Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Wicked Gifts: The Origin of Evil (1951), by Ellery Queen

As fans of Ellery Queen (Queenians?) know, the Ellery Queen mysteries have been divided by EQ expert Francis Nevins chronologically into four periods: Period I (1929-1935), Period II (1936-1940), Period III (1942-1958) and Period IV (1963-1971).

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 II Queen was when Queen went "slick," seeking success in serializations in the glossy magazines and in the films.  Plotting complexity was downplayed, in favor of increased emphasis on emotions (including-gasp!-love). This seems to be everyone's least favorite Queen period.

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)
I have to admit I tend to gravitate to Period I myself, but I recently read Queen's Period III detective novel The Origin of Evil (1951) and was quite impressed, with a few caveats.

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).

In Blood Relations Joseph Goodrich deems Evil inferior to Ten Days' Wonder and Cat of Many Tails. He writes that Evil is "too many things at once--a Hollywood satire, a treatise on the nature of humankind, and a report on the state of the world as well as a typically clever Queen excursion."

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
Hill's partner and neighbor Roger Priam also received a "gift," packaged in a small cardboard box, but he's not saying what it was. Priam is a wheelchair-bound giant of a man, who had to retire fifteen years ago from active participation in Hill & Priam, Wholesale Jewelers, on account of his deteriorated physical condition. When additional sinister gifts/warnings are sent to Priam, the surviving partner, it appears that someone with a vendetta against Hill & Priam is determined to finish a double job of murder.

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 BloodlineThe 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
By far the strongest character in the book, I think, is Delia Priam, but her handling by Queen is something I find problematical.

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).

9 comments:

  1. What a great choice! For me, what you call Period III is when EQ went overboard on the themes and symbolism and became stylized and unreadable, with just a few shreds of former glory once in a while. As far as "The Origin Of Evil" being the best EQ novel of the 50s, at first I thought, "Naaahhh," but upon consideration ...
    I agree with your estimation of "The Glass Village", I find it rather goes overboard on the ugliness of the surrounding countryfolk, and the "Grandma Moses" character is just a lazy characterization. "The King is Dead" and "The Finishing Stroke" are overwrought; "Double Double" is under wrought and the "Rima the Bird Girl character" is just a lazy characterization. So, yes, "Origin of Evil" is one of the best EQs of the 50s, although the "Jungle Boy character" is just a lazy characterization. But I'd also offer "The Scarlet Letters", where the theme and pattern is actually integrally related to the plot. It's a quiet, small book with a limited cast of characters and a clever reversal at the end. Nothing weird, no lazy characterization, and a very welcome shrinking of the canvas to something that had more immediacy.
    If you want to see EQ getting "severely judgmental and hypocritically punitive" because they're disgusted by the sexuality of a major character, check out "The Last Woman in His Life" (1970). More than off-putting, it's downright ugly.

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  2. Noah, thanks so much for the great comment. I kept thinking with Nature Boy, didn't we go through this in the last novel (Double, Double) with Nature Girl? Seemed more like something from Period II.

    It's fascinating if you look at Blood Relations, how impacted Ellery Queen was by the changes going on around them with hard-boiled and psychological mystery. They were really trying hard to "stay relevant." Dannay was even talking about abandoning Ellery after Ten Days' Wonder.

    I think Manfred Lee's Wrightsville naturalism was a better notion than Dannay's increased fantastification and attempts at cosmic significance. Dannay's plots really are hard to square with Lee's naturalism, however, as Lee complained.

    In the Period I novels one does have to worry about realism so much, happily!

    Totally agree with you about Last Woman in His Life. The cluelessness rife in that book about a certain subject is epic, although Francis Nevins sees it as progressive. Maybe it seemed so in 1970.

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    1. That should be one does NOT have to worry so much....

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  3. It occurred to me later that -- well, EQ, as you say, was attracted to and disgusted by Delia Priam's sexuality. But what did they think WAS an appropriate sexuality? Paula Paris and Nikki Porter are the only women Ellery ever dates. Paula Paris is mentally ill, an agoraphobe, and as I recall cannot bear to be touched until Ellery magically brings her out of her shell -- and Nikki Porter is a virgin and a "jolly chum" co-investigator, not a love interest, after the end of "There Was an Old Woman". I remember there's a chapter head in Symons' "Bloody Murder" in which EQ is asked about Ellery's sex life ... my response would now be that he either didn't have one, or else Last Woman in His Life is somehow autobiographical. (I'm kidding. I'm KIDDING.)

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    1. Noah, it does feel in as if the authors are looking for some reason not to involve Ellery with a woman sexually in Evil. If Delia was not for Ellery, there was also Laurel. Sure she's much younger, 25 years, but that never stopped a red-blooded American crime fiction male in the 1950s! But it's made clear that Ellery doesn't even think about Laurel in that light (and we know she's got Crowe the hunk, anyway).

      I can't help feeling that EQ just didn't know what to do with Ellery in this regard. It's kind of odd, really, because this was the time when Lord Peter, Roderick Alleyn and Albert Campion, among others, were showing that amiable, attractive gentleman sleuths could have love lives.

      On the other hand, Ellery can't be "that way," or he would have been making a move on Crowe as the young man traipsed around in that scarlet loincloth!

      By the way, do you know the original source for the info in Bloody Murder about Hammett's snide question concerning Ellery Queen's sex life, "if any"? It's a great story, but Symons never bothers to cite the source.

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    2. Curt, the source of Symons on Hammet's question is Frederic Dannay himself. According to Dannay, Hammett was conducting a two semester class in "The Mystery Story" and invited Dannay to be Guest Expert in several workshops. After introducing Dannay to the students as a "triple-threat man" (writer-editor-critic) he invariably inquired, "with a perfect dead pan" (FD words): "Mr Queen, would you be good enough to explain your famous character's sex life"? This was intended as an ice-breaker, but the first time around Dannay was apparently embarrassed. Dannay tells this story, and goes on to a general discussion on the subject of sex and love life of fictional detectives, in a post-script to a tale in EQMM 46 (Sept. 1947).

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    3. Thanks, Henrique, I've learned as well this this was reprinted in the collection In the Queen's Parlor, so am checking this out there!

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  4. There is a suggestion that Ellery won't approach Delia sexually because she's married. In chapter 2 he's surprised at himself (for having sexual thoughts about Delia), because ... "A married woman, obviously a lady, and her husband was a cripple." And she makes him lose control, which he doesn't like. I'm not sure why exactly he concludes she's a lady; I drew rather the opposite conclusion. Ellery won't approach Delia's son's girlfriend, because she somehow belongs to Crowe -- they get married at the end of the novel. In chapter 6, Ellery says something strange to Laurel; “Be sure to tell your muscular admirer that I’m returning you to him virgo intacto. I’m sort of sentimental about my clavicles.” And at one early point, Laurel says something very strange; she threatens to kill Crowe if she finds out he killed her father, "Even if we were married―had a baby." Wow. Sounds like they're going to have a violent marriage.
    I agree with you that EQ didn't know what to do with Ellery's sex life, if any, but it seems that married women were out of the question. It's strange, there seem to be a lot of references to marriage in the book. Things are timed by their relationship to when Delia and her husband got married ... Lieutenant Keats makes sure Ellery knows he's married, at the end of Chapter 10. But is EQ's insistence on the inviolability of married women just a period-appropriate way of telling us that Ellery is the white-hatted hero with a strict moral code? Or were EQ just really, really prudish?

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    1. I wasn't bowled over by Ellery's little speech to Delia. We're told over and over about her husband is "paralyzed-- from the waist down." Not to mention her husband is hardly an appealing character as a personality.I really felt angry with the book for being so punitive toward her, but I guess at least it shows the book drew a reaction from me on that level.

      Of course the 1950s was the great domestic hearth and home decade, but from the Queen correspondence it seems they genuinely disliked Delia. It may be that, like with the portrayal of the Korean War, the Queens were at home with some of the prevailing cultural attitudes of the time, despite their hated of McCarthyism. Someone who was "liberal" in the 1950s was necessarily a replica of a modern, 21st century liberal.

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