Ellery Queen returns to the New England town of Wrightsville in Ten Days’ Wonder, and that’s good news for me. The previous two titles in the Wrightsville series – Calamity Town and The Murderer is a Fox – were by far the most consumable that I’ve put down by the author duo who shared the pen name. While they weren’t the strongest mysteries (who didn’t see the end of Calamity Town coming?) the Queen storytelling was in top form and miles away from the excruciatingly dull earlier works.
The opening passages of Ten Days’ Wonder may well be the best writing that Queen ever put to paper. I’d give you some quotes, but I just don’t know where I’d stop. If you have the book on your shelf, I know you don’t plan on reading it right now, but just pick it up and give the first few pages a once over.
…are we good? I’d eat that up all day. And really, this book’s packed with that, although appearing in surges.
As for the story, I’m going to have a bit of trouble describing the set up in a way that’s palatable to me, as it deals with a plot device that I kind of hate in books or film – amnesia. More broadly, I’m not a big fan of psychological trickery where you’re given a lens into the story that you don’t know whether you can trust. Amnesia, heavy drug use, drunkenness, dreams, hallucinations – anything to where you can’t quite trust what’s really going on is a frustrating plot device for me, in particular in a mystery where details matter. The one success I can think of is John Dickson Carr’s use of hypnosis in Seeing is Believing, because it’s used to set up the hypnotizing puzzle of whether a hypnotized woman really intended to stab her husband. This is not that.
Amnesia plays into Ten Days’ Wonder via Howard Van Horn, an artist beset by random memory lapses that can last for weeks. Howard approaches Ellery Queen, sickened by the guilt that he may be committing crimes while he’s blacked out.
You know, I myself read that last sentence, and I’m thinking “…eh, I don’t know if that story’s for me.” Thankfully the amnesia angle is merely the setup for an otherwise enjoyable story and somewhat falls into the background once things get underway. Ellery heads back to Wrightsville and sets up at Howard’s sprawling family manor; an estate that commands a majestic view of Wrightsville, yet Ellery somehow didn’t notice in his previous visits.
The basic premise is that Ellery is keeping an eye on Howard in case another attack of amnesia comes on, under the guise that he needs a secluded spot to work on his next novel. As with the previous two Wrightsville stories (both of which this slightly spoils), Ellery inserts himself in the family’s daily life with little question. Before long he’s uncovered a scandalous tryst, a blackmail plot, and gotten himself wrapped up in a theft.
The actual murder – and there is a murder – occurs late enough in the story that I can’t go into detail. That’s because there’s a set of potential victims, and I think part of the fun of the mystery is figuring out what it’s all leading up to. It’s worth noting that one death seems extremely graphic for the time – not in the sense of describing things in detail, but rather the horror of it all that your mind is left to piece together.
The end, when it comes, is pretty crazy. Like, the kind of crazy that’s bound to be controversial. A key element of the solution involves a grandiose scheme that could never exist outside of fiction, but it’s amusing enough to watch it all play out. I found myself rolling my eyes, but on the other hand, appreciating how so many unnoticed elements of the plot were woven together. Well, maybe not unnoticed. There were aspects of the story that seemed out of place or poorly handled, which clicked together in retrospect.
The culprit and the motive were easy enough for me to see long in advance. I have to think that most readers would suspect… mmm, how to say this… a solution to one particular thread, and in light of seeing through that, the rest would be somewhat apparent. Not that the full solution could ever be glommed onto – it’s off the wall in a bonkers way you couldn’t anticipate. And quite a solution it is, running nearly fifty pages of explanation.
As a Queen novel, Ten Days’ Wonder is definitely a success. The writing at times is superb and the plot never shifts towards boredom. And yet… even at Queen’s best, I feel there’s something lacking in the story telling. I’ve struggled to put my finger on it, but I think it’s the way the events of these books unfold from Ellery Queen’s perspective. He’s the dry ever-critical observer perched loftily above the other characters, and it skews the narrative to feel a bit one dimensional across all of these stories. Throw in an everyman point of view character who lends some humor and goggles as Queen works his magic, and I think these would be a bit more enjoyable.
I tend to reserve my Queen novels for when I have a trip planned, as it gives me some focused time to read on the off chance that it’s a dud (although lately these have been pretty good). Better to burn your time at the airport and on a plane than during a much needed break from the weekly grind at home. I ended up reading my 1957 Pocket Books edition (with the woman on the cover) purely because it seemed a bit sturdier than my 1950 Pocket edition (with the man destroying statues) and better able to survive a trip in a backpack. Both are gorgeously illustrated; the epitome of what I look for in vintage cover art.
The 1950s edition may have the better cover with respect to the story. It also has that super smooth war-era paper-saving stock that I wish someone would replicate in the modern era. The paper’s so nice that in retrospect I wish this was the one I had read. The first page features an illustration of the Lee/Dannay duo, explaining to a likely bewildered audience that they were the real brilliance behind the Queen pen name. “What? These weren’t written by Ellery Queen?!?!?!”
The 1957 edition isn’t without its charms, in particular that sort of painted illustration that you wish every novel had. The paper stock is of that comparatively thicker rougher sort that you get as regulations eased, but it’s still miles beyond what you’ll see from anything published post 70s. Overall, I’ll recommend the 50s for total package presentation and superior plating.