Monday, July 14, 2014

Death (and Life) in the Land of Quenan: And on the Eighth Day (1964), by Ellery Queen

parable and mystery
The second of the Period III Queens, the period when Frederic Dannay began for a time writing Ellery Queen novels without his cousin Manfred B. Lee, was And on the Eighth Day.  It is one of Ellery Queen's most daring experiments in detection (Avram Davidson, 1923-1993, did the writing, based on Frederic Dannay's outline).

The 1992 HarperPerennial edition carries on the back cover the one-word blurb "Astonishing."  This comes from Anthony Boucher's New York Times Book Review notice.Yet the real story of the review is a tad more complex than this one carefully chosen word suggests. A bemused Boucher explained in his review that he had given the novel two readings, a month apart, and still didn't know whether he liked it or not!

I still have not decided whether this is a small masterpiece in an unconventional genre (limited, so far as I know, to this one book), or whether it is an unfortunate error in the Queen career.

I suspect the devoutly religious though avowedly liberal Boucher didn't know quite what to make of a such an in-your-face detective-novel-as-religious-parable book.

The novel, which is set in 1943-44, opens with Ellery spending Christmas with his father, Inspector Queen, in New York, then setting out across America in his "antique Duesenberg" (trains are full, its being wartime) for LA, to visit his old friends the Walshes (see The Four of Hearts, 1938), before taking up his job working on military propaganda (V. D. Will Get You If You Don't Watch Out).

Ellery arrives in LA on December 31 and by April 1 is on the verge of a nervous breakdown.  He is let go and heads back to "New York, its April damps and dirt-flecked beauty."  "Did they give squeezed-out writers Purple Hearts," Ellery tiredly wonders to himself.

However, in Death Valley, after visiting the prophetically named "End-of-the-World Store" (Otto Schmidt, prop.), Ellery finds himself lost in the desert in his Duesenberg.

Fortunately (and here we leave the regular world for the land of the fantastic, or dare I say The Twilight Zone), Ellery comes upon a lost settlement in a valley, Quenan, inhabited by followers of some strange religion.  The leader of the community, known as the Teacher, hails Ellery's coming as having been prophesied in the religion's recently rediscovered holy book. It seems it has been foretold that the community soon will face a crisis and will need Ellery's help.

Knowing Ellery's track record, we can be pretty certain murder will be involved!

As indicated above, The Twilight Zone (1959-1964) came to my mind when I was reading this book, as did the M. Night Shyalaman film The Village (2004). One just has to accept the basic premise that this community could have been hidden away for seventy years. In addition to The Twilight Zone, another contemporary influence, one would think, may have been Margaret Millar's crime novel How Like an Angel (1964).

Whatever its influences, I found this novel an original tour de force.  It has many of the hallmarks of classic Queen: wordplay, symbolism, the twist.  I thought the the religious parable elements were intriguing and quite enjoyed seeing how Dannay and Davidson played around with them.

It would be fun to discuss the book more in depth, but spoilers concerns prohibit this.  I'll just say that in addition to its basic cleverness, the novel succeeds, I think, in making some serious points about humankind.

It does seem to be a love it or hate it book, however, so the prospective reader is warned: you have to be able to embrace Queenian fantastification.


  1. This is actually one of my favorite, later-period Ellery Queen and perhaps the only detective novel in which I thought the murder investigation impinged on the story. Not to mention that part was flimsily plotted and I never bought it that the villagers were able to anticipate modern forensic sciences, while being tugged away in a well-hidden, crime-free location for nearly a century. I thought that part was just ridiculous.

    However, it's still a great attempt at tossing the detective figure in a lost civilization story, but, as far as "Queenian Fantastifications" go, the best example of these kind of stories (I have read) is still Arthur Upfield's 1956 novel The Man of Two Tribes. I have always suspected And On the Eights Day was inspired by that book.

  2. Never read that Upfield book, but will have to look it up!

    I pretty much bought into the EQ book all the way, though it does involve tremendous suspension of disbelief. Though those apostrophes got a bit tiresome!

  3. I'm sorry to say I'm one of the ones who hates this book. To me it's rather like the later work of M. Night Shyamalan; you know there's going to be a twist ending, it's just when you get there it's not really worth having waited. Strangely, I don't think I would have minded the book so much if EQ had had the nerve to leave Ellery Queen out of it; then I could have avoided it with a clear conscience. But I think it's "an unfortunate error in the Queen career".

  4. I loved this book when I read it as a teen. As you might imagine I was addicted to The Twilight Zone at the same time so no surprise that the outre plot elements appealed to me greatly. I've not re-read it since and frankly I've forgotten most of it. Avram Davidson remains an acquired taste for many readers. I think I'd find a lot to appreciate in this one should I ever re-read since Davidson's writing and ideas continue to fascinate me now that I'm older. Don't get me started on THE VILLAGE. Bleech!

    1. John, thanks for the interesting comment. About Davidson, I thought it was interesting that the parts in LA were so well-written too. It made me wish that Dannay and Davidson had gone on to do another one set just in LA in the 1940s. I haven't read Face to Face yet, but I must admit that the EQ books Dannay and Manfred Lee did together in the 1960s that I have read have not bowled me over. But some fans refuse to consider the books where Dannay brought in outside collaborators "real" Queens.

      I kept thinking how this book could have been adapted into Twilight Zone episode. It appeared the last year of the series. That series loved filming in the California desert too!

  5. Fascinating review Curt - this is one of only three Queen novel I have yet to read, and to a degree I have postponed it for fear of what I might find! However, I am somewhat reassured now, thanks chum!