I have a bit of a… complicated relationship with Ellery Queen. Dannay and Lee are two of my favorite GAD authors, but I haven’t read an Ellery Queen in about a year! I think the main problem is that I’m more in love with the concept of the Queen oeuvre than with the oeuvre itself. I’ve read all the 1st Period (“Nationality”) books, plus a smattering of novels from the later periods. I absolutely love the Nationality Mysteries as a whole, but there are only four that I really like, and two which I’d deem “Avoid At All Costs” for prospective Queen readers. While I adore the ingenious puzzle plots in those first 9 adventures, the Ellery presented in them is little more than a less likable Philo Vance, there isn’t much to say about the rest of the characters, and the verbosity of some of them can get near-Shakesphearian – not in a good way. I’m not nearly as well-read in the 2nd-4th periods of Ellery, but from what I can tell so far they’re marked by more characterization, albeit with a higher rate of thinly plotted mysteries. However, I still have some favorites from the few pickings I’ve read so far: There Was an Old Woman was great, and I have quite a soft spot for The King Is Dead (my mom’s favorite Ellery Queen!) Unfortunately, I read The American Gun Mystery and The Door Between last October and December respectively, and the taste they left was so bitter I took a break from Ellery ever since. It may have been risky to make my return with the oft-derided 2nd Period, and one of the Hollywood mysteries nonetheless, but it paid off. The Devil to Pay was an absolute delight, with memorable characters, burgeoning sociopolitical themes, and a knockout murder mystery.
In a way, I feel that The Devil to Pay, published in 1938, contains many elements that would be seen in later novels, in and out of GAD. One of these is Nathanael West’s The Day of the Locust, which happens to be one of my favorite non-GAD novels. I feel that Queen has predated West’s technique of highlighting the absurdity and surrealism of Hollywood. The characters, who each get a short introduction in the first chapter, before many of them enter the story, are evidence of this. The last time such a motley crew of unique individuals was gathered in one of Ellery’s cases was the aforementioned American Gun, with its cast of half-insane gunslinger movie cowboys. (I really, really hated American Gun.) Whether it’s Winni Moon, the lisping starlet with her scented(!) pet monkey; Pink, the
chart-topping pop singer/songwriter red-haired athletic jack-of-all-trades and dietitian; or Atherton Frank, the one-armed security guard with a coffee obsession to rival Dale Cooper’s; there is no shortage of individualism and zaniness in Queen’s Hollywood.
However, the plot is put into action by some of the more normal characters in this story. Virginia-born playboy Rhys Jardin, who lives in a swanky mansion/condo with his daughter Valerie, has entered into a financial partnership with NYC-born businessman Solly Spaeth concerning Ohippi, some kind of hydro-electric… thing? Valerie isn’t the most excited about this, because it makes her budding love-hate relationship with Solly’s son Walter, a political cartoonist, all that more awkward. When the power plants that fuel Ohippi are destroyed in a flood, Solly leaves Rhys and all the shareholders in the dust, as he rakes in the cash he saved by selling his shares while everyone else is dead broke. A lot of people are furious – Rhys and Valerie, who have to sell all their belongings, plus their condo just across from the Spaeths’; Walter, who knows his father is a crook; and about everyone else in L.A. who lost money from Ohippi. Small wonder, then, when Solly Spaeth is found dead, stabbed with an Italian rapier in his study.
Inspector Glücke of the LAPD is quick to pin the blame on Rhys, not only because of the obvious motive, but because Frank (the security guard) recognized Jardin entering Sans Souci (the condo complex) by his torn camel’s-hair coat. The only problem is, Rhys and Valerie know that Walter accidentally took that coat before leaving to go to his father. Furthermore, Walter called Valerie from Solly’s study only three minutes after Solly was killed, as evidenced by his broken watch. Rhys, despite his ironclad alibi sustained by telephone operator Mibs Austin, seems willing to take this blame to save Walter. Walter is waffling between confessing his presence to save Rhys, and staying mum. It’s a good thing that a certain Mr. Queen is willing to go undercover as news reporter Hilary “Scoop” King to help Valerie get to the bottom of the case…
And what a case it is! My expectations were admittedly low, knowing that this book came out right after The Door Between, which has a murder mystery disappointingly thin on clues and overly reliant on literary psychology. But there are clues abound. Ellery is back in full form with his lists of questions and attributes of the murderer. Ellery wonders why the murderer went for the Italian rapier at the top of Solly’s wall of swords when a lower one would do the trick. There’s also the question of why the killer coated the rapier in molasses and cyanide. At first it’s mostly Valerie herself investigating the murder in order to hopefully clear both Rhys and Walter of the murder. Some of Valerie and Walter’s antics in trying to hide the truth from the police remind me of Carr’s The Problem of the Wire Cage, which Queen has here predated by about a year. Once she joins a newspaper agency in order to get paid for her sleuthing work, the editor hires Ellery (masquerading as “Hilary”) to help her out with her detective work. The scenes between Valerie and Ellery are pretty fun, especially as Ellery recognizes Valerie, but Valerie doesn’t recognize Ellery (because I guess when you shave you become unrecognizable?)
The solution was rather nice, especially since I had suspected the correct murderer for about 75% of the book! There are some extra clues thrown in in the second half which hint towards what really happened, but when Ellery explains the true events behind Solly Spaeth’s murder, it was much more complex than I expected. I’ve already mentioned two novels I feel like this book was a precursor to. I also think that this is a mystery in the same vein as Carr’s “crime-scene-that-isn’t-quite-right” novels, such as The Eight of Swords or The Seat of the Scornful (the latter of which was published years after The Devil to Pay.) The solution at times also feels Carrian, because what really happened in regards to the murder was effaced in some way and made to look completely different. The murderer’s identity – which is discerned by Ellery thanks to four unique characteristics – was, as I said, not surprising to me, but I think it was the right choice and I’m sure that someone who is not quite as experienced as me would be shocked. The who, how, and why all mix together for an enchanting answer to the problem set down.
The Hollywood presented by Queen is, as I mentioned, somewhat fantastic. The main characters are all a little kooky, and settings include surreal auction halls and Kafkaesque screenplay companies. There are mentions of how almost everyone who works in Hollywood actually lives somewhere 40 minutes away, and other details which make the city seem like somewhere you’d want to avoid. It seems at times as if everyone in Hollywood is always angry, as seen in the multiple scenes with riotous mobs circled around Sans Souci (which also reminded me of The Day of the Locust with its hellish riot finale.) Dannay and Lee had not had the best of luck in their own Hollywood endeavors (as evidenced by the awful adaptations of Chinese Orange and Spanish Cape produced a couple years before this novel) and perhaps they channeled their anger into Ellery’s experience and the worldview the novel takes.
I was worried that this novel would further my increasing distaste with Ellery Queen. Thankfully, it instead rekindled the joy I once felt reading Ellery’s adventures, even though it was supposed to be one of the weaker selections in the canon. There are some strange aspects, like the amount of anti-Hollywood sentiment, but the mystery is strong and the characters are surely unforgettable. I don’t think I’d recommend it as an introduction to Ellery Queen, but I believe that it deserves to get more love.
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