My 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.