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ELLERY QUEEN. Cat of Many Tails (1949).

13 Mar

This foray into the realm of serial murder stands out for being a departure for an author who typically focused on less anonymous forms of killing. In a postwar New York that feels grittier and more prosaic than the stylized metropolis of the early Queen books, a series of people are found slain by the same method—strangulation with a cord of Indian tussah silk—over the span of just a few weeks. CatManyTails.jpgNo apparent link exists between one victim and another, and the dead hail from every corner of Manhattan and from every rank in society. Tabloid newspapers, eager to exploit popular fear, dub the murderer “the Cat” and liken each victim to a cat’s tail; the escalating number of figurative feline appendages yields a sinister image that captures and discombobulates the collective mind of the city. Gotham authorities enlist Ellery Queen to apprehend the killer and to quell the frenzy, and he succeeds on both fronts, but not before the Cat has grown its ninth tail.

For both Queen the detective and Queen the author, serial murder poses an all-too-obvious challenge: Where motive appear to be absent, as it does here, everyone is a suspect. Or no one is. The author handles that problem ably, in part by deploying well-disguised clues that ultimately point to the motive and hence the identity of the Cat. Equally important, Queen in this outing tilts the narrative emphasis away from the genteel matching of wits between reader and detective—the hallmark of most earlier tales in the Queen cycle—and toward the careful depiction of a world shadowed by the specter of total war. (It’s intriguing to pair this work with another that appeared in the same era: “Here Is New York,” E.B. White’s famous ode to the city. As Queen does in this novel, White celebrates New York in all its quotidian glory, but an acute sense of dread colors his otherwise loving portrait of the place and its people.) Like others who had lived through the 1940s, the men who wrote the Queen books reached the end of that decade with a diminished faith in human rationality. One result of that change of perspective, not just in their work but across the entire genre, was a move toward telling stories in which the mechanics of crime and crime-solving give way to the dynamics of mental and social chaos.

 
3 Comments

Posted by on March 13, 2014 in American, Noir, Novel, Puzzle

 

3 responses to “ELLERY QUEEN. Cat of Many Tails (1949).

  1. John

    March 13, 2014 at 10:50 AM

    This book had a profund effect on me when I read it as a kid. As you hint at above the book has elements of a true horror novel. Such a landmark book in detective ficiton, too. Criminally underappreciated for the groundwork it lays for all future serial killer novels, including the one that everyone thinks started it all Harris’ THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS (or his earlier RED DRAGON depending on who you talk to). The imaginative work done in profiling the murderer is impressive. Only a few other writers (I immediately think of Philip MacDonald and Charles Dutton) even come close to what Dannay and Lee did in this book..

     
  2. Steve Oerkfitz

    March 14, 2014 at 6:08 AM

    Liked it as a kid. Unfortunately I didn’t like it so much when I reread it last year. Some very bad dialogue . And a ending that I didn’t find very satisfying.

     
  3. Mike

    March 15, 2014 at 5:45 PM

    Thanks to you both, John and Steve, for your comments. It’s been quite a while since I read this book, actually, but I’m sure that Steven is right about the dialogue. That was never a strong suit of Queen’s, to say the least. Like John, though, I was otherwise very impressed by “Cat of Many Tails”—even though I read it after having seen the corny, clunky made-for-TV version of the story: Although I knew the ending, the book still packed a wallop for me.

     

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