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.
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…