A Disturbing Trip to Hollywood in Ellery Queen’s The Origin of Evil (1951)

The Hollywood setting of The Origin of Evil (1951) is implied from the first pages in the cast list which mimics film blurb descriptions, which try to create intrigue such as ‘Crowe MacGowan: Delia’s strapping son by a former marriage, and a Nature Boy who took the phrase seriously – even when he wasn’t in his tree house.’ I found the beginning of the story a little ambiguous in that the text doesn’t make it clear whether Ellery Queen is pondering and visualising an actual corpse or one for his new book. A few re-reads makes me plumb for the latter, although it does seem Queen has temporarily moved to Hollywood to write his new detective novel. However, Hollywood is not a place of glamour in this novel, but more of an anathema to good taste and Queen initially seems to be regretting his decision to move there:

‘It became plain in his first few days in Hollywood and environs that what the crape-hangers back East were erroneously bewailing was not the death of the angelic city but its exuberant rebirth in another shape. The old order changeth. The new organism was exciting, but it was a little out of his line…’

Although it did feel a little like Ellery Queen (the authors), by describing the increasing modernity of Hollywood, were attempting to show that they’re were keeping up the times, which can be a bit clunky and incongruous. However, I think they manage to get away with it through their choice of setting. Hollywood is no quaint English country village.

The Origin of Evil

Whilst trying to work on his novel, a young woman called Laurel Hill demands to speak with him on a matter of great importance. Someone sent her father, Leander a dead dog that came with a note, which has now disappeared and had only been read by Leander himself. A set of circumstances which contributed to Leander’s death a few days later of heart failure. Convinced this was an attempt to scare Leander to death she asks Queen to investigate, as the police aren’t that interested, oddly enough. Queen is not keen, but further information elicits that Leander’s business partner and neighbour, Roger Priam has also received a mysterious gift, which has terrified him, though not to death. With his curiosity piqued Queen decides to make some preliminary investigations:

‘Why a dead dog as a messenger of bad news? It smacked of symbolism. And murderers with metaphoric minds he had never been able to resist. If, of course, there was a murder.’

Although it might just be because he is creepily attracted to Delia Priam, Roger’s wife and I wondered whether Queen’s oscillation between being entranced and repulsed by her, was an attempt by the writers to revamp Queen’s character and make him more worldly. If nothing else they did make him grumpier. Roger is difficult man to live with, being domineering, violent and possessive, despite being paralysed from the waist down.

Throughout the case Roger refuses to share any information he has about the case, yet Queen is not beaten, finding a copy of note sent to Leander for starters, a note which indicates that both Roger and Leander have a criminal past and in fact left someone for dead… the note writer and now he wants his revenge, slowly and painfully. Queen also comes across other characters during his investigations: Lieutenant Keats who provides police assistance, Alfred Wallace, Roger’s secretary, who seems to have more duties than the usual secretary might and Crowe MacGowan, whose interest in naturism initially brings the text to a standstill with farce and ridiculousness, but thankfully he returns to wearing clothes as the story progresses. Clues are rather thin on the ground, leading in a multitude of directions vaguely, which is not helped by Roger’s silence. This of course all leads to Queen sitting and waiting for each warning gift to take place, which become increasingly more bizarre as they happen. Are they just random gifts from a psychotic maniac or is there a pattern to it all? Queen is confident that the key to the present mystery lies in the past, but will he be able to solve it before the note writer makes his final deadly strike?

Along the way both Laurel and Crowe take on the role of novice amateur detectives, though thankfully we are spared anything too silly:

‘This isn’t a game… we’re not going to have any code words in Turkish or wear disguises or meet in mysterious bistros. It’s going to be a lot of footwork and maybe but nothing but blisters to show for it.’

Although, it seems their efforts are more for the benefit of reader as it seems everything they discover Queen has already found out, but unlike them Queen does not show how he finds his information. In contrast to the early Queen mysteries there is no challenge to the reader, primarily because this book does not play fair and despite Queen’s solution having its points of interest, it did feel like it came out of nowhere and contained a very painfully long section involving the frequency of letters in the English language. Moreover, I found the denouement of the novel rather troubling in regards to Queen’s rather unorthodox and morally questionable behaviour and also I think the twist at the end, although clever and sneaky, did have the effect of making the reader feel like they were going around in circles.

Prior to reading this book I was made aware by another blogger Noah Stewart that this story had an uncomfortable smattering of misogyny and indeed he was correct. Aside from the usual objectifying comments and scenes such as the description of Laurel, Delia and even a very artificial sounding saleswoman, the most troubling part was the rather creepy relationship Queen has with Delia, which reduces her to a sexual function only and as the novel progresses Queen moves from a place of arousal and her dropping by his cottage… to a state of antipathy towards her. Though this is not the only weird relationship in the novel, with Roger and Delia’s taking the prize for the weirdest and even in the young love of Laurel and Crowe’s relationship in the beginning and the middle of the novel there is certainly some dysfunctional behaviour, which any relationship counsellor would want to query. However, I did wonder whether some of this presentation of gender may be to do with the Hollywood setting itself, a location typed as being focused on the external and artificiality. Consequently I thought the characters might present this type of mindset when discussing others? Or maybe I’m just clutching at straws?

On balance I think I’ll return to earlier Ellery Queen novels…

Rating: 2.5/5


  1. Oh dear, I think I might bump this down the priority list of books to read, and head over to ‘Player on the Other Side’ first. I was wondering if the borderline pass mark of 2.5 is more the result of the misogyny or the weakness of the puzzle?

    The earlier Queen novels are good reads, so I hope you pick up something decent soon. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • Well it was kind of a combination of the solution feeling very forced and a bit out of nowhere and then the general misogyny/creepy relationships which kind of leave you feeling uncomfortable afterwards. But I’ve heard better things about some of the nationality novels so I think I shall try some of them.


  2. Be aware, Jonathan, that The Player on the Other Side wasn’t written by Dannay and Lee; from that point on I think everything pubished as ‘Ellery Queen’ was just the Queen named being rented out to a procession of ghost writers, and so nne of it is a ‘true’ Ellery Queen novel.

    I mean, some people will be more worried abou this than others, it just seems fair to let you know that if you’re judging them on that book then you’re not actually judging them!


  3. Of the Nationality sequence, I’ve appreciated ‘French Powder Mystery’ most, which I found to be intricately conceived. 🙂 I found ‘Roman Hat Mystery’ and ‘Dutch Shoe Mystery’ to be good reads, but found ‘Egyptian Cross Mystery’, despite its convolution, to be less enjoyable. As you can see, my principle of keeping the best for the last means that I’ve yet to read ‘Greek Coffin Mystery’, ‘Siamese Twin Mystery’ and ‘Chinese Orange Mystery’. I probably won’t get round to reading ‘American Gun’ and ‘Spanish Cape’ anytime soon, if at all, based on the reviews I’ve read.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I wouldn’t say Chinese Orange is anywhere near the top of the list. Greek Coffin and Siamese Twin are definitely the best. Please consider Calamity Town and Cat of Many Tails, as they are both wonderful. Ten Days Wonder is considered a classic, but I think you would find the treatment of the main female character somewhat mysogynistic as well.


    • I think what put me off Greek Coffin was that someone else said it was a brain hurting complicated puzzle. But I shall keep an open mind when I’m next book hunting. I have heard others recommend Calamity Town as well. Would you say Calamity Town and cat of Many Tails are closer in style to the nationality mysteries or the imposed patterns style of The Origin of Evil?


      • Calamity Town is like neither one. The first of the Wrightsville mysteries, it’s more steeped in character, with the town itself being a vital character. New York City is brought to life in the same way in Cat of Many Tails. Because it’s a serial killer mystery, the issue of patterns does come up (why are THESE people being killed?), but it is, to me, a far more brilliant and haunting pattern than Origin of Evil.

        Liked by 1 person

  5. I talked with you about this but never read your full review.

    The first comment is for other readers since we have discussed this before.

    1. Personally I find the “right” solution fair and guessable but the “fake” solution put within it far less plausible in terms of motivation. Like most Queen books it is about patterns. Understand the pattern and you can know who the culprit is.

    2.In fairness he wore a loin cloth so he was not really a naturalist. But yes everything in the romantic relationships is sort of weird here. The cousins could not do realistic romantic stories. Why they put these subplots in is a mystery. Maybe the novel required a certain page count.

    3. Michael Grost speculates this story was trying to be more racy and that is was because they were losing readers to Mickey Spillane. Not sure I buy this. Queen’s readers and Spillane’s were probably different demographic types.

    4, Ellery’s decision at the end is understandable given what we know about certain actions.

    The final analysis would be they wanted to be more modern and also more realistic but they did not often succeed. The reason being usually the motivation of certain characters were not as believable as it could have been. King is Dead is even worse in this respect. However they did get do right once and that is Cat of Many Tales.


  6. This is one of the two or three most controversial Queens, the other prime candidate being Ten Days Wonder. I am not a big fan of either, but as I said opinions are very divided. Some call TDW their best book.

    I recall the beginning being one of the most atmospheric of the books, with Ellery in an unwontedly erotic mood. EQ were trying new things, but I didn’t find this one very convincing. QPQ have written a few books that seem to be along the same lines, murder melodramas with a touch of Peyton Place, but much more successfully. EQ’s best along such lines are Cat of Many Tails and the calmer Calamity Town, both of which are good.


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