Thursday, January 12, 2012

Ellery Queen and the Passage of Time

A colleague of mine is a professionally published mystery writer. When I told that I had always wanted to write John Dickson Carr-style locked room mysteries, she was quick to inform me that times had changed. While Agatha Christie and Arthur Conan Doyle books are still in print and still widely admired, tastes have changed. Modern readers are not interested in English tea cozies or locked room puzzles or even hard-boiled detectives. If I was serious about being a mystery writer, I needed to read current authors to understand what the public wants (and what publishers are likely to take a chance on).

Well, I can't say I want to be a mystery writer -- a mystery reader is good enough for now. I never thought Carr and the other authors I read were necessarily old-hat, but rather timeless (like Doyle). But after reading an Ellery Queen novel, I think I understand what my author friend was trying to tell me.

Ellery Queen (actually cousins  Frederic Dannay and Manfred Lee) were wildly popular from their initial appearance in the 1930's. The books are admired for their "play fair" puzzles. That is, by the time you get to the reveal, you have had all the facts placed before you to make the right deduction yourself.

Great concept. But execution was something else. I suspect that when detective stories were new, there was a certain amount of shorthand involved. The reader knew  a large cast of characters were present just to give one many choices for the guilty party. Characters would do mysterious, suspicious and/or counter-productive things primarily to confuse the reader. And the puzzle was the thing.

In the hands of a talented writer (like John Dickson Carr), it's all woven into the narrative and you don't notice the seams. For Ellery Queen, though, it's different. The characters move about as directed with no natural or rational motivation. Worse yet, they don't behave consistently. All of which just calls attention to the rather pedestrian prose telling basically a word problem.

In the Chinese Orange Mystery , a man is killed in the waiting room of an office suite and then posed in a bizarre fashion. Two spears from the waiting room he was murdered in are thrust through the legs of his clothes, forming a brace. All of his clothes have been removed and put on backwards. Every chair, bookcase, and desk has been turned around. Every loose item that could has been placed upside down.

Now by the end of the mystery, there is an explanation for everything. The spears are necessary for a locked room illusion, while the backwards-turning of everything is there to hide a backwards-turned article of clothing that would have given everrything away.

(I'm being deliberately vague in case you actually want to read this mystery for yourself.)

Sure, all the clues are there -- but no rational person would ever put them together in the way the great detective did. Further, the turning everything backwards ruse was a last-minute improvisation that the killer came up with to hide a damning fact. Now really. The murderer has committed this crime in an office suite with people in other rooms across the hall, and even an attendant in the hall. Silent kill? No problem. But the whole of the killer's plan depends on only being absent from the others for a short while.

So what happens when you start moving furniture around? I don't know how it works in Ellery Queen land, but around here it's a noisy process. And a time-consuming one. And a very physical one. Yet the killer was neither out of breath (or had even worked up a sweat) when seen shortly after the murder, and no one heard a thing.

Back when the fashion was all about the puzzle, I'm sure this was a ripping yarn. But read in a different era, it just seems silly and contrived.

I guess fashions do change.

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