ELLERY QUEEN. The King Is Dead (1952).

15 Nov

At one level, this little masterpiece resembles a padded-out short story. Its central problem is highly contrived and very simple: Judah Bendigo, under guard and sealed in a locked room, shoots a gun that is empty of bullets, and at that precise moment his brother Kane suffers a gunshot wound in a completely separate locked and guarded room. KingDead.jpgBallistic tests show that the bullet that struck Kane came from the gun found in Judah’s room. Other characters are few, and clues are fewer still. The solution to this tidy puzzle, once the master sleuth Ellery Queen arrives at it, proves to be lean and elegant.

Yet, at another level, the tale isn’t padded out. It’s intriguingly rounded out—rounded out with big characters and big themes. Kane Bendigo, a munitions magnate of enormous power and wealth, combines the spiritual corruption of Joseph Conrad’s Kurtz (he has retreated to an uncharted island in the Atlantic, and that island has become a dystopia of his own making); the capitalist megalomania of his modern namesake, Charles Foster Kane (from the film Citizen Kane); and the tragic aura of his Biblical namesake, Adam’s son Cain. Judah Bendigo, meanwhile, figures both as an agent of vengeance on a Biblical scale and as the embodiment of liberal humanism in its mid-century fight against fascism. Lurking in the background, moreover, are obscure family dynamics that yield not only to Freudian insight, but also to some hard-nosed detective work on Ellery’s part.

Queen the author balances and blends all of this material with uneven skill. His use of mythic elements, particularly the island setting, creates a mood of fantasy that sometimes works and sometimes doesn’t. Still, the entire effort shows just how far the classic mystery genre can stretch.


Posted by on November 15, 2012 in American, Novel, Puzzle


3 responses to “ELLERY QUEEN. The King Is Dead (1952).

  1. Cavershamragu

    November 16, 2012 at 8:11 AM

    I think this is a pretty fair appraisal – it is clearly a much smaller work when compared with the 4 big books that preceded it (TEN DAY’S WONDER, CAT OF MANY TAILS, DOUBLE DOUBLE and ORIGIN OF EVIL) and perhaps compares less favourably to those as a result but it a fine Queen novel all the same, with an introguing puzzle and interesting philosophical asides to bolster it. I don’t remember the solution to the mystery at all (unusual for me with this author) so I shall certainly dig it out.

  2. Richard

    November 16, 2012 at 9:30 AM

    The description you give early in the review, “highly contrived” is exactly what bothers me about this book and most Ellery Queen novels.

  3. Mike

    November 16, 2012 at 9:57 AM

    Richard: Your point about the contrived nature of most EQ novels is a fair one. I alternate between viewing my enjoyment of puzzle tales by Queen, Carr, and others as a guilty pleasure, on the one hand, and defending such contrivances as part of what Carr called “the Grandest Game in the World.” That said, I’m usually careful about whom I recommend EQ books to—in a way that I’m not careful about recommending, say, a Barbara Vine novel.

    Sergio: Thanks again for chiming in here. My guilty secret (it sits right next to that guilty pleasure) is that I forget puzzle solutions more often than I remember them. You’re right, I think, that “King” has less heft than the novels that precede it in the series. But perhaps because it was one of the first EQ titles that I read as a teenager, I retain a soft soft for it. Indeed, with its outsized characters and its over-the-top scenario, it might be one of those works that appeals more to a teen mind than to an adult one.


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