Our Tuesday Night Bloggers Club is featuring Ellery Queen this month, and the entries are being collected and collated over at Noah’s Archives. I said last week that I was less familiar with Queen than some other crime writers, and asked for recommendations. The ones I’d read in the past happened, by chance, to be his later works, and the fans tend to agree that they are not as good as his primetime works.
I wasn’t sure how quickly I could get hold of or read any suggested book, but said I’d give it a go.
Margot Kinberg and Chrissie Poulson BOTH recommended The Lamp of God, so I ordered that one straight away, and The Scarlet Letters came up too – Noah said it had a well-dressed woman in it, and he was absolutely right. I am grateful for all the recommendations – I have made a list – but these two managed to arrive on time for me to read them for this week. (Helped by the fact that one of them was a novella.)
So – The Scarlet Letters was a 1953 book, and one where even the nature of the crime doesn’t become obvious for a long time. But an atmosphere of tension and danger is launched in the opening pages – Queen doesn’t waste any time – and there are puzzles to solve and people to follow. There’s a married couple going through hard times: who mistrusts whom, who is violent, who is jealous? Of course the book is of its time: wife-beating is certainly not OK, but not taken quite as seriously as we would nowadays. Martha Lawrence is described as ‘an absolute darling to her friends, but a dud as a wife’, but I couldn’t really see any justification for the 2nd half of that. There were references to gay characters – ‘a broad streak of lavender’ – that you would not find today.
I liked the fact that while Queen is following someone, and trying to look casual in a hotel lobby, he ‘walked over to the news stand and began to finger a copy of Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine.’
All in all, an enjoyable rush through a weird plot: you know there is going to be a big turnaround at the end (things can’t be as simple as they look), and yes there is.
‘She had to wait for the traffic signal. She was dressed gaily today, in something flowered, with bright colours, and a big picture hat. She was holding the floppy brim against the breeze with one hand and waving with the other.’ – p 94
The photo dates from 1956, and is from the Clover Vintage Tumblr.
The Lamp of God is a novella – 80-odd pages – from 1935, which I read in an anthology called The New Adventures of Ellery Queen (pub. 1940). It’s also known as House of Haunts. Queen goes to help a lawyer friend: a rich old man has died, there is a young woman heiress, there are two houses next door to each other. The assembled cast stays in one of the houses – the other is empty. Overnight, the empty house disappears. There are more lines to the plot, but that’s the one you are meant to tussle with – and there is another big surprise once that one’s out of the way.
Now, I think it would be impossible for any reader to work out what happened to the missing house (there are no clues) and the second surprise is a fun moment, but completely unbelievable. But all that said, it’s a rattling good yarn, lots of atmosphere and tension, and very creepy.
I’m intrigued that it was novella-length. The disappearing house is a short-story kind of idea (it reminded me of a GK Chesterton Father Brown story) and it might have been better not to weigh it down with so much extra. But all the ‘extra’ is crazy, and might have made more sense distributed along a full-length novel. Once the plot is resolved, and the explanation and accusations are done, there is still a four-page Addendum trying to explain what was going on – an 80-page story should not need that.
But I enjoyed reading it, and am working my way through the other stories in the book.
‘Alice was wearing a different gown, a simple unfrilled frock, and she had freshened up. There was colour in her cheeks and her eyes were sparkling with a light and tinge they had not had before. Seeing her for the first time without her hat and coat, Ellery thought she looked different, as all women contrive to look different divested of their outer clothing and refurbished by the mysterious activities which go on behind the closed doors of feminine dressing rooms.’ (p28)
The picture is from the NYPL’s collection of 1930s fashion illustrations.
So – two good examples of Queen’s work. Thanks everyone for the recommendations – which I will continue to chase up – and I hope you are impressed that I managed to read two of them in the week since my appeal for tips!