Thursday, August 6, 2015

Q.E.D.

Glory spent many hours with crosswords, Double-Crostics, anagrams, and detective stories (the classic bafflers of the field--she had no use of the sex-and-violence or psychological mysteries that began to clog the paperback racks after World War II)
"Face to Face"

It's been many, many years, but I've finally worked myself through all of the Ellery Queen novels. Well, there's still the non-series Cop Out, the real crime based The Woman in the Case and the critical works left, but my primary interests have always been the writer Ellery and Drury Lane series, so now I'm done! Today, no less than three Queen novels in one post!

In Ellery Queen's Face to Face (1967), Ellery and the Scottish private detective Harry Burke have just returned from Europe when they are contacted by Roberta, a pretty girl who says she was once the lover of the infamous womanizer 'count' Carlos Armando, current husband of the famous retired singer Gloria Guild. Or to be exact: ex-husband, for Gloria Guild was murdered that evening. Roberta tells the two that half a year ago, Armando had made her an offer: she would kill Gloria (for Armando, as the prime suspect, needed an alibi) and the two of them could share the inheritance. Roberta refused, but now that Gloria has indeed been murdered, she is convinced that Armando found another silly girl that fell for the count's charms and commited the murder for him. Ellery and Burke try to find out who the mysterious aide of Armando was, helped by a dying message by Guild in the form of four simple letters: f a c e.

I have to admit that I didn't have very high expectations for these last couple of left-over Queens, for the simple reason that I had been going through them in order of interest and opportunity: I hadn't read these Queens only because they didn't look too interesting and I just happened to never come across them. But I concede, Face to Face was actually quite enjoyable. I do think that is partly because so many elements feel almost eerily familiar and whether you consider this good or bad: Face to Face is a rearrangement of previously seen plots developments and other elements. For we have already seen the dying message (oh so often with Queen), the love-stricken private detective helping Ellery (Terry and Beau), the dangerous womanizer, shenanigans with last wills, the mysterious person from the past popping up. Even the overly dramatic ending seems lifted from an older Queen.

But on the other hand, these elements do work fairly well together in Face to Face and there is a good pace throughout the story. Also, while the dying message 'f a c e' returns in the title and it is fairly important to the plot, it luckily is not the only element carrying the mystery plot: dying messages just don't do very well as cornerstones of novel-length mystery stories. On the other hand, the most vital clue to the solution is classic Queen and I quite love it. It is fair, it's almost in your face and yet so easy to overlook. The chain from hint to solution is a bit short and thin, but overall, Face to Face is more than decent.

The Last Woman in His Life (1970) is set just after Face to Face, with Ellery in need of a vacation. He and his old man go to good old Wrightsville, taking on the offer to stay in one of two holiday houses of John Levering Benedict, wealthy jetsetter and proud owner of no less than three ex-wives. Benedict, his laywer (and his secretary) and the ex-wives all gather in the other Wrightsville hideout, talking inheritance businesses. That night, Ellery is called by a dying Benedict, who leaves him the dying message 'home'. At the crime scene, the police discovers a dead Benedict and no less than three crucial clues: the wig of one ex-wife, the dress of another ex-wife and the evening gloves of the last ex-wife. But why these clues and what did Benedict mean when he said earlier that he had decided on 'the last woman in his life'?

Another Wrightsville story (by now Ellery should be denied access to the town), another dying message story and also one that shows that dying message stories don't lend them too well for longer stories. Stuff happens, discoveries are made, but ultimately everything can, and is revealed through Benedict's dying words. So a good part of the book feels like padding. The hint is too ingenious for its own good. There is absolutely no way that that particular sitation could have led to that particular dying message, despite Ellery's very very detailed explanation and his answers to all of the old man's (very natural) questions. The reasoning appears to be sound, but if you realize the utterance was made by a man dying with little time left, than it kinda falls apart. Also, the motive also makes the book feel quite dated. Good stuff is done with the wig, dress and gloves (reminding of an early Queen novel), but overall, I think The Last Woman in His Life would have worked much better as a simpler short story.

Middle-aged millionaire Ashton McKell, his wife Lutecia and their writer-son Dane may seem like the typical well-off family, but the three also form a triangle surrounding Sheila Grey,  the famous haute couture designer and self-made woman who occupies the penthouse in the same luxury apartment building where the McKells live. Sheila is Ashton's mistress, Lutecia is aware of her husband's infidelity with Sheila and Dane tries to steal Sheila way so his father returns to his mother. This sitation is of course already quite unsightly, but the consequent murder on Sheila Grey naturally does little to help it: investigation by the police quickly puts the initial spotlight on Ashton, but further developments make it hard to determine which side of the McKell triangle was reponsible for the murder in The Fourth Side of the Triangle (1965).

The Fourth Side of the Triangle was one of the ghost-written Queen novels: it was written by Avram Davidson based on an extended outline by, and also edited by the Queen cousins. It was also turned into the pilot film Too Many Suspects of the excellent Ellery Queen TV series starring Jim Hutton. In fact, I like the Too Many Suspects version better than the original novel version. Both versions are not particularly inspiring stories, but there are quite some setting changes between the two. The ending of the original novel however is just disappointing: a deus-ex-machina just pages before the ending leads to the solution and basically everything you've read feels like a waste of time because if a decisive clue is coming falling out of the sky anyway, at least do it right away after the murder and don't try to fill up time with plot developments that prove to be useless. This is luckily changed in Too Many Suspects and while still a bit shakey on the question if it's completely fair, it's doing a lot better than the novel and looking at the whole of things (for example, the new solution ties in wonderfully with the TV/radio setting often utilized in the Ellery Queen TV shows), I think Too Many Suspects is the superior version.

I knew from the start that I wouldn't find The Greek Coffin Mystery-quality mystery novels in these remaining three Queens, but I have to say, I was quite surprised by Face to Face. The rest isn't really must-read material, unless you're trying to go through all of Queen. Anyway, that was it for today and so long Queen, thanks for all the fish.

12 comments :

  1. Congrats on finishing the Queen novels! I still have a long way to go, but I gather that those after the 'Nationality' novels just aren't as good. I don't think I've read a review from you on either 'Origin of Evil', 'Calamity Town' or 'Ten Days' Wonder'... Might be my fuzzy memory - or do they fall under the category of 'not worth reading'?

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    1. My sincere condolences on finishing the Ellery Queen series. I know what EQ meant to you, but there are still a ton of anthologies that appeared under the Ellery Queen byline, if you really want to be a completist. And have you read the posthumous collection The Tragedy of Errors?

      I barely remember anything about Face to Face, which is generally considered to be one of the best from the last half dozen EQ novels, but remember Fourth Side and Last Woman better than that one.

      In case you overlooked A Fine and Private Place... don’t bother... it’s one of the worst EQ novels.

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    2. @Jonathan: Note that I haven't /reviewed/ all the Queen series on this blog; I had read a great number before starting this blog and I think I've only revisited the nationality series for reviewing purposes.

      I quite like "The Origin of Evil" and "Ten Day's Wonder" and think definitely they're worth reading. The latter especially is rather impressive because it's actually quite nuts (in a good way).

      @TomCat: "The Tragedy of Errors" was strangely enough one of the earlier Queens I read! I remember very little of "A Fine and Private Place", which probably means it wasn't good, but IIRC, there's something neat done with the name of the murderer

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  2. Congratulations on finishing the Queen novels! I've read a few of them, but I doubt I'll ever complete the entire oeuvre. I remember enjoying Face to Face, but I haven't read the other two. Might check out The Last Woman in His Life--the premise sounds kinda interesting.

    Are you planning to read the EQ anthologies? I remember quite liking The Adventures of Ellery Queen.

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    1. All the short story collections by Queen were excellent. In fact, I think they deserve much more attention than they have nowadays (then again, I too seldom refer to them). The first two in particular, "Adventures" and "New Adventures" are really great. Of the Queen anthologies, I've only read "Ellery Queen's Japanese Golden Dozen" (aaaand that was rather easy to guess, I think).

      I might perhaps re-read the Queens I haven't reviewed on the blog (to review), but not in the near future.

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  3. You should do a review of Calamity Town. H.R.F. Keating picked that has one of the 100 greatest detective novels published prior to 1987. The one downside to it is that it reminds me what you said in your earlier review of Cat of Many Tails. The Ellery of the first ten novels would not be as slow to pick up on the solution.

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    1. I always think I read a different Calamity Town than other people, because i know it's very well-regarded everywhere, but it made next-to-to impression on me. I can't even remember what it's about (and you'd think that if I had really enjoyed it, I'd remember at least something about it). Perhaps I should re-read it some time, just to be sure...

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    2. To some degree I understand how you feel. While it is well written I do not think it quite rates as a classic. The characters are not as deep as some people claim.

      And the fact that the solution was not suspected earlier....,there is a theory that the Ellery Queen up to Halfway House but before Door Between was the older brother of the character of the later books. J.J. McWhatever did not change the name when he wrote up the adventures the younger brother. You can almost imagine the older Ellery mocking his younger brother for seeing the solution sooner.

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    3. I actually did reread the book last week (still thinking about whether I'll write a review). The portrayal of Wrightville and its inhabitants and an involved Ellery certainly feel fresh for the series, but it's utterly amazing that the Ellery who solved all those earlier mysteries is having trouble for months with this mystery. The 'misunderstanding' that makes up for the core of the mystery in particular is something Ellery should've seen through immediately.

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    5. The comment above by Anonymous contained a spoiler, so I deleted it just in case other people might peek here. I repost Anynomous' comment below, having swapped out the spoiler with "X"

      Anonymous December 3, 2015 at 11:16 PM
      Very true. I suspected who "X" really was right away. That is another angle to the story that is shocking that no one suspected.

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    6. Technically Ellery and the sister do suspect who X is but their reason dismissing it was weak. He should have seen the flaw sooner.

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