The Four of Hearts (Ellery Queen)

  • By Ellery Queen
  • First published: USA: Frederick A. Stokes, 1938; UK: Gollancz, 1939

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Period II is often thought of as Ellery Queen’s least successful phase. The Queen cousins were hired as screenwriters for Columbia, Paramount, and MGM, and wrote with (Hollywood) stars in their eyes. Their mysteries aimed at magazine serialization, movie adaptations, and wider popularity, without the elaborate puzzle plots of Period I or the thematic and psychological depth of Period III.

Francis Nevins (Ellery Queen: The Art of Detection, 2013) complains that these works “suffer from intellectual thinness, an overabundance of so-called love interest (meaning a tedious boy-meets-girl counterplot), and characters all too obviously tailored to please story editors in the slick magazine suites and in the studios”. But he also acknowledges that the cousins made room within the formal deductive puzzle for “the virtues of mainstream storytelling”, and began to humanize Ellery.

The Four of Hearts is one of the stronger works from the period (although less satisfying than Halfway House or even The Door Between). When I read it 15 years ago, I thought it was brilliant; it doesn’t quite live up to my memories, but it’s good fun.

Ellery Queen has been hired by Hollywood to write scripts, but like P.G. Wodehouse, is earning $1500 a week to kick his heels; for six weeks, the studio has forgotten he even exists, until a Boy Wonder producer rings him, wanting to employ him to write a biopic of two feuding star families, the Royles and the Stuarts. The civil war ends, Jack Royle and Blythe Stuart realize they love each other, and a spectacular wedding is planned. The two lovebirds will be married at an airfield, and then flown in a private plane (piloted by Jack’s son Ty) to a luxury island. Instead, Ty and Blythe’s daughter Bonnie are found trussed up in the hangar; someone has kidnapped the newlyweds. Their bodies are found dead in the abandoned plane later that evening, poisoned with morphine. Somehow this double murder has to do with playing cards warning of disaster and Ellery’s attempts to keep Ty and Bonnie from falling in love. It climaxes with a shoot-out on a plane; the villain shouts ‘You’ll never hang me!’ and falls to their death in true Hollywood fashion.

The plot feels like a ’30s B-movie; it’s contrived and involved, even corny in parts. There’s glamour (beautiful actresses, leading men young and old, planes and automobiles), screwball comedy (bright and snappy dialogue, including a masterly four-way quarrel in Chapter 4), and the obligatory old dark house in the middle of a thunderstorm. There’s even romance; Ellery gets drunk, and falls in love (!) with Paula Paris, a reclusive gossip columnist. (She reappears in The New Adventures of Ellery Queen.) Tinselly though it is, as fiction, I’d consider it an advance on Roman Hat or Greek Coffin. It’s more smoothly written, the pace is brisker, and the people have more life, even if they are meant to be fleshed out on the silver screen. Pity that the Hollywood studio itself fades out after the murder; there’s less here than in, say, Carr’s And So to Murder.

The solution feels a little like a magic trick; Ellery produces a triple surprise, guaranteed to wow audiences – although one part is a gratuitous coincidence (ROT13: gur xvqanccvat vf ernyyl snxr, n choyvpvgl fcynfu). I can’t remember whether I solved this or not; I have the feeling I did (ROT13: V xarj gung K jnf n pbhfva), but I might also have been impressed by the way the criminal is overlooked. (ROT13: (Ur nccrnef gb or gurer sbe pbzvp eryvrs.) Some of Ellery’s reasoning seems nebulous; there’s no real clincher of a clue; he suspects ‘Egbert’ because of motive and opportunity, which is looser than the astonishing chains of logic from Period I. (And I can’t picture how the poisoning was done; it’s passed over airily in a sentence.) Much cleverer is Ellery’s third revelation, ROT13: gur senhq / vzcrefbangvba cybg gb trg ubyq bs na byq zna’f zbarl. It’s almost like a John Dickson Carr story: clues provided by characters’ reactions (ROT13: Whavhf’ sevtug) and inconsistency of behaviour (ROT13: n ulcbpubaqevnp qevaxvat grn naq rngvat fnaqjvpu), and frantic improvisation (ROT13: pbafcvengbef hanjner nppbzcyvpr unf neevirq).


US (1938 Stokes)


Since 1929 we have had the exclusive privilege of publishing the detective stories of Ellery Queen in the United States.  In our years of publishing Queen’s thirteen books we have refrained from the usual and monotonously extravagant publishers’ claims, preferring to let the books speak for themselves.

They have spoken so eloquently – each has been an instant best-seller here and abroad – that Queen is now recognized by the world’s press and public as one of the greatest writers of detective stories.

Now, with our publication of Ellery Queen’s fourteenth book and latest novel, THE FOUR OF HEARTS, we feel compelled to break our silence.  We honestly believe that THE FOUR OF HEARTS is not only Ellery Queen’s finest novel to date, but is destined to be ranked as a classic by those familiar with this type of fiction.

We ask you to compare it mercilessly, point for point – in plot, in characterization, in atmosphere, in style, in ingenuity, in excitement and bafflement and as a source of sheer reading pleasure – with any detective story you have ever read.

We ask you to judge for yourself whether our claim is even slightly overmagnified.  We feel confident that your judgement will substantiate our opinion.

Contemporary reviews

Kirkus (6 October 1938): A somewhat new type of Ellery Queen mystery, with a faster-paced set up (in Hollywood, where Queen is supposed to be working – and chaffing at inaction). The story revolves around the notorious feud of the picture world – the sensational reconciliation – and a double murder. Queen to the rescue, and by his usual deductive methods he finds the murderer – too late – and spots the brains behind it all. Not too difficult to guess, but good reading. And there is none of the abstract highbrow patter which has begun to bore some of his readers.

Detroit Free Press (23 October 1938): Ellery Queen’s newest, The Four of Hearts, is probably the most amusing put out by that twosome that sign their books with the fancy single signature. The first quarter is turned over to spoofing Hollywood, and while it may not be good mystery it is very amusing satire.

When you get down to the murder, you find it to be a spectacular affair with two oldtime movie stars poisoned in a plane that was to take them on a honeymoon. Their offspring carry on a feud that – you guessed it – ends in LOVE. But not before attempts are made on their lives and some mighty strange people are introduced.

Times Literary Supplement (Maurice Percy Ashley, 18th March 1939): A DETECTIVE IN HOLLYWOOD

There must be many of Ellery Queen’s readers who, however much they may enjoy his latest book, The Four of Hearts, have a slight nostalgia for his early days—the days of Chinese oranges and Greek coffins, of the “dumb” sergeant of the Homicide Squad and of the “Challenge to the Reader”, which used to precede the last chapter.  But it is not fair to blame authors for getting tired of the beaten track—after all, some writers of detective stories cling to it far too long—and Queen’s new adventure is admirably entertaining.  We find him in Hollywood suffering the fate usually associated (more especially in English novels) with highly paid scenario writers—namely, that he is shut in a room with no work to do.  At last, just as his six weeks’ contract is coming up for renewal, he is sent for by the head of the studio, known as the “Boy Wonder”, and invited to collaborate on the scenario of a film dealing with the real lives of four famous film actors, a mother and daughter and a father and son whose feud has long been Hollywood gossip.  The actors are duly induced to sign contracts and indeed soon after the film is announced the father and mother make up the feud and decide to marry.  But when they go off in an aeroplane on their honeymoon they never reach their destination.  The aeroplane is found grounded on a deserted plateau; the pilot has disappeared and the two occupants are dead.  All efforts to trace the pilot fail and Ellery then plans to prevent a further murder and to entrap the murderer.

In the course of The Four of Hearts Ellery himself meets a fate which he has avoided for some dozen novels; he falls in love.  The object of his affections is a Hollywood gossip columnist who, though remarkably beautiful and intelligent, lives in nun-like seclusion and has a crowd phobia which, it seems, on the last page Ellery has overcome.  This lady is the least convincing figure in the story because, while reporting can certainly be done largely by telephone, the establishment of contacts by telephone which enable a gossip writer to “scoop” her competitors is hardly credible.  Apart from this flaw the novel is in every respect a first-class Queen, brilliantly constructed, fairly told, exciting and amusing from the first page to the last.

Observer (William Blunt, 19th March 1939): BLINDED BY LAUGHTER

Mr. Ellery Queen has made a delightful discovery for the benefit of criminals and those who write about them.  If you can make a man shout with laughter you can at that moment put a clue fairly and squarely under his eyes and he will not see it for mirth.  Mr. Queen is his own detective, and this book (easily his best) opens with a picture of him on the last day of a six weeks’ contract as an idea man in a Hollywood Studio preparing indignantly to leave that place before going mad.  For six weeks he has kicked his heels there doing nothing, unable even to get into touch with his employer, one of Hollywood’s Boy Wonders.  The telephone rings, and one of the Boy Wonder’s secretaries, who has discovered Queen’s address next door only by ringing up New York, tells him the Boy Wonder wishes to speak to him.  The Boy Wonder, quite unaware that he has had Mr. Queen sitting for six weeks as one of his staff, offers him what he likes to come to Hollywood.  Queen goes raging to the office, is told that the boss will see him, and asks savagely whether on these occasions one kisses the royal hand or does a deep bow from the waist suffice?  “A kick in the pants would be more like it,” says a rueful voice, and behold, the extremely likeable Boy Wonder standing in the doorway.  There is a gorgeous scene in which Mr. Queen and the Boy Wonder take each other to their hearts, get very drunk, and are put under cold showers by respectful secretaries, and another in which Queen is introduced to the man with whom he is to collaborate on a film that is to show two generations of stars, Montagues and Capulets of Hollywood playing on the screen the drama of their own private lives.  All this is told with such gleeful spirit that the reader does not suspect till the end of the book that he has at the very beginning been given the essential clue to the murder of the middle-aged hero and heroine who, after nearly ruining the prospects of the film by getting married after twenty years of family feud, are poisoned when, for publicity purposes, they are being whisked away in an aeroplane.  Ellery Queen solves the problem by hard reasoning, a clever woman solves it by intuition, and the reader is left with the knowledge that if only he had not been so much amused he could have solved it himself by common sense.

The Guardian (E.R. Punshon, 9 May 1939): In every form of fiction, in every work of art for that matter, a primary difficulty is always that of keeping even the balance of the general composition. In especial the detective novelist must beware lest his main ingredient, the problem, does not play Aaron’s rod and swallow up all those other ingredients that make for a good story. It is a point that Mr. Ellery Queen, with all his skill in puzzle-making, seldom forgets, and in his new novel The Four of Hearts he stages the problem he offers for our solution against the always fascinating background of Hollywood. Two of the best-known Hollywood stars are to be married in reconciliation of an ancient stage vendetta. They begin to get mysterious warnings, they leave for their honeymoon on an aeroplane in the best Hollywood tradition of publicity and “ballyhoo,” and are somehow poisoned in mid-air. There seems no motive, no explanation. The son of one victim, the daughter of the other, agree in their turn to marry; begin, too, to receive mysterious warnings, and thence ensues a strange and exciting climax in the air. The reader, if he is as shrewd and observer and logical a thinker as is Mr. Ellery Queen, can solve the problem equally promptly, but one imagines comparatively few will so succeed. Yet the argument is clear, simple, and logical. Mr. Queen has the great gift of inventing a fantastic, almost impossible, sequence of events and then providing a perfectly reasonable explanation.

5 thoughts on “The Four of Hearts (Ellery Queen)

  1. There is a definite “written for Hollywood” feel to this, and as much as that isn’t my thing, this was the first Ellery Queen book that I actually somewhat enjoyed. Plus, it kind of made the ending all the more surprising because I was excepting a thin solution.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. You can make an argument that Halfway House and The Door Between actually belong to Phase I. Unless I’m misremembering, Halfway House was going to be The Swedish Match Mystery and The Door Between the Japanese… something Mystery. The change of style really kicks in with this one.


    1. Yeah, I think those two are ‘halfway houses’… But The Devil to Pay definitely belongs to Period II. It didn’t make much impression; all I can remember is dead financiers lying next to swimming pools and actresses swanning about with monkeys.


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