ELLERY QUEEN. The Origin of Evil (1951).

13 Nov

Many years after the fact, a sunken yet imperfectly anchored misdeed floats murderously to the surface of present-day life. On that classic formula, Queen predicates a detective puzzle that’s equal to the best efforts in the Queenian canon—a novel marked by deceptively transparent clueing and by a sequence of twists that fall just barely on the near side of implausible. OriginEvil.jpgOther Queenian motifs are also present: a series of anonymous gifts that have an elusive symbolic import; a Napoleon-like figure whose charisma and power-lust implicitly raise the specter of mid-century authoritarian politics; and repeated allusions to the “origin of evil,” a malign force that lurks in the human heart and that now, amid the prospect of atomic war, casts doubt on the survival of the species. These elements swirl about an equally classic situation that involves the linked dynastic households of Leander Hill and Roger Priam. Those two patriarchs had been partners in a successful Los Angeles jewelry firm, and the tale begins with Hill having recently died of heart failure. Ellery, who has come to Hollywood to work on a novel, gets drawn into investigating whether the cause of Hill’s demise was as natural as it seems.

An atypical and unwelcome element of the book, meanwhile, is its obsessive focus on the sexuality of two major female characters: Lauren Hill, a virginal maiden who enlists Ellery’s help in cracking the mystery of her father’s death, and Delia Priam, an over-the-top temptress who entangles Ellery in family business by other, less noble-seeming means. The two men who wrote as Queen apparently believed that they had to compete with Mickey Spillane, whose patented mix of brute violence and crude sex (with a chaser of misogyny) had helped make him—at that dark moment of American cultural history—the nation’s best-selling writer.


Posted by on November 13, 2013 in American, Noir, Novel, Puzzle


3 responses to “ELLERY QUEEN. The Origin of Evil (1951).

  1. Cavershamragu

    November 14, 2013 at 7:44 AM

    This is a very strange book but I think, as you say, for the most part, an impressive one

    • Mike

      November 14, 2013 at 12:45 PM

      Hi, Sergio. Thanks for checking in here (after a fairly long absence here on my part). Every Queen novel makes for a good read, I believe. Even when it doesn’t offer a good detective puzzle (and, more often than not, it does), a Queen tale stands as an intriguing—and, as you say, occasionally strange—socio-historical document. I’m also a big fan of the big-think existentialist phase that EQ went through in the late 1940s and early 1950s: It’s a phase when every story becomes, in some way, a retelling of the Oedipus myth.

      • Cavershamragu

        November 14, 2013 at 1:01 PM

        No quesion in my mind too, it’s a great series of postwar novels that concludes with ORIGIN


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