|parable and mystery|
The 1992 HarperPerennial edition carries on the back cover the one-word blurb "Astonishing." This comes from Anthony Boucher's New York Times Book Review notice.Yet the real story of the review is a tad more complex than this one carefully chosen word suggests. A bemused Boucher explained in his review that he had given the novel two readings, a month apart, and still didn't know whether he liked it or not!
I still have not decided whether this is a small masterpiece in an unconventional genre (limited, so far as I know, to this one book), or whether it is an unfortunate error in the Queen career.
I suspect the devoutly religious though avowedly liberal Boucher didn't know quite what to make of a such an in-your-face detective-novel-as-religious-parable book.
The novel, which is set in 1943-44, opens with Ellery spending Christmas with his father, Inspector Queen, in New York, then setting out across America in his "antique Duesenberg" (trains are full, its being wartime) for LA, to visit his old friends the Walshes (see The Four of Hearts, 1938), before taking up his job working on military propaganda (V. D. Will Get You If You Don't Watch Out).
Ellery arrives in LA on December 31 and by April 1 is on the verge of a nervous breakdown. He is let go and heads back to "New York, its April damps and dirt-flecked beauty." "Did they give squeezed-out writers Purple Hearts," Ellery tiredly wonders to himself.
However, in Death Valley, after visiting the prophetically named "End-of-the-World Store" (Otto Schmidt, prop.), Ellery finds himself lost in the desert in his Duesenberg.
Fortunately (and here we leave the regular world for the land of the fantastic, or dare I say The Twilight Zone), Ellery comes upon a lost settlement in a valley, Quenan, inhabited by followers of some strange religion. The leader of the community, known as the Teacher, hails Ellery's coming as having been prophesied in the religion's recently rediscovered holy book. It seems it has been foretold that the community soon will face a crisis and will need Ellery's help.
Knowing Ellery's track record, we can be pretty certain murder will be involved!
As indicated above, The Twilight Zone (1959-1964) came to my mind when I was reading this book, as did the M. Night Shyalaman film The Village (2004). One just has to accept the basic premise that this community could have been hidden away for seventy years. In addition to The Twilight Zone, another contemporary influence, one would think, may have been Margaret Millar's crime novel How Like an Angel (1964).
Whatever its influences, I found this novel an original tour de force. It has many of the hallmarks of classic Queen: wordplay, symbolism, the twist. I thought the the religious parable elements were intriguing and quite enjoyed seeing how Dannay and Davidson played around with them.
It would be fun to discuss the book more in depth, but spoilers concerns prohibit this. I'll just say that in addition to its basic cleverness, the novel succeeds, I think, in making some serious points about humankind.
It does seem to be a love it or hate it book, however, so the prospective reader is warned: you have to be able to embrace Queenian fantastification.