American Mystery Classics – Take Two

November 16, 2018 at 7:41 pm (Book review, books, Mystery fiction)

  Yesterday’s Washington Post features an article by Michael Dirda on American mystery classics. He begins with Leslie Klinger’s hefty anthology, which includes The Roman Hat Mystery by Ellery Queen,  The Benson Murder Case by S.S. Van Dine, The House Without a Key (in which Earl Derr Biggers introduced the Chinese-American detective Charlie Chan), W.R. Burnett’s Little Caesar, and Red Harvest by Dashiell Hammett.

The only one of those five that I’ve read is Red Harvest. With regard to the plot, I don’t recall any of the specifics but I’ll probably always remember what a wild ride it was. The body count alone was impressive – somewhere in the neighborhood of twenty-three! Good guys  and bad guys, guilty and innocent, male and female – they kept stumbling into a shooter’s cross hairs or the wrong end of a knife.

Red Harvest is not a Sam Spade novel; rather, it features protagonist known only by his job title: the Continental Op, an operative of the Continental Detective Agency of San Francisco.   The famous first sentence more or less sets the tone for  the rest of the novel:

I first heard Personville called Poisonville by a red-haired mucker named Hickey Dewey in the Big Ship in Butte.

First appearing in 1929, The Roman Hat Mystery was the first novel by Ellery Queen, the pseudonym of joint authors (and cousins) Frederic Dannay and Manfred Bennington Lee. This hugely successful collaboration rolled merrily along until 1971, the year of Lee’s death. I recently wrote about Ellery Queen in the post entitled American Mystery Classics, selected  by Otto Penzler and published by Penzler Publishers.  In that post, I mentioned The Chinese Orange Mystery. This is one of eight mysteries newly reissued by Penzler. According to Michael Dirda, it is “…probably Ellery Queen’s most dazzling case.” I didn’t much care for the novel, finding it too gimmicky and full of uninteresting characters, including, alas, Ellery himself. (The author and the investigator share the same name, a somewhat disconcerting device which you eventually get used to.)

I had previously read and enjoyed Calamity Town, first in a brief series of Ellery Queen titles set in the fictional New England town of Wrightsville. Additional reading of critics and bloggers directed me back to the Wrightsville novels (and stories).  Ergo, I am currently reading- and very much enjoying – the second book in the series, The Murderer Is a Fox.

If you scroll to the bottom of the American Mystery Classics blog post that I linked to above, you will find several interesting observations on Ellery Queen by Xavier L., my occasional gracious and very knowledgeable online correspondent. Xavier has written an article entitled “Ellery Queen in France;” it can be found on his blog, At the Villa Rose.

About The Roman Hat Mystery, Michael Dirda says this:

Here was a classic Golden Age puzzle — Ellery Queen’s first case, in fact — and virtually all the characters were caricatures, the dialogue was stilted and corny, and the elaborate plot verged on the ludicrous. What more could one ask for?

He goes on to observe:

That sounds paradoxical, but artificiality is a welcome attraction in many vintage who-and-howdunits. The stories deliberately leave out the messiness of real life, of real emotions, thus allowing the reader to mentally just amble along, mildly intrigued, feeling comfortable and even, yes, cozy. In this case, the key clue — where is the murdered Field’s missing top hat? — drives home the difference between then and now: We are a long way from deranged fanatics armed with semiautomatic weapons.

I have to interject here that the dialog in The Murder Is a Fox is  anything but stilted. It is real and urgent. Here is part of a conversation between Ellery Queen and a local judge:

“How familiar were you with the proceedings?”

“I followed it fairly closely at the time.”

“And your sympathies?”

“In my business,” remarked Judge Martin to his stogie, “if you have any such, you sit on ‘em till they smother to death.”

“Then you did have some.”

“Perhaps.”

“For the victim or the defendant?”

Judge Martin tapped ashes into his wastebasket. “Young fellow, you’re not going to pump me on that. Where my sympathies lay is irrelevant—purely emotional, you understand. No basis in fact, no evidential value, no standing in court.”

“What did you think of the verdict?” persisted Ellery.

“My personal opinion?” Judge Eli squinted at him through the acrid smoke. “I don’t like the kind of evidence they convicted Bayard on. As a judge, I mean. I prefer something substantial when you’re trying a man for his life and liberty—like fingerprints.”

Ellery is desperate for some kind of information that will corroborate his view of the case.

As I noted previously, The Roman Hat Mystery came out in 1929. I can only assume that the Queen cousins learned something about writing dialog between then and 1945, the publication year of

The Murderer Is a Fox.

Ellery Queen, aka Manfred B. Lee (left) and Frederic Dannay

 

 

1 Comment

  1. Frank of US bookclub said,

    Nice blog. You’ve intrigued me. I’ll have to read some of these since I’m a fan of the era and the puzzle type of mystery.

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