Wrightsville and Wessex: Was Ellery Queen a Thomas Hardy fan?

Double, Double might be contrived as all hell, but it’s also the clue to the Wrightsville books. The characters are obsessed with Thomas Hardy, the regional novelist (1840–1928), known for such light-hearted romps as Jude the Obscure, Far from the Madding Crowd, and Tess of the d’Urbervilles.

One of the victims changes his name to Thomas Hardy. A teacher was “was heard to murmur something Hardyesque about the Greek unities” (Thursday, June 8). And Ellery invokes Hardy when he explains the murderer’s predicament. (There may be more references.)

In Ten Days’ Wonder, Ellery’s again thinking in Hardyesque terms. “What held you up,” he tells the murderer, “was your realization that the more complex a crime-plan is, the more dangerous for the planner. Every added complication increases the chances for slips, loopholes, unforeseeable accidents of what Thomas Hardy called ‘happen-stance’.”

(I haven’t found / wasn’t looking for Hardy references in Calamity Town or The Murderer is a Fox.)

Obviously, then, Hardy is significant. I’ll confess that I’ve read barely any Hardy (only Jude the Obscure), but let’s see what links we can establish, however cursorily. (Fans of both Hardy and Queen would do better than I can, but this is only a rough sketch; if anyone wants to take it further, please do!)

WARNING: The section below discusses important plot elements of the Wrightsville books; do not continue if you have not read them.

Thomas Hardy, by William Strang, 1893

Themes

Hardy, states Dr. Andrzej Diniejko (Thomas Hardy’s Philosophical Outlook), was “a determinist who was aware that man’s life is controlled by some inexplicable eternal force, which he sometimes calls the Fate of Circumstances, the President of Immortals, or the Immanent Will”. “He developed, it seemed to early critics, a pessimistic view of life, where fate or chance is responsible for human misery.”

The detective story is normally a rational genre; both detective and murderer are free agents; but characters in the Wrightsville books are caught up in fate and chance, and controlled by external forces (whether manipulative murderers or their own schemes). In Ten Days’ Wonder, it is, of course, Diedrich van Horn, who assumes the place of God the Father. Howard, “unmanipulated, of his free will”, broke two of the Commandments “as a free uninfluenced agent, the other seven [were] imposed by [the murderer]” (‘The Tenth Day’). In Double, Double, Ellery states, the murderer manipulates events, but finds events manipulating him; his pattern insists on completing itself.

“There are times when nature, fiddled with, cracks down with a sort of cynical intelligence. Determinism seems proved and fate seems to work in a dark humor. What Hardy called satires of circumstance. Certainly [the murderer] must have found himself in the grip of a force he didn’t grasp. He had brought a certain pattern of events into being. When he tried to stop, by a tremendous irony he found he couldn’t.

“Where does coincidence end and the force of circumstances begin? It’s a fine point. In the last analysis there may be no such thing as coincidence. At least it wasn’t coincidence that kept [the murderer’s] pattern going. It couldn’t have been. It was too implacably right.”

Tuesday, June 13

For Hardy, Diniejko continues,

Chance, a blind force of Nature, can change man’s destiny. Chance is for Hardy everything for which man has no control. Man’s will is not nullified by chance completely, but man’s will cannot overcome chance, either, since chance is the Immanent Will of the universe. Tragedy occurs when the will of man clashes with chance. This clash is not caused by a conscious design. Hardy claimed that chance is neither sinister nor good. It is an indifferent force of the universe. He depicted a chance-filled world in which men and women become its tragic victims. For Hardy chance determines life which renders it futile; the universe is a rigid mechanism which has no understanding or pity for people’s suffering.

‘In place of God there is the Immanent Will, and this unthinking force is sure to inflict pain on a man until he is lucky enough to die.’

J. Hillis Miller

Examples: Jim Haight and Howard van Horn.

In Calamity Town, Nora discovers the letters because of “coincidence, or fate, or just rotten luck”, and Ellery fails to solve the mystery until four months after the murder because of “Fate” (Ch. 27).

In The Murderer is a Fox, of course, the ‘crime’ is an accident – Fate at work again. “In one sense, Bayard, pure chance murdered your wife.”

In Ten Days’ Wonder, Ellery muses that if he were superstitious, he’d say his return to Wrightsville was Fate.

Strangely enough, in each of the previous Wrightsville investigations, circumstances had nudged him into the same unsatisfying speculations. He wondered, as he had wondered before, if there might not be a pattern in all this, a pattern too large to be discerned by the human eye.

The First Day

Howard tries to blame his amorous encounter in the lodge on Fate. “Not Fate, Howard,” Ellery thinks.

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