Years ago I read an Ellery Queen mystery (Ellery Queen being both the name of the detective and the pen name of the authors, Frederic Dannay and Manfred Lee). I don’t remember which one. It was one with a title following the “The [NATIONALITY] [THING] Mystery” template. Probably either The Dutch Shoe Mystery or The Roman Hat Mystery. I didn’t like it. I recall it as a straight puzzle without the sense of humor or shrewd observation of character that make the best mysteries worth reading. Also, Ellery himself was written as one of those piffle-spewing dilettantes who plagued golden age detective novels. The best of these–Albert Campion, say, or Peter Wimsey–quickly toned down the piffle and turned up the three-dimensional characterization. The ones who weren’t are no longer read. Ellery Queen seemed closer to the second group.
Since then I’d heard that a few Queen novels were ghostwritten by Theodore Sturgeon, Avram Davidson, and Jack Vance, from outlines by Dannay. And I recently discovered the Queen novels were available as ebooks, including And on the Eighth Day, secretly by Avram Davidson. It is, as you might expect from Davidson, a weird book. I’m going to have to take another look at the later Queen novels, because if the series could handle And on the Eighth Day it must have gotten a lot more interesting.
(To explain why, I’m going to spoil the whole book. If you want to read it I suggest you bail on the review halfway through.)
And on the Eighth Day was published in 1962 but is set in early 1944 and begins with Ellery taking off for Hollywood to write military propaganda films. After a spell of 12-hour days he breaks down and starts mechanically typing the same few words over and over like Jack Torrance, only instead of “All work and no play make Jack a dull boy” it’s his father’s name. (Ellery is unmarried and lives with his father, which until this scene I did not find weird.) So Ellery heads back east in his car, still addled, and gets lost somewhere in the Nevada desert. But that’s okay, because he wanders into Shangri La.
Ellery finds a green valley in the middle of the desert. In the valley is a town called Quenan founded 70 years earlier by one of those communist utopian communities that 19th century America bred like very earnest rabbits. Quenan is led by the Teacher, a very old man and the son of the colony’s founders. It’s completely isolated from the outside world, aside from the Teacher’s occasional visits to an equally isolated general store; the Quenanites have no idea there’s a war on, or what those flying things that keep passing over their village might be. They’re sure they’re expecting a messiah, though, and because “Ellery Queen” sounds kind of like the more Biblical and/or locally significant “Elroi Quenan” the Teacher thinks Ellery might be The One. Ellery goes along with this, mostly because he spends the whole novel loopy from exhaustion.
What follows resembles one of those science fiction novels like Looking Backward or Herland where an outsider is taken on a tour of the author’s fictional society… which is what And on the Eighth Day is: a utopian novel about a utopian community in the historical sense. It takes over a third of the novel for the actual mystery to show up. Basically, And on the Eighth Day is what you’d get if News From Nowhere starred Philo Vance.
Ellery learns how Quenan gets by in the desert, how it irrigates its crops, what animals it raises; the Teacher explains its government (it’s run by craftspeople) its marriage customs (everybody has to get married by a certain age, and the Teacher gets multiple wives, though he doesn’t seem to be sleeping with anybody) and its religion. Being so long isolated, Quenan has developed a language of its own; it’s governed by a “Crownsil” and worships “the Wor’d” and has been looking for the lost “Book of Mk’h” which the Teacher is pretty sure he found at the general store a few years back. But not entirely sure, because no one in Quenan can read it.
Ellery and the narrative think of Quenan as a simple unspoiled paradise needing protection from the outside world, like a prime directive-insulated planet on Star Trek. (I’m not as convinced as Ellery that Quenan is idyllic: it once imposed the death penalty on a weaver who hoarded some extra cloth; public offices are said to be open to everybody regardless of gender but the Crownsil is in practice overwhelmingly male; and I have to question Ellery’s assumption that being a Teacher’s wife must be a sweet deal.)
Sadly for Quenan Ellery is one of those detectives. The ones who attract crime the way asbestos deposits attract lung disease clusters. The Teacher notices someone’s moved the keys to the forbidden room containing Quenan’s stash of silver coins and the Book of M’Kh. Someone was too dazzled by Ellery’s fancy car and gold watch; for the first time in decades Quenan knows greed. Soon the thief is found with his skull bashed in. Apparently someone confronted the thief and killed him in self-defense. So Ellery gets his fingerprint kit out of the car and sets to work.
Now the story is traveling further into standard detective novel territory, and yet this doesn’t stop it from getting even weirder. The mystery isn’t even very mysterious; both the red-herring suspect and the real killer are the only obvious choices for the roles. It’s like the detective plot took one look at Quenan, threw up its hands, and surrendered to the weirdness.
Ellery observes the crime scene, talks to witnesses, and, in a very long scene, explains to the Crownsil how fingerprints work. The evidence seems to point to the Teacher, and when Ellery presents his case to the Crownsil the old man doesn’t deny the crime. But Ellery isn’t satisfied, possibly because he’s noticed the novel still has a couple of chapters to run. Privately, the Teacher admits he framed himself: the real culprit is his young successor, who Quenan can’t afford to lose. So the next day everyone watches as the Teacher, like Socrates, very calmly drinks poison and lies down to die. Ellery stumbles out of town, dazed. But first he makes sure to steal and burn the Book of Mk’h, because it’s actually a copy of Mein Kampf. And then, as he leaves, a pilot bails out of his crashing plane right outside Quenan. A pilot who happens to look just like the teacher only fifty years younger, and whose name, Manuel Aquinas, sounds kind of like the more Biblical and/or locally significant “Emmanuel Quenan.” Ellery suggests Manuel check out the town.
So what we have here is a book that looks like a detective novel, published as just another entry in a long-running series of detective novels, but written by an eccentric fantasist and only perfunctorily performing the usual detective novel functions. Instead, it’s an allegory about a representative of justice who visits a community of innocents, bringing temptation with him; watches their leader, for the good of the community, sacrifice himself for another’s sin; and ferrets out and destroys the unsuspected evil lurking at the center of paradise, after which the Teacher symbolically rises again to rejoin his people.
The detective novel is, I will admit, a formulaic genre. Every one of them has the detective, the murder, the investigation, and the moment of revelation; readers have seen so many unimportant details revealed as vital clues that we unerringly sense they’re not actually unimportant. Sometimes, though, a formula is freeing. As long as all the elements of a formula–in this case, the detective, the crime, and the revelation–are present and correct, the audience has no reason to complain when the accompanying material is undisciplined or eccentric. The rest of the story can do anything else. Break the fourth wall and drop in the occasional M. R. James pastiche, reveal the entire cast to be undercover detectives… and then there are outliers like Thomas Hanshew’s Hamilton Cleek stories, which read like somebody’s fever dreams. It’s a freedom that not enough mysteries take advantage of, and even those that do usually do so too timidly. But I keep looking, because there are always that few that recognize that a formula is a license to be eccentric, and let loose. Detective novels are like paintings that do their best work in the negative space; it’s not that the subject isn’t important, but it’s everything around it that keeps me coming back.
The Quenanites love apostrophes almost as much as terrible epic fantasy writers. ↩
The Teacher keeps his belongings perfectly symmetrical. It’s too bad Ellery didn’t bring Hercule Poirot; he and the Teacher would have gotten along swell. ↩
Of course Ellery has a fingerprint kit in his car! He’s one of those detectives. ↩
It’s weird that it’s always a murder. It’s not like it would be hard to make an interesting story from a jewel theft or an embezzlement case. ↩
The Murder of Roger Ackroyd may have an unreliable narrator, but I have to admit it doesn’t have much else of interest. ↩