A Fine and Private Place (Ellery Queen)

  • By Ellery Queen
  • First published: US: World, 1971; UK: Gollancz, 1971

Rating: 1 out of 5.

Number nine, number nine, number nine…

The Beatles, “Revolution 9”

Our run of nine Ellery Queen reviews comes to an end with the final Ellery Queen novel, in which a nine-obsessed millionaire named Nino, born on 9 September 1899, is murdered at 9.09pm with nine blows from a cast-iron abstraction in the shape of a nine.

But we’re not on cloud nine. The tone is acidic, and it leaves an unpleasant, bilious aftertaste. This is almost a New Wave detective story, and certainly unthinkable before 1963. It’s a work of decadence; stylishly written, but ill at ease in the Swinging Sixties, and contributing nothing new.

The tycoon Nino Importuna is compared to an ageing, wicked Fellini. Perhaps that’s one approach to the book. AFAPP is almost as gaudy and grotesque as Satyricon. The characters are a nine-fingered tycoon, squat and impotent; his trophy wife; his virile secretary (who bangs the wife on his boss’s desk); and her corrupt pimp of a father. They feel as remote and alienating as the ultra-rich setting is artificial and the plot is contrived. There are flamboyant, incongruous juxtapositions between 19th century Victorian rooms and gleaming white cubical rooms containing pop art and raw, clashing colors. There is a repellent motif of the murder scheme as the gestation of a foetus.

It’s an Andy Warhol reproduction of a detective story. The clues are old-fashioned: the distinctive button, the footprint in cigar ash, left-handedness – “The kind you mystery writers wouldn’t be caught dead putting in one of your stories in this day and age,” Inspector Queen tells Ellery. (When you have nothing to say, go post-modern.) Queenian motifs recur: messages in playing-cards (again); the false, humiliating solution; the manipulator who, with all his faults, loves his Queen, and plans the crime to please and mislead the sleuth. Queen even ends with a variation on the final sentence in The French Powder Mystery.

The murderer scarcely appears. A phantom pregnancy, perhaps. X is characterless, enigmatic, and there is only one slender clue to the murderer. It is technically fair, perhaps, but unsatisfactory. Queen attributes one idea – camouflaging the crime in a forest of nines – to G.K. Chesterton’s “Sign of the Broken Sword”. Not Marvellous.

Contemporary reviews

Kirkus (1 April 1971): It’s all in the family this time, that of the Importunatos headed by Nino, as revulsive as he is rich and insisting on marrying the daughter of his elegant, embezzling aide. An heir, not his, is on the way but never reaches term before Nino reaches his and the Queens officiate at the solution, using all kinds of configurations of the talisman number 9. The combination as before, part oleo, part brio.

The San Francisco Examiner (Lenore Glen Offord, 13 June 1971): An unpleasant New York millionaire, obsessed with superstitions about the number 9, has a young wife who can’t stand him. Murders occur around him, and Insp. Richard Queen and Ellery at once notice the 9’s; but just how do they fit in, when the clues don’t add up correctly? All highly stylized in treatment, as in the classic Queen cases, and certainly with a beautifully twisted plot.

The Guardian (Matthew Coady, 25 November 1971): The bizarre, elaborately constructed puzzle novel belongs to crime fiction’s past. Its effect is that which the children’s party conjurer has on the watching adult. It demands a special sort of make-believe. One is no longer astounded when the rabbit comes out of the hat.

A Fine and Private Place by Ellery Queen is rooted in this tradition. Violent death visits three American tycoons. One of them has a numerical obsession. Behind him is a lifetime insanely conducted in terms of the figure nine. This fact dominates both puzzle and book to an extent which pushes both to the edge of parody. There is no lack of ingenuity, but it is the kind which is more effective in the short story where the trick is all. Nor is there any shortage of that jocose encyclopaedism which characterises so many Queen exploits. The surprises are in the unravelling process. The denouement may be in the last line but addicts should spot the murderer long before.

The Observer (Maurice Richardson, 28 November 1971): Elderly Italian tycoon, obsessed with the number nine, also revoltingly perverted – just how I can’t quite make out – buys beautiful daughter of crooked gambling ne’er-do-well. Later he and his brothers are slaughtered. Ellery Queen, having been hyper-ingeniously led up the garden, reaches a solution at the last word. Nearest approach to his original form for some time.

Evening Standard (Andrew Hope, 30 November 1971): There is much straining of credulity in this new Queen thriller (a rich man with two brothers dead doesn’t yell for his solicitor and carries cash and credit cards), some inept dialogue (“Oh, by the way, my dear,” says the billionaire to his beautiful wife, “there’s been no opportunity to notify you. Marco just committed suicide”) which suggests that the high standard is drooping. But the plotting is still cerebrally brilliant.

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