Did Ellery Queen ever escape the Golden Age of Detection?

The Spanish Cape MysteryThe aim of my second Ellery Queen post for the Tuesday Night Bloggers is to throw an idea out and examine from a nuts and bolts perspective how much the Ellery Queen novels changed during the series. My post has been inspired by the posts from last’s week’s Tuesday Night Bloggers and an idea which cropped up a bit was the way that Queen, as a character changes over the novels and I myself noted in my own piece: ‘Ellery Queen and The Secret to Writing a Bestselling Title’, the way the titles of the Queen novels became more figurative over time. However, when reading again through W. H. Auden’s essay ‘The Guilty Vicarage’ (1948), and the criteria he comes up with for what constitutes a good detective novel (criteria which screams Golden Age detective fiction) I could see on a cursory reading how Queen’s The Spanish Cape Mystery (1935) fits in with most of the criteria. This is not surprising though, as it was written during the 1930s and during the most puzzle focused period of Queen’s writing. But, looking at the criteria again I wondered whether a much later novel from the Queen canon would deviate that much. Therefore since The Origin of Evil (1951) was in my TBR pile I decided to see on reading how much or how little it corresponded to these building blocks of traditional detective fiction. To make the comparison easier I have put my findings into a table below:

(N. B. I’ve tried my best to avoid any spoilers)

Criteria The Spanish Cape Mystery The Origin of Evil
The novel includes at least one murder. Yes, John Marco. None in a conventional sense.
‘Many [people] are suspected, all but one suspect, who is the murderer, are eliminated’. Suspicion is cast widely over many of the household members, but as the book progresses, the number does decrease but we are not left with one suspect, the murderer, until Queen reveals his solution. The net of suspicion is cast fairly widely at the beginning, although family members are scrutinised a lot. However, I don’t think there was an elimination process, the role of murderer was still to play for by the time Queen gives his own solution to the case.
‘The murderer is arrested or dies’. Murderer is arrested. Justice in this book is meted out legally and unconventionally, though ultimately the reader may feel some characters escaped punishment.
The novel includes ‘a closed society’, where murder is unheard of or at the very least uncommon. The murder occurs at an isolated house at the Spanish Cape and due to factors such as the tide, sand and lack of traffic, the list of suspects is limited to the household. Set in Hollywood, murder is therefore not unheard of or uncommon. Moreover, although the family members are under suspicion, it didn’t feel like a closed society novel in the traditional sense.
‘The characters… should… be… interesting individuals and good… either in appearance, later shown to be false, or in reality, first concealed by an appearance of bad.’ I would say this book meets this criteria partially as some characters indeed appear good but are actually bad and some give bad first impressions but show their virtuous side when it’s needed. However, there are some characters which can be classed as bad and remain so for the entire book. Appearances are deceptive in this book to an extent, in regards to who the killer is. But much more so in this book than The Spanish Cape Mystery, there are simply characters who start out bad or unlikeable at least and remain so until the end. The authors do try to create some unusual individuals in this book such as Crowe who is a naturist. However, I think this resulted more in farce and ridiculousness than actual interest at points.
The corpse shocks due to being in an unexpected place. Although a corpse on a terrace probably isn’t considered that shocking, the fact the body has no clothes on, certainly shocks the characters if nothing else. As there is no conventional human corpse this book seemingly doesn’t fit the criteria. However, shock is definitely caused by the dead dog which is sent to one of the characters.
The choice of victim makes a lot of people look guilty. A womanising freeloader and rival in love makes Marco from the outset an unlikeable victim and as more of the truth about him is uncovered the more unlikeable he becomes and more other people become suspect. As there are two victims (one living, Roger Priam and one dead, Leander Hill), this is only partially true, as there are many people who might want Roger dead due to his unpleasant nature, but it is hard to say the same for Leander.
The victim is unpleasant. See above Leander, who dies of shock prior to the events in the book was probably a very nice character on the whole. The remaining victim, Roger however is definitely unpleasant with his violent and domineering behaviour.
The murderer does not look obviously like a murderer, but once is revealed so, everything known about them indicates this role. Without giving any spoilers, this novel definitely does this in a very physical way, but on the killer being revealed the clues which have been pretty baffling up to this point start to make much more sense. When the solution is revealed, the guilty, personality wise do fit the role of murderer, but I think it was more obvious in this book than The Spanish Cape Mystery.
The detective (amateur or professional) ‘must be the total stranger who cannot possibly be involved in the crime; this excludes the local police and should [according to Auden] exclude the detective who is a friend of one of the suspects.’ Queen is a total stranger to the people involved in the crime, although he is holidaying with his friend who knows them a little better. He is definitely an amateur and is not friends with any of the suspects. New to the area, Ellery Queen can definitely be said to be a ‘total stranger’ to the people involved in the case.
The arrest of the murderer (s) returns the society to its original state of innocence and tranquillity. Despite young love succeeding in the end, due to the nature of the victim I would actually say that society is not restored to innocence and tranquillity as the case has left irrevocable damage to many of the suspects involved in the case. I suppose in this particular novel it could be contested whether there was a state of innocence and tranquillity in the first place. The remaining characters disperse across America and Canada and even to Korea, as one of the characters enlists into the army to take part in the Korean War.


Perhaps not very surprisingly, The Origin of Evil does deviate from Auden’s criteria in The Origin of Evilsignificant ways. There is no conventional murder or a crime scene, unlike in The Spanish Cape Mystery. Due to the vague information Queen has to go on in The Origin of Evil, especially at the start of the investigation, the list of suspects is quite fluid and there is no closed set of suspects meaning that there is no clear elimination process. However, I do think that even in The Spanish Cape Mystery, despite the ‘closed society’ of suspects the elimination process is not as rigorous or clear as it is with other authors who were writing at the same time. The third criterion suggested by Auden concerns how justice is executed and in The Origin of Evil, even if an arrest is made, the consequences are still troubling, a feeling which is less apparent for the reader in The Spanish Cape Mystery, even if Queen feels bad about revealing the killer. The dead body causing a shock factor is also a point of deviation for both novels as the location of the bodies is not shocking. However, shock is introduced in to the use of dead bodies through other means. The fact The Origin of Evil has two proposed victims in a sense means that one of the victims does not make a lot of people look guilty mainly because he wasn’t that unpleasant and didn’t live long enough to show negative character traits. If it hadn’t of been for the note sent to the first victim being found, the subsequent events would have made even less sense and perhaps would have led to an unsolvable mystery. A point which both novels stick to on Auden’s list though, is the lack of prior connection between the suspects and Queen, the detective. Not many writers complicate their works by morally compromising their detectives by having them involved in the crime they are investigating. Nevertheless, this does not prevent the detective from acting morally dubious, as in both The Spanish Cape Mystery and The Origin of Evil, some of Queen’s actions in the former have deadly consequences and in the latter, his thoughts concerning one of the victim’s wife are rather reprehensible. However, a point which neither novels adhere to on Auden’s list is the idea that life resumes its’ ‘original state of innocence and tranquillity’ once the crime has been solved, both intimating that either murder investigations have long lasting effects and/ or life prior to the murder was not particularly innocent or peaceful to begin with.


So by and large it could be said that the Ellery Queen novels don’t just change over time through Queen himself but also through their actual structure and their utilisation of detective fiction tropes. And in a way deviating from some of Auden’s list might not actually make the book any the worse (although I didn’t actually enjoy The Origin of Evil). On the one hand for example, the fact peace is not entirely restored, might actually make the book more realistic, as murder and crimes in general can have long reaching and devastating consequences for those remaining. However, on the other hand, having a very wide list of suspects, or no list at all (and therefore stylistically becoming more of a thriller), might make a detective novel less enjoyable to read as it is harder or impossible to solve the mystery yourself. Furthermore, deviation from Auden’s criteria I think can also be seen in these two examples from Queen, as an instance of reinvention or innovation, as both these books don’t provide shock to their readers through where they put their dead bodies. I imagine after a while it is hard to keep finding weird places to stick a body and for detective fiction addicts, a body in a library or anypart of a country house is no longer that shocking, although for the characters in the books it of course would still be. Therefore, I did find it interesting how in these novels the location of the dead bodies be they human or animal, are not shocking, but that individual details such as lack of clothing in The Spanish Cape Mystery, add shock in a different way.

Returning back to my perhaps provcative post title, I think in some respects, the Queen novels did not leave their Golden Age origins with Queen remaining a detached investigative body, victims still being unpleasant and first impressions not always being the right ones. However, in other respects, the novels did depart from their roots, not only in losing the fair play quality of the mysteries set, but also in regards to the execution of justice and the types of crimes looked at.

Over to you…

My final thought on having done this piece is whether we can actually consider Auden’s criteria list as complete and therefore I was wondering whether anyone reading this had ideas of things Auden may have missed out or not included that you think are important components of a detective novel.

Share your thoughts below.


  1. I think the adherence to the tropes of the Golden Age really handicap some of the later Queen works. Take the much lauded (although not by me) Cat Of Many Tails. It’s a clear attempt to write something different and its atmosphere is chilling. [MILD SPOILERS AHEAD] But because it’s an Ellery Queen book, when the murderer is caught halfway through the book, you can see where it is all going. The mind-bending puzzle side may have been abandoned but the need to make it a mystery ahead of the thriller robs the conclusion of any impact.

    Later books continue to have problems – The Player On The Other Side, while only part-written by Queen, makes a brave effort to do something new but ends up with an utterly ridiculous solution. The King Is Dead is a mess from start to finish but the author strives to make it a whodunnit despite the fact that it’s more of a “what the bloody hell is going on and why on earth are people behaving like this” mystery. The attempt to keep a whodunnit at the heart of these later books makes the quality variable, but only from average to low. Even when the author(s) embrace the whodunnit again towards the end of their collaboration – Face To Face or The Finishing Stroke – they’ve lost the quality and focus that the early books had.

    Reading Queen in order is a dispiriting task, hence my very slow bibliography – https://classicmystery.wordpress.com/classic-bibliographies/the-ellery-queen-bibliography-or-a-challenge-to-this-reader/ – all the best ones are at the beginning. The efforts to move away from the standard mystery start early one – there are some clever different ideas in the earliest books – but after a point, they just don’t work for me, hindering the mystery structure that they insist on keeping.

    Liked by 1 person

    • haha I like your summary of The King is Dead. I did find it a very weird read when I read it and although I haven’t read that many EQs from what I’ve read I can see what you mean by the later ones being hampered by their GA components. I think that happens in The Origin of Evil, which is not a conventional mystery but still tries to include the elements of such a story.


  2. Well, of course it’s all a matter of taste, but I found much to like in Queen’s later work, although the theological aspects get hammered home a bit too much. I’m not sure what Puzzle Doctor means about Cat not having any impact at the end. Besides the big twist that changes everything about the solution, there’s the devastating impact the case has on Ellery himself. Anyway, Queen is definitely moving out of a strict GAD structure here until the end of his career, and some of those last ones are pretty grim. (A Fine and Private Place, anybody?)

    I really enjoyed this comparison, Kate, and I would have loved to see you do it with two favorites of mine rather than two Queens I don’t love. How about The Siamese Twin Mystery and Cat of Many Tails? They have some interesting features in common and much that differs….

    The early Queens were chock full of bodies discovered in outrageous places: sharing a coffin, popping up in a department store window, nailed to a cross! I can’t help thinking of the wonders Agatha Christie wrought by simply dispatching Roger Ackroyd in his study . . .

    Liked by 2 people

    • Ha, my picking of two books you don’t like wasn’t deliberate, it was more just what I had to hand. In the last couple of weeks I have been hearing a lot of good things about some of the other earlier Queen novels, so I am keen to pick a few of those up when I can and I’ve found the divisiveness caused by books such as Calamity Town and Cat of many Tails intriguing – so I kind of want to read them to see which side I land on.


    • My point about the end of Cat is that this reader spotted the “twist” a mile off and basically was only looking for it because it was an Ellery Queen mystery. I know I’m in a minority here – I reviewed it on my blog with Patrick and it showed two very different viewpoints.

      But I am a big fan of The Siamese Twins Mystery – possibly my favourite.


  3. I just reviewed The Player on the Other Side and am much higher on it, but one has to be charitable, certainly, about one aspect of the solution. I’ve always found The Finishing Stroke horrendous. The behavior is beyond absurd and to solve it requires specialists’ knowledge few people will have. It is one of those books I just wanted to throw out the window upon finishing. Does have a nice period opening, rather realistic, but that is all abandoned. It’s like a shell of the early books. I’m higher on Origin of Evil than Kate (see review), but the attitudes about sex are very strange to me and distance me from Ellery and the cop.

    I think probably the most successful group of books outside the early ones were the Wrightsville novels, but Calamity Town, considered a masterpiece by so many, is flawed as a mystery, I think: pretty easy to figure out but also implausible in some ways, a problem in a “realistic” crime novel. But I like the sense of place in the Wrightsville books.

    If you look at the correspondence between Dannay and Lee they did have a conflict, with Lee wanting more realism and Dannay committed to the complex puzzle structure, symbolism, etc. It’s a conflict you see in novel after novel.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Just finished reading your EQ post and I really enjoyed finding out about the Dannay/Lee conflict. What about The Origin of Evil did you enjoy? Regardless of weird relationship dynamics I think for me the vagueness of the case and the solution being mostly whipped out a hat didn’t make it as strong a book for me. Which EQ novels would you recommend?


  4. For me, the biggest problem is things like Auden’s list. There’s nothing wrong with pointing out commonly re-occurring tropes and features, but the whole idea of simplistically describing a genre is for me something akin to saying “all Democrats believe ________” or “all that Republicans want is _______.” Of course, such simplistic generalizations are probably more dangerous when trading on political convictions than genre descriptions, but I consider them no less ridiculous. Queen, Christie, Carr (and even Hammett and Chandler) were trying to write stories that pleased themselves and/or their readers– standards that were constantly evolving– they weren’t trying to fit neatly into genre definitions. And that’s the reason that even The Spanish Cape Mystery, which I think by nearly anyone’s standards would have to be seen as fitting well into the definition of a Golden Age detective fiction novel, differs from Auden’s requirements in many ways.

    Liked by 2 people

    • You make a very good point. Generic studies of the genre can come across as simplistic, as even Christie falls foul of Auden’s criteria and your comment has made me wonder whether studies specific to a writer are perhaps better in that if written well can avoid inaccurate generalisations. It is kind of human nature to identify common patterns and structures but I think you’re right in that care needs to be taken with how we use the or express that information.


  5. I love a list like Auden’s, gives endless enjoyment, but I don’t at all think it needs to be adhered to. But then it gave rise to your excellent comparison table, so another point in its favour.
    Meanwhile you have given me a tremendous shock: I have long been aware of the existence of the first book, but always assumed from the title that it was about an item of clothing – a Spanish matador’s cape. Like the Roman Hat or the Dutch Shoe (don’t tell me I’m wrong about them too.)

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yeah lists can be fun but don’t always need to be taken 100% seriously. Bit like Knox’s Decalogue. Didn’t mean to give you a shock and actually you are correct about TSCM as an actual cape is involved in the story. The title has a dual meaning – both for the location of the book and an actual item of clothing.


    • Sort of wrong. The hat is contained within the confines of the Roman Theatre, and the shoe — which is actually pretty much what Brits would call a “trainer” and North Americans a “tennis shoe”, but certainly not a clog or sabot — is within the confines of Dutch Memorial Hospital. Similarly, the powder is contained within the French department store, the coffin is that of a Greek magnate, and the Chinese orange has two meanings, one of which is a mandarin orange eaten by the victim. The Egyptian Cross means the “tau” cross but the novel takes place entirely in the US. The American Gun mystery is a literal meaning, there’s an American gun involved, and the Siamese Twin mystery has a pair of conjoined twins. So not a hugely literal set of titles.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. I think it’s fair enough for lists such as this to be created, insofar as genres and categories within genres emerge out of a shared sense of specific traditions. Some of the best works are those that transgress or subvert expectations and conventions – and such instances of brilliance can only be appreciated if the readers are aware of the traditions in the first place. Nevertheless, within a set of genre conventions, some rules need to be retained in order for a work to be recognised as belonging to that tradition at all.

    The two ‘rules’ I found interesting were ‘‘The murderer is arrested or dies’, and ‘The arrest of the murderer (s) returns the society to its original state of innocence and tranquillity’. I can think of one or two Golden Age novels that shock the readers by remaining inconclusive about the culprit’s outcome, or leave the readers feeling ambivalent as to whether innocence and tranquility could be restored, if they existed in the first place.

    I think I concur with Puzzle Doctor on ‘Cat with Many Tails’. The next two Queen novels to be picked up from my shelf will probably be ‘Chinese Orange Mystery’ and ‘Ten Days Wonder’.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Yes I also found the idea of society being returned to a innocent an intriguing one, as it is rather presuming there was an innocent state to begin with and if it was that innocent then surely the murder wouldn’t have happened in the first place. Though I suppose once a case is over then normal life can kind of carry on.


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