Ten Days’ Wonder – Ellery Queen (1948)

TenDaysWonder1Ellery 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.

TenDaysWonder2The 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.

My editions

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.

 

8 thoughts on “Ten Days’ Wonder – Ellery Queen (1948)”

    1. Yeah, I’m reading them in order, although I jumped from having finished The Greek Coffin Mystery to The Four of Hearts to the Wrightsville books. Cat of Many Tails will be my next, although at some point I might jump around and try out a few other titles I’ve been curious about, such as The Siamese Twin Mystery.

      Thanks for the pointer to the new blog. I’ll jump over and leave some thoughts!

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  1. “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 don’t remember, have you read the period 2 novels? With a statement like the one I quoted, “The Door Between” and “The Dragon’s Teeth” should be exactly what you’re looking for. Or for that matter the short story collection “Calendar of Crime”, where Nikki serves that role.

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    1. The only Period 2 book that I read was The Four of Hearts. It was a bit Hollywood, but I really like how it came together in the end. I’ll definitely be jumping back to the period. I was just too eager to get to Wrightsville after all that I had heard.

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  2. It has been a long time since I read this, but I’m struck by your description of Ellery as “perched loftily above the other characters.” Because this to my mind is where the character of Ellery starts to get really, really good! And that’s why I agree with Neil that you really need to read the next one. That one is the best one! And now, before I head off to work, I’m going to check out Neil‘s new blog site!

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    1. I’ve never found Ellery to be as snobby as people make him out to be, but with the stories told from his perspective, you do get all of his analysis of the other characters. Somehow it all feels a bit aloof to me.

      I’m looking forward to Cat of Many Tails, although I’m worried that someone may have spoiled a key aspect for me. Here’s hoping I’m wrong. I actually thought that The Murder on the Links had been spoiled for me, but I must have mixed it up with another book!

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  3. I’ve been waiting for you to get to this one!

    I wrote a (spoiler-filled) review of TDW here:

    https://wordpress.com/post/justiceforthecorpse.wordpress.com/436

    I invite anyone who’s read the novel to have a look, and in particular to see if you agree with me that Ellery’s solution contains a flaw that disqualifies TDW as a fair-play whodunit. I will avoid spoilers in the rest of this comment.

    One thing that has struck me since I wrote that post: the killings in the first two Wrightsville books tended toward the mimetic – events that could have occurred in real life. By contrast, the murderer’s scheme in this one is, as you say, the stuff of fiction, and imaginative fiction at that. In that way, TDW has more in common with There Was an Old Woman than the books that bracketed it… and may have been a disappointment to people who were expecting more realism from a Wrightsville story.

    Along with Brad, I have to disagree that Ellery is “perched loftily” here – that’s true of a book like Roman Hat or French Powder, but by this point in the saga our hero has grown closer to normality. He even becomes emotionally attached to Howard and one other character in a way that clouds his judgment, causing him to stay on the case when he’d be better off getting the hell out of Dodge.

    I guess one reason the murderer’s identity isn’t too surprising is that this is one of those mysteries with a tiny cast of characters. Joseph Goodrich’s Blood Relations quotes a letter from Dannay to Lee about this book saying “… it has been many, many years since I have put much stock in a so-called ‘surprise criminal”. If a story, naturally and without straining, provides a surprise criminal, well and good; but a surprise criminal per se is outmoded – it is part of the more artificial trickery in a detective story that, in my opinion, we have outgrown.” Although I can think of a couple of later Queens where I not only failed to spot the killer, I felt as though the rug had been pulled out from under me when I found out who it was.

    One other thing that bothers me: the ten chapters of this book are titled “The First Day,” “The Second Day,” etc. but they don’t map onto individual days – for example, “The Seventh Day” takes up two whole days, and “The Eighth Day” an hour or so at most. Maybe I just pick too many nits.

    And now I will begin to look forward to your thoughts on Cat of Many Tails!

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