The Four of Hearts – Ellery Queen (1938)

FourOfHeartsI absolutely love reading about Ellery Queen.  When I read posts at Ah Sweet Mystery or Noah’s Archive detailing the various phases of the detective/author’s career, I get completely sucked in.  There’s a myth I create in my mind about these unread books and it’s amplified by the sheer number of them.  They may simply be titles and cover art to me at this point, but my imagination fills in those gaps with the promise of something legendary.

Unfortunately, I don’t actually enjoy reading Ellery Queen.  At least, I haven’t so far.  The first phase of his career, known for its puzzles and logical deduction, sounded right up my alley.  It wasn’t.  Attacking the books in order, starting with The Roman Hat Mystery and clawing my way through to The Greek Coffin Mystery simply wasn’t much fun.  These weren’t stories – they were painstaking descriptions of crime scenes followed by crossword puzzle-esque contortions of logic at the end.  There were some pleasurable moments mixed in there – the denouncement in The French Powder Mystery was a heart pounding moment; The Dutch Shoe Mystery had a clever bit of misdirection; The Greek Coffin Mystery wasn’t nearly as tedious as its predecessors – although somebody should have carved about 80 pages off that one.

Because I really want to enjoy Ellery Queen, I’ve decided to jump ahead in his career.  My temptation was to leap all the way to the third period Wrighstville books, which are supposed to be quite different.  I decided that first I’d pick off one book from the second period, and settled on The Four of Hearts – mostly because it seems to be a book that divides opinions.

I’ll cut to the chase and tell you that I kind of enjoyed it.  It wasn’t fantastic by any means, and I’m sure my review will come across as overly glowing, but it was refreshing to fly through a Queen novel instead of dragging myself.

The second period of the Queen library is supposedly the “let’s make money in Hollywood” phase – in more ways than one.  The Four of Hearts reads a bit like a movie script, being much more focused on dialog than what is actually happening.  The plot is a breezy romp, and you can imagine it being written with an eventual movie deal in mind.  Plus, Ellery Queen (the detective, not the authors) is actually in Hollywood, having taken on a job writing scripts for the silver screen.

Oddly enough, Ellery isn’t writing mysteries.  He’s tasked with writing a drama about a real world (in the book) actor and actress who have fallen in an out of love.  Nobody knows why the couple split twenty years ago, but they are now bitter rivals.  Ellery is intent on figuring out how the bad blood came about so that he can capture it in his script.

Things take a turn when the couple abruptly reunites and declares that they’re immediately getting married.  The wedding is set up by the studio to generate press, with a reception at a Los Angeles airfield and the couple to say their vows in a plane flying overhead (…yeah, just go with it…).  The plane heads for the sky with the bride and groom onboard, but inexplicably flies off course to an unknown destination.  The aircraft is found on a mountain top hours later with the couple dead inside.

We know pretty much from the get go vaguely what happened.  The pilot of the plane was knocked out in a hangar by an unknown assailant, who then donned the pilot’s clothes and flew off with the couple.  While on the plane, the couple consumed poisoned drinks, presumably without even knowing they had been kidnapped.  When it comes to mysteries, this isn’t exactly the type of hook I’m looking for.  In fact, it feels like some old Hollywood plot.

From this point on, the story is a mix of several subplots:

– Ellery flies around landing on mountaintop runways and visiting some far fetched locations.  This part of the story was actually the most fun.  Although it seemed a bit fantastic, it struck a chord of adventure with the kid in me.

– Ellery hangs out with a bunch of intolerable Hollywood types, who drink excessively and do stereotypical Hollywood things.  This aspect of the plot isn’t really my thing.  I much prefer my mysteries to follow British elites

– Ellery drools like an idiot over a seemingly unobtainable gossip columnist.  Despite the detective acting like a complete prat around her, she inexplicably falls for him.

– The daughter of the murdered actress receives a series of envelopes in the mail, each containing a set of playing cards – just like her mother did right before her death.  There’s a bit of a code in the meaning of the playing cards which introduces a spark of interest, and ties to the title of the book.

– Ellery jumps through hoops to prevent the daughter of the murdered actress from marrying the son of the murdered actor.  Ellery’s reasons for doing so are withheld from the reader, which gets kind of old.

So, there’s enough going on to be interesting, although nothing really compelling.  At least the book reads quickly.  Gone are the days of the authors dragging the reader through every minute crumb of investigation.  In fact, there’s very little traditional police work at all.  Ellery has transformed from the aloof intellectual detective into a Hollywood sleuth just kind of going around checking things out.  It’s a bit vapid, but a much more enjoyable read.

Which is kind of the brilliant thing about it.  You see, there is a whopper waiting at the end of The Queen of Hearts.  For the entire book, I was waiting for “the big twist”, where we learn that “surprise, John is the killer.  You didn’t see that coming did you.  Book over.  Instead, the authors deliver something completely unanticipated based on my experience so far with Queen – an honest to god unraveling of a deep behind the scenes plot that you didn’t know was there.

The Dutch Shoe Mystery contains a nice bit of misdirection that could be adopted into short story form and you’d ring the bells that it was legendary.  But there’s just that one tiny morsel in an otherwise unremarkable book.  By comparison, The Four of Hearts has a firehose of misdirection.  The fact that it’s tucked into such an innocuous tale is jolting, and to be fair probably makes it feel much more clever than it actually is.

The Dutch Shoe Mystery wins in terms of “ooh, that’s clever”.  The Four of Hearts pushes more into the realm of “oh man, I had no idea all of that was going on the entire time” – somewhat reminiscent of John Dickson Carr’s The Mad Hatter Mystery (a book I make no claims to being brilliant).  The solution still involves a bit of the “A leads to B leads to C, so we know D, which allowed me to deduce E” logic familiar from the first period Queens, but this time it’s tolerable.

The motive for the crime is somewhat interesting, although hardly unique to the mystery genre.  In the denouement, Queen positions it as a completely original motive and plays it up in a way that had me thinking “that’s brilliant”.  After I put the book down, I settled back to earth a bit and quickly realized I had seen the same motive several times before, but never sold in a way that made it feel clever.

The Four of Hearts was a breezy read.  I was never really seduced by the mystery, as on the surface it didn’t seem like much.  The end was a very pleasant surprise – don’t come here looking for a firecracker, but I think there’s something to enjoy.  I don’t know that I would say I recommend the book, but it’s better than the first period Ellery Queens that I’ve read.  And I’m kind of looking forward to my next one.

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9 thoughts on “The Four of Hearts – Ellery Queen (1938)”

  1. It’s been a good few years now so I frankly have no recollection of the solution to this. However, I do have an overall impression of the book in my mind, and that seems to broadly jibe with your assessment of it being reasonably enjoyable, quite breezy but not anything staggering either. Of course it doesn’t have to be staggering, breezy and enjoyable aren’t bad characteristics by any means.

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  2. Scattered thoughts:

    One reason that this is one of my favourite Queens is that the identity of the murderer is very well concealed; I felt the authors misled me, fairly, in a manner worthy of Agatha Christie. And even after we find out who it is, as you say, there’s that whole plot we didn’t know was happening.

    I liked the fact that the plot zipped right along, not only in comparison to Period One Queen but even to earlier Period Two.

    The other Period Two Queen novels are no great shakes – The Door Between is the best of them, and I’m not all that crazy about it – but there are four stories in The New Adventures of Ellery Queen that feature Ellery and another character from The Four of Hearts shortly after it takes place, and two of them – Man Bites Dog and Mind over Matter – are among the best short stories Queen ever wrote.

    You can certainly pick and choose which Period One and Two books to read, but I hope you’ll read Period Three in the order the books were written – your experience will be the richer for it. Certainly you should do so with the Wrightsville books.

    (This last paragraph might be a minor spoiler. Consider yourselves warned…)

    A minor point that bothered me: I never heard of a card-divination system that relied on the cards’ meaning being reversed when they’re torn in half, although I’m sure the playing-card makers would have loved the idea. Normally it’s the card being inverted that conveys that meaning. But you can’t send a card in the mail with the recipient knowing whether it’s supposed to be upside down or not.

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    1. The murderer was respectably hidden. This is one of those mysteries where I think I was mentally prepared for any character to turn out to be the killer, but then I was still actually surprised by who it was.

      I most definitely will read the Period Three Queens in order. My next stop is Calamity Town and then I intend to plug right on through to Cat of Many Tails. This time I don’t think you’ll see me waiting six months between Queen books!

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    2. My response here is a touch spoiler-y, so be warned.

      “One reason that this is one of my favourite Queens is that the identity of the murderer is very well concealed; I felt the authors misled me, fairly, in a manner worthy of Agatha Christie.”

      Say what now? It’s easily the most Carr-ian of culprits. I’ve previously complained about the way Carr keeps some of his murderers off stage for almost the entire book, and this is another example of just that. It’s interesting that a Carr aficionado like Ben should enjoy this bit. Perhaps JJ would too? 🙂

      It’s actually my least favourite part of the book, which I otherwise enjoy. For my own part, I think this is the best of the period two books – with one exception, but I’ll keep that back for my own blog post on EQ that I’ve been mulling over for a while now.

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      1. Why does the solution to this Queen book remind me of Christie? Oddly enough, the answer involves John Dickson Carr. The spoilers are going to flow here, although I’m not going to use the murderer’s name, so be warned!

        In his essay “The Grandest Game in the World”, Carr writes of Christie:

        “Where Mrs. Christie scores, over and over again, is in the use of a trick which we will call the Implied Alibi.

        “Now the implied alibi is a very different things from one of those elaborate police-nightmares – ‘Well, Joe Manders is out of it; he’s got an alibi’ – which Inspector French so painstakingly breaks down. On the contrary, the whole trick consists in *not* stressing the fact that Joe Manders has an alibi; in scarcely even mentioning it; in accepting Joe Manders’s innocence as so radiantly obvious, under the circumstances, that it has never even occurred to the author (bless her heart) to suspect him herself.

        “At the time the murder was apparently committed, Joe has been sitting on the beach with the detective. Why even consider the possibility?”

        Queen does this in The Four of Hearts. We’re led to believe that the hijacker-pilot is also the one who poisoned Jack and Blythe; while said pilot was flying off with the couple, [name redacted] was beside Ellery on the airfield waving goodbye, so how could this person possibly be guilty? Queen can’t resist bringing up the fact of the alibi a little, in Chapter 12, but for the most part the characters just accept that [name redacted] can’t be the killer.

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      2. You make a good point there, though I do think that the fact that no one suspects NN is because they are not particularly well featured in the story. Going only by memory here, but I remember NN being off stage for most of the novel.

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      3. Well, there are 23 chapters in TFoH. Flipping through my copy… Chapters 19 through 23 make up the trap being set for the murderer, the unmasking, the explanation and the wrap-up – and don’t really figure in this calculation. Of chapters 1-18, [name redacted] is featured with at least some prominence in 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 11, 12, and 13. So this isn’t one of those cases where the villain is someone who appeared once on page 137 and you had forgotten by the time you got to the solution.

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  3. I really enjoyed it a dozen years ago – nice mixture of adventure, comedy, and mystery, like a classic ’30s Hollywood film, and a twisty, ingenious solution. It has a clever, detailed plot AND characterisation / story – and few Queens have both. (As you suggest, he/they is/are not a great storyteller – unlike JDC.)

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