Sometime last year I finished reading Double Double by Ellery Queen, and having thoroughly loathed it, promptly went out and bought two copies of the next entry in the Queen library: The Origin of Evil. I know that sounds stupid, but there’s a logic here. I’d made my way through the Queen novels in order starting with Calamity Town (1942) through Double Double (1950) – an attempted reading of the earlier 1929+ era Queen novels in order being aborted because they’re an absolute torture to read – and although I’m still not impressed, I might as well keep a streak going. Plus, the book after The Origin of Evil is The King is Dead (1952), which famously shows up on top impossible crime novel lists (which makes me interested to read it) despite reputable sources assuring me it is in no way an impossible crime (leading me to believe it will inevitably piss me off). Regardless, I’m going to read The King is Dead, so I might as well not leave a one book gap.
If that’s not reason enough for me go out and buy two copies of The Origin of Evil (I’m aware two thirds of you reading don’t agree that it is), check out the covers in this post. They’re not toppest of top tier Golden Age covers, but they’re damn good. The color, the detail, the well drawn hands (a lost art), the highlights; this is what I’m looking for in a vintage cover. You’ll notice that both covers feature a woman with dark hair wearing red in what turns out to be the same scene, and there’s actually a third book – a Pan edition – that features the exact same details, and I damn near bought it before I snapped out of it with the realization of “my god man, you’re about to spend $15 on three copies of a book that you’re 75% not going to enjoy”. So I kept it to $10.
It’s funny that this particular scene features in three separate covers for this book, as it doesn’t really stand out as a definitive scene, but also because the only clothing description of the woman is that she “wore a suede jacket”. None of these pictures feature a suede jacket, and it’s interesting that a red shoulderless was chosen for all three, because red isn’t mentioned (yes, I went back and looked for you). A curious case of covers being inspired by covers, I suppose.
I’ve lost most of you by going on about the artwork of these books, but come on, that’s the interesting part. Beyond that, yeah, this is an Ellery Queen story, and I suppose we’re in the post Wrightsville era (that’s phase 4 right?). Ellery has relocated to Hollywood and is attempting to write his next novel when he’s looped into a case of potential murder. A man suffered from a heart attack after a dead dog was left on his doorstep along with a note that has mysteriously vanished. His daughter thinks it was murder – by deliberate heart attack.
What follows from here isn’t really worth me getting into. It’s a sibling to There Was an Old Woman – a fantasy cast of characters, whose quirkiness this time is excused due to living in Hollywood. You have some Tarzan guy who lives in a tree house and walks around in a loin cloth (some Ellery nude sunbathing too – prominently mentioned on the back of my 1956 Pocket Books edition – for the excitement of the audience). There’s a man paralyzed from the waist down who lives his entire life in a wheelchair contraption that converts from bed to study (complete with bar, typewriter, toilet, etc), a 40 year old vixen keen on bedding Ellery, a 19 year old kitten keen on bedding Ellery, etc.
There’s a series of death threats throughout the novel, which leads to the whole pattern of clues thing that I hear characterizes this phase of Queen novels. All the clues seem unrelated, but in the end some bizarre pattern will be shown to them all, but a pattern that really only makes sense within the pages of a (lesser tier) mystery novel. This is some “break out your encyclopedia shit”, as we’re shown that if you look from some particular academic perspective, it all… kind of… makes sense.
If you like mystery endings (don’t we all?), this is a nice long one. Granted, this is Ellery Queen, and so the solution is all explanation, rather than revelation. You’ll get every loose end tied up, plus forty more that you didn’t know existed. It’s all interesting stuff, but it lacks the satisfying moment where everything suddenly fits into place, and instead you just nod along while the lecturer lectures. In the case of The Origin of Evil, it goes on almost comically long, with a series of false endings repeatedly overstaying the point where you thought the story was well finished and on its final page.
There are far, far worse mystery novels than this, including many by Ellery Queen. And yet if this was my only experience with Golden Age mysteries I’d never bother reading another again. So what did I do to celebrate the end of this one? I just bought a cheap vintage copy of The Lamp of God. Go figure…
I ended up with a 1953 Pocket Books edition (the woman menaced by the two men), and a 1956 Pocket Books edition (the woman pointing the gun). I should have read the 1953 as it turned out to be the much better physical copy, but they were both wrapped in plastic when I stuck one in my bag for a trip. Instead I read the 1956 edition, which had a few pages come loose, but I’ll fix that up in a few days.
The 1953 edition labels the novel as Origin of Evil (sans “The”), although interestingly, the spine does include the elusive definite article. Both include identical “cast of characters” (same publisher after all), but the back covers differ; the 1953 edition focuses on the cast of characters, while the 1956 edition give the novel a steamy edge.
2 thoughts on “The Origin of Evil – Ellery Queen (1951)”
I think you’re thinking of THE CHINESE ORANGE MYSTERY for the EQ novel which is often mislabeled as an impossible crime? THE KING IS DEAD is definitely a locked room mystery, and IMHO a very good one (although I also like THE ORIGIN OF EVIL a lot, so make of that what you will).
At this point we’re still in Period 3 of the Queen saga…Period 1 = 1929-35 (the “Nationality Object Mystery”/challenge to the reader books), Period 2 = 1936-39 (the books that are obviously written to be sold to magazines and Hollywood), Period 3 = 1942-58 (the books where Ellery is emotionally affected by the crimes), and Period 4 = 1963-71 (where things got really weird and baroque).
About those false endings…you may have noticed by now that somewhere along the way Dannay and Lee got absolutely obsessed with two things: double solutions where the actual truth is revealed after you thought the story was already over, and villains who manipulate other people into committing murder and/or suicide. More often than not, these two tropes are combined together with the “villain” in the false solution turning out to be the manipulated person. From what I understand, they basically kept doing different variations on this over and over (I still haven’t read many of the later books); YMMV as to how well it works.
Chinese Orange and The King is Dead do both turn up on impossible crimes lists, so I could be mixed up. That’s good news that The King is Dead is in fact an impossible crime, and I would really like to enjoy it. I’ve always wanted to enjoy Queen, and you look at these gorgeous books and imagine that they’ll be something great. That’s only mostly happened to me with Calamity Town so far.
Yes, the whole false ending bit… I want to say that starts with (avert your eyes lest minor spoilers) The Murderer is a Fox, multiplies with Ten Days Wonder, and then seems to continue to snowball out of control. I guess there’s more of that in the future…