Friday, July 20, 2012

Cleverness is our national curse. (Part 2)

The ideal of the combined author character and critic in the field was not lost on two young cousins from New York City. Most critics indicate that Ellery Queen, character, owes much to Philo Vance. The mannerisms, the use of esoteric knowledge, and the superior knowledge all harken back to Van Dine’s detective.

Just as Van Dine had followed the The 6-letter word Murder Case titling, Queen as author did the same. All of the first xx books in the series follow a similar pattern, The Nationality Object Mystery, calling notice yet again to the similarities between the characters.

Queen was nearly as insufferable in terms of not telling what he knew when he knew it. However, at least his reluctance to expound on a solution was explained in The Greek Coffin Mystery, where the character proposed not one or two solutions, but four solutions before the correct answer was uncovered. Even so, the early books contain chapter quotes from famous criminologists and philosophers about the nature of crime and the chapter titles spell out the book title and author. 

Ellery’s knowledge of the esoteric is well-known. In The Siamese Twin Mystery, Queen goes to great lengths to discuss a playing card as a dying clue held in the murdered man’s hand. He analyzes the card as a playing card, message and goes as far as to translate the suits into other languages. Queen, the author, even toys with the idea of one twin being a murderer, and the subsequent lack of justice that would result from this situation. Would they release the killer so that the innocent twin could be free or would they jail the innocent twin to punish the killer?

Queen even goes as far as to create his own nursery rhyme murder mystery in There was an Old Woman. In that book, Queen does his level best to use parts of the Mother Goose rhyme about the old woman in the shoe as part of his case about the Potts family. Chapter titles use parts of the nursery rhyme and clues are left that fit into the rhyme as well.

Even though Queen had written Calamity Town about Wrightsville, which typically marks the third period of Queen’s work, There was an Old Woman seems to be more first period, albeit a slightly cock-eyed version of the first period. Queen’s involvement comes through his father, the solution depends on rather arcane cluing and the murders themselves are interesting problems of jurisprudence.

That’s not to say that there aren’t many aspects to the book that aren’t solely Queen’s. The use of another set of twins is definitely a Queenian touch. The characters come from a genetically tainted family, much like the one in The Tragedy of Y. Major Gotch is a throwback to the silent male companion in The Dragon’s Teeth.

Queen did not meet the same fate as Vance, in no small part because Queen the character did change over the course of the series. Vance was so set in stone as a dilettante that he could not change. Queen as a character slowly evolved from pedantic to more realistic. This change allowed the character to survive into the 1970s. 


  1. Jeff, regarding your comment on Siamese twins, that problem was at the center of one of the best Barnabas Hildreth short stories by Vincent Cornier - a 1951 story that was originally published in EQMM. (I don't want to give more details to avoid spoilers.) As for Queen, I must admit I'm still fonder of the earlier puzzle-oriented books than I am of the later angst-ridden Ellery ones.

  2. I do enjoy them more too, Les. They were so enthusiastic in their joy of the puzzle that I think it was infectious. However, given the fate of Philo Vance, I do understand why they would move to change the character as well.