The 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 significant 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.