A Novel By Ellery Queen (Both Of Them)

For “A book with multiple authors”, I immediately thought of Ellery Queen.

The Seattle Public Library, unfortunately, does not have a large selection of Ellery Queen novels. I did a bit of Wikipedia research before deciding on which of their few novels to read. I wanted to get one of the older ones, with the original authors, so I could use it for the 2017 Reading Challenge.

Ellery Queen, the authors, wrote many novels about Ellery Queen, the fictional writer and amateur detective.

there-was-an-old-womanI use the plural when I refer to the authors, because Ellery Queen was the mutual pen name of two cousins from New York: Daniel Nathan (who went by the name Frederic Dannay) and Emanuel Benjamin Lepofsky (who went by the name Manfred Bennington Lee). Together, cousins Dannay and Lee co-wrote detective novels as “Ellery Queen”.

Later, there would be other authors who used the name Ellery Queen, but for the 2017 Reading Challenge, I picked a novel by the original duo, Ellery Queen.

There Was an Old Woman, by Ellery Queen, was first published in 1943.

One day, Ellery Queen is introduced by his father, New York Police Inspector  Richard Queen, to Cornelia Potts, a wicked old woman who is the head of the Potts family and owner of the  hugely successful Potts Shoe company. “The Potts Shoe – $3.99 Everywhere”

A while back, during a strike at the Potts Shoe factory, a pro-Labor newspaper published an editorial cartoon of the Potts mansion shaped like a giant shoe. (There was an old woman who lived in a shoe. She had so many children she couldn’t pay her workers a living wage.) Cornelia Potts has since been known as the Old Woman.

Cornelia had been married, and then widowed. She had three children by that marriage, each considered crazy. She then remarried. She had three more children, each considered sane.

Ellery Queen has dinner with the eccentric Potts family. Dinner reminds him of a certain nursery rhyme. Suddenly, a disagreement leads to a challenge to an old-fashioned duel, with pistols, at dawn, between two of  the Potts half-siblings. Knowing they can’t prevent the duel from taking place, Ellery Queen and his father secretly load the guns with blanks.

A shot is fired at dawn. One brother falls dead.

“Murder,” said the Inspector. He was white.

“Yes,” mumbled Ellery, “Murder to which we were all eyewitnesses – yet none of us lifted a finger to stop it… in fact, we aided and abetted it. We saw the man who fired the shot, but we don’t know who the murderer is!”

Ellery Queen and his father begin their detective work. Who was the murderer? Cornelia Potts, “the choleric Old Woman”? Thurlow Potts, “a most insultable little man”? Dr. Waggoner Innis, “the Pasteur of Park Avenue”? Sheila Potts, “a girl of inoffensive insolence”? Louella Potts, “who believed herself to be a great inventor”? Stephen Brent, “Cornelia’s second husband, seemingly sane”? Major Gotch, “the companion of [Stephen’s] Polynesian youth”? Horatio Potts, “who never grew up”? Maclyn Potts “[the victim’s] twin, Vice President in Charge of Advertising and Promotion”? Or maybe Cuttins, the butler?

Or was this murder part of a larger scheme?

This was the first Ellery Queen novel I’d read, and, unfortunately, it didn’t make me a fan. I didn’t care for the light-hearted, farcical style. It seemed to be trying to be a near-comedy, and it didn’t make me laugh. I found most of the story unbelievable. (Would the New York Police Department really stand there and watch a duel take place, even if they assumed the guns were still loaded with blanks?) There were too many eccentricities that seem to exist merely to set up a plot. (Why would the head of a large corporation always sign her name with a soft-lead pencil?)

But I enjoyed the mystery. It was original, and full of twists and red herrings. It kept me guessing (except for the part about how the murderer could have switched the bullets) all the way to the end.

I had fun reading this novel, even if it wasn’t my cup of tea.

  • A book with multiple authors

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