As the Alphabet of Crime community meme over at the Mysteries in Paradise blog reaches the letter O, my second nomination this week, also eligible under the guidelines of Bev’s 2011 Mystery Readers Challenge, is …
O is for … THE ORIGIN OF EVIL by Ellery Queen
This is the third and last of Ellery Queen’s ‘Hollywood’ novels and indeed the three have been published together as an omnibus, though this does tend to emphasise the massive change of style in the final volume. Whereas the previous ones, The Devil to Pay and The Four of Hearts (both 1938) were slick, fast-moving entertainments seemingly written under the influence of the film capital so as to make ideal movie fodder, The Origin of Evil (1951) is a much denser and more opaque work, one which presents us with a very different detective from before and a much changed author, both of whom happen to be named ‘Ellery’.
Indeed, what we are offered here is a jaundiced view of Hollywood and of the great detective himself, who here acts without the help and support of his father in a story which is much more redolent of the post-war noir sensibility we would more normally associate with Woolrich or Chandler for instance. It is a rich and strange novel, one that while being unmistakably ‘Queenian’ shows authors Frederic Dannay and Manfred B. Lee continuing to explore new formulas to try to incorporate increasingly complex themes within the mystery genre.
Francis M. Nevins Jr in Royal Bloodline (1974), his fine book devoted to the literary output of Dannay and Lee, subdivided their work into four consecutive chronological periods:
- 1929-1935: intensely ratiocinative, heavily influenced by SS Van Dine, with Queen depicted as a detatched, towering intellect
- 1936-1939: less complex stories, Ellery is lightened up considerably and the country + noun title convention is dispensed with.
- 1942-1958: darker, more psychologically intense and realistic stories where Ellery’s intellect and investigative gifts give way to neurosis as his omniscience is darkly reflected in the evil done by a hidden manipulative nemesis
- 1963-1971: theme-driven stories, much more contrived, artificial and experimental but with a less anguished tone.
To this I would suggest that the long third period could be sub-divided in two, with The Origin of Evil as the climax to the first half, coming as it does at the end of a quartet of long, multi-layered allegorical novels. It was in fact directly preceded by Ten Day’s Wonder (1948), Cat of Many Tails (1949) and Double, Double (1950), all of which see Ellery dealing with complex crimes in which he becomes deeply and personally involved, far away from the remote and saturnine figure he cut in his early days.
Ellery suddenly remembered that in Hollywood dress is a matter of free enterprise.
The novel opens in almost parodic fashion with Ellery lying naked on his couch, apparently watching a slow death from the windows of his rented house. The ‘corpse’ though is Hollywood, a town apparently slowly being strangled by the advent of television. Ellery is in Tinseltown to work on a new novel but his new-found celebrity status, after cracking the ‘Cat’ serial killer case, means that he soon has rich clients knocking at his door. The first is the spunky and headstrong Laurel, the heir to a huge jewelry business, who arrives unannounced and finds him still nakedly enjoying his view of the Hollywood Hills – she is a young woman, not yet 21, who believes that her father was frightened to death when a dead dog was anonymously delivered to their front door in a plainly wrapped box with a message placed in a silver box tied to its collar. Laurel’s father died of a heart attack and although she didn’t read the message, she is sure that it is what killed him. Her father’s partner, the wheelchair-bound ogre Roger Priam, dismisses her claims and the police let the matter drop as they have no evidence to go on as the message has gone missing.
“Mr Queen, will you be good enough to explain your famous character’s sex life, if any?” - Dashiell Hammett
Ellery initially refuses the case but after a visit from Delia, Priam’s sexually intoxicating wife, he accepts, not least because Roger has also started receiving mysterious gifts. Dashiell Hammett’s famously mocked Queen for the absence of sex (and, by inference, other common aspects of everyday life) in the golden age detective story and this novel can perhaps be seen as a reaction to that – much of the best writing in the book in fact deals with Ellery’s conflicting emotions as he (and virtually every other man in the story, except her husband Roger) becomes utterly besotted with the overpowering sexual allure of Delia Priam. Laurel’s virginal naiveté makes for a strong contrast in several scenes which explore feeling of sexual and social inadequacy with a surprising frankness.
You know what I think? I think everybody in this house, present company excepted, is squirrel food.
Other characters in the book are stranger, if not less surprising: Crowe, Delia’s son from an earlier marriage, moves out of the family home as he hates Roger (like everybody else) and decides to wear a loin cloth and live in a tree house on their estate, albeit one decked out a bathroom and a fridge, while he awaits Armageddon; Alfred, Roger’s manservant, claims to be an amnesiac with a memory only going back 18 months; and most odd of all perhaps, Mr Collier, Delia’s elderly, prune-looking father, who makes several appearances to discuss his latest hobby before disappearing again but who is also able to speak quite profoundly on the madness in the family and who serves as a kind of everyman who is not under his daughter’s overpowering influence or under Roger’s thumb – asked by Ellery to basically explain what it’s all about, he replies:
It’s about corruption and wickedness. It’s about greed and selfishness and guilt and violence and hatred and lack of self-control. It’s about black secrets and black hearts, cruelty, confusion, fear. It’s about not making the best of things, not being satisfied with what you have and always wanting what you haven’t. It’s about envy and suspicion and malice and lust and nosiness and drunkenness and unholy excitement and a thirst for hot running blood. It’s about man, Mr Queen.
In 1940 Dannay nearly died in a car crash and this may have had an impact on the more serious and religious aspects of the later Queen novels – what is certain is that the two authors were growing dissatisfied with the rigidities of the traditional mystery story form . In this novel, by its conclusion, it is fascinating to see how they have sought to change the parameters of their chosen genre, continuing a strategy already seen in their previous three novels. Needing a super-villain to match wits with their super sleuth, increasingly in these later Queen books we find that the murderers create complex plots that require a genius detective as active participants for them to be carried out. This of course puts our hero in a decidedly awkward position as becomes, in retrospect, unwillingly but indirectly complicit in the architecture of the plan.
Thematically this is explored in the other great Queenian recurring motif (the first is the ‘dying clue’): the murderer who acts through a proxy, manipulating those around them so subtly that their agents do not in fact realise that they are not actually the ones controlling their actions and, what is more, that these actions have sinister and murderous intent. As the deliveries to Roger Priam get more and more bizarre – including a roomful of dead toads – so the allegorical parts of the story step up. Halfway through the novel the North Korean army crosses the 38th parallel and America is plunged into a ‘police action’ putting into perspective the crisis of the Priam household and turning it into a microcosm – one in which religious imagery of an Eden despoiled and an Adam expelled from his earthly paradise rubs shoulders with an anthropological dissection (sic) of the short distance that separates man from his evolutionary antecedents. All wrapped up in a Lewis Carrol style situation that has strong echoes of the classic 1930s Queen short story, ‘The Adventure of the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party’.
It’s a mad idea and it shouldn’t work – and in fact not all of it does, especially its oddly conventional handling of the exit of the Delia Priam character; but the very artificiality of the form and Dannay’s knowing subversion of it, coupled with Lee’s lucid prose, makes for a fascinating read. The Origin of Evil is well out of the ordinary and yet also provides a classic Queen solution to the case that is wonderfully intricate and which is then completely subverted by a second even more complex conclusion. Perhaps not as intricate as Ten Day’s Wonder or Cat of Many Tails, this is an oddly haunting, highly impressive performance.