Cat of Many Tails – Ellery Queen (1949)

Well, I just spent six weeks reading this book…  Granted, I had a few camping trips mixed in there, but this was a story that I struggled to engage with, and subsequently I didn’t make the time to plow through it.  Which is a bit surprising, as Cat of Many Tails seems to be widely regarded as one of Ellery Queen’s five best novels… if not his very best.  Indeed, my 1965 Bantam Books edition is part of a “World’s Great Novels of Detection” series hand selected by none other than Anthony Boucher.

Queen for me has been… well, I was going to say “hit or miss”, but I don’t know that he’s ever really hit.  There are some decent reads in there: The Tragedy of Y (1932) is the closest thing that we get to a hit, with a total sucker punch of an ending even if you see it coming; Calamity Town (1942) is an excellent read with a somewhat obvious mystery; The Murderer is a Fox (1945) follows with a similar quality, although it may feature one of the most disappointing solutions of all time; The Four of Hearts (1938) is a weird Hollywood leaning piece that featured some fine misdirection.  Mostly though the books have been incredibly dull.

I figured I was in luck though with Cat of Many Tails.  Queen’s really boring stuff seems to have come out in the early 1930s, and by the time we get to the Wrightsville books of the early forties (Calamity Town, The Murderer is a Fox, Ten Days’ Wonder) Queen has dropped the chapter long descriptions of what detectives found in a waste bin (I shudder just thinking about encountering another waste bin in a Queen novel) and moved on to much more readable prose.  Cat of Many Tails follows the Wrightsville series, and I figured I was in for something really good.

It’s not that Cat of Many Tails is that bad, it just didn’t grab me.  The setting has shifted back to Queen’s familiar stomping grounds of New York City, and a serial killer nicknamed The Cat has the city in panic.  A number of seemingly random victims have been found strangled around town and the police don’t have a single clue to go on.  And maybe it’s that lack of a single clue that kept me from really attaching to the mystery.  A serial killer in a city of millions has a very different feel than your cast-of-ten country house murder (although Agatha Christie pulled it off well with The ABC Murders).  It’s more a crime novel than a mystery.

And honestly, Ellery Queen (the detective this time, not the authors) isn’t that great of a character to carry this sort of story.  I’ve never really felt that Queen is the annoying and conceited character that others complain about; rather, he’s just frustratingly forgettable.  The authors have tried to flesh him out into something more human by giving him all sorts of weaknesses as a result of the last few novels, but it just results in constant moping and second guessing.

Queen (the authors),meanwhile, seems to be writing their attempt at The Great American Novel.  Individual sentences run on for pages – pages I tell you! – and if they weren’t being paid for every comma (with a bonus for semicolons) I’ll be damned.  It’s an attempt to make the city of Manhattan into a living breathing character, and while Queen may have left behind the painstaking (and inducing) chapter long details of the contents of a desk drawer, it’s replaced by page long descriptions of each murder victim’s every last aunt and second cousin.

None of which of course matters to the actual mystery, and that was part of my frustration.  You plod along for 100 pages with nothing much feeling like it’s really happening (even though there is a body count of six by the start of chapter three), and even when detective Queen finally bothers to tell the police that there are some actual patterns to the case, it’s all stuff that readers will have realized early in the book.

And this is all so unfortunate, because… once you get a bit beyond the halfway mark, the story becomes incredibly good.  Yes, you heard me, there is a positive side to this all!  If you make it over the hump of the first half, you’re in for an absolute page burner.  I went from complete ambivalence to not being able to put the book down.  And I actually did have to put the book down (life happens, ya know) and during that spell I really really wanted to finish it.

The funny thing is, this wasn’t due to the actual mystery itself suddenly grabbing me.  Quite the contrary.  This is one of those books where the murderer is identified midway through, but in absence of evidence, the police have to scramble to make a case before they have another victim on their hands.  So yeah, in a way this became good precisely at the moment there wasn’t anymore mystery – other than, I suppose, “how catchem?”

Unfortunately, the book hits its peak and goes on forty pages too long.  Honestly, if you haven’t read this, once it hits the climax, just put the book down and walk away.  I realize that any fan of this story will have good reason to scream at that recommendation (and I know you’ll still finish the story anyway), but honestly, you might as well end the thing on a high note.  If you don’t, well, you’re going to be bored to death.

Just to prove that I’m not just in a mystery reading funk at the moment: I’ve since moved on to an Agatha Christie novel, and I’m enjoying the hell out of it (as you would expect).  I imagine I’ll return to Queen in a year and we’ll roll the dice and see how that turns out.  The question is whether I keep going in order with Double, Double (1950) or jump to another era.  Who knows.

My edition

I mentioned that my 1965 Bantam Books edition is part of a collection of books that Anthony Boucher put together as “The World’s Great Novels of Detection”.  I have at least two other books in this series – Green for Danger by Christianna Brand (definitely worthy of the label) and Cue for Murder by Helen McCloy (not that great) – and they have a similar cover style and feature an intro by Anthony Boucher.  Boucher’s intro to Cat of Many Tails gives a nice overview of Queen’s most popular novels, although I’ll have to disagree with his description of their quality.

An odd bit about this edition as how the publishers choose to position it.  The cover features five female victims in various states of undress, and the back cover description leads with “five career-girl deaths and not a single clue.”  Which is weird, because that doesn’t really match the vibe of the book and is pretty misleading: there are a mix of male and female victims and neither the conventional nor slang interpretation of “career girls” actually applies.  There’s also a map on the back cover (come to think of it, all of my entries in this series have some sort of map – crude ones, not of the Dell variety) which shows placements of bodies around Manhattan, and I’m fairly certain it shows bodies where none occurred.  The front page of the book contains a much more accurate map of Manhattan and the various scenes of importance, and given the style I’m guessing it was part of the original publication.

9 thoughts on “Cat of Many Tails – Ellery Queen (1949)”

  1. The other two books in Boucher’s series were RIM OF THE PIT (obviously a great choice; I can’t find the source, but Carr wrote a laudatory review of the reprint edition) and Georgette Heyer’s A BLUNT INSTRUMENT (haven’t read it).

    At various times, the working titles for CAT OF MANY TAILS were OFF WITH HIS HEAD! (from Alice in Wonderland), AND THE CAT CAME (a line from a traditional Passover song), and MR. CAT (inspired, believe it or not, by an obscure Bing Crosby movie called MR. MUSIC which hadn’t even come out yet at the time the book was published).

    [MILD SPOILERS]

    There’s a fascinating book, BLOOD RELATIONS, which prints Dannay and Lee’s letters to each other when they were writing this book. By this time their relationship had turned toxic and they were disagreeing about everything from the plot (Dannay originally wanted Cazalis to have deliberately murdered his children) to the portrayal of Black characters (Beatrice Wilkins was white in Dannay’s plot outline, which led each author to accuse the other of being racist when Lee changed her ethnicity in the final version).

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      1. Yeah, “Mr. Cat” wouldn’t exactly be my first choice for the name of a dark, disturbing serial killer novel.

        Forgot to mention this in my first comment, but I wouldn’t recommend DOUBLE, DOUBLE, which takes Ellery back to Wrightsville but is nowhere near as good as the other three novels set there. It involves a series of murders patterned on a nursery rhyme (a la AND THEN THERE WERE NONE, THE BISHOP MURDER CASE, DEATH’S OLD SWEET SONG, etc.) and Queen is trying to do a “realistic” take on this type of story, but he just can’t make it work in the Wrightsville universe. (I guess you could say the Biblical stuff in TEN DAYS’ WONDER is equally crazy, but Queen manages to sell it much better there than in DOUBLE, DOUBLE.)

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        1. A return to Wrightsville is tempting though. I never seem to gel with Ellery in NYC; I’m not a big fan of NYC mysteries in the first place, but with Queen I think I get flashbacks of those Period One books on top of that.

          I’m tempted to maybe take a leap back to Halfway House or The Door Between and test out the waters there.

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          1. I don’t remember a whole lot about HALFWAY HOUSE…DOOR BETWEEN has a really badly written romance (like, nails on the chalkboard bad) and a really disappointing locked room solution, but there are other good aspects of the plot–the murderer and their scheme (other than the locked room part) are ingenious and well hidden. Definitely low on my list of Queen novels, though.

            Have you read the EGYPTIAN CROSS or SIAMESE TWIN mysteries? Those were my favorites of the Period One books when I first read them many years ago, and neither is set in NYC.

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            1. I’ve been meaning to read The Siamese Twin Mystery, as the move away from New York sounds promising and it seems like the looming fire would force the pace a little. I haven’t read The Egyptian Cross Mystery either – I’m somewhat under the impression that one’s supposed to be boring, but maybe I’m mixing that up with Spanish Cape.

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  2. I actually started to read this one a while ago and put it down roughly a third in. Partly because it mostly bored me and partly because I suddenly remembered who did it. I never read this book before, but it must have been spoiled for me somewhere, because I knew who did it (not in the sense that I deduced it correctly but that I heard it before). The combination of the two points never made me finish it, but maybe I will if the second half really gets better.

    It was a 2/2 in terms of disappointment for me regarding Ellery Quinn, because I wasn’t thrilled with the Greek Coffin mystery either.

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    1. I’m glad to hear that the boredom wasn’t just me. If it helps, this isn’t the type of story that really gets spoiled by knowing who is responsible, and in fact it might make some of the earlier chapters more interesting. Yes, the book does become quite thrilling in the second half, but realize you’d be picking this up with the hope of a good thriller, not a mystery.

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