Double, Double (Ellery Queen)

  • By Ellery Queen
  • First published: US: Little Brown, 1950; UK: Gollancz, 1950. Also published as The Case of the Seven Murders, Pocket Books, 1958.

Rating: 2 out of 5.

First, a disclaimer. This isn’t going to be my best-written blog post; I’m 10 days into a three-week lockdown, and feeling mentally groggy. But it’s also difficult to say much about Double, Double.

Double, Double is the most conventional of the Wrightsville books, and generally considered the weakest, an unsuccessful mixture of the contrived and the realistic. The Town Hermit (a presumed pauper) dies, leaving $4 million to his GP. The Town Millionaire shoots himself because he was really a penniless gambler. And the Town Drunk is pushed off a cliff. What does this have to do with an innocuous children’s rhyme?

Toil and trouble indeed. Ellery goes back to Wrightsville, with diminishing returns. As a straightforward mystery, it feels like a retreat after the experimental works of the 1940s. Calamity Town (1942) put Ellery in small-town America; it is perhaps Queen’s most richly characterized book, and the description of life in a community is superb. The Murderer is a Fox (1945) concerns a murder in the past, PTSD, and some brilliant reasoning, let down by an anticlimactic solution. And Ten Days’ Wonder (1948) was an astonishing combination of psychology, cosmic horror, and intricate plotting.

Double, Double seems half-hearted and unfocused. There are some excellent descriptive passages, but the book doesn’t work. The characters are programmatic, defined by their social function, their labels (“Town …”), not their personality. Interesting characters are introduced, then fade out. Rima the nature-child turns into a Hausfrau. There is a philosophical gardener whose every employer dies; he makes cryptic remarks, but contributes little to the plot.

The detection is vague and meandering; Ellery wanders around Wrightsville talking (the Marple/Maigret approach), before hitting on the pattern. Suspects and clues seem to be deficient; Queen provides nothing like the beautifully detailed investigations of Period I.

You should also spot the murderer very easily. In fact, one of the characters kills another in front of the reader – the next in the rhyme. Manslaughter or murder? Well, this is a detective story…

And the plot…! It’s a purely artificial, fictional solution; it doesn’t sit well with the realism of Wrightsville, but it also feels more fake than (say) There Was an Old Woman or any of the Period I stories. It may explain the odd incidents, but it’s incredible in human terms, unless we assume both victim and murderer – the former a seemingly normal, everyday American – are insane.

ROT13: Gur zheqrere pbzzvgf gjb zheqref gb sevtugra uvf ivpgvz vagb znxvat n jvyy. Gur ivpgvz vf fhcrefvgvbhf; ur oryvrirf gung vs ur znxrf n jvyy, ur jvyy qvr – fb gur zheqrere unf gb pbaivapr uvz gung ur vf qbbzrq gb qvr, fb fubhyq znxr n jvyy.

Gur zheqrere pbaivaprf gur ivpgvz gung uvf qrngu vf cneg bs n frevrf sbyybjvat gur cnggrea bs n puvyqera’f pbhagvat eulzr.

Orpnhfr gur ivpgvz vf fhcrefgvgvbhf, ur oryvrirf va sbeghar-gryyvat. Ur cenpgvprf pnegbznapl; gur zheqrere ‘fnygf’ uvf pneq qrpx jvgu nprf bs fcnqrf (gur qrngu pneq). Gur zheqrere perngrf bzraf bs qrngu: ur yrgf oveqf ybbfr va gur ubhfr, naq znxrf n qbt ubjy va gur avtug.

Do you believe that? Anthony Boucher didn’t. “It seems a perfectly good valid straight novel until you get to the end & discover that the mechanical gimmickry means forced violation of all the psychology of the characters up to that point successfully created. I frankly did not believe a word of the solution or motivation … [and] that has been the reaction of every one I know who’s read it.” (Quoted in Nevins, Ellery Queen: The Art of Detection, 2013)

But it does offer a key to the Wrightsville novels – as I’ll discuss tomorrow. If Wrightsville is Ellery Queen’s spiritual birthplace, one might say this is The Return of the Native…

Other blogs:

Contemporary reviews

The Boston Globe (Avis Devoto, 11 June 1950): What’s to say about E.Q., the Peck’s bad boy of mystery fiction? Wrightsville again, usual hoked-up plot, this time woven around a nursery rhyme, seven corpses, preposterous story, and wait till you meet the bird-girl! Very readable, in a macabre fashion.

Rating: Whew!

Kirkus (15 June 1950): That omniscient onlooker, Ellery Queen, pondering over rather than preventing the succession of murders in Wrightville which pattern a childhood jingle when a rich man, a poor man, a beggar man and a thief are killed- a doctor and a lawyer are the next in line. And it is not until Queen himself – the “chief” – is endangered that the murderer is exposed and a rather meaningless chain of casualties is explained. Not as high an I.Q. for E.Q. this time – but practised.

[Los Angeles] Daily News (Craig Rice, 1 July 1950): If Ellery Queen ever keeps his resolution to stay away from Wrightsville, a lot of mystery writers are going to change their minds about giving-it-all-up and going back to writing advertising copy. But a lot of mystery readers are going to sit around weeping into their broken hearts. Because – Ellery Queen and Wrightsville are an unbeatable combination, like ham and eggs, strawberries and cream, and the Smith Brothers.

This time, there arrives a series of provocative clippings from Wrightsville. The town poor-man dies of natural causes, and turns out to be the town rich man. The town rich man commits suicide, and turns out to be the town poor man. The town beggarman has apparently been pushed off a cliff.

The daughter of the beggarman lands on Ellery Queen’s doors asking for help in finding her father’s murderer. She is desperately – and appropriately – named Rima. By the time she has coaxed Ellery back to Wrightsville, the town thief has been set up as the next victim. And when I confide that all the money involved has been left to the town doctor – if you remember the rhyme, you’ll get the idea.

This is Ellery Queen at his best, with terror and wonder following the story like a cat following a mouse. Don’t miss it.

The Observer (Maurice Richardson, 6 August 1950): Ellery Queen, consulted by a child of nature – named Rima – whose father, a reformed alcoholic, has fallen over a cliff in doubtful circumstances, unearths a whole series of murders in a New England town. There is the usual double-take finish, and I don’t suppose many readers will want their money back. But I am getting a bit sick of murderers who pick their victims according to nursery rhymes, and I think it is time Ellery went back to live with Dad for a bit in the old brownstone house. That boy needs supervision.

Times Literary Supplement (Julian Maclaren-Ross, 22nd September 1950): A new Ellery Queen is always an event for the detective story reader, and the fact that his latest novel is set in Wrightsville should be an added guarantee of enjoyment; it will come as no great surprise to the initiate that Ellery once again falls in love while investigating a series of mysterious crimes, for something in the air of the Calamity Town appears to affect, immediately, the susceptibilities of the detective—otherwise immune (except for some deplorably coy short-story adventures with a female neurotic) from the blandishments of the fair sex.  Ellery, fully restored to mental health since the revelation of the mass-murderer’s identity in Cat of Many Tails, when it seemed a breakdown was imminent, duly unmasks the culprit in what other critics have dubbed a “double-take” finish; it would be a pity, however, if this technical device were to become a permanent feature of the author’s work, since many readers have already come to expect it, and hence to anticipate the final disclosure.

News Chronicle: Leads one breathless, and still guessing, to the double twist at the end.

5 thoughts on “Double, Double (Ellery Queen)

  1. Thanks for the review, and the continuing tour of Wrightsville. Sorry to hear that you are not feeling well. It seems that NF at a reduced mental state is still more readable than many of today’s writers at top capacity!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. It was a great book to read as a kid – when you forget (or don’t quite understand) what Queen was going for, emotion-wise, with the whole Wrightsville saga and focus solely on the puzzle. Ten Days Wonder has a pattern, too, after all, so . . . why not?

    Thus, the second time I read it, I was deeply disappointed. Plus, it steals a major something from an earlier, better book (one you mentioned here). The fact that a later title does the same thing – and, to my way of thinking, much better – casts further demerits upon Double, Double!

    Liked by 1 person

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