually walks around in a kimono, her house is full of objects she took with her from Japan and even her house-maid is Japanese. She is engaged to Dr. McClure, a renowned cancer specialist. One day, Dr. McClure's daughter Eva pays Karen a visit, but she discovers Karen in her room with her throat cut open. Furthermore, the door to the room was under constant observation by Eva herself, and all other exits were locked from the inside: The conclusion: a locked room murder! Or, as the police thinks: Eva did it, because if all other exits were locked from the inside, only Eva who was alone near the door could have done it. A shady private eye Terry believes in Eva's innocence though and tries to proof it.

Oh, and this is an Ellery Queen novel, so he appears in there somewhere too.

This is a weird Ellery Queen novel. It was originally serialized in a women's magazine it seems, and heck, does it show. Not to look down upon them unconditionally, but this novel is very different from the previous Queen novels (the nationality novels and Halfway House). The story follows the adventures of Eva, with all the drama surrounding her being a suspect and love triangles and I don't know. Heck, inspector Queen and even Ellery for some time act more like the antagonists rather than the protagonists! I concur that this was also kinda present in Halfway House, but I at least had a lot more fun overall with that novel than with The Door Between.

Which was also because I was not too impressed by the puzzle plot. This is pretty much a locked room puzzle (if one accepts Eva's innocence because she is the poor little female protagonist who needs protection from everybody), but the road to the solution never feels as satisfying as the pure logical elimination method employed in the earlier novels. Ellery mostly guesses. And to be honest, I wasn't too impressed by the solution either. The Door Between is quite far removed from the nationality novels, which makes it that much ironic that the Japanese title of this novel translates to The Japanese Jay Mystery and is considered an unofficial part of the nationality series. Which it really, really isn't. It would have been better if they had done that with Halfway House...

And I know this novel was written in another time and actually, if one keeps that in mind it might not even be that bad, but I made quite a lot Marge Simpson groan imitations as I was reading The Door Between because of its Orientalist views. Like the quote above. Which is really just the tip of the iceberg. It's a parade of all kind of Orientalist remarks by everyone and the book also features some interesting sentences written in romanized Japanese. I really should borrow the Japanese translation one of these days to see what they did with that!

I just read The Door Between as I've read most other Queens and I'm just picking up the last few ones I missed, but man, would I have been disappointed if I had read this thinking this was a nationality novel! I am happy I read this now, because this would have left quite a bad impression on my thoughts on Queen, I think.


  1. Man, what a coincidence! The same day you put up this review is the same day I found a copy of "The Door Between" at an estate sale. And not only did I find a few books, I found a paradox. I look forward to visiting estate sales and reading mysteries; and yet something I don't look forward to—the death of innocent people—is often what causes these events (real and fictional).

    Anyways, great review. The way you described it sounded like a cool premise, despite the melodrama and racism. The paperback copy I got was really cheap, worth taking a chance on. I kind of want to put it off for now, especially if it's disappointing... probably better to read the other novels first.

    Since I know you're a big Queen fan, I thought I'd ask you which Queen novel you feel is the best one to start with.

    1. Definitely one of the Country (the first nine) novels. They work in their original publishing order (though Ellery's presence in the first novel is very small). The Greek Coffin Mystery is chronologically the first novel and also one of the best Queen novels, so that might also be an option. Spanish Cape, French Powder are also good books that show the Queenian method. I would wait a bit with Chinese Orange and American Gun though.

      And of course the short story collections: Adventures and New Adventures might not explain the Queen universe to you, but there are some great stories there that are sure to get you hooked.

  2. I read The Door Between years ago, when I took on most of their books back-to-back, and remember how disappointed I was over the plot, predictable (the "locked room") and ridiculous (an even less convincing variation on the vanishing murder weapon a la The American Gun Mystery), with nothing else of interest going for itself to lift the story above these short comings.

    As a matter of fact, Ellery Queen, Master Detective (a.k.a. The Vanishing Corpse), a novel that seems to take place in the EQ radio universe, retooled The Door Between and, IMHO, improved on it – including some shenanigans with stolen ambulances and corpses. Pulpy but fun.

    1. The Door Between is quite pulpy on its own already too!

      There are still some 'proper' Queens I need to read. Most specifically: The Dragon's Teeth, There Was An Old Woman, Double, Double, The King is Dead, The Scarlet Letters and Inspector Queen's Own Case (not really interested in post-The Finishing Stroke at the moment). But to be honest, descriptions of the stories don't really make me enthusiastic about them...

    2. Figured out the disappearing weapon part but this was supposed to be a "locked room murder",which it is not for reason one can not go into without giving spoilers. Worse the solution is possible but how can we trust a certain persons testimony? If said person lied then they or the other person could be the murderer.

    3. A lot of locked room mysteries, especially those that don't try to push a supernatural solution, often have that problem, I think. Often, you'll just have to trust character X's testimony.

    4. True,but in this case said character had the opportunity to be the killer theirself.