The Quick and the Dead (There Was an Old Woman) – Ellery Queen (1943)

quickandthedeadMy last encounter with Ellery Queen – 1942’s Calamity Town – left me wanting more.  It was with some restraint that I didn’t immediately pick up The Quick and the Dead, instead electing to mix up my authors a bit.  Well, I’ve done my mixing and I’m back for more.

I’ll spare you the tales of boredom that I experienced with the early period one Queens – dry monotonous tomes filled with chapter after chapter of never ceasing investigative footwork.  I found a different Queen with the second period’s The Four of Hearts – cardboard in a Hollywood sense, but not boring; even clever in the end.  It was Calamity Town that won me over though.  This was no classic mystery by a long run – if you’ve read more than five GAD books then you’ll see through it in an instant – but the milieu was so damn fine.

It was with eagerness that I snatched up The Quick and the Dead – more widely available under its original title of There Was an Old Woman.  I came in knowing that this was a sidestep from the run of Wrightsville mysteries kicked off by Calamity Town, but I’d heard interesting comments about “Ellery in Wonderland”…

My excitement hit a brick wall pages into the book when I encountered the first references to Inspector Queen (Ellery’s father) and Sergeant Velie  Now, this is probably unfair, but I’m a bit traumatized by my reading of the period one Queen books that featured these characters.  I associate them with long drawn out investigations and snuff – lots of snuff.  My more successful experiences with reading Queen was with later books set in Hollywood or Wrightsville, with the cast being completely different.

I’ll admit, two chapters with Inspector Queen and Sergeant Velie had me setting the book down for two weeks and moving on to more interesting pastures.  Finally, I summoned the courage to return to The Quick and the Dead with the aim to see it through.

To set the record straight, The Quick and the Dead is not a period one Queen, even if the cast is mostly the same.  The copious amounts of snuff are gone, but more importantly, the authors have shifted their tact to focus on the actual plot rather than detailing every minute of every crime scene search.  This is more about characters and telling a story.  But as to that story…it’s a weird one.

As I mentioned, The Quick and the Dead was originally released as There Was an Old Woman.  If the title seems like an obvious reference to a nursery rhyme, well, it is.  This was the 1940s, after all, and nursery rhyme themed mystery books were apparently all the rage.  We have Five Little Pigs, One Two Buckle My Shoe, maybe Death’s Old Sweet Song

While the nursery rhyme reference in Five Little Pigs felt a bit forced, Ellery Queen goes whole hog in this book.  Cornelia Potts, matriarch of the eccentric Potts family, runs a shoe empire that rules supreme.  Her nickname is The Old Woman and her sprawling estate is known as The Shoe.  Yeah.

Her brood is even more over the top.  A mad scientist daughter who lives in a secluded tower.  A man child who spends his days flying kites and lives in a gingerbread house complete with green smoke coming out of the chimney.  It’s the eldest sibling though who is the source of intrigue in the plot.

Thurlow Potts spends his days in court, suing anyone who he considers to have mildly slandered the Potts’ good name.  Frustrated by all of his cases being thrown out of court, he declares that he’ll challenge the next man who insults him to a duel.  Ellery Queen (the detective, not the author duo), overhears this, and is apparently so bored out of his mind that he injects himself into Thurlow’s life in order to prevent a tragedy.

A duel does end up taking place though, and Thurlow’s perceived enemy is killed – in spite of Ellery having swapped the single bullet in the dueling pistol with a blank cartridge.  Here’s where things kind of go off the rail for me.

Now, I did a bit of googling, and wasn’t able to conclusively find whether killing someone during a duel in 1940’s New York was a crime, but the answer sure seemed to point towards “yes”.  And yet, despite two members of the police force witnessing the killing, Thurlow is never arrested.  I’m guessing that the logic is that although Thurlow pulled the trigger, he isn’t technically the person who murdered the victim, because someone else had to swap the blank out with a real bullet – even though Thurlow thought he was using a real bullet in the first place.

It gets even loopier when Cornelia Potts (The Old Woman) gets angry at a mob of reporters who show up to learn about the crime.  She shoots at one, hitting their camera, and then turns the gun on the police and fires.  The bullet passes through Sergeant Velie’s hat, but misses his head, so, no crime, right?  Apparently, as the prospect of arresting The Old Woman never comes up.

So there you have it – a madhouse full of cartoon storybook types committing crimes in broad daylight and never suffering any consequences.  That’s kind of the book that this is.

Strip away the zaniness and the mystery is ok but nothing special.  The police spend the majority of the book searching the mansion for a missing gun, although nobody ever questions whether the gun could simply not be in the mansion.  Theres a few additional deaths to keep the story moving along, although there’s a bit too much hopelessness on the investigators’ part.

Things picked up quite a bit in the end, although don’t take that as an endorsement.  There are a few respectable twists, yet ultimately I felt the authors were trying to be too clever for their own good.  There’s about forty pages of denouement, which I would normally relish, but it started to get to be a bit much.

Put the quirkiness aside and there’s nothing really memorable about The Quick and the Dead.  It reads ok if you can stomach the weird bits I mentioned, but doesn’t feature a flash to separate it from the crowd.

I’m still feeling positive about my next Queen read – The Murderer is a Fox.  It’s a return to the Wrightsville setting that I enjoyed in Calamity Town, and I’ve seen several comments that it’s one of the best Queen novels.  I’m hoping they’re right.

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16 thoughts on “The Quick and the Dead (There Was an Old Woman) – Ellery Queen (1943)”

  1. I actually liked this one, viewing it as one of the EQs that was essentially an attempt to recast the mystery novel as a subgenre of fantasy fiction. (Most of the others that I think of in this respect were ghostwritten by people like Theodore Sturgeon and Avram Davidson, so it’s clear the Queens were aware of related genres.)

    Sorry you have difficulties with the Inspector and Velie! Perhaps counseling is in order?

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    1. Counseling may help – if I had picked this up as my first Queen then I wouldn’t have thought anything negative about those characters. And honestly, it’s not like they’re bad. It just rekindled those memories of the earlier books.

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  2. After you’ve read the entire Queen canon, we have something to talk about. I can’t get into it here, and that’s all I’m going to say about that. But my first read of this one was very pleasurable. I reread it a couple of years ago and found it dragged more than I recalled. Rumor has it that this novel was a reworking of an idea the boys had in the late 30’s but had to put aside because Agatha Christie came up with the same plot in And Then There Were None. Of course, this rumor makes no sense, since I can’t imagine what this could have been reworked from that could in any way resemble ATTWN!

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      1. According to Nevins’ Ellery Queen: The Art of Detection, the cousins came up with the ATTWN-type idea after completing The Dragon’s Teeth; when they discovered the existence of the Christie book, they put their partially-completed work aside forever and started fresh with Calamity Town.

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  3. I thought the mystery plot was very solid, although… (rot-13’d spoiler) gur vqragvgl bs gur zheqrere jnf n pyrne pnfr bs “vs n punenpgre frrzf gb or qbvat abguvat zber guna fgnaqvat nebhaq jvgu uvf svatre hc uvf abfr, ur’f cebonoyl gur ivyynva.”

    It’s probably the most complicated post-Period One solution Queen wrote.

    I have to wonder who thought The Quick and the Dead was a better title than There Was an Old Woman. (I make this kind of observation with a lot of retitled books.) Any mystery novel has living people in it and at least one dead one, but not all of them are about an old woman who has a lot of children. I guess someone figured that if it’s a whodunit, you have to have a death-related word in the title.

    From what I’ve read of the Aaron Burr/Alexander Hamilton duel, which took place in 1804, the practice was illegal in New York even then, so the two men faced off in New Jersey; duelling was also against the law there, but prosecuted less vigorously.

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    1. Alternative book titles are always interesting. The Quick and the Dead seems like something appropriate for an old western movie. Wow, in fact, now that I think of it, that was the title of a Sharon Stone western movie in the mid-90s.

      As far as best alternative titles in the GAD genre:
      – Murder in Retrospect – better than the original Five Little Pigs title.
      – The Problem of the Green Capsule – I personally prefer it over The Black Spectacles, although I appreciate the reference.
      – The Ten Teacups – I forget if this is the original title, or if The Peacock Feather Murders came first, but I enjoy the teacups one.
      – Nine, and Death Makes Ten – better than Murder in the Submarine Zone and Murder in the Atlantic.
      – Cross of Murder – I wouldn’t say that this is better than Seeing is Believing, but it is a nice reference to a key element in the story.
      Of course, I’m not even going to mention ATTWN.

      In some cases, it’s a complete tie for me. How do you choose between London Particular and Fog of Doubt? Or Suddenly at His Residence and The Crooked Wreath?

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      1. For me, I tend to imprint on the title on the copy of the book I first read. (I live in Canada, so it was often hit or miss whether the first copy I saw was a British or American edition.) I think The Hollow Man is a better title than The Three Coffins for that particular book, but it’ll always be The Three Coffins to me.

        An exception is The Ten Teacups, even though I first saw it as The Peacock Feather Murders… probably because the phrase “ten teacups” is used several times in the novel. That one was published in 1937 under both titles (TT in Britain, PFM in the US), so I guess they’re both “original” titles.

        As far as Christie goes, Murder on the Orient Express and Sparkling Cyanide are just plain better titles than Murder in the Calais Coach and Remembered Death.

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  4. Sorry to see that this didn’t quite suit you completely, though at least it seems you enjoyed it better than the period 1 novels. It’s one of my absolute favourite Queens, because of the crazy plot and still logical solution to it all. I also feel it’s the most Christie-like of EQs mysteries.

    It would be interesting to discover where the idea to this novel came from, because it’s definitely an anomaly in the Queen canon. It comes smack bang in the middle of the Wrightsville opera, with all other novels from 1942 through 1950 belonging to this series. Seeing that it features Nikki Porter, I wonder whether it was an idea for a radio script that they then decided to rework into a novel because they liked it so much.

    It’s interesting to note that the authors were very busy with radio writing during the mid 40s which is easy to spot by the way their novel output slowed down noticeably in that period. Previously they had published at least one novel a year, and they would return to that pace when the 50s neared again, but this is the only example in the mid 40s when a book follows another with just a one year gap.

    The point Brad and you discuss about them having had some kind of germ of an idea to this novel which was interrupted by Christie’s “And Then There Were None” is also quite possible. Like JftC says, Nevins mentions this in his EQ biography, and also maintains that the reason for the cousins’ working on this novel instead of immediately continuing the Wrightsville saga was that they were not yet certain how popular “Calamity Town” would be and therefore wanted to return to something more familiar. So, that would explain how this novel ends up such an anomaly – it fits better with the later period 3 books, as I’m sure you’ll see when you get to them.

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    1. Your comment has me curious about the later period 3 books. Based on my limited experience with Queen, There Was an Old Woman seems to straddle period one and two. It has the characters and logic of period one, but with the more story driven and somewhat breezy plot of period two. Calamity Town seems miles away.

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      1. Your take on TWaOW is exactly right: It’s an outlier that doesn’t fit tonally in most of the Period 3 books. It reads like (and, given some accounts here, may well have been) a work that Danny and Lee started in the early 40s, before the sensibility found in Calamity Town had fully emerged.

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      2. We do know from Nevins’ book that the cousins’ writing choices were driven, at least in part, by the question “what’s going to sell?” It would be interesting to have access to their sales figures… maybe all the books from 1942 to 1950 except one were set in Wrightsville because “Calamity Town sold great, Old Woman not so great, let’s do some more Wrightsville novels!”

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      3. I think the later novels of Period 3 and 4 that it most reminds me of are probably “The Origin of Evil”, “The Player on the Other Side” and “…And on the Eighth Day”. They’re not all that similar in all aspects, but these three novels have some of that same crazy logic that is also present in this one.

        The main thing about Period 3B (as I like to call it: i.e. the novels after “Double Double”) and Period 4 is that they don’t actually have all that much in common with each other, it’s just that they are different from what came before…

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    1. Mild spoilers
      To me the “manipulation” aspect felt a bit tacked on. It’s like the book ended with an acceptable (although not special) solution, and then the authors felt like they had to take it the extra mile. There’s another book mentioned in your review in which the manipulation is absolutely brilliant.

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