Book review

The Finishing Stroke (Ellery Queen)

36a_stroke_smallFor a treat, after I finished reading The Downtown Jews, I read an Ellery Queen mystery.  Hadn’t done that in years; Martin and I always loved them and agree that the early ones, though fiendishly — relentlessly — smart, are nowhere near as interesting as the later stories, where Ellery is a more thoughtful, more merciful, character, less interested in being right than in just knowing — sometimes to his regret.  Ten Days’ Wonder, The Player on the Other Side, And on the Eighth Day, and Double Double are among the darker, deeper stories of this period; so too is The Finishing Stroke, which I just learned (here: was likely intended as the last Ellery Queen mystery by creators and coauthors Frederic Dannay and Manfred Lee.  I read them all years and years ago; but the wonderful thing is that now I can’t remember what I read yesterday, let alone 30 years ago, so these are all there for me to enjoy anew.

This was a fun read, a quick read, a delicious read, the kind of read where you can’t wait til bedtime because you can read and read and read. And then you’re sorry you’re sailing through so quickly because it will be over all the sooner, and you’ll be back to a book that — even if interesting or uplifting or unusual or thought provoking — doesn’t give you the fevered rush of the Truly Good Read.

This, for me, was a Truly Good Read. And as I read, I tried to figure out why it was. One element is the characters. They are, none of them, particularly believable, including, for example, a bitter Schoenberg-influenced Italian composer and a matronly Ouija enthusiast. The supporting characters are generally one-dimensional: Lieutenant Luria is peevish, Valentina Warren is vampish, Olivette Brown is foolish, and so on. The lead characters display a wide-ranging collection of knowledge, interests, and talents that can indicate complexity, but really just makes them enigmatic. This is particularly true of Ellery Queen. Like so many icons — Mickey Mouse comes to mind — his very ubiquity makes him familiar, but when you try to analyze him, to pin down his character, you realize that you are seeing — reflecting — your own values, attitudes, and opinions in — and on — him. What all the characters share, however, is recognizability. A few traits are sketched in, and the reader willingly fills in the rest from the cues given. Which of course allows the mystery writer free rein, because the reader is busy making frequently unconscious assumptions based on what he or she thinks the character can or would do. You accept the characters more or less at face value, and rocket along in the reading. 

The setting is another element. This story is set north of New York City in Rye; because we were just there when we took Sarah to SUNY Purchase, it was fun to read about places we had been — albeit over a century later (the story opens in 1905). Ellery had lived in the Village with the book’s protagonist in the ’20s; that was fun too, trying to visualize Ellery at Bleecker and MacDougal. The author (Ellery Queen books are too smoothly written to ever feel comfortable attributing them to two authors, Dannay and Lee) handles the setting as he does the characters, sketching quickly and with assurance, confident you’ll know what and where he means. And you do. An elegant drawing room; a disordered kitchen; an incongruous summerhouse in the dead of winter. You don’t need much more for your imagination to race on. Moreover, the story is primarily set in 1929, and, because Ellery solves the murder 27 years later, when he, the protagonist, and Dannay and Lee are all 52 years old, the author is looking back reminiscently and has larded the descriptions and dialogues with the fulsome flavor and picuyune details of the era. During one  of the 12 days in which the 12 houseguests are essentially and increasingly grudgingly trapped in the mystery, “The older men maintained a desperate conversation–about Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms…about the Senate committee’s investigation of the sugar lobby and the rumors of sensational revelations; about the modernist movement in art, led by Picasso…about the recently developed ethyl gasoline being advertised; about Pan-American’s overseas flights to the West Indies, Sir James Jeans’s contention in The Universe Around Us that ‘God is a mathematician; the universe was not created for human beings,’…the new IBM calculators…King George V’s illness.” Passages like that are irresistible in their smooth evocation and keen relish of — not times gone by, but — history. And there are sly references to that budding author, Rex Stout, and even to Ellery’s own notices for his debut Roman Hat mystery, published in 1929 (the mystery is very meta).

Which brings us to the plot, which is likely one of the strongest drivers of the Truly Good Read. You gotta know what happens! It’s compelling, baffling, maddening. Ellery is faced with a locked-door mystery with absurd clues, barrels of red herrings, 12 suspects whom you KNOW couldn’t have done this (but one did — didn’t he?). The 52-year span of the story makes for a fascinating framing device: you know the mystery won’t be solved when it occurred, and you know that the key to the mystery (maybe) was in the 1905 episode that opens the book. The clues, hypotheses, explanations, excuses, and rationales fly — building, twisting, interconnecting, but never adding up until the very end. Quite satisfying. (Although the mystery was, as I do remember from my earlier Ellery Queen reading days, way out of my league.  I would never ever have figured it out — challenge to the reader be damned. Talk about obtuse.)

Although about every fourth or fifth page has a longish descriptive paragraph or two, most of the narration is made up of short passages, interspersed with lots of dialogue. This also keeps the book’s pace rapid. Even though all of this, narration and dialogue, is sprinkled with the most erudite words — some of which have fallen out of use (her step-ins lost during a flagpole-sit), many of which were never really used by anybody except Ellery Queen characters (a bullwhip of the sjambok type?) , and some of which I admit I didn’t know (naevus) but just relied on context to carry me through (apparently, some sort of birthmark) — and polysyllabic turns of phrase straight out of a high screwball comedy (“Having observed certain curiosa of incident and behavior, I applied Queen’s Law of the Displacement of Material Bodies, which states that not even a poet can be in two places at the same time…All of this, incidentally, was corroborated by Queen’s Law of the Rising Eyebrow…”) or a hard-boiled noir (“Can’t talk, hm? Just tell me this: Your nose clean?” “Spotless.”), despite this — because of this — the reader is never lost. You are sped through the exposition and suppositions on strong and sturdy language, crisp phrasings, and bracing metaphors. 

And ultimately, this, this, is what makes The Finishing Stroke in particular and the Truly Good Read in general “unputdownable.” The words. It’s well written. Clever. Quick. Tight. Never a clumsy phrasing or awkward passage that makes you look up and go “wha?” or attempt to parse the unparseable. It’s smooth and fluid and of a piece and of a tone. Yes, everybody sounds the same — but what a sound! what vocabulary! what sentence structure!

I am not trying to compare Ellery Queen to Faulkner or Woolf, but I read a lot. And I edit far more than I want to. I edit when I read, which I don’t want to do, ever. But so often the books I read, fiction and nonfiction, seem to have no editor. That’s what makes this Truly Good Read such a treat, a pleasure. I could turn off the critical part of my mind, and just be swept away by snappy dialogue, lucid phrasing, twisty plotting — and Ellery.

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