Queen and Commoners

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

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.