FACE TO FACE (1967) by Ellery Queen

Did you know that at the end of his illustrious career Ellery Queen retired to Italy, got married and sired a son? And that ‘Queen’ was not his real name, even in the fictional sense? Well, this is the information provided by JJ McCue in his foreword to the first ‘Queen’ novel, The Roman Hat Mystery (1929). I was reminded of all this while reading Face to Face, written some 40 years later. One of the last books in the series, it sees the unexpected return of JJ, a character too clearly in the Van Dine vein (sic) so dropped after Halfway House in 1936. In addition, the book also features references to the Roman Theater and takes its title from Queen’s trademark, a dying clue. Which is to say that Face to Face can have valedictory feel to it …

The 2012 Alphabet of Crime community meme over at Kerrie’s Mysteries in Paradise blog continues this week with the letter F. As part of my contribution I offer the following review of a late but great novel in the Ellery Queen series by its creators, Frederic Dannay and Manfred Lee that finds the maestro, his Inspector father, Sergeant Velie, Doc Prouty and one JJ McCue in fine acrostic form. F is also for ‘Friday’s Forgotten Book’, this week hosted by Todd Mason over at Sweet Freedom.

Readers may have to forgive a certain amount of adolescent emotion as I write this brief review because this was the first Ellery Queen book I ever read – and I still think it’s a great read. I picked it up in June 1983 when it was republished (in Italy) by the Mondadori group’s ‘Classici del Giallo’ imprint under the title ‘Ellery Queen e la parola chiave’ (literally EQ ‘and the key word’). I can tie my enormous affection and love of the Queen style and characters directly to that reading experience – had I picked up a different book in the series, things might have turned out differently perhaps. But I was 14 and impressionable and just starting to fall in love with the traditional whodunit. What I didn’t know, at the time, was that this was (apparently) the first of the books in nearly 10 years to have been written without the use of a ghost writer and was thus the first bona-fide collaboration between Frederic Dannay and Manfred Lee. The two cousins had collaborated closely and fractiously since the 20s but Lee started suffering from writer’s block in the late 50s, so when Dannay started plotting new adventures, he got the likes of Theodore Sturgeon and Avram Davidson to flesh these out, starting with The Player on the Other Side (1962). Lee did some editorial work on these and oversaw the paperback originals published under the Queen name but not featuring the character, which were instead written by the likes of Richard Deming, Fletcher Flora, Talmage Powell and Jack Vance.

“Ellery remembered Glory Guild … even the memory of her voice sufficed to tickle his giblets.”

If we take it that this was the first book by Lee and Dannay since the 50s, and this is subject to some dispute (see below), then it might help to explain the many references to the previous adventures in the series. What is certainly true is that it is book set in present but with a constant eye on the past.  Glory Guild was a popular pre-War singer long-since retired. Enormously wealthy, she has married a latin lothario, ‘Count’ Carlos Armando, known for his seductive charms which have resulted in a great many marriages to wealthy older women which usually ended shortly afterwards and a healthy payout for him. Guild knows his reputation so has him sign a prenup, promising to tear it up if he is faithful for five years. When the time is up she apparently does this and, shortly afterwards, is found shot to death in her study, having written four letters on her notepad: f a c e. As is so often the case in Queen novels, there is instigator to the crime manipulating a person to act as their instrument and weapon. In this case we are sure right from the start that Armando is the person who got the deed done, but he has an alibi – so the question is, which woman did he charm into actually committing the murder?

“Ah me and oh my,” Ellery mourned. “Wouldn’t it be tidy if she’d left a dying message? But that’s too much to expect.”

So the questions are: what does ‘f a c e’ mean, and who did Armando get to execute his plan. In this book Ellery is partnered by Harry Burke, a Scottish private investigator (late of Scotland Yard) who had been hired by Guild to find her long-lost British niece – who, it turns out, is in fact living in New York and trying to also make it as a singer. The two arrive in New York from London on 30 December, the night of the murder, and are contacted by Roberta, one of Armando’s previous conquests. She reveals to them that he had proposed that she kill his wife seven months earlier and that she had broken off their affair right away, unsure how serious he was. But on the night of the murder Armando presented himself at her flat and made a point of staying until midnight, which just so happens to be the time of the murder, so giving himself a solid alibi. She is sure he must be responsible, but has no idea who actually pulled the trigger. Harry is quickly smitten with the girl (who he occasionally calls ‘Bert’, apparently as a sign of affection  …) and eventually gets her to move in with Guild’s niece, who has inherited the lady’s vast fortune. Things seem to be going well for the two young women until the murder weapon is found in the apartment and the niece is put on trial for murder as she had visited her aunt shortly before her death. A potential witness might be able to clear her name, but he is stabbed – Ellery and Harry will have to work fast to find out who the murderer is and what Guild’s cryptic message really meant.

When I posted my list of 9 of the best by Ellery Queen, my penultimate choice was Face to Face, and I stand by it. It is less rich and complex that the heavyweights of the late 40s and early 50s but compared to all the other entries from the 1960s it is, with the possible exception of the not dissimilar The Fourth Side of the Triangle (which was actually written by Dannay with Avram Davidson) the least convoluted and deliberately artificial of the Queen novels published during that decade. George Kelley has speculated (here) that Lee did not contribute to this book and that it was in fact ghosted by Jack Vance from a Dannay synopsis, though there seems to be little hard evidence for this. The book seems to be written by an older man looking back on his past and approaching the present with disdain. Indeed, it struggles, not always successfully, to seem hip and with it in its dealings with modern  culture (words like ‘faggot’ and ‘orgasm’ get used and there are disapproving references to the Beatles and Fellini). Ellery certainly seems somewhat cast adrift in the mid 1960s, though this suits a slightly melancholy air to the story, which is bourne out by the sad but clever climax.

The solution to the dying clue is ingenious if a bit thin really but the characterisation of the intimate cast of suspects is strong, which helps make the finale quite powerful. There are proper clues on how to solve the mystery too, which has a nifty sting in the tail. I certainly remember being quite affected by it as a teen. Almost thirty years later, I find that I still remember this book quite clearly from that initial reading, which must be a good thing. If this had been the end of the series, it would have been a good way to go out. Lee and Dannay would complete two further Queen adventures, both ingenious if less ultimately satisfying: The Last Woman in His Life (1970), which picks up literally a few minutes after the end of Face to Face but again shows scant understanding, or interest, of changes in modern society, and A Fine and Private Place (1971), which is mostly entertaining as a puzzle that, while a bit stodgy, does pull off a remarkable structural gambit that, to my knowledge, has never been repeated in the genre. Did Ellery really retire to Italy and raise a bambino there? The febrile and show-off character of The Roman Hat Mystery is not the soulful one depicted here, that is certain, but it is interesting to speculate on whether this might have been intended to effectively close the circle. We shall probably never know, though publications about Dannay and Lee like Blood Relations: The Selected Letters of Ellery Queen (reviewed brilliantly by Curt Evans here) have recently cast a fascinating, if saddening, depiction of their lives and collaboration.

For information on various international editions of this book, visit Kurt Sercu’s indispensable Ellery Queen web resource at http://queen.spaceports.com/

***** (4 fedora tips out of 5)

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34 Responses to FACE TO FACE (1967) by Ellery Queen

  1. Maxine says:

    Fascinating review and article. I can’t remember whether I read any of these books but like you I read a book at about the same age that made me realise how good crime fiction could be in the novel form — Last Seen Wearing by Hillary Waugh. Before that, I’d devoured, eg, Sherlock Holmes, G K Chesterton etc, in the short story form (never did think Conan Doyle’s novel length Holmes as good). After that, I began searching for novels and enjoyed very many from that day to this.

    • Thanks Maxine – I agree completely about Doyle and the Waugh book is really excellent, a classic of its kind that I’ve been planning to re-read for ages actually. Thanks for that reminder.

  2. Sergio – Oh, I’m glad you featured this one! Not only because it ties up some loose ends so to speak, but also because I love it when bloggers share books that have meant a lot to them as this one has to you. It’s a great story too and as you say, the characters work very, very well.

    • Thank you very much Margot, that’s very kind. I am always a bit concerned that, using one own private history like that, can seem like an excuse for somwhat blinkering one’s critical faculties or anyway refusing to face up to the weaknesses of a beloved work. It is certainly very hard to preach to anyone but converts on that basis but I am an inveterate Ellery Queen fan so best to come out and say so! I do genuinely think this is a work worthy of a second look. Thanks again for the positive feedback, as always.

      • Sergio – You do make a valid point about one’s own biases affecting one’s critical faculties. But we all have our preferences – no sense hiding that. In my opinion (‘though of course I could be wrong), when readers of one’s reviews and other blog posts know one’s personal biases, they can take that into account when they read one’s posts. And you’re not the only one at all who thinks Face to Face is a good ‘un.

  3. Colin says:

    An Ellery Queen that I haven’t read and don’t own! I guess that squares us up then.
    I’m glad you brought this one to my attention though. I grew increasingly frustrated with the direction the Queen novels were taking through the 60s and gave up after A Study in Terror. I never knew that this book was more of a “proper” Queen novel. I’m going to have to track down a copy now.

    • I do understand your frustration with the way the books tended to go in the 60s – they are much less naturalistic and just push the puzzles to quite unliklely extremes. I do enjoy the artificiality of them (something that perhaps can be attributed to the lessening of Lee’s involvement)

      • Colin says:

        I fully intend to give Face to Face a go, but I seriously doubt I could ever work up the enthusiasm to revisit the other 60s novels again.

        • There are two others from the 1960s that I think are relly worth hanging on to, The Player on the Other Side (ghosted by Theodore Sturgeon from a Dannay treatment) and A Fine and Private Place (definitely by Dannay & Lee) – they both have ‘problems’ but the pluses definitely outweigh these in my view. But I am a very big fan, so as in the world of Woodward and Bernstein (or was that William Goldman), beware of your source …

          • Massive problems for me with The Player On The Other Side. The solution is just a little bit too much for me, if you know what I mean.

            Having said that, I must get back to that bibliography of mine, especially after being plugged in EQMM recently… and it was your article ages ago that prompted it, so many thanks.

          • Cheers Steve – you bibliography is wonderfully extensive – I know the ending bothered you, but there is much else there to enjoy – and you have to admit, once read, never forgotten! Looking forward to reading your next review, in chronological order that’s Four of Hearts right? Fun Hollywood story as I recall.

          • Yup, I’ve vague fond memories of it, but nothing more. I’ll try and get it read next… have had a bit of trouble getting into it, but I’ll make the effort.

          • Second period Ellery is the lightest really and I suppose not necessarily the most memorable in that they are more conventionally like the kinds of books beign generated by others at the time – but clearly also function as a crucial bridge between the classics of the early 30s and the darker heavyweights of the following decade. So you just gotta do it!

  4. Jeff Flugel says:

    Excellent post, Sergio! This is one of the first Ellery Queen mysteries I ever read (after the masterful Cat of Many Tails) and I remember liking it very much, and I vaguely recall its emotional content being high. Other than that, I’ve forgotten most of the incidental details…which bodes well for a re-reading at some future stage. I also really enjoyed your linked earlier article on your top 9 Queen books. Fascinating stuff re: the likes of Theodore Sturgeon and Avram Davidson collaborating on some later Queen novels. I never knew about that.

    I’m a big fan of the great 50s Ellery novels, like Ten Day’s Wonder, Calamity Town, The Murderer is a Fox, etc. Really stunningly clever plots coupled with some real depth of character. I confess I’ve never got into the early more “Vance-like” Queen novels, but so many of them are highly regarded that I shall give them another try one day.

    • Thanks very much Jeff – I’m a bit of al all-rounder when it comes to Ellery (or an all oppurtunity offender) in that I pretty much like them all. I also like Van Dine’s earlier books too (well, up to Dragon Murder Case anyway) so I would hate to have to do without such intense books as The Greek Coffin Mystery or The French Powder Mystery from the early 30s for instance, both superb books. But I do agree with you and rate as genuine classics such 40s books as Ten Day’s Wonder and Cat of Many Tails. After Origin of Evil the series did get a bit lower-key in the 50s. Have you ever watched the Jim Hutton TV show of the 70s? Love it to bits.

      • Jeff Flugel says:

        Sergio,

        I do indeed have the ELLERY QUEEN TV series on DVD. It’s a fun show, with both the pilot movie and “The Adventure of the Mad Tea Party” being real standouts. The guest casts are all pretty great, but I think the show suffers sometimes by having to squeeze the mystery plots, plus comedy relief, into less than 50 minutes. This is one show where I wish it had been part of the Sunday or Wednesday Night Mystery Movie wheels; the stories would benefit from the 75 minute length (like the pilot) afforded those programs like Columbo or Banacek. Jim Hutton and David Wayne are always good value in EQ, though, and I have become quite fond of the show.

        • The pilot does work very well (and is a fairly loose adaptation of the novel at that) – the series may have been a bit too cute for its own good but the stories are clever and the casts are great – a lot of the limitations are those of standard episodic TV drama of the day, as you say, though I love alot of the new characters that Levinson and Link created, especially John Hillerman as Simon Brimmer – all his episodes are especially good.

  5. TracyK says:

    As I have been lately delving back into vintage mysteries, I had been thinking of the Ellery Queen series and whether I should try them again. I read lots and lots when I was younger (but can’t quite place when… it was a long time ago). So it is good to see your enthusiasm for this one, and a list of favorites that I can try. And I will spend more time at the Ellery Queen site you pointed us toward. It looks great. I had forgotten that the Queens live in a brownstone in New York like Nero Wolfe’s.

    And I love the covers featured here. Alas, I have no Queen books right now. I am on a self-imposed book fast so will wait a few months to look for some.

    • Really hope you enjoy dipping back into these as much as I have. They cary tremendously from peiod to period, but a grand examples of the formal detective puzzle at work. The Siamese Twin Mystery is the one I always reccomend as a good place to start … Giving up books, even for Lent, seems too harsh! Actually, the climax to this story all takes place at Easter … Thanks for the comments TracyK.

      • TracyK says:

        Actually, my book fast is for authors I have not read or have any books by (so that I don’t acquire more new, unread authors than I already have). I would never totally swear off book buying, but even this rule has been difficult lately. I wanted to try Freeman Wills Croft after seeing Peggy Ann’s post at the Crime Fiction Alphabet. He is totally new to me.

        So I could squeak by and get one or two Queens now, since I have read some of his books. And then wait until the big book sale in September and see if more show up there.

        • Well, that sounds like quite a good plan TracyK – I say this looking at the view out of my bedroom window, which is largely obscured by a few dozen novels I pickled up of late … oh dear, maybe I need to relent even if it isn’t just for Lent!

  6. John says:

    The dying clue here is much better than the one in THE LAST WOMAN IN HIS LIFE which, as may you may recall from several previous comments I will deride with as much opprobrium I can muster. But this time I’ll merely allude to how much I hate that book. Unlike Steve I think THE PLAYER ON THE OTHER SIDE is fascinating and in a way very much in line with the outrageousness that Carr used to employ. It’s the most intellectual and fantastical of the ghost written Queen books, I think. A FINE AND PRIVATE PLACE is, for me, the most analogous to your experience outlined here. It was the first Queen book I read when I was in high school. The nostalgic Golden Age feel and it’s emphasis on the puzzle won me over and I tried as many Queen books as I could find. It would be several years before I found out the “real” Queen books were very different and much older than the easily obtained paperback Signet versions I kept finding in the bookstores in the 1970s of my teen days. I never bothered with any of the ones that *didn’t* have Ellery in them like DEATH SPINS THE PLATTER. I don’t think I read THE ROMAN HAT MYSTERY until I was in college. What a remarkable difference! Then I began to look in earnest for the all the books in that “nationality series”. Took me years to amass a collection of those Stokes editions.

    • Cheers john. I read Last Woman in His Life quite soon after Face to Face without having realised that it was going to be a sequel. As both of these were translations, I’m still amazed that I enjoyed them as much as I did, given that making the dying messages work, in Italian, required some major machinations (to give you a taste, the home in Woman had to be turned into ‘Inver Lodge’ making the clue just a ridiculous coincidence rather than an incidence of social maladroitness). I too didn’t immediately realise that many of the Queen novels I was buying (I quite liked the Tim Corrigan series) were not strictly kosher (sic). I still have a lot of these paperback originals at my folks place back home but I can’t imagine ever reading them now …

  7. Excellent review. Reading it and the comments churned up a lot of memories. I don’t remember the first Queen book I read, but it was probably the current one in the mid-sixties when I first stated. I’ve been backtracking ever since, picking them up here and there. There’s a few I don’t have and a few I own but haven’t read(in a bit of coincidence, THE PLAYER ON THE OTHER SIDE is lying by the keyboard right now.

    I own a copy of LAST SEEN WEARING that Maxine mentions, but haven’t read it.

    • Thanks Randy – Waugh’s Last Seen Wearing is a bit of a classic, though I do want to re-read it myself to see if it still stands up. I once went to a book signing held by Colin Dexter, when he was still writing the Inspector Morse series, and asked him if he’d named his own book of that title after Waugh’s, which he very graciously admitted, complimenting it highly. Incidentally, Dexter’s Last Seen Wearing, while radically altered in its (still very impressive) TV incarnation, is well worth reading.

      'Last Seen Wearing' by Colin Dexter

  8. That’s “when I first started.” Sheesh, the fingers will get ahead of the brain occasionally, won’t they?

  9. Sergio, thanks very much for a very good review of an Ellery Queen mystery and the little details about Dannay and Lee who created the writer-sleuth. I have never read an Ellery Queen before so, hopefully, I’ll find some of their books soon. “Adolescent emotion” is what seeps into my posts, too, every time I write about a book I read or a film I watched in my teens. Our reading experiences in our youth shape our reading habits as we grow old. It’s very fulfilling to rediscover and revisit authors we read way back in the past. I can see why Ellery Queen made an impression on you.

    • Thanks Prahsant – the Ellery Queen books of the 1930s are probably the most successful American version of the British whodunit and are wonderfully complicated – and puzzle exercises they are amazingly well done. Later books delved deeper into the characterisation and explored a variety of existential and religious themes with mixed results. Face to Face is one of the more straightforward books from the 60s and I really enjoyed getting reacquainted.

  10. Yvette says:

    I haven’t read this one but I’m adding it to my list of Ellery Queen books which, for whatever reason, are so hard to find these days. My library has NONE. How is that possible?

    I know I read a bunch of Ellery Queen books when I was a kid, but don’t remember much about them.

    One I do remember is CAT OF MANY TAILS, my favorite Queen book, though when I re-read it last year the multiple endings wore me out a bit. But I still get the shivers at the thought of a mad strangler at large in NYC.

    “…even the memory of her voice sufficed to tickle his giblets.” HAHAHAHA!!!

    I didn’t know about the writer’s block thing or that some of the books were ‘fleshed out’ by ghost writers. Interesting. I’m going to go read that review you linked to the book of letters between the two cousins….Thanks!

    • Cheers Yvette – the book of letters is truly bracing stuff – the relationship seems to have been emotionally very draining and dreadfully volatile – and ultimately very sad. No happy ending, as was increasingly the case of Ellery in the books published from the 40s onwards. It does incredible that the Queen books has gone so far from the former ubiquity – that ‘giblets’ line really killed me!

  11. Jack Vance’s papers are held by Boston University. Some day I’d like to look at them and see if Vance did indeed write FACE TO FACE. I sense Vance’s writing style in parts of the book.

    • It certainly would be great to find out who did what some time – it does seem certain that Last Woman of His Life and A Fine & Private Place were collaborations with Lee and the material included in the Crippen & Landru edition of the ultimately unfinished Tragedy of Errors makes it clear that Dannay was again collaborating with Lee on the books and not using another writer. One of the reason i think this may ultimately proved to have been Dannay and Lee (with maybe a little outside help) is that Last Woman continues on directly from Face and thus chronologically skips House of Brass, which instead was a collaboration with Avram Davidson. It would be wonderful to see what is in the Vance papers! I have only read a little by him so am in no position to comment on that side of it. Fascinating stuff George!

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