Wednesday, April 11, 2018

Wonders of the World

Seven Days War 戦うよ
僕たちの場所この手でつかむまで
「Seven Days War」(TM Network)

Seven Days War - We will fight on
Until we will get hold of a place of our own
"Seven Days War" (TM Network)

A re-read today! Well, I had only read a translation of this book quite a few years back, so you could also say that this is the first time I read the original story, I guess.

The deadline for his upcoming book is all what's on Ellery's mind when he's suddenly visited by Howard van Horn, a young talented sculptor he had first met in Europe during the war. Howard has been suffering from extended attacks of amnesia, with him sometimes waking up in the most surprising places, with complete days absent from his memory. Fearing he might've committed a crime during one of these attacks, he hopes Ellery can figure out what's the cause of these attacks, and begs the writer to keep an eye on him. Ellery agrees and finds himself returning to Wrightsville, where Howard lives together with his millionaire father Diedrich van Horn and his stepmother, the young and beautiful Sally. Several curious incidents surrounding the van Horns occur however during Ellery's stay, some of them related to Howard's amnesiac blackouts, but Ellery could've not have foreseen what would connect all of these incidents together in Ellery Queen's Ten Days' Wonder (1948).

It is no secret that I am a great fan of Ellery Queen's work, especially of his early novels (also known as the Nationality novels), which were admirable experiments in deduction. While Queen's early novels might not have featured bombastic impossible crime situations like locked room murders, they did still often feature interesting and alluring crime scenes, often with a somewhat voyeuristic element, like a body found inside a department store, a completely naked body found on the beach or crucified bodies. Queen combined these scenes with a mystery plot not focused on misdirection or enigmatic clues, but rather on presenting a solvable puzzle plot to the reader: the individual puzzle pieces (clues) might've been simple on their own, like indications that the culprit was left-handed, but it was combining all these clues together in surprising ways that made these early Queen novels so satisfying, and also the reason why when put on the spot, I prefer these puzzle plot novels over for example the more magic show-type of mystery novels like those written by Carr.

But Queen did not stick with what some would call thinly disguised riddles. Calamity Town introduced the readers to the fictional New England town of Wrightsville, and it'd mark a shift in writing style in the Queen canon. No longer were we presented with abstract puzzles: the mystery plots were minimalistic compared to Queen's early work, and human characterization and psychology became much more important. We weren't dealing with abstract suspect A, B and C anymore, but fleshed-out characters. We were also introduced to a much more human Ellery, who'd actually became part of the story, instead of just "looking down" at the actors in the tale of mystery in his role of the great detective. The town of Wrightsville became a character on its own, as it already made an impression in its first appearance, but was also fleshed out even more in subsequent stories. Your mileage on these novels might vary though. I know a lot of people appreciate the more human Ellery and the more naturalistic approach of the Wrightsville novels, while I deem them to be among the weakest of Queen's creative output, with mystery plots that are far too minimalistic, lacking the satisfying complexity and the sheer fun of what made the early novels so engaging as puzzle plot mysteries.

Ten Days' Wonder is the third novel set in Wrightsville, but it is in reality a weird attempt at mixing the naturalism of the Wrightsville setting with the more zany ideas seen in earlier Queen novels, like There Was An Old Woman or The Tragedy of Y. The result is an uneven product, but one I did enjoy in a weird manner. The main problem this novel has is that it is basically working towards a punchline (not a trick solution, mind you), but the set-up takes ages. 70% of the novel is set-up and I can imagine some readers might give up midway, because there's just so little happening. Yes, there are a few incidents involving Howard, but the incidents aren't really alluring on their own, and that combined with the human drama makes most of this novel fairly tedious to get through: little happens and the things that happen are not really exciting.

But then the novel throws a screwball at you by revealing a pattern that connects the seemingly random incidents together, and it's utterly nuts. The link that connects all the dots into a focused line is something that would've been surprising in the earlier Queen novels, let alone in the more realistic setting of Wrightsville, but it works for some odd reason. Is it realistic? No, of course not, it's insane and that's what I like about it, because it does work in a mystery novel. I don't read mystery novels for realism, I read them for going beyond realism for a story that entertains. The contrast between the long and tedious set-up of this novel, and the utterly ridiculous truth (in a good way!) revealed by Ellery is what makes Ten Days' Wonder for me. There Was An Old Woman was crazy throughout, but the slow start and then the sudden shift in tone gives Ten Days' Wonder an extra oomph. The question of whether the pattern is also fairly clued is debatable, I think. There is some foreshadowing, but don't expect the careful and precise clewing from the early Queen novels.

As a mystery novel, I find Ten Days' Wonder difficult to describe though. A long time ago, I proposed the term whatthefuck for a type of mystery novel that is not a whodunit, howdunit or whydunit. I guess that Ten Days' Wonder sorta fits the bill: for most of the time, there is no real mystery for the reader themselves to solve, and the plot's mostly moving from one minor incident for Ellery to deal with to another. In a whatthefuck, there is no clear-cut mystery for the reader to focus on, like a body or a theft or anything like that, but it's a story that works towards a conclusion that allows you to look at the prior events from a completely different angle. It's something Yamada Fuutarou also often used in his novels, making those works also a bit difficult to qualify. It's only when you see the whole picture you realize how it works as a mystery novel, but that also means these stories are very hard to explain without spoilers.

Queen also dives into the fallibility of Ellery as a detective in Ten Days' Wonder and the events of this novel are actually of direct influence on Ellery's behaviour in the novel Cat of Many Tails. Of course, Queen already delved into this topic as early as in The Greek Coffin Mystery, but I absolutely love how the theme is explored in this novel, as it builds further on the theme, moving further than before. In a way, we move towards a post-modern look at the detective-character in Ten Day's Wonder and I think it works especially well, as well as brutal on a detective character like Ellery, especially because he started out as a character in the Van Dine school, as a master detective who overlooks the case as an outsider. The same theme is also often explored in Japanese shin honkaku mystery novels actually, especially by Norizuki Rintarou who has always paid a lot of attention to what he collectivelly calls the Late Queen Problems.

Ten Days' Wonder is thus a weird Queen novel. It takes the form of a normal Wrightsville novel for a very long time, with a mundane, minimalistic plot that does little to really hook the reader, but then suddenly shifts gears to become something much more grotesque and shocking. The last 20~30% of this novel are incredibly bizarre and the finale also makes an impression as an post-modern take on the classic mystery story, but because the extremes of this novel are so drastic, I find it difficult to recommend this novel to people without caveats. I think readers can gain so much more from Ten Days' Wonder if they have at least read one of Queen's nationality novels and one of the other Wrightsville novels to make the comparision. I myself think this is one of the more unique Queen novels, but it's definitely not an accessible entry in the series.

6 comments :

  1. Thanks for the review, and I'm glad I've a copy of this on my Kindle. Which of the Wrightsville novels would you recommend?

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    1. The only Wrightsville stories I'd really recommend are the short stories... Of the novels, I think this one's the best, but again, it's a really weird novel and not at all representative of the Wrightsville novels in general (Double, Double is somewhat similar in concept too, but that's basically an inferior There Was An Old Woman).

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  2. Not an accessible entry in the series is somewhat of an understatement and a title that tends to sharply divide opinion. You either like it or hate it. Like all Wrightsville novels, I hated it.

    You should not, like I did, read Cat of Many Tails before Ten Days' Wonder, because it will bloat your expectations of the book.

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    1. It's a weird novel, but I think it works because it's such a zany concept to pull off in a boring setting like Wrightsville. As a novel, I think it's better seen as a rare attempt to really mix up the various modes of Ellery in one story that isn't really succesful due to its limited scope in the LOONG first part, but still not without its merits as a Queen mystery novel.

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    2. I am quite confused. Are you asking TomCat or me? Are you talking about Kindaichi Hajime, or Kindaichi Kousuke? Why ask the question in a post that has absolutely nothing to do with either and where the name wasn't even mentioned once in the comments?

      Given the great number of reviews I've written for both series, I doubt I have to explain what I I think of both Hajime and Kousuke...

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