Friday, March 03, 2017

The Book You Have to Read:
“The Origin of Evil,” by Ellery Queen

(Editor’s note: This is the 146th entry in The Rap Sheet’s continuing series about great but forgotten books. Today’s contribution comes from Seattle, Washington, blogger, screenwriter, and cultural observer Vince Keenan. A self-described “tippling gadabout,” he wrote Down the Hatch: One Man’s One Year Odyssey Through Classic Cocktail Recipes and Lore. With his wife, Rosemarie, Keenan also co-authored last year’s Design for Dying, the Agatha Award-nominated first novel in a series—penned under their joint pseudonym, Renee Patrick—that’s set in Golden Age Hollywood and stars the snooping duo of Lillian Frost, a former aspiring actress, and real-life fashion designer Edith Head. A second Frost/Head mystery, Dangerous to Know, is due out in mid-April from Forge.)

Sometimes a tourist’s eye is needed to take the measure of a place. Especially when that place is Hollywood. The locals tend to be jaded. Consider Raymond Chandler. In The Little Sister, Philip Marlowe says, “I used to like this town … a long time ago,” and he pines for the days when “Los Angeles was just a big dry sunny place with ugly homes and no style, but goodhearted and peaceful.” Ross Macdonald’s local boy made not-so-good, Lew Archer, opines in The Barbarous Coast that “Hollywood started as a meaningless dream, invented for money. But its colors ran, out through the holes in people’s heads, spread across the landscape and solidified. North and south along the coast, east across the desert, across the continent. Now we were stuck with the dream without a meaning. It had become the nightmare that we lived in.”

A visitor’s perspective might be a touch, I don’t know, brighter. As one-half of a pseudonymous mystery-writing duo hailing from New York, but with California dreams, I am naturally drawn to Brooklyn-born cousins Frederic Dannay and Manfred Lee, who wrote under the name and created the character of Ellery Queen.

The Origin of Evil (1951) did not mark Ellery’s first Tinseltown foray in any sense. The mystery novelist turned occasional sleuth had by this point been the focus of a radio series, a TV show, and several films. The character had ventured west to try his hand as a screenwriter in the 1938 books The Devil to Pay and The Four of Hearts.

He returns there in The Origin of Evil, hoping a change of scenery will jump-start his latest project. As the book opens, Ellery sits in his rented digs considering the victim of foul play: “There she lay under a thin blanket of smog, stirring a little, and they said she was dead. Fair Hollywood. Murdered, ran the post-mortem, by Television.” A scribe can ply his trade anywhere, but “his trade being violent death, a city with a knife in its back seemed just the place to take his empty sample cases.” The occasional signs of life and garish make-up don’t fool Ellery. “Theatres with Movies Are Better Than Ever on their marquees had crossbars over their portals saying Closed; you could now get a table at the Brown Derby without waiting more than twenty minutes … and you could throttle a tourist on Hollywood Boulevard between Vine and La Brea any night after 10:30 and feel reasonably secure against interruption.”

Ellery simply wants to work, but then “every time he came to Hollywood something fantastic happened.” This trip will be no exception. His solitude is interrupted by Laurel Hill—“Probably Miss Universe of Pasadena,” he thinks sulkily of his young neighbor’s good looks—with a story he can’t resist. Her father, Leander Hill, died of a massive heart attack after receiving the unwanted gift of a dead dog. Hill’s partner in the jewelry business also received an anonymous warning, but refuses to divulge its nature. Ellery is initially dismissive. After all, “Hollywood was a playful place. People produced practical jokes on the colossal scale. A dead dog was nothing compared with some of the elaborations of record. One he knew of personally involved a racehorse in a bathroom, another the employment for two days of seventy-six extras.” But when a search of the Hill home turns up the note that accompanied the canine’s corpse, one hinting at a great crime committed years ago that has spawned a decades-long thirst for vengeance, Ellery sets his manuscript aside and starts investigating.

Cryptic offerings pile up at the home of Hill’s partner, the wheelchair-bound tyrant Roger Priam, but he angrily rejects Ellery’s offers of assistance. Priam’s family keeps Ellery close, specifically his seductress spouse, Delia, whose charms weaken even Ellery’s resolve, and stepson Crowe Macgowan, currently living as a modern-day jungle man in a tree house in the hills while he awaits the inevitable collapse of society. “I’m the only realist I know,” Crowe claims, and he may not be wrong given that the Korean conflict erupts in the middle of this book.

Dannay and Lee relish the texture of mid-century Los Angeles life. The maverick used-car dealer “Madman” Muntz has taken to the skies over the city, a pin-up girl is crowned “Miss National Casket Week,” and Ellery must remind himself that “in Hollywood dress is a matter of free enterprise … at least one man dressed in nothing but Waikiki trunks may be found poking sullenly among the avocados at any vegetable stand.” The extravagantly extended Priam clan itself is a singular Southland phenomenon; “Hollywood had always attracted its disproportionate quota of variants from the norm,” Dannay and Lee write, enumerating how Roger and his kin could never truly flourish in Seattle or Vandalia, Illinois.

But it is the eventual revelation of the killer’s identity, motive, and strategy that demands the broad canvas only the City of Angels can provide. “The pattern is fantastic,” Ellery declares once he tumbles to the truth, fearing that his L.A. Police Department ally “still suspects what Hollywood calls a weenie,” the term coined by actress and stuntwoman Pearl White (The Perils of Pauline) that prefigured Alfred Hitchcock’s fabled MacGuffin.

The grandiosity of both characters and scheme sent tremors through the Dannay/Lee partnership. By this stage of their collaboration they had become famous for fabulously ornate plots sold through skilled prose; the twists and turns of their undisputed masterwork Cat of Many Tails (1949) have lost none of their diabolical power. In a January 23, 1950, missive collected by Joseph Goodrich in his book Blood Relations: The Selected Letters of Ellery Queen 1947-1950, Lee praises the Origin of Evil denouement presented in Dannay’s outline: “It is a great concept, bold, original, ‘big’—as a mystery idea well deserving the nomination for ‘classic.’” But he frets about filling in the psychology that would shore up this tale’s Byzantine plot, a task compounded by the “exaggerated, distorted picture of Hollywood” painted by the outsize Priams.

Dannay would have none of it. In his January 27, 1950, response, he wrote, “It seems to me that Hollywood is not only the natural place, but perfect place for this story … you underestimate what people outside of Hollywood think or know of the place. Hollywood has not reformed so much in the last ten years that it has completely lost its reputation for being the home to screwballs and crackpots.” Chandler’s characters, he argued, were “uniformly more vicious and, in my opinion, more exaggerated and distorted” than any he’d conjured up. He believed Origin could be “a milestone—not only for us, as a spectacular book, but also in the detective-mystery field itself. It is a staggering conception, and even now, months after the fact so far as I am personally concerned, I am still staggered by it.”

The cousins set aside their differences and produced a book that, if not quite a milestone, remains a marvel. Clues are literally studded everywhere in The Origin of Evil; to cite even one example would spoil the fun. Preposterous and endlessly inventive, it is not a show-business novel but one that could only play out in Hollywood.

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