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|
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 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.|
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|
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.