Today I am doing something new on the blog. This is a review but not from me (please restrain your cheering). Today’s review comes from Mark Ricard, who hails from Pennsylvania and is a member of the Facebook Golden Detection group, (definitely a group I’d recommend joining). Mark has quite a wide range in reading tastes, enjoying vintage and hard-boiled novels, as well as comics and sci-fi and much to my chagrin and envy has a remarkable recall on all that he reads (unlike me – what was that author I read yesterday?)
So without anymore ado here are Mark’s thoughts on Ellery Queen’s And on the Eighth Day (1964), in which I think he might have taken a bullet for all of us…
What have here is not your typical detective novel. But to understand why, we must go back and look at where the Ellery Queen franchise was in the mid-1960s. In 1958, cousins Fred Dannay and Manfred Lee, published The Finishing Stroke. This was meant to be the final Ellery Queen novel. Fred Dannay wanted to keep writing Ellery Queen mysteries. The problem was Manny Lee. The working method they used was to have Dannay give a detailed outline of the plot and characters and then let Lee finish the novel by writing the actual prose. There was only one problem. Manny Lee had writer’s block and did not want try writing any more mystery novels.
Dannay still chose not to write the stories himself, why I am not sure. Instead he looked to science fiction writer Theodore Sturgeon to help with The Player On The Other Side. It came out in 1963 and was well regarded. After the five year hiatus Ellery Queen was back as a series character. However this time Sturgeon did not return. Dannay found another science fiction writer by the name of Avram Davidson. This novel was their first but not last collaboration together. Davidson had just finished his time as editor of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. His three year run was not always well liked. He seemed to lean more towards the fantasy end and liked light stories with fancier and denser prose. All of this information is relevant to get an understanding of this unusual detective story.
The story is set during World War Two. Ellery is writing for Hollywood as he was in the late 1930s novels. And here we are introduced to the Davidson style. To put it mildly it takes time to get used to and it’s a bit pretentious at times. Worse he goes off on short tangents for a few paragraphs every now and then. When I first tried to read this I had to put it down and did not come back to it until a few months later. To be fair it gets to be an easier read as the story goes along, but it does go back to his more prolix style a few times near the end of the story.
And the story? It takes place over a period of eight days during the Easter/Passover holiday season. This is part of the allegory. Ellery is driving back from Hollywood and gets lost in the Nevada area. He stops at a general store and meets two old strangers. The storekeeper believes they are hermits. After Ellery leaves the store he takes another wrong turn and finds himself in an isolated religious commune which just so happens to be run by the men he met in the store. From there it gets odder. This community was founded in the 1800s and they are almost totally isolated from the rest of civilization. They are not even aware of the war. The oddest thing of all is that the leader believes Ellery may be a prophet sent by God to help the community.
Here we come to another problem I have with story. It is hard to buy the fact that Ellery would stay with these people. Even though he is just visiting for a couple of days. True, the character has gone through a personality change one or two times in the series, but it is hard to ever imagine him being comfortable in this setting. Like most people he would find the entire situation a little disturbing. Also as he begins to learn about the community he comes to see it as a utopia. This is even more farfetched. Ellery Queen was a character from New York City. A place as technologically backward as this colony, would be very hard for him to adapt to. More than this, the religious nature of these people would seem to make them an odd fit for Ellery. Of course he has to stay for the plot to unfold. If he left, there would be no crime to investigate.
We are almost half way through the book when we actually have a crime for him to solve. It involves a theft. Later it leads to a murder and a wrongly accused suspect. Of course mystery readers will probably easily see that fact right away and given the facts it is not hard to guess who the real killer is. Yet again this is in service of the symbolism. Without giving anything away I will say it is a Christ story. The story ends with Ellery unable to change anything. What is worse, this aspect of the story seems to exist for the sake of the allegory. Why would the characters do what they do? And why would Ellery go along with it? I just could not believe this.
So this is not the best entry in the Queen series. The problem is trying to blend an allegorical religious story with a traditional detective murder mystery. Could it be done? Yes. But it needs believable motivation for its’ characters, especially the detective. Could such a story work and still be a challenging Golden Age style puzzle? Yes as well. But this is not a mystery that will stretch the savvy mystery novel reader’s skills. The one positive thing that can be said about it, is that it is not a long novel. And once you get past the first two chapters it flows smoothly and keeps the reader interested. It is too bad the payoff is not rewarding.