For my readers with very good memories, Facebook Golden Age Detection Group member, Mark Ricard, wrote his first guest post for my blog all the way in January with Ellery Queen’s And on the Eighth Day (1964). Today he is back with his thoughts on Halfway House (1936) ….
The Ellery Queen novel Halfway House is in a unique position in the writing career of Fred Danny and Manfred Lee. By 1935 they had published 10 novels published under the Ellery Queen penname. In addition they had published four novels of a second detective series under the name Barnaby Ross. The first nine books, along with the four books under the Ross by-line, are considered the first period of the Ellery Queen writing, with plots being very much puzzle oriented. Characterization and other aspects of storytelling are marginalized, whilst problem solving is emphasized.
Then came Halfway House. Some consider it to be a transition novel into the second and briefest period of their work. Francis M. Nevins in his book Royal Bloodline considers this book to be the start of that era. This was the era where they serialized the novels into popular magazines and included romantic subplots and showed less interest in logical reasoning. Others like Julian Symons in his excellent book The Great Detectives and this reviewer, consider this book to be the last of the first period. In fact Symons speculates in his book that the Ellery of the first 10 novels was actually an older brother of the character in the later novels. Speculation on this topic would be take up another article itself though. I believe the structure itself alone justifies it as a period one book. Yes there is a love story, but it does not intrude or overwhelm the mystery plot as it does in the next four novels in the series. Also the book shares features from the previous nine novels: An introduction by the friend J.J. McCab, an episode which breaks the fourth wall with a challenge to the reader that tells them they have enough clues to solve the mystery at this point in the story and the introduction itself notes that despite the fact there is not nationality in the title it could have been called The Swedish Match Mystery.
This story starts with Ellery sitting in a restaurant where he meets an old college friend, while dinning at restaurant in Trenton, New Jersey. His friend is concerned and curious about his brother in law. It seems he disappears a lot and the nature of his job is a bit unclear. He is supposed to meet him at a location nearby. As some people may have guessed, when Ellery and his friend Bill go there they find he has just been stabbed. He mentions a woman in a veil but passes away before he can say more. It turns out that the victim has been living a double life and was also a bigamist. One of his wives, Bill’s sister, was working class. The other is a wealthy older woman from New York. The house was a secret location where the victim switched identities. Hence the title of the book. Things get more complicated, with Bill’s sister being accused and arrested. A court room trial follows and it does not go well…
An ending can sometimes make or break a book. This is true here. Ellery goes into a detailed explanation of how he deduced only one person could have committed the crime. His reasoning is detailed, methodical and brilliant, making the entire story worth reading. The cousins have done this before but this is one of the best examples of the “Queen Method”. A killer must have a certain number of traits. Each trait is used to narrow the list down so only one possible answer is there. The killer is not as hard to guess as in some of the early novels, but unlike other previous books each premise is reasonable. One by one over ten characteristics are covered and put together they come to a conclusion that works very effectively. If anything there are more clues than sufficient to reach the solution and you may not agree with one or two. But for me it works elegantly.
Therefore despite some flaws and some unconvincing melodrama this book is worth reading. It may not be for all mystery fans’ taste, but people for who like puzzle oriented mysteries that are not too farfetched, this is a great book. It is odd that just when they refined their method that they would downplay this in some of the next few novels. Ellery himself would become almost a different character as well. So if you can overlook a few imperfections a Golden Age fan will enjoy this book.