In the 1960s “Ellery Queen” became a house name on nearly thirty paperback originals that did not feature the eponymous sleuth created by Manfred Lee and Frederic Dannay. These were edited by Lee but mostly written by the likes of Richard Deming and Talmage Powell. Three of them were by SF author Jack Vance, including The Madman Theory, a standalone work featuring Inspector Omar Collins of the Fresno County Sheriff’s Department. We begin with a body found shot to death in King’s Canyon National Park …
The following review is offered as part of Patti Abbott’s Friday’s Forgotten Books meme, which today is celebrating the work of the legendary Jack Vance and is being hosted by B.V. Lawson over at her In Reference to Murder blog.
“Five friends hiking in the redwood forest. A shotgun explodes – now there are four.”
Earl Genneman was the head of a pharmaceutical company on a hiking holiday with four friends and colleagues including potential son-in-law Buck James and ‘Red’ Kershaw, his brother-in-law. During the trip a couple of the men notice that a stranger seems to be tracking them – this unknown person then becomes the prime suspect when Genneman is shot to death by someone hiding in the trees. The case is handed to Omar Collins, a dogged policeman with a broken nose and a brand new wife (and her two daughters from a previous marriage) who has to put up with a boss who likes to steal the limelight once a case is solved. But this investigation is particularly hard to crack as there is no apparent motive. In addition the killer also seems to have made a completely clean getaway, leaving no tracks behind. Collins checks the cars that were logged arriving in the park and concludes that the man following the group must have been a part-time musician, Steve Ricks. This is only partially helpful though because Ricks was generally liked and had no criminal background – so not only is there no obvious motive but no connection between the two men either – and yet Ricks is absent without leave, which suggests he is on the run. Things then get more complex when the musician’s body is found horribly mutilated and stuck in a goods train.
“At first it seemed as though only the Madman Theory could explain the brutal shotgun slaying which lay in wait for the friendly group of back-packing hikers …”
Is this the work of a psychopath, or is there in fact a connection between the two victims? And why did Ricks suddenly acquire a brand new car shortly before his death? Was he a hired killer, who was then in turn killed by the one who hired him? Collins soon discards the theory of a random killer, especially after he learns that Ricks’ hardboiled girlfriend Molly used to be married to Kersham (one of her five spouses so far). But she too winds up dead after attempting to blackmail the killer and Collins has to find a motive and how the killer managed to get out of the park unseen. With a little help from his wife and surprising support from his glory-hound boss, he rounds up all the suspects and springs a trap on the least likely suspect, revealing a complex murder method straight out of the Golden Age. Vance’s book, dallying as it does with a potential psychopath, is fairly modern and resolutely set in the 60s with plenty of reference to its obsession with cars for instance but the structure is very traditional, though he does have some fun with it. At one point he muses on who would have to pay the bill to have Ricks’ body taken away from the train yard where it was found; and when the suspects are rounded up, Collins then quips that he would love to point the finger at the murder right then but can’t just yet.
“Ellery Queen [sic] gave me a flat fee of $3,000 for each book. Which was then a lot of money! I did have to sign a contract never to reveal I actually wrote the books.” – Jack Vance
Vance’s original manuscript was entitled “The Man Who Walks Behind” before being edited by Lee. The other two were “Death of a Solitary Chess Player” (published as A Room to Die In) and ”Strange She Hasn’t Written” (which became, The Four Johns). His original drafts have since been partially reconstructed and published in an ultra limited ‘Vance Integral Edition’ that came out n 2006. I can’t comment on those but the Queen version passes the time perfectly amiably, albeit with a bit too much padding as Collins goes to and from the Park and tracks down a seemingly endless number of cars. The murderer is fairly well hidden and the motive straight out of Agatha Christie, though there is no way for us to be able to actually deduce this. The same goes for the elaborate murder method, which is ingenious without being specially plausible and relies on a gizmo similar to that used in Philip Macdonald’s Rynox.
One imagines that Vance put in these nods to the past to satisfy the use of the ‘Queen’ name, though it is hard to imagine that anyone was really fooled. Vance, who used his full name John Holbrook Vance for his non SF thrillers, gets to indulge his well-known fondness for unusual character names (which include, among the suspects, Bob Vega and Myron Retwig, while the widow is Opal Genneman) but otherwise this is a fairly run-of-the-mill mystery with only the barest hints of any individuality. The one exception perhaps is in an extended sequence in which one of the characters shows off their elaborate train set, constructed to resemble L. Frank Baum’s land of Oz (of which Vance was a great fan). But that’s pretty much it – but then, this was very much an ‘ersatz’ Ellery Queen book to begin with …
For more info on this book and the whole Ellery Queen corpus (and to see further comments by Vance about his brief stint as ‘Ellery Queen’), then do yourself a favour and visit the dedicated website: Ellery Queen: A Website of Deduction.