Saturday, August 24, 2013

One, Two, Buckle My Shoe

"A premeditated murder is not unlike a child. First it must be conceived, second gestated; only then can it be born. These three steps in the fruition of the homicide are usually unwitnessed; when this occurs, there is a Mystery, and the function of the Detective is to go back along its bloodline , for only in this way can be established the paternity of the crime - which is to say, solve the mystery.

Ellery Queen had never before been privileged to attend the delivery, as it were, and the fact, having attended it, he knew as little about its parentage as if he had not neither irritated nor angered him, for if a murder had to be commited and could not be averted, then Ellery preferred it to be a mystery at the beginning, just so he could dig into it and trace it backward and explain it to himself at the end."
"There was an Old Woman"

You know, writing detective fiction yourself is surprisingly fun. Though I really should start thinking about writing these things in English some time, instead of Japanese...

Chance brings Ellery Queen to the Potts family, led by the old matriarch Cornelia Potts. Having made her money with shoes, Potts is referred to as the old woman who lives in a shoe.She is also the mother of six children; the three by her first marriage are just as eccentric as she is. Thurlow is spending fortunes bringing in lawsuits 'to protect the family name', Louella is obsessed with her scientific experiments and Horatio is basically living the life of a child. The other three children suffer quite under their mother and the other children; the twins Robert and Maclyn run the business, but only see fortunes spent by Thurlow and Louella, while Sheila is pretty much ignored. One day, a fight ends up with Thurlow challenging Robert in a gun duel at dawn; fearing somebody might get hurt, Ellery wisely decides to switch the live bullet in the gun, for a blank. Ellery, the inspector and Velie are witness to the duel, which to the Queens' surprise has a deadly end anyway; someone switched the bullets back for live ones!

I went in There Was An Old Woman without too much expectations, but I have to admit: this was a great Queen and I am glad I read it. I did know it was a nursery rhyme murder; that is, the murders (yes, plural) follow a Mother Goose rhyme, but the way this was done was quite impressive. Of course, ever since  S.S.The Bishop Murder Case, we have seen the nursery rhyme murder trope, (or more broadly speaking, the mitate murder), in countless of novels by slew of writers including big names like Christie. Take the trope a bit broader and you might even say that Christie's One Two Buckle My Shoe is a nursery rhyme murder in plot structure (not in execution/story though). So what made There Was An Old Woman so enjoyable?

Well, I have always thought that in order for a mitate murder to work, you need to have a certain atmosphere. Because let's think about it, killing someone according to a nursery rhyme, or a traditional game song, or something like, it's a bit silly. Yokomizo's famous works like Inugamike no Ichizoku, Gokumontou and Akuma no Temariuta wouldn't have worked half as well if the stories weren't set somewhere the reader believes common sense is not as common as you would think it is. Strange, faraway small communities where the rules might be a bit different. Mansions where one family's word is law. It's there where outrageous murders work, and where something surreal as a nursery rhyme murder might actually seem plausible.

The house of the Potts, with the strange inhabitants, is indeed such a place where common sense might not prevail. In a house where people challenge others to a duel to the death, spend fortunes on doomed experiments and playing in the garden, sure, someone trying to recreate nursery rhymes through murder actually seems believable. Despite it being located in New York, the Queens' homeground, the way Cornelia Potts rules over the mansion really makes it feel like a different world where bizarre things might happen. It's this which makes this novel so fun to read.

To compare it to a similar Queen novel: I recently also read Double, Double, which also features a nursery rhyme murder, this time set in Ellery's second home Wrightsville. However here the murders seem less bizarre and the connection to the rhyme seems weak, which is partly because tidy Wrightsville seems less of an obvious spot for a surreal series of murders. Sure, it can work, like in Ten Days Wonder, but even that book misses the zany atmosphere of There Was An Old Woman. (This paragraph is the Double, Double review by the way; there is too little material there for a seperate review. I would similarly be talking about nursery rhyme murders, only using the book as a bad example.)

There Was An Old Woman not only feels similar to Van Dine's The Bishop Murder Case, but als takes some cues from The Greene Murder Case, with a small family being murdered. Like I mentioned in the reviews for both those books, a lot of Japanese writers are, either directly or indirectly, influenced by Greene and Bishop, which explains why this novel also feels very close to some major titles of the (New) Orthodox schools of writing.

It's not all Van Dine though. There is a thorough search for some missing guns, which is a classic Queen trope, while the multiple layers to the solution, as well as the type of murderer, is also something a seasoned Queen reader will figure out. As such, it's actually quite easy to solve this case, as there are quite some parallels to other Queen stories, but that doesn't make this less fun. If earlier Queen novels were best experienced for seeing how story and deductions are connected, then this Queen is best experienced as a trip to a surreal world. Oh, and for those interested in the multimedia world of Ellery Queen; there's a nice surprise waiting for you at the last page.

So in short,  There Was An Old Woman and Double, Double both do similar things. But Woman is a lot better. The next review by the way, whenever that will be, is probably of something Japanese.


  1. I think There Was An Old Woman was meant as an homage to S.S. van Dine, who heavily influenced the earlier Ellery Queen character and stories, but it’s better than anything Van Dine wrote himself. Arguably the best of the so-called "Ellery in Wonderland" novels.

    The details of Double, Double are really, really foggy, but it's a Wrightsville story and I generally don't like those (except for the short ones in Queen's Full).

    1. Double, Double was basically the same, only inferior. More guesses than deductions, the nursery rhyme pattern felt less convincing, and just not as fun.

      And I still have to figure out how to write something, anything on The Scarlet Letters...

    2. You could start off by saying that you hate it when corpses make late appearances in detective stories. That's all I remember of The Scarlet Letters.