I 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.