O is for … THE ORIGIN OF EVIL (1951) by Ellery Queen

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:

  1. 1929-1935: intensely ratiocinative, heavily influenced by SS Van Dine, with Queen depicted as a detatched, towering intellect
  2. 1936-1939: less complex stories, Ellery is lightened up considerably and the country + noun title convention is dispensed with.
  3. 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
  4. 1963-1971: theme-driven stories, much more contrived, artificial and experimental but with a less anguished tone.

Manfred B. Lee and Frederic Dannay

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.

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

This entry was posted in Crime Fiction Alphabet, Ellery Queen, Film Noir, Raymond Chandler, SS Van Dine, Vintage Mystery Reading Challenge 2011. Bookmark the permalink.

21 Responses to O is for … THE ORIGIN OF EVIL (1951) by Ellery Queen

  1. J F Norris says:

    I’ve only read Cat of Many Tails from this third period. A landmark in the genre, I’d say. It really should be re-issued. In fact, it should’ve been re-issued back in the late 1980s when the serial killer mania in fiction hit the bestseller lists with Thomas Harris’ books. It’s still a mystery to me why it’s remained out of print for so long.

    Time to add this book to my Queen list of “must reads.”

    My reading of Queen is pretty much confined to the first, second periods and almost all of the last period. One of their worst books comes from the last period. The Last Woman in His Life is a book I have reviled elsewhere. I’ll probably do so again in an article I have planned called “The Good, The Bad, and the Unnatural” about how gay men, lesbians and transgendered people have been portrayed in vintage crime fiction.

    • Hello John,
      thanks very much for reading and commenting. I think IPL did a reissue of CAT circa 1988 and that’s the edition that I have on my shelves but as you say it doesn’t seem to get any of the credit it deserves as being one of the first examples of the serial killer mysteries as we have come to understand genre today.

      When I first read LAST WOMAN I was about 13 and I loved the twist at the end – especially if you consider that this was translated into italian so the verbal clue about the dying man man phoning Ellery and saying with his last breath “home” had to be completely altered to make sense – one suspects that it is a case where the idea for the wordplay came first and then the story was fit around it. I don’t think I’ve read it in about 20 years but I’m sure that the attempts to be ‘daring’ are probably fairly tame and embarrassing as the cousins probably didn’t know a lot about the subject.

      I’m planning on reviewing Baxt’s A QUEER KID OF DEATH in a couple of weeks (letter Q), which certainly takes a much more confident and knowledgeable approach to the subject and which was published a few years before the QUEEN novel.

      Happy Easter.

  2. J F Norris says:

    I think the Pharoah Love books are hysterical. Plus – cleverly plotted with some “shocking” surprises. He certainly gave life to his detective and then gave him altogether different life in the sequels. They’re not for everyone, but I for one am glad Baxt let loose and kicked up his heels with the campy humor and utter outrageousness in those books. I also like the series with Max & Sylvia.

    • I’ve only read the Love books I’m afraid and nothing else by Baxt (although I like some of the films he wrote in Britain before becoming a published novelist), but in re-reading the series I plan on then maybe looking a little further a-field. I remember liking the ‘Love’ trilogy a lot first time round but it’s been absolutely ages, so I need to reacquaint myself with them.

  3. puzzledoctor says:

    I’ve read this one, and seem to remember enjoying it more than Cat of Many Tails, but, as usual, can’t seem to remember anything about it. Must put it on my pile to re-read. Thanks for the reminder.

    • Hello there – funnily enough I find the later ones easier to remember sometimes while its the mind-blowingly complicated early ones that I have more trouble with! But I suspect this is also because I originally tried to read them in chronological order – probably time to start again.

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  7. Zeno says:

    Here are my thoughts about this that were posted on another blog..

    A uneven work. There are great things about this novel and other things that are not so great. The entire subplot about Ellery and the guy’s wife went nowhere and seemed pointless. The solution,at least the real solution is fair play and neither it nor the meaning of the gifts are hard to guess if you know about biology and little history of science. Without giving spoilers away the first and fake solution is a bit much. It would have been better with the right solution by itself.

    Feel free to disagree on any of the points above.

    • I think it is a very rich work thematically, very much a whodunit fable for the post-nuclear age. Not my favourite, and yes, there are flaws, but fascinating, don’t you think?

      • Zeno says:

        It is better than Double,Double before it and King is Dead which come after it. Or Scarlet Letters. Interesting that they waited a full 5 for the Ellery novel after that. And it was going to be the final novel. Were they running out of ideas? I still have not read any of the 40s novels. Calamity Town might be next on my Queen list.

        • I agree that it is better than DOUBLE, a book I like though. Yes, I agree, one senses that they were slowing down considerably – CALAMITY TOWN mostly holds up quite well though again it’s the approach to character and theme that stand out, the plotting is not entirely convincing.

          • Zeno says:

            Double was ok. Scarlet Letters just did not do anything and some of the characters actions were again not believable. King had the same problem but it did not really affect the solution of the problem. The ballistics evidence or lack of seemed bad science. That however is another story.

          • I agree really, though all are fun – but yes, the 50s books are mostly inferior to those from the 40s

  8. Zeno says:

    Corrections. First should read did not really affect the solution of the mystery. Second ballistics “was” bad science. There were not soot marks on his body or smell of gunpowder in the room. Nor was a puffin test done to show if the wife fired a gun. You would think this meant that the bullet was fired from another mechanism than a gun or gunpowder was not used.

  9. Well, about the 40ies v/s 50ies sories by Queen, I think that Origin is quite first rate but not the one and only in this decade: I’d also add The Glass Village, at the very least.

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