Halfway House (Ellery Queen)

By Ellery Queen

First published: US, Stokes, 1936; UK, Gollancz, 1936

My review

“What is it you suspect, gentlemen—a bomb in my right pocket and a copy of The Daily Worker in my left?”

That’s Ellery Queen talking to the bloated plutocrats, snobbish bluebloods, frigid viragoes, and living corpses who govern New York.

Halfway House (1935) is the most class-conscious Ellery Queen novel so far.  The early books were brilliant fair play detective stories, but their backwards rooms, crucifixions, nude men, Siamese twins, and bearded ladies were hardly realistic depictions of American society.

Here, Queen the writer tackles the class system “in the fifth year of the depression”.  And Queen the sleuth devotes as much time to awakening class consciousness and compassion in the ingénue as he does to solving the murder.

A man with two identities is killed in the “halfway house” in Trenton, New Jersey.  Was he murdered as Joseph Kent Gimball, wealthy New Yorker, or as Joseph Wilson, lower middle class Philadelphian commercial traveller?  Lucy Wilson is arrested for her husband’s murder, and Gimball’s stepdaughter Andrea knows more than she’s telling.

To make her speak, Ellery takes Andrea out of her sheltered upper class world, and shows her how the other half live.

He takes her to a settlement house on Henry Street, the city lodging house, and Clifford Odets’ Waiting for Lefty; gives her William Faulkner’s Pylon to read; and jestingly suggests they visit the Rand School of Social Science, founded by the Socialist Party of America in 1906.

And then he takes her to the jail where Lucy Wilson has been imprisoned.

This is a remarkable scene.  Queen shows Lucy’s numb anguish; the shocked compassion of Andrea, realising for the first time just how harsh life can be; and the callousness of the Amazonian warder.  The closest Queen had come to this grim, naturalistic depiction of misery was in The Tragedy of Y.  That novel was too overblown to convince; the York family, that clan of syphilitics in thrall to a hellish matriarch, owed more to S.S. Van Dine and the Julio-Claudians than contemporary American life.  Here Queen depicts an average American woman in a realistic but unusual situation, and the result is powerful.

“It is not Lucy Wilson who is on trial for her life, it is Society,” writes an energetic woman reporter.

Society, which makes it possible for a man of wealth and position to marry a poor girl of the lower classes in another city under a false name, take ten of the most precious years of her life, and then—when it is too late—decide to tell the truth and confess his hideous sin to her.  Society, which makes it possible for such a man to commit bigamy, to have a poor wife in Philadelphia and a rich one in New York, to spend his time calmly between the two wives and the two cities like a commuter.

Innocent or guilty, Lucy Wilson is the real victim, not the man who lies buried in a Philadelphia cemetery under the name of Joseph Wilson, not the heiress of millions who took his real name of Gimball in vain at St. Andrew’s Cathedral in New York in 1927.  Will Society protect Lucy from itself?  Will Society make amends for the ten years it took from her life?  Will Society see that the crafty forces of wealth and social power do not crush her beneath their cruel heels?

All that keeps the novel from a place in the first rank is the mystery.  Ellery’s explanation is enthralling—but I anticipated most of the solution, including the murderer’s identity and motive, and the significance of the Swedish matches.  It’s lucky for Ellery’s logic that he didn’t meet Terry Pratchett’s Nanny Ogg; seeing her indulge one of her many vices would have seriously dented his beautiful theory.

Blurb (US)

HALFWAY HOUSE, where a strange man finds final rest on his tortured journey through life…HALFWAY HOUSE, where, under the grim shadow of a sensational murder, opposites meet and clash – common peddler and financier, young housewife and cold society woman, struggling lawyer and millionaire debutante…HALFWAY HOUSE, where Ellery Queen, crime consultant to the world-at-large, returns to his old love of pure and pungent deduction in what is unquestionably his most fascinating narrative of real people and subtle violence to date – a modern Tale of Two Cities by the master mystery-teller.

ELLERY QUEEN, after nine consecutive best-sellers, presents a tenth problem more mysterious than “The Chinese Orange Mystery,” more ingenious than “The Siamese Twin Mystery,” more amazing than any crime ever conceived in fiction.  The most original and brilliant mystery novel by the writer who, William Lyons Phelps says, “belongs with Sherlock Holmes, Arsène Lupin and other master-minds.”

Contemporary reviews

New Statesman & Nation (Ralph Partridge, 1st August 1936):


Mr. Ellery Queen has departed from the hitherto uniform nomenclature of his novels (the Dutch Shoe, the Roman Hat, the Spanish Cape, etc.) and calls his tenth and latest detective story Half Way House.  Was it conceivable that one of our most consistent writers intended to change his methods or swop his detective in mid-stream?  Conceivable, yes; but highly improbable that anyone who has amalgamated his personality with his detective and matured his style should suddenly abandon both for any novelty.  The other more likely conclusion was that Mr. Queen intends to write exactly ten more detective stories and then stop; and this guess is confirmed after reading the book, which might easily have been called “The Swedish Match Mystery” had Mr. Queen been so minded, for all the difference between it and its predecessors.  Nevertheless, the art of the detective story, leaving Mr. Queen to reel off his ten more self-appointed laps, may indeed have reached its grand climacteric in July, 1936, with the appearance of [Dennis Wheatley’s] Murder Off Miami.

Half Way House, to which I have already referred, is not as neat as the early Queens.  There is in particular one untidy passage that would be amateurishly cupable if it were not that one finds it had to believe that an old hand would give away his villain so carelessly.  Mr. Queen continues to issue challenges to his readers—not to guess right; because he regards guessing as unfair, but to deduce the criminal by logic.  If you apply your logic not to the details of the crime, which are meagre and yet confusing, but to Mr. Queen’s character, you will reach the correct result by a short cut, although Mr. Queen deliberately gives you a fright before your judgement is confirmed.  I hope Ellery will stop at Half Way House until he is thoroughly refreshed for the rest of the course.

Times Literary Supplement (Sir Claud Schuster, 1st August 1936):

Joseph Kent Kimball lived a double life.  In New York he belonged to the aristocracy and was apparently married to Jessica, formerly Borden.  In Philadelphia he was a peddler of cheap jewellery and married to Lucy Wilson.  At Trenton, New Jersey, rooms in a deserted shack served him as a half-way house where he changed from one personality to another.  There he was found stabbed to death.  Chance brought on the scene Mr. Ellery Queen.  And, as Lucy was accused of the murder, Queen, her brother’s friend, employed himself in elucidating the mystery.  The story has more movement than is usual with Ellery Queen novels, and is so much the better.  His ingenuity will be as convincing as ever to his followers.  There is certainly a puzzle, and we have the usual challenge, three parts through the book, when all the clues have been disclosed.  But it is not wholly satisfactory, for, in spite of the confidence of Queen and his creator, the premises do not lead necessarily to the conclusion, and it is difficult to believe that all concerned would allow themselves to be bullied into the reconstruction scene which furnishes the dénouement.

Spectator (Nicholas Blake, 25th September 1936):

[Like Gladys Mitchell with Dead Men’s Morris] Mr. Queen is another one who does us proud.  Half-Way House is, I think, his best since The Roman Hat Mystery.  His style, which had lately tended to be rather too luscious for our sober English taste, is considerably more restrained; the plot is cunningly developed and apparently most complex, yet all hinges on one small obvious detail which Mr. Queen forces upon your attention time and again with the innocent expression of a poker-player putting across a double bluff.  Joseph Wilson, a commercial traveller, is found murdered in a lonely shack.  It soon becomes evident that he has been leading a double life; both Lucy Wilson and Mrs. Gimball, a New York society woman, claim him for husband.  Lucy, in whose favour Wilson had taken out a large insurance policy, is tried and convicted.  But Mr. Queen finally convinces Andrea—Mrs. Gimball’s attractive daughter—that honesty is the best policy, and with the aid of the information she gives him manages to trap the real murderer in the nick of time.  I would call your attention to the curious assortment of objects found in the same room as the corpse—a burnt cork, the stubs of a number of paper matches, a new writing-set, an empty fountain-pen, the precious stone out of a ring, and a complete absence of mud or tobacco.  These are all important clues; but one of them—or perhaps two in conjunction—will give you the murderer.  Mr. Queen has always been a bit exhibitionist in his final unmasking of the criminal; this time, at least, the convention justifies itself, for it produces a succession of thrills that will cause your spine to tingle pleasurably for a good quarter of an hour afterwards.

Saturday Review of Literature:

A matchless blend of eerie background, crackling action, and good sleuthing.