Tag Archives: Avram Davidson

Ellery Queen, And on the Eighth Day

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.)

Cover of And on the Eighth Day

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”[1] 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[2] 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[3] 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[4], 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.[5] 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.

  1. The Quenanites love apostrophes almost as much as terrible epic fantasy writers.  ↩

  2. 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.  ↩

  3. Of course Ellery has a fingerprint kit in his car! He’s one of those detectives.  ↩

  4. 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.  ↩

  5. The Murder of Roger Ackroyd may have an unreliable narrator, but I have to admit it doesn’t have much else of interest.  ↩

Recent Reading

I have several half-finished book reviews sitting on my hard drive, all of books I liked quite a bit. They’re unfinished partly because my attention span for writing hasn’t been great, but mostly because of impostor syndrome: I’m having a hard time convincing myself these potential posts say anything intelligent or interesting. Since I ought to be getting some practice in, I’ve written a few paragraphs on books about which I have much less to say:

Agatha Christie, Appointment With Death and Murder in Mesopotamia

Christie’s second husband was an archaeologist and she often accompanied him on digs. Occasionally she worked her archaeological experience into her novels by sending Hercule Poirot off to stumble on murders in random middle eastern countries. She didn’t use nearly enough of her experience for my taste–for all that she knew her stuff, the settings of these novels read like a generic archaeological dig and foreign tourist site and could have been set anywhere in the world.

Trevor Baxendale, Fear of the Dark

This Doctor Who tie-in novel was first published in the years before the current series began. At the time BBC Books published one or two Doctor Who novels every month. I skipped this one at the time because Trevor Baxendale’s novels were always terrible. This one is a short story’s worth of secondhand ideas padded out to a 300 page novel. Here we have all the laziest clichés of late 1990s-early 2000s Doctor Who: Grimdark cynicism. Corporate space marines. Incessant deaths (all so grotesque I’m surprised the BBC republished this book in this more family-friendly era). An alien planet in the far future inhabited by people who talk and think like they’re from 20th century London (and who include, between a starship crew and a mining expedition, exactly one woman). A half-assed monster that is literally called “The Dark” and does evil things because it’s evil.

There used to be a Doctor Who novel just like this almost every month. So much nostalgia. I almost enjoyed it.

Various authors, “Time Trips”

The BBC has been releasing Doctor Who novellas as ebooks under the name “Time Trips.” They’re all very weird.

“Into the Nowhere” is about a planet of traps and walking skeletons controlled by a grotesque nerd caricature who turns out to be guarding all the knowledge in the universe, man, which manifests as the tree from the Garden of Eden because it pulled the image from Clara’s mind. The Doctor, while bleeding from his palms, tells Clara not to eat the metaphorical apple because “the entropic chronicle of perpetuity” would depress her.

“The Death Pit” is a fourth Doctor adventure on a golf course with a deadly alien sand trap. It’s perhaps trying just a little too hard to be Douglas Adams, but it’s charming and at times genuinely funny.

“Keeping Up With the Joneses” is about a sentient time war weapon that turns the interior of the TARDIS into a temporally indeterminate English village with occasional giant monsters. The strangest thing in the book is that the owner of the bed and breakfast is patterned after Lady Christina from “Planet of the Dead,” for all the world as though the Doctor might have had her on his mind. Or even remembered her at all. (When I wrote this review for a post on a mailing list I had to Google the episode to remember her name.)

These novellas are the product of writers who are doing their own thing rather than delivering a “standard” Doctor Who story. That’s fine by me regardless of the quality of the results (not that these three are bad). We have all the standardized, formulaic Doctor Who stories we need at this point.

Avram Davidson, Masters of the Maze

Like a lot of SF, this is the story of a young man discovering he has a hidden destiny and saving the world from an alien invasion. Because Avram Davidson wrote it, it is much better than that description makes it sound. Also much weirder. There’s an other-dimensional maze that runs all across space and time. At the center the hero has a philosophical discussion with Lao-Tze, Apollonius of Tyana, and Benjamin Bathurst. A villainous John Birch Society-type teams up with the aliens to take over the United States, cut taxes, destroy the welfare state, and outlaw milk pasteurization; he has the idea that he might then use them as contract labor to keep wages down. We get chapters from the point of view of the aliens themselves, humanoids who live and think like hive insects. Plus Ambrose Bierce turns up. It’s all as well written as you’d expect from Davidson. The most significant flaw is a lack of important female characters, but that’s sadly common with older SF.

David Edison, The Waking Engine

Portal fantasies have been out of style for a while but I’ve seen a few new ones lately. This is one of them, as well as an afterlife fantasy–the idea is that when you die you’re serially reborn on a series of China Miévillesque worlds until you finally reach the place that offers True Death.

I found this novel paradoxically both too weird and not weird enough. Too weird because the afterlife world seems like a collection of grotesque and baroque images that give very little idea of how people in this world would actually live their day-to-day lives. Not weird enough because the hero is almost as bland as an everyman can get. It was several chapters before I even had an idea of what he looked like, or what he was wearing. (The book described him lying down after work and waking up dead; I assumed he was wearing a suit and had to rapidly readjust my assumptions when the book mentioned a heavy metal t-shirt.)

The Waking Engine also suffers from a problem common to afterlife SF, the temptation to pack the story full of celebrity guest stars–here we get Richard Nixon, Cleopatra and Walt Whitman, with a cameo by Kurt Cobain. The end leaves plenty of plot threads hanging, so I’m sensing yet another series; I’m not sure whether I’ll try the next one.

Ruth Ozeki, A Tale for the Time Being

Like Masters of the Maze this is really good, but not in a way that inspired me to try writing a full review. I read it a few months ago and at the time I was finding most novels hard to get into, but this one eventually built momentum and I finished the last hundred pages in an evening. It’s a discursive, essayistic novel, which is something that’s appealed to me lately.

It’s published as mainstream but is arguably SF in that it plays with scientific concepts in support of a sort of magic realist narrative, and would probably have been a better Hugo award candidate than most of what ended up on the ballot.