Ten Days’ Wonder (Ellery Queen)

  • By Ellery Queen
  • First published: US: Little Brown, 1948; UK: Gollancz, 1948

‘By its light I made out the pattern, the whole, hideous, magnificent pattern. I say “pattern” because there’s grandeur in it, Mr. Van Horn – the grandeur, say, of Satan who was, after all, Lucifer. There’s beauty in the Dark Angel, of a sort; and the Devil can quote Scripture to his purpose. I know. This is gibberish to you. But I’m still not over the apocalyptic awfulness of it.’

‘The Eighth Day’

Ten Days’ Wonder is the ne plus ultra of Ellery Queen’s work; at once colossal and intimate, conceptual and naturalistic, the most mythical and the most human of the Queen novels, it is one of the greatest detective stories ever written.

As in The Murderer is a Fox, a troubled young man comes to Ellery for help. Howard Van Horn, a sculptor, suffers amnesiac blackouts, and comes to days later, sometimes about to commit suicide. He is frightened he might have committed a crime… Wonder begins inside Howard’s head; the ‘mystery’ is understanding the inside of that head, who Howard is, and why he can’t remember. And so Ellery once more returns to Wrightsville – not to solve a murder, but to solve a man.

Ten Days’ Wonder is not a conventional detective story; whodunnit doesn’t even arise. In fact, one of the challenges here is working out what genre Wonder is. We’re a long way from the formal puzzle plots of Period I: the murder is the climax, not the query; and there are only half a dozen characters, including Ellery. Wonder is more like a noir novel: the millionaire, his beautiful wife, and his stepson; adultery, betrayal, blackmail, and theft; the detective called in not to investigate but to protect his clients. It unfolds not as an investigation but as a series of events over a feverish week; some of them criminal, some of them apparently meaningless. It is also a psychological case study, a fantasia on Freud and the Bible, Œdipal if not Thesean.

Wonder may have a seemingly cramped board to play on – no murder until very late, almost no mystery, four characters – but the plot is vast and intricate. Queen propounds two solutions that will stupefy the reader: the first a brilliantly ingenious understanding of the pattern, the second the design behind the pattern. Its sheer magnitude is astonishing; every incident turns out to be part of a subtle, truly diabolical plan. When I first read Wonder at 16, I felt the top of my head had been taken off. It is overwhelming, cosmic, cataclysmic in a way the detective story rarely attains. It illuminates, it dazzles, it blinds in the same instant; it strikes like a divine thunderbolt, hurled in the middle of a tempest whose very fury rattles creation. Imagine King Lear set to music by Mahler, with set designs by Breughel. It is colossal – immense – sublime!

And … Breathe!

But, yes, this is so good all the poor reviewer can do is reach for superlatives. As one early web reviewer said: “It’s mind-blowing.” And God, it’s a hell of a trip, man.

ROT13: Naq Gra Qnlf’ Jbaqre vf Ryyrel Dhrra’f pbasebagngvba jvgu Tbq. Gur zheqrere vf n qrvfgvp zrtnybznavnp, jub qrfgeblf uvf reevat perngvbaf, naq vf qrfgeblrq (qevira gb fhvpvqr) ol gur engvbanyvfg Ryyrel.

Qvrqevpu Ina Ubea vf pbaprvirq va obgu Serhqvna naq eryvtvbhf grezf; ur vf obgu qbzvangvat sngure-vzntr naq qrvgl, Qbzvahf, Qrhf rg Qnqql. Jura Ryyrel svefg zrrgf uvz, Ryyrel vf erzvaqrq bs gur qrzv-tbqf bs zlgubybtl, jvgu gurve “ivprf nf jryy nf gurve iveghrf”, naq bs n sbepr, “cevzr naq hapunatvat”. Uvf nqbcgrq fba jbefuvcf uvz, naq qrcvpgf uvz nf “ybbzvat qrvgvrf bs znyrarff”: Mrhf, Zbfrf, Nqnz. Uvf jvsr yvxraf uvz gb n tbq; fur vf uvf perngvba: “Jungrire V nz, ur funcrq jvgu uvf unaqf.”

Ohg Qvrqevpu vf nyfb gur nohfrq puvyq bs “na vgvarenag rinatryvfg, n shaqnzragnyvfg snangvp jub cernpurq gur naguebcbzbecuvp, crefbanyyl iratrshy, wrnybhf Tbq bs gur Byq Grfgnzrag – jub hfrq gb ‘orng gur uryy bhg bs’ lbh naq lbhe oebgure”. Naq jura uvf jvsr naq fba phpxbyq uvz, Qvrqevpu xvyyf gurz obgu.

“Gur nssebagrq nyy-cbjreshy unq gb niratr gur nssebag gb uvf cbjre; naq ur unq gb ercnve gur vawhel gb uvf rtb ol niratvat jvgu vzchavgl – fubjvat gung ur jnf nobir gur ynj tbireavat beqvanel zra, gung uvf cbjre jnf terngre guna gur cbjre bs ynj.”

Qvrqevpu, gur fhcerzr cflpubybtvfg, znavchyngrf nyy gubfr nebhaq uvz – vapyhqvat Ryyrel. Ryyrel vf zrnag gb ‘fbyir’ gur pnfr, naq npphfr Ubjneq. Ryyrel unf orra znqr uvf pngfcnj, “uvf yvggyr gva-tbq npprffbel orsber, qhevat, naq nsgre gur snpg”, ur ovggreyl gryyf Qvrqevpu.

Jvgu gur cbjre bs ernfba naq ybtvp, Ryyrel rkcybqrf gur zlguf Qvrqevpu unf jnagrq uvz gb oryvrir; ur eroryf ntnvafg orvat znqr Qvrqevpu’f nppbzcyvpr, uvf chccrg. Va n erznexnoyr raqvat, ur pbasebagf Qvrqevpu, naq sbeprf uvz gb fubbg uvzfrys. Ohg Ryyrel unf nyfb ybfg uvf oryvrs va uvzfrys, naq erfbyirf gb tvir hc qrgrpgvba.

“Lbh’ir qrfgeblrq zr. … Ubj pna V rire ntnva cynl yvggyr gva tbq? V pna’g. V jbhyqa’g qner. Vg’f abg va zr, Ze. Ina Ubea, gb tnzoyr jvgu gur yvirf bs uhzna orvatf. … V pna arire gnxr nabgure pnfr.”

Ur ibjf arire gb cynl tbq ntnva – hayvxr gur zheqrere.

Later made into a film by Claude Chabrol, La décade prodigieuse (1971). Slow-burning, and intriguing, although one can’t help but wish Hitchcock had adapted it. Online here. Trailer:

The trailer.

Other blogs:


Blurb

Ellery Queen returns once more to Wrightsville!  And he finds himself trapped in a maze of criminality even more perplexing and bewildering than the cases he handled so expertly and described so brilliantly in Calamity Town and The Murderer is a Fox, his previous Wrightsville investigations.

Howard Van Horn, emerging from a Bowery flophouse in New York, beaten, bloody, robbed, and dazed, goes in desperation to Ellery for help in his tragic and puzzling trouble.  On the magnificent Van Horn estate in Wrightsville Ellery finds Howard’s father, Diedrich, a philanthropist of extraordinary power and insight; Diedrich’s charming young wife, Sally, who came from Low Village; Wolfert, the sinister and unlovely brother who had helped Diedrich acquire his millions; and a mysterious old woman, a centenarian who slips in and out of the case like a figure in a bad dream.

With these people as his new material, Ellery Queen fashions a detectival work of art – the masterpiece of his career and, in a very special sense, its climax.


Contemporary reviews

Kirkus (6 October 1948):

Ellery Queen, sentimentally concerned and mentally nonplussed in his return to Wrightsville, intervenes in the household of majestic, magnate Van Horn, his amnesiac son, Howard, and the much too young girl, Sally, who had come between them. Blackmail, theft, and eventually murder provide full play for his psychiatric insight, deductive intuition, but it is an anagram which returns him to the scene of the crime and the true criminal a year after the case is closed. Enigmatic entertainment which proceeds with a smoothness suspiciously synthetic, but nonetheless masterful.

The Boston Globe (Avis DeVoto, 13 October 1948):

Ellery Queen returns to Wrightsville, in a case garlanded with typical E.Q. extravagances and related with usual E.Q. exhibitionism. Sizzles along, readable as all getout, and plot hinges on, guess what? Anagrams!

Rating: Fantastic

The Philadelphia Inquirer (Richard A. Thornburgh, 7 November 1948):

There is enough material for the most avid Ellery Queen fan in Ten Days’ Wonder, in which Ellery moves with great skill to untangle a serious mess.

Naturally there’s blackmail and romance behind the scenes, but Ellery, after a false start or two, quickly brings light into darkness. You may expect the usual high-class plot, carefully worked out, but also many large words and high-sounding phrases which will befuddle Ellery’s clients and readers alike. Expect a tricky solution handled in the amazingly clever manner which this author’s followers have come to expect.

The Capital Times (August Derleth, 19 November 1948):

Probably no whoduniteer of our time has the following that Ellery Queen possesses: the sales of his books move toward thirty millions, and his radio and magazine audience is incalculable. Ten Days’ Wonder is the first novel featuring Ellery Queen in three years, and, like its predecessors, is at the top of the lists. The story of the trouble in the old Van Horn estate in Wrightsville is typical of the Queen fare, and being typical, it must stand among the year’s best fiction in the field. Murder and horror, terror and the kind of chess puzzle in which followers of Queen take the greatest pleasure are here. Let no whodunnit fan miss these two books, or he will miss several hours of the kind of reading entertainment he enjoys most.

The Observer (Maurice Richardson, 2 January 1949): Ten Days’ Wonder, the new, long-delayed Ellery Queen, is a contorted tour de force. A whodunnit with only two suspects: Father – millionaire with too young wife; Son – sculptor suffering – yes, again – from amnesia. Nevertheless an infinitely ingenious piece of mystification and a safe read.

13 thoughts on “Ten Days’ Wonder (Ellery Queen)

  1. But did you like it?

    As I said in the last post, it has been ages since I read this, but I remember thinking that the authors had some stones to create it. Your write-up, with the allusions to noir, makes perfect sense; this shows the kind of chutzpah that Cornell Woolrich might have had and certainly presages the modern psychological thrillers we see in droves today. But I remember it being so elegant. And, as readers/admirers of Queen know, certain elements became almost the authors’ raison d’être which they would explore again and again for the rest of their career.

    I didn’t read your ROT-13 only because I want the dimness of time to work on me should I re-read it. Can we just gang up on JJ and tell him to skip it? I was disappointed at Ben’s mixed review of Cat of Many Tails – which is the companion piece to TDW and maybe my favorite Queen – and I’d hate to see another dear companion on this journey tear this one apart. Oh well, different minds . . .

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I have a feeling that you and Nick enjoy the psychology element of these stories much more than I do. The psychology killed the ending of Cat of Many Tails, killed the ending of 10 Days’s Wonder (I didn’t enjoy the religious allusion either), and drags down anything I read by Helen McCloy. If anyone is looking for psychology in their GAD, then The Murderer is a Fox, Ten Days’ Wonder, and Cat of Many Tails are exactly where I’d point them.

      And yeah, JJ would hate this, although I’m busy trying to convince him to read The Tragedy of X just so I can savor his review…

      Liked by 2 people

      1. Yeah, but The Tragedy of X is terrible! And just because JJ is a blast to read when he hates something, why subject him to that?

        Cyhf, vg’f nyy nobhg gur Oveyfgbar Tnzovg. V sernxvat UNGR gur Oveyfgbar Tnzovg, naq Dhrra rzcyblf gur Oveyfgbar Tnzovg jnnnnnlll gbb znal gvzrf va uvf pnerre.

        V zhpu cersre gur “zheqrere nf Tbq svther” tnzovg juvpu, juvyr fbzrgvzrf pbzcyrgryl bire gur gbc, vf nyjnlf vagrerfgvat va Dhrra.

        Like

      2. Am I the only person who still thinks Tragedy of X might be brilliant? I loved it when I first read it.

        I also think gur Oveyfgbar Tnzovg is really ingenious, if it pays off. Like, oh… Naq Gura Gurer Jrer Abar!

        Like

      3. I probably am more interested in psychology, although also love Carr and GA puzzle plots. I’m not technically minded, so struggle to visualise gadgety mechanisms (too many cogs and bits of string, like Till Death Do Us Part or some John Rhode).

        You don’t like McCloy?

        Of course, there needs to be a balance. Some of the post-50s mysteries have too much psychology, and not enough plot or detection. Guy Cullingford or Mary Fitt, for instance. And Ruth Rendell is very uneven. Some brilliant books, but also too interested in repellent people and misfits. (Do I really want to spend the next few hours in the head of a serial rapist, or someone with germophobia and hallucinations?)

        Liked by 1 person

    2. Why don’t you reread Ten Days’ Wonder? I’d love to read your insights into it.

      You never know, JJ might love it. (As for Cat of Many Tails, I’m with Ben on that one. But I might enjoy it more second time round.)

      Like

  2. Hey Nick,

    I guess you’ve changed your mind since your last review of this? 😉 I’m actually the same way, though somewhat in reverse: The first time I read Ten Days’ Wonder, I was blown away, flabbergasted. Here’s a twisty, intelligent detective story-cum-thriller (two genres that, contra Carr, are compatible) on the death of God—and so much better written than the “national whatsit” Queens, which I admire but don’t all that much. (Even with The Siamese Twin Mystery, the best of them in my opinion, I figured out the solution early on. Meanwhile, The Tragedy of X is beautifully plotted—really one of the finest puzzle plots I know—and such a chore to read.)

    But when I grabbed it from the shelf a few years ago, I just…didn’t find it as good as I did before. It still has some of Manfred Lee’s best writing—that opening passage (“a darkness that kept shifting like dancers”) pops into my head from time to time—but it has these weird flaws as a puzzle, not the least of which is the paucity of suspects. I know, you’re not starting out with a murder and trying to piece clues together, the clues are coming at you as you read the events unfolding, but if a first-time reader is reading this as a mystery, I bet he’ll figure it out, or at least have suspicions. And knowing what it’s about early on really hurts Ellery’s first solution and all the time spent on it.

    I want to say that Borges’s “Death and the Compass,” which you referenced in your previous review, did this plot concept better in a quarter of the page count, but I’m not sure I really think that (though I love the Borges story). I want to love Ten Days’ Wonder as you do, as I did on first read. Maybe I will the next time I read it.

    Either way, man oh man would it make a great movie. That opening is so visual, and it’s so plot-based, perfect for the movies. Though I like Chabrol, Welles, and Perkins, I couldn’t warm up to La décade prodigieuse, unfortunately. It’s prime for another film adaptation.

    Like

    1. Good to hear from you!

      Third time’s the charm, I’d say. Like you, I was flabbergasted when I first read Ten Days’ Wonder (1999); disappointed when I reread it (2005); loved it this time.

      Admire but don’t enjoy Period I – yes. (And because the puzzle is all, and character interest and style are secondary at best, can these really be reread?) Greek Coffin is astonishingly intricate – but how enjoyable is it? (Of course, reading it on a flight from Colombo to Bangkok to Sydney might not be ideal.) Tragedy of X is, as you say, beautifully plotted, but its density bored me when I reread it. I don’t much like Egyptian Cross either. I have reservations about Siamese Twin’s artificiality – the suspects are isolated and afraid, but the detection relies not on character but on torn playing-cards and left and right-handedness.

      French Powder stood up well; I like the wealth of physical clues and character movements, as well as that famous last sentence reveal. American Gun seemed more focused and cleverer the second time., too.

      Wouldn’t you say some of Carr’s books are detective stories disguised as thrillers? Punch and Judy, Below Suspicion, many of the historicals?

      Liked by 1 person

    2. To Which did you figure out the solution early? I figured out a couple in the national series. And Halfway House as well. Which really is a national book despite what some say.

      Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s