COP OUT (1969) by Ellery Queen

queen_cop-out_mpWelcome to something a bit special today folks. After years of pleading and cajoling, our pal Colin (aka ‘Livius’) of the mighty fine Riding the High Country blog has agreed to write a guest post for us here at Fedora. As befits such a special occasion, we have a very unusual book from one of the great names of Golden Age detective fiction. Published to coincide with the 40th anniversary of the first Queen novel, this is a non-series novel that is often overlooked. Let’s see how well it holds up – over to you Livius, me old china:

I submit this review for  Patti Abbott’s Friday’s Forgotten Books meme over at her fab Pattinase blog.

Those buildings across the Green looked like falsefronts, the whole thing was taking place on a Hollywood back lot. All it needs are a camera and a director – and there they come to the background music of the noon whistle from the firehouse.

Sometimes you get the feeling that stories are tailor-made for the movies, that a book has been written with an eye to its cinematic possibilities. Now I’m not gong to claim that’s the case with Ellery Queen’s 40th anniversary novel, Cop Out, but that little quotation I borrowed and used above suggests to me that Queen was at the very least aware of how easily the tale could be transferred to the screen. And that’s not the only notable aspect of this unusual EQ novel.

New Bradford is one of those small American towns where everyone knows almost everyone else, and even those who left can feel reasonably confident that  nothing has changed too radically should they decide to return. The tale  opens with a disillusioned, middle-aged bookkeeper waiting around for three criminals to turn up at his place of work. One of the trio is Goldie, who is a former resident, and she and her companions are there for a payroll heist. Deciding that a three-way split is preferable, the gun-loving leader, Furia, pops three slugs in their inside man and they’re on their way. The only problem is that even careful plans can unravel due to unforeseen events, like a dead body and a missing $24,000 being discovered before the getaway is complete. Now Goldie has changed some since she was growing up in New Bradford, but in that flashy way that gets a girl noticed in a hick town – and that’s without factoring in presence of her volatile lover and Hinch, the slow-witted muscle.

“It’s got to be put somewhere safe till they stop searching cars. The shack would be good, but we’re cut off from there till they get fed up and figure we made it out before they set up the blocks. Meantime – the way I see it, Fure – we need help.”

In times of strife regular people cal on the authorities for help, and very often it will be the police. In a way, that’s exactly what our three hoods do in New Bradford; Goldie persuades the others to do what no-one would expect and use the cops, or rather one particular cop, to protect them and their loot from the cops. This is the kind of backwards logic Goldie favors throughout, and will crop up again in another form later on. For now though, it takes us to the main part of the story and the real protagonist, Wes Malone. Malone is a town lawman and a family man too. Goldie, Furia and Hinch figure that such a man would prove reliable, especially if his little daughter was a held hostage as a form of insurance. So there you have it, the story develops into a cat and mouse game of psychological warfare where Malone has to balance notions of duty against his all-consuming sense of responsibility for his family.

“That’s the beauty part,” Furia said. “A cop’s got to know the facts of life, don’t he? He ain’t going to panic and try something stupid.”

In 1929 Frederic Dannay and Manfred Lee created Ellery Queen, both as an author pseudonym for themselves and as a character. The first novel, The Roman Hat Mystery, set the early template for their puzzle plots tackled by a young man clearly modeled on Philo Vance. Over the years Dannay and Lee would alter and tinker with the formula, smoothing out some the rough edges and humanizing their creation in the process, moving him out of New York to Hollywood and the fictional Wrightsville as part of the maturing process. The point is the character of Ellery Queen and the style of writing of the author(s) Ellery Queen changed a great deal over time, and the later works are very different in tone and content from the initial ones. And then there’s Cop Out with its violence, mild profanity and philosophical musings on individualism vs collectivism.

queen_cop-out_hbAs I said before, 40 years had passed since the publication of the first EQ novel, and both society and the lives of Lee and Danny had experienced a few shifts. They started out as young men when the classic whodunit was king, but by 1969 Lee’s health was poorer and the detective story had lost a lot of ground to the hard-boiled crime variety, where the only puzzle was how the characters were going to make it to the end in one piece. While Ellery Queen had by no means remained mired in the conventions and style of the 20s or 30s, the name still wasn’t one which was associated with the kind of two-fisted earthiness to be found in Cop Out. Throughout the 60s Dannay and Lee had been farming the name out to ghost writers, and that led to (let’s say) a certain variation in the tone and style, although for the most part they remained recognizable as EQ books. With Cop Out not only are Ellery and the other familiar faces absent, but there’s also no real mystery to be solved That’s the main thing anyone coming to this novel fresh needs to bear in mind – it is atypical Queen.

Anyway, although it’s not typical, both Dannay and Lee maintained it was authentic and was not one of the titles which ended up being ghost written. I started off by mentioning the cinematic feel of the book and that’s one of its strengths – it’s snappy and pacy and reads like a tightly scripted film. Whether or not one enjoys the book will depend heavily on one’s tolerance for the hard-boiled elements – personally, I’m OK with them – and acceptance of the fact this is not the kind of traditional murder mystery the EQ name generally implies.

I’d give it three stars out of five.

This review is also submitted for Bev’s 2016 Silver Age Vintage Mystery Scavenger Hunt in the hat category:

013_vintage_silver_scavenger_2016

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

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32 Responses to COP OUT (1969) by Ellery Queen

  1. Interesting and thoughtful review – thanks, both. I’ve always thought that was one of the more interesting aspects of the Queen stories: the way the team had Queen mature, change and develop over the years. As you say, that makes the later novels quite different to the earlier ones, but it also, I think, adds something to the ‘package’ of novels, if that makes sense.

    • Colin says:

      Yes, it does add another layer to the Queen stories as a body of work. It’s the opposite to what we see with someone like Rex Stout, for example, where the characters of Wolfe and Archie remain essentially the same throughout the whole long series. That’s not a criticism of Stout though (I’m a big fan of his writing) so much as an acknowledgment that there are different ways to approach these things. I guess the fact that Dannay and Lee started out at a very young age and were writing about an equally young and inexperienced sleuth.

    • The later Ellery is remarkably different from the Philo Vance version of the early years.

  2. realthog says:

    I reread this one a few years ago, and checking just now with my Goodreads notes I see I came to very similar conclusions . . . right down to the overt filmability of the novel. I was a lot less happy with the uneasy “hardbolled” writing than you are, Colin; it felt to me as if the Queens weren’t quite familiar enough with that style of writing to get their emulation spot-on.

    While checking that review, I noticed that Bev herself gave the book a one-star review that starts with “Ick”!

    • Colin says:

      That’s interesting, John. The book is nicely contained and has that tight plotting which almost demands filming, and arguably this is a plot type that that has appeared on screen with a few tweaks here and there on a number of occasions.

      I agree the hard-boiled side of it all isn’t quite as authentic as it might be, there is perhaps too much elegance to the violence and patter to fully convince fans of the style. Having said that, I think it works well enough for those most likely to pick up a Queen book in the first place. There is some reasonably tough stuff in there and the whole form – suspense thriller as opposed to the more usual whodunit//mystery – takes the Queen stories into new territory.

    • The stylistic “disconnect” is really interesting. As a youngster I hated the fact that they even tried to vary their approach – felt like a betrayal!

    • Bev Hankins says:

      Yes, indeed. As soon as I spotted that Sergio had served this one up for the challenge, I immediately recalled my reaction. 🙂 Part of that (as I mention in that short–very early, just figuring out what I was doing on a blog–review) was due to the child in danger.

      • So many of the Golden Age greats who were still writing at this point – such as Car, Christie and, more or less, Allingham – experimented with the form they had used for so long, but the Queen book is a very real departure.

  3. tracybham says:

    This was a very interesting review. You make it sound so good and then only three fedoras. But I will confess I read a lot of Ellery Queen books when I was much younger, and I was probably reading them around the 60’s and 70’s, and getting whatever was available in libraries, and I was not aware of the history of who was writing the books and the various authors. I do remember being surprised at the variability of the stories at at the time.So as I say, all very interesting and welcome information. Thank you, Colin, and Sergio.

    • Thanks Tracy. I do remember buying a lot of the 60s paperbacks in my teens and getting increasingly suspicious when Ellery was not a character as the style was so different.

    • Colin says:

      Tracy, I’m not great a giving star ratings, to be honest, but I know Sergio like to use them on the site so I tagged that on the end. 🙂
      I guess you could say it deserves a higher rating but I was wary of doing so simply because the novel is markedly different to what most will expect from Ellery Queen – you could take the more modest rating as an effort to guard against the unexpectedness of it all.

  4. I much prefer the early puzzle mysteries of Ellery Queen over these later “experiments.” Several of the Ellery Queen novels in the 1960s were “ghost-written” by other writers like Jack Vance.

    • Colin says:

      I’d say I prefer the puzzle based stuff myself, George – that’s general preference as far as reading goes too, and isn’t confined to the EQ stories.
      Still, this is quite well done and kept me gripped throughout. And it’s concise and nips along nicely too.

      • I’d concur with that really – The Queen novels I prefer go up to about 1950 – of the later ones, FACE TO FACE, A FINE AND PRIVATE PLACE (both by Danny and Lee) and THE PLAYER ON THE OTHER SIDE (Danny with Theodore Sturgeon) are the one I like the most.

  5. Todd Mason says:

    I still need to read the Davidson and Sturgeon Queens…COP OUT has seemed like the most interesting non-series cousins book among the latest ones.

  6. Nicely reviewed, Colin. I must get acquainted with Ellery Queen’s novels. So far I have only been reading excellent reviews of EQ. I enjoy a good heist story though I haven’t read many of those.

  7. I have only skimmed the surface of Queen, but I have read this one, and thought that I would never have identified the author on a blind reading. I described it then as strange, inventive and competent as a thriller. Thanks Colin for a helpful review and explaining context a bit more.

  8. Pingback: 2016 Vintage Mystery Scavenger Hunt | Tipping My Fedora

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