It’s been a while since I looked at The Quintessence of Queen #1 – an anthology of “best prize stories” from Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine. It was originally published alongside these entries as part of a larger collection, but my Avon editions find the compilation split in two. We get some reasonably big names in part two – Nicolas Blake, Helen McCloy, and John Dickson Carr, plus entries by less renowned authors. Similar to part one, you get a wide range of styles, although not too many of the stories really stand out. Two of them do though. Both Carr and Jorge Luis Borges provide excellent entries well worth tracking down.
Introduction by Anthony Boucher
Although Anthony Boucher doesn’t contribute an actual story to either collection, book two features a five page introduction that discusses the history of mystery magazines. Naturally there’s a tilt towards Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine to it. There are some interesting bits about the range of authors who have graced the pages of EQMM over (at that point) twenty one years – John Steinbeck, William Faulkner, Ernest Hemingway, Sinclair Lewis, Arthur Miller, George Bernard Shaw… It’s a bit strange that the introduction is included in part two rather than part one.
Only on Rainy Nights – Mark Van Doren
The story of a murder is recounted by a detective to an English professor. The facts of the case aren’t especially interesting, aside from the main suspect’s odd behavior. Whenever it rains, he goes to a diner near the crime scene and orders a hot dog that he never eats. This is one of those crime stories that slowly builds from a basic start to a somewhat dark ending. An enjoyable read because it is well written, but not really the type of mystery you’re probably looking for.
The Other Side of the Curtain – Helen McCloy
A woman experiences the same horrifying dream night after night. In it, she’s compelled down a corridor towards a curtain, with something unknown but dreadful lurking behind it. She tells her story to a psychologist (I assume McCloy’s series sleuth Dr Basil Willing, although he’s never mentioned by name).
Once you get past McCloy’s requisite psychological angle (which I always find a bit tiring), there’s actually a nice bit of subterfuge tucked in here. I imagine everyone will see the main twist coming, but it’s the more subtle evil act that will stick with me with this one. Not exactly a strong story but acceptable fare for what you seem to get out of these anthologies.
A Study in White – Nicholas Blake
This was my first experience with Nicholas Blake – The Beast Must Die has been camping in my To Be Read Pile for nearly a year – and I have to admit I was a bit disappointed. He does this annoying thing with a train full of passengers (suspects) where he refers to each character as Some Label That Describes Them, and then midway through the overly long story starts referring to them by their actual names. It made it incredibly hard to keep track of who was who. I probably could have, but I just didn’t care enough to.
That’s somewhat of a shame as there’s an interesting enough story buried in here. A train gets bogged down on snow covered tracks, and some stuff happens, although late enough into the story that I won’t go into detail. There’s a challenge to the reader, followed by an explanation of the events that’s nearly longer than the actual core story. I was surprised by an element that I won’t mention lest it gives the twist away.
The Gentleman From Paris – John Dickson Carr
A frenchman steps off a boat at a New York dock in 1849 and immediately gets caught up in a mystery. A dying miser has changed her will the night before a stroke left her paralyzed. The problem is, the will can’t be found and it looks like the money will fall into the wrong hands. A confounding dying message involving a pink rabbit and a barometer adds a complexity to the impossibility of how the documents could have disappeared even though the room was under constant observation.
The Gentleman From Paris sums up what I’m looking for in a short story. Carr doesn’t just provide a strong puzzle (and this is easily the most intriguing of the collection), but he creates a microcosm of a novel that you just want to read more of. It’s as if he managed to condense the finest moments of his historical fiction (Fire, Burn, etc) into 29 pages and then just drops the mic, leaving you wanting more.
A more in depth review is available here.
The Contradictory Case – Hugh Pentecost
This short opens with a man confessing to a murder, but the cop taking the statement won’t accept the explanation no matter how many times the story is changed. This tale is best captured by a comment by the investigator midway through the story:
“It begins with a bet that wasn’t a bet. A coincidence that wasn’t a coincidence. Then we had a murderer who didn’t kill anybody. Then we have an alibi that isn’t an alibi.”
There’s nothing exactly brilliant here, but Pentecost ducks and fakes enough to keep the reader on their toes.
The Quality of Mercy – Eleazar Lipsky
I’m not really sure what this one is doing in the anthology. It’s the story of a series of unfortunate incidents the leads to a crime and the eventual repercussions. There’s no element of mystery unless you count not knowing what will happen next. The writing is good enough, but not what I’m looking for in a mystery anthology.
The Garden of Forking Paths – Jorge Luis Borges
A Chinese professor, roped into serving as a spy for Germany during WWI, has learned the location of a secret British arsenal. His mission to get word back to the German front is interrupted by the death of his partner at the hands of a British intelligence officer who is now in hot pursuit. As the professor struggles to escape, the narrative swerves sharply into a story within a story – recounting a work of madness published by a Chinese philosopher centuries earlier.
All of that and more unfolds within the bounds of a 19 page story. Jorge Luis Borges wrote a considerable number of short stories that blurred the lines between science fiction (with an emphasis on scientific and mathematical theory), mystery, and fantasy. The Garden of Forking Paths deals with different paths that time can take – each decision made in life leads to multiple forking realities that both diverge and interweave. Although this concept has possibly reached the fringes of popular culture (through excellent films such as Timecrimes and Primer), it feels so fresh in the way that Borges embeds the tale against a WWI spy backdrop.
Upon finishing the story, I felt that the nineteen pages had delivered more plot than a two hour movie. My immediate action was to track down copies of Labyrinths, Ficciones, and El Aleph – three short story collection bringing the Argentinean author’s work to the English language. I strongly suggest that you do the same.
Dodie and the Boogerman – Vinnie Williams
This is one of those weird stories that get tossed into an anthology and feels a bit out of place but provides the service of mixing things up. This isn’t really a mystery, but rather a slow build up to some dark element. Most readers will anticipate what is unfolding before them.
The tale is set in deep rural Georgia and has some uncomfortable aspects of race that feel like they capture a time and a place. Vinnie Williams would later go on to be a newspaper publisher, and in this short, she shows a knack for being able to convey an impressive amount with few words.
The Trial of John Nobody – A.H.Z Carr
An atheist giving a blasphemous lecture taunts God to strike him down and receives a bullet in return. As interesting as that may sound, this isn’t an impossible crime. An assailant is immediately caught red handed and sentenced to stand trial. The case receives nation interest because the defendant is seen as having been sent on a mission from God to strike down the victim. Plus, his finger prints aren’t on record, nobody can identify his picture even though it’s plastered on newspapers across the country, and the assassin claims to have no memory of his past life – not even his own name. A preacher who witnessed the killing finds himself slowly doubting the veracity of the man’s claims.
There is a mystery here in terms of just what on earth is really going on, but this is hardly a story of detection. It was an interesting read though – my favorite in the collection aside from the Carr and Borges contributions.
The House in Your Hand Murders – Roy Vickers
This starts as a standard murder investigation and then folds inside out into an inverted mystery. We’re told right from the start exactly which clue will lead to the suspect being captured, but it won’t be until close to the end until Vickers brushes aside the illusion. Not really fair play, but a fun little twist nonetheless.
I really enjoyed this one. It wasn’t great by any means, but the plight of the murderer was empathetic in some weird way. I guess that’s what you want.
For part two of this collection, John Dickson Carr and Jorge Luis Borges win hands down; it isn’t even close. After that I’d go with The Trial of John Nobody and a distance behind would be Roy Vickers’s entry. The rest of the the stories made an interesting enough read (they’re short after all) but not the type of stuff that you actively seek out.
Combine part one and two of The Quintessence of Queen and you have a handful of really good stories – John Dickson Carr, Jorge Luis Borges, Clayton Rawson, and Patrick Quentin are the definite stars, but of course they’re also the most well known for their mysteries – with exception of Ellery Queen, Nicolas Blake, and Helen McCloy. There are some intriguing entries, such as The Trial of John Nobody or The Singing Stick, but many of the stories are just ok.
That’s kind of interesting given how the collection is positioned as “Best Prize Stories”. I can believe that for a handful of these stories, but either the rest are over-celebrated or EQMM had slim pickings for their first twenty years. I have to believe the former.