Period I Queen is the period of the most materially rich (i.e., clue dense) Queens, when the author--actually, as we know, two cousins, Frederic Dannay and Manfred B. Lee--was emulating the classic, puzzle-oriented detective novel of the Golden Age.
This was the period of the famous "Challenge to the Reader," a point near the end of the novels, when the authors informed their readers that they now had all the clues they needed to solve the puzzle. Many people see some of the Queen novels from this period (The Greek Coffin Mystery, The Tragedy of X, and The Tragedy of Y seem to be the most consistently named, but I would definitely add as well The Siamese Twin Mystery) as being at the apex of the Golden Age art.
|Manfred Lee and Fredric Dannay|
together comprised Ellery Queen,
one of the greatest American crime writers
Period III was when Queen went for greater psychological realism and thematic depth, although there is significant variance in the books of this period as well.
There is convincing naturalism (particularly in some of the Wrightsville novels, set in a "heartland" town, located either in upstate New York or New England), but often as well there is quite fantastic plotting that seems at war with the naturalism, as Lee himself complained in correspondence with Dannay.
Still, many people prefer this period to Period I (and certainly Period II), seeing it as more artistically mature and complex. In particular, Calamity Town, Ten Days' Wonder and Cat of Many Tails are typically acclaimed as masterpieces by Queen fans.
Period IV is, for me anyway, rather harder to categorize. Most obviously, Manfred Lee, who had written the novels from Frederic Dannay's outlines, bowed out of the writing of a number of the books in this period, causing Dannay to seek out ghost writers for his plots (this was not acknowledged at the time). This period is seen by some as having produced some of the best Queens (The Player on the Other Side, And On the Eighth Day, Face to Face), as well as some of the worst (The House of Brass, The Last Woman in His Life, A Fine and Private Place) and some of the downright oddest (Cop Out).
|the 1992 HarperPerennial |
quality paperback edition
(a wonderful series)
The Origin of Evil is one of the three Queen novels that the Queen cousins discuss in depth in the correspondence collected by Joseph Goodrich in his splendid 2012 book Blood Relations.
This kind of correspondence--in such depth and from such notable figures in the history of the American crime novel--is a true rarity. It's fascinating to get the insights of the actual authors into the novels they were writing, and I again urge people to get this book (though ideally after you have read Evil as well as Ten Days' Wonder and Cat of Many Tails, the other two novels discussed).
I think there is truth in this, although if you want a Period III Queen novel where you can enjoy the problem without having to grapple so much with Queenian strivings for deeper cosmic meaning, Evil is a good choice.There are some interesting ideas in the novel, yet it remains primarily a problem in deduction.
In Evil, Ellery Queen's amateur sleuth--also named Ellery Queen of course--has returned to Hollywood after a considerable absence (a couple of the Period II novels are set in Hollywood). He's trying to get a mystery novel written, but real-life mystery keeps intruding. The mystery Ellery is dragged into this time concerns the households of the late Leander Hill and his jewelry business partner, Roger Priam.
Leander Hill's heart gave out after his receipt at his home of a bizarre "gift": a dead dog with a tiny silver box attached to its collar. A message was in the box and the reading of it by Hill precipitated his collapse. Hill's lovely and plucky nineteen-year-old adopted daughter, Laurel, declares that her father was murdered by fright. She now wants Ellery to find out who is behind it all.
|Ellery finds himself drawn to Delia|
Other characters of note in Evil are Priam's lusciously ripe forty-four year old wife, Delia (she's the same age as the Queen cousins when they wrote this novel), with whom Ellery becomes lustfully smitten; Priam's sardonic manservant, Alfred Wallace; Delia's muscle-rippled son from a prior marriage, Crowe Macgowan; and Delia's philosophical father, Cap Collier, who lives at the Priam mansion. There's also family man Lieutenant Keats of Hollywood Homicide, a temporary stand-in for Ellery's own New York cop father.
Crowe Macgowan actually lives above the Priam house, in a tree to be precise, and has been dubbed by newspapers the Atomic Age Nature Boy. Clad only in a loincloth, he says he is preparing for life after the atom bombs fall. At first this seems like an anti-atomic weapons statement on the part of the cousins, but the ultimate resolution of this plot strand undermines this reading, as Francis Nevins has noted (in his Royal Bloodline, 1974, and its 2013 revision, Ellery Queen: The Art of Detection).*
*(the resolution of Crowe's story-line seems to have a real-life parallel: see here those of you have read the book--it concerns the individual pictured immediately below)
|back to nature|
The Korean War had broken out in 1950, when the Queen cousins were working on Evil, and the war is much alluded to in the novel. In Nevins' view
the major trouble with this book is that Queen's treatment of the Korean war and of impending nuclear holocaust is completely at odds with his grim view of man. The conflict in Korea is portrayed not as one more monument to man's power-hunger and blood-lust but in the standard propaganda terms of the filthy Commies from the North attacking their peaceful democratic neighbors in the South.... (Royal Bloodline, 149).
Nevins does find a saving excuse for this purported failing on the part of Queen, however, as we see in this (rather didactic) passage:
We must remember, of course, that in those days when Joe McCarthy ruled the land, thousands of Americans had their careers ruined for raising doubts about matters such as these; and it seems clear that in 1951 Queen was not yet ready to put his body on the line. So if The Origin of Evil fails to cohere thematically, the reign of terror in which it was written is more to blame than Queen (Royal Bloodline, 149-150).
Interestingly, in Nevins' revision of Royal Bloodline, The Art of Detection, Nevins also faults what he calls Manfred Lee's "fervid anti-Communism" for this aspect of the novel, so apparently the Queen cousins were not actually forced to write this way by a McCarthyite reign of terror, but chose to do so of their own volition (particularly, it seems, Lee). In any event, while it's clear that in the novel Queen portrays resistance to the North Korean invasion of South Korea as a morally positive thing, given the state of affairs in the two countries today I can't say I disagree with Queen! Admittedly, this attitude does make Evil more redemptive and less pessimistic in nature.
|"one more monument to man's power-hunger and blood-lust"|
Evil opens with a wonderfully observant description of post-war Hollywood, some of Manfred Lee's best writing, in my opinion. However, most of the rest of the novel takes place indoors at three locations (the Hill house, the Priam House and Ellery's temporary abode), so there in fact is little local color, despite the presence of some colorful Hollywood characters.
Ultimately this is a heavily plot-driven novel, dominated by Frederic Dannay's lifelong fascination with intricate patterns and symbolism. On this level it is a great success, I think. Trying to detect what is the meaning behind the menaces is intriguing fun. However, the characterization in my view is not sufficiently deep to give full impact to the darker themes at which Queen so obviously was aiming in this novel.
|Delia Priam unloads on Lt. Keats|
and Ellery with her killer gams
Without going into detail, I'll just say that Ellery and Lieutenant Keats reveal themselves as rather displeasing prigs (okay, utter a-holes) in their attitudes and behavior toward her when they learn certain facts about her sex life.
In discussing Delia with Dannay, Lee pronounced that he found her "morally about as appealing as a guinea pig." Modern audiences are more apt to see things differently, I think, and will be more disgusted with Ellery than with Delia (his attitude toward her is, as Joe Goodrich puts it, "severely judgmental and hypocritically punitive").
In this case the cousins seem to have been influenced by elements of the hard-boiled school--particularly those in the books of Raymond Chandler and also, of course, the then hugely popular Mickey Spillane--that they themselves sometimes harshly denigrated. As is so often the case with Chandler, they seem to have been simultaneously attracted to and disgusted by the sexuality of their key female character. It feels off-putting today. Delia Priam deserved more from this novel than what she gets.
I want to stress, however, that despite my criticism of some aspects of the novel, I agree with Nevins that The Origin of Evil is one of the best Queen books from the 1950s (in fact, I think I would say it's the best, but then I don't share Nevins' great admiration for The Glass Village, 1954). Evil has a wonderfully clever, twisting, fairly clued plot and an engaging narrative with an admirably ambiguous conclusion. It may not be perfect, but it is damn good.
See also my review of Halfway House (1936).