Our Tuesday Night Bloggers Club is featuring Ellery Queen this month, and the entries are being collected and collated over at Noah’s Archives. Today I am looking at a collection of his short stories.
The New Adventures of Ellery Queen by Ellery Queen
‘A short story can aim either at atmosphere or at an anecdote’ – that’s Edmund Crispin, introducing his own book of short stories, Beware of the Trains. He goes on to explain that he likes his stories to embody the ‘increasingly neglected principle of fair play to the reader – which is to say that the reader is given all the clues needed to enable him to anticipate the solution by the exercise of his logic and his common sense.’
I’ve always remembered that paragraph as being, first, an interesting and useful distinction, and second, a good description of fair play. I often apply his criteria to stories, and the book The New Adventures of Ellery Queen gave me a good opportunity – I read it for the novella The Lamp of God featured in last week’s entry, and then carried on.
Many crime short stories – the anecdotes, roughly, according to Crispin’s division – are based on a single idea, a clever trick. You can almost see the writer thinking it out, and then deciding it wouldn’t support a whole novel, but would make a nice quick story, perhaps with not too many questions asked.
But I would say that Queen does very well in combining the two Crispin ideas. The writers plainly prided themselves on the fair play aspect, but were also very good at creating an atmosphere.
A number of these stories are set at sports events, which is always a disadvantage so far as I am concerned, because of having little idea of the rules. The boxing one was clever, and l liked the way we got the news that a boxer was dead: ‘the long count’. There was also horse-racing, college football and baseball. And despite my ignorance, I would say the feel of attending a sports event was used very carefully and well in the stories. (Incidentally, I am trying very hard not to use the word ‘atmosphere’ too much, get some elegant variation, but it is very hard to find a synonym…)
There were some nice phrases in the collection: someone says Ellery Queen (in a particular situation) shows ‘an air of omniscience covering a profound and desperate ignorance.’ A weird historical tradition is described as ‘Typical British symbolism, you know – mysteriously dull’ and you know exactly what he means.
I was left wondering who exactly Djuna was, and the nature of Queen’s relationship with Paula Paris.
I’ve picked on one story to illustrate, mostly because of the chance to show swimwear of the era (pictures below from fashion adverts of the late 1930s).
The Adventure of the Treasure Hunt – first published 1935 - resembles the 1922 book I covered recently, The Vanishing of Betty Varian by Carolyn Wells. The setting – the house by the sea and on the rocks, with only one means of access – was very very similar.
But this time there is a swimming pool inside the enclave, and I very much enjoyed this description of the behaviour and clothes of the bright young things forming the houseparty (incidentally the Lieutenant below is not a policeman but an army officer - a distinction it's not necessary to make in the UK):
Ellery sauntered over to the pool, which churned with vigorous bodies, and sat down on a bench to watch.
[Queen and Leonie are looking for a lost pearl necklace. Leonie says:]
‘That was a long, six-stranded rope. If you think Dorothy Nixon has it on her person now, in that bathing suit…’ Ellery glanced at Mrs Nixon.
‘I can’t say,’ he chuckled, ‘that any of you in your present costumes could conceal an object larger than a fly’s wing.’..
Mrs Nixon slapped Harkness’s face, brought up her naked leg, set her rosy heel against the man’s wide chin, and shoved. Harkness laughed and went under.
‘Swine,’ said Mrs Nixon pleasantly, climbing out.
‘It’s your own fault,’ said Leonie. ‘I told you not to wear that bathing suit.’
‘Look,’ said the Lieutenant darkly, ‘who’s talking.’