Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Half Full: Halfway House (1936), by Ellery Queen

[A]ny fashioner of crime tales these days will tell you that the modern public--at least, that part of the public which seeks its escape in detective fiction--is a very good guesser indeed; much too good, if you ask me.  In fact, from the letters hurled at my poor head it would appear that the reader who is fooled is the exception rather than the rule.

But....Guessing isn't fair....

For many years I have been a voice crying in the wilderness--I trust not vainly--beseeching readers to repress heroically their guessing proclivities and play the game scientifically.  It's harder, but immeasurably more fun....

--Ellery Queen, "Challenge to the Reader," Halfway House (1936)

The tenth Ellery Queen detective novel published since 1929 (fourteenth if you count the "Barnaby Ross" tales), Halfway House is classified as the first of "Period Two" Ellery Queen, where the author began moving away from the ultra-formal, extremely dense clue structure of his period one mysteries.

I think one might argue that Queen began this transition in The Spanish Cape Mystery, but one can certainly see in Halfway House an attempt by the author to focus more on emotional situations and less on pure puzzle plotting.  While there is some typically ingenious EQ clueing here, there also is emotional melodrama that is less successful, in my view.  If the world divides into people who prefer different periods of Ellery Queen writing (there are four, according to EQ expert Francis M. Nevins), put me down as a Period One man.

Period Two Queen
Halfway House concerns a man stabbed to death at a dilapidated dwelling in Trenton, New Jersey (the title of a Hulbert Footner mystery, Ramshackle House also occurred to me).

It turns out that the dead man was implicated in the lives of two women: Lucy Wilson, purehearted middle-class Philadelphian, and Jessica Gimball, rich-bitchy New York society matron.

Ellery Queen, amateur detective extraordinaire, is friends with Lucy, wife of the dead man, and her brother, upright attorney Bill Angell, and on hand in Trenton when Bill discovers his brother-in-law's body at the place dubbed "Halfway House" (because of its location between New York City and Philadelphia).

Naturally Ellery is allowed in on the case by the local police (he's solved some murders before, don't you know).

Lots of material clues are found on the scene, including a plate of burnt matches (in the foreward to the book it's stated that the novel could have been called The Swedish Match Mystery, in keeping with EQ's previous four word "nationality" titles, and this is certainly true).  Give some thought to those matches!

English paperback edition
The murder victim helpfully made a dying declaration to Bill: "Woman.  Veil.  Heavy veil--face.  Couldn't see.  Knifed me."  This declaration and later discoveries get Bill's sister Lucy arrested for the murder, much to the chagrin of Bill and his chum Ellery.

The third section of the book depicts Lucy's trial. Despite Bill's able defense, she is found guilty of second degree murder and sentenced to twenty years in prison. But don't worry, folks, it's Ellery Queen to the rescue!

I found Halfway House an enjoyable detective novel.  I particularly liked the lengthy final section, where we get to follow Ellery's deductions from the various clues (especially those matches!).

However, I do have a few criticisms of the book.

First, Bill Angell falls in love at first sight with Andrea Gimball, daughter of Jessica Gimball, and immediately covers up (literally) evidence that implicates Andrea in the crime, even though he's fearful (justifiably) that his sister, whom he adores, may be arrested for murder.  We get this love at first sight stuff sometimes in John Dickson Carr too and I invariably find it tiresome, because it always seems to give the young man a license to behave like a total ass.  But then maybe I'm just a middle-aged sourpuss!

Second, it becomes clear that Andrea is lying about something that could impact the case and when we finally find out her motivation for lying it seems flimsy to me; yet both Ellery and Bill immediately let Andrea off the hook for her perfidy, on rather sexist assumptions, I think (maybe it was the sight of Andrea in her "pink and lacy" brassiere).

Don't trifle with Society, darling.
Third, with Dickens in mind it's rather grandiosely stated in the foreward that the novel could have been called A Tale of Three Cities.  Queen seems to have some sort of moral schematic in mind here.

Andrea excepted (though see my caveat above), the Gimball crowd is presented as an unrelievedly revolting bunch, prone to making the most asininely oblivious public comments about how contemptible middle class people are.  It seems a bit overdone.

Granted some rich people may well have felt this way about "the masses," but they might also have had the sense, in the fourth year of the Roosevelt presidency, to not be quite so "in your face" about it, at least amid a police investigation and public scandal.

I'm reminded of the great British detective novelist Henry Wade (Henry Lancelot Aubrey-Fletcher), himself a wealthy baronet, who was able to write more subtly yet for that reason more convincingly and thus damningly of the moral failures of his class.  Still, it's interesting to see such material, when non-hard-boiled mysteries from the 1930s often are declared "conservative."  As Jon L. Breen has noted, it ain't necessarily so.

Henry Street Settlement
Fortunately, Ellery--just a salt of the earth sort of gent at heart, really--awakens Andrea's dormant social consciousness by taking her to see the Clifford Odets play Waiting for Lefty and "that settlement house on Henry Street" (oh, he gives her a copy of William Faulkner's Pylon too).  Soon Andrea is Doing the Right Thing and spilling about what she really saw at Halfway House on the day of the murder.  This gives Ellery his break!

All this is to say that Queen spends more time that usual in Period One on characterization and emotional content, with rather mixed results in my view.  At times it feels like one is reading a Mignon Eberhart novel. The writing of this sort of book was probably best left to Mignon Eberhart, who had down to a T the hyper-emotional style that it requires.

Yet a lot of the puzzle plot itself is quite clever, to be sure.  Though even here I have a few qualms. Besides points raised by Mike Nevins in his Royal Bloodline (which are kind of spoilerish), I might add that one point seemed to me so darned glaringly obvious I got a bit irked when none of the characters (except Ellery, who kept it to himself of course) ever thought of it.  Also, Lucy unbelievably forgets to mention a fact that is central to her case, which is the main reason she gets convicted. 

Still Halfway House stands, I think, as an impressive example of the Golden Age detective novel.  I'd say this glass is at least half full.

6 comments:

  1. Curtis, it's fascinating that you post this on the same day that you put some comments agreeing with me on a couple of other Ellery Queen novels, as I found this one rather tiresome. I find the writing style of this period of Queen very annoying and find it very hard to see past it to get to the puzzle, which I thought was quite slight. Still, it would be a dull world if everyone agrees.

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  2. I think we agreed on quite a bit, though I give it a more positive overall assessment. There are definite weaknesses to the writing in my view, things I find annoying too!

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  3. By the way, I should add that I enjoyed your pieces on Queen a lot, sorry I was only just now reading them. I think we agree quite a bit on Queen titles. I'm hoping to do a few more by EQ this month.

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  4. In my opinion, this novel is not yet inserted in the second period, if indeed there is one. The title this novel should have been, in compliance with the previous characterization of the adjective of nationality, in my opinion shows that it can still say that it is part of the first period, rather than the ends. It 's true that there is attention to other sections, such as the sentimental, but it is also true that the deduction is one of the most brilliant of the first Queen (for example the clue of Swedish matches).
    Of course, in my opinion, the absolute best is Khalkis and also seem remarkable French, Egyptian and Deutch.
    Rather I meant that to see well, the same Siamese gives a particular emphasis on the love story of the characters, much more than here. Indeed, there is tragedy in the purest sense of the word.
    Here, I would say that, in Halfway House, Ellery, for the first time after Siamese, gives to a love story a strong depth.
    Preludes to future developments, but for the rest, even if sometimes we are seeing signs that others would easily analyzed (you are right Curt) and then are emphasized by only Ellery Queen, the deduction is still of the highest quality. If you were to speak of a deterioration in the deduction, you should consider the following novels.



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  5. Pietro,

    Yes, I can see the case for this as a Period One book and The Swedish Match Mystery would have made a good title!

    Still an awfully lot of time is given over to melodrama, or the sentimental. A lot of this feels contrived to me. If Andrea had spilled sooner (as she should have), this novel would have been shortened considerably. In earlier books the focus on the puzzle plot seems more continuous.

    I do agree that there are some brilliant deductions here, which is why I see it as a "half full" glass. No one could better Queen at this sort of rigorous ratiocinative analysis. And it's a smoothly written book. Chances are many readers won't find the melodrama kind of tiresome as I did, and in that case they should really like the book.

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  6. You have noticed how Ellery change appearance, identity and character, as his fictional story goes on?
    Before JJMcClure says that Ellery was married (?), he had a son and lived in Italy (in the early novels), then at a distance of one - two years no longer feels about his wife, son and Italy, and Ellery lives with his father in New York, more misogynist than ever. Then after a few novel Halfway House, we find that Ellery has female friendships. Sergeant Velie is a thing of the past, but still the father is present in the stories. Then at some point in the '50s, his father disappeas, returning then in the last novels.

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