Monday, August 28, 2017

Ellery Queen, Ten Days' Wonder

“Ellery Queen,” Ten Days’ Wonder
Mysterious Press/Open Road Integrated Media, 2013
© 1948 Little, Brown and Co.  Renewed, 1976, Ellery Queen
ISBN 978-1-4532-8967-9


A man awakens in a room he has never, to his current knowledge, seen before.  As he investigates, he discovers he is in a flophouse, broke, and has evidently been in some sort of altercation.  He finally realizes who he is—Howard Van Horn.  He gets to New York, and his friend from his days as a student sculptor in Paris, Ellery Queen.  He asks Queen’s help if discovering what, if anything, he has done, and it emerges that he has been subject to similar blackouts, of varying duration, and with no apparent common cause, for years.  He persuades Ellery to come home with him and try to unravel this mystery.  Home is a rich father’s opulent estate in Wrightsville, the setting of two earlier Queen mysteries.

And Ellery goes to Wrightsville, for the third time, with the excuse that he needs a retreat to complete his current mystery novel (which, as it happens, he does need to do).  He meets Howard’s family—his father, Diedrich Van Horn; his uncle, Wolfert; and his step-mother, Sally (who is, as it happens, younger than Howard).

Things get quite confusing, Ellery’s investigation is not making much progress, when blackmail intervenes.  The blackmail leads to two thefts, and, eventually, to murder.

Now none of this is really much of a surprise, and it’s certainly no surprise that Ellery, in a scene with all the principals, and the police, unravels the entire chain of events with his usual remorselessly logical analysis of the evens.

Everyone—except the murderer—is relieved, and, if the blackmailer is not clearly identified, at least there is a resolution.

Except…more than a year later, a new bit of information emerges, and Ellery realizes that he got it all wrong.  So we’re back to Wrightsville for a second bite at the apple.

What I found myself thinking, at the end, is that this is an almost perfect meta-analysis of all the Ellery Queen mystery.  The obscurity of the events and the evidence, the logical interpretation of it all, and the solution.  But here, we’re shown just how shallow Ellery’s conclusions can be.  Based on the evidence he has, and some assumptions he makes, he reaches a conclusion.  Here’ we’re shown that the same evidence, with a (slightly) different set of assumptions, a (slightly) different analysis can lead to a very different conclusion.

And in doing this, we should bring the entire Ellery Queen series of mysteries to an end.  Because we have just been shown how contingent all of the solutions have been.  The previous 17 Ellery Queen cases have, in effect, been shown to have been constructed on…nothing.  The famous “Queen Method” is as fallible, as liable to false conclusions, as any other method.

And, in its own way, this is a magnificent book, a work of great honesty and, if you will, integrity by its authors.  They show us the mechanism, they let us see  how fragile it is, how illusory their conclusions are.  Here, then, the series should end. 

But, of course, it doesn’t.  Another 16 book length cases follow, as well as a number of short stories.  I think that, had I been coming at this series as it was written, Ten Days’ Wonder would have been the last book I would have been able to read.  I would be conscious, as I would not have been before, of the (logical) error that lies at the heart of the Queen method and the Queen stories.  One small change in one’s assumptions, and the edifice crashes.

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