There Was An Old Woman by Ellery Queen

Ellery Queen is confusing – not only is he the detective in his books, the character is a writer of detective fiction, although in the books he writes, he is not the detective. So Ellery Queen writes about Ellery Queen writing about someone else. And to make matters worse, the original Ellery Queen isn’t really Ellery Queen anyway. And you thought Inception was complicated…

Ellery Queen in fact was the pseudonym of Fred Dannay and Manfred Lee, who also created Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, a monthly publication of crime short stories that has been running now since 1941. Together, they produced over thirty Ellery Queen novels – beware though, as there are a number of additional ghost-written later novels that are not really the genuine article.

There Was An Old Woman dates from 1943 and is the eighteenth Queen novel. I was delighted to discover that the copy I procured recently on Ebay for a couple of quid was a fourth edition from 1949, although, as the cover delightfully points out, it is the CHEAP EDITION. Still, it is endorsed by no less that J.B. Priestley.

Anyway, on to the review. Cornelia Potts is the head of a family of six children, three from her first marriage (all of which are somewhat mentally challenged in typical Queen style – one is obsessed with fairy tales, one with science and one just runs around suing people and challenging them to duels) and three from her second marriage (all apparently sane). The first husband is missing , presumed dead, and there are a couple of hangers-on to the household.

Thurlow (the duel obsessed son) challenges Robert, one of the sane ones, to a duel with pistols. Luckily Ellery is on hand as the fiancé of the youngest child of the family smells a rat, and so they carefully replace both bullets in the guns with blanks without anyone knowing. Hey Presto, what do you know but the duel takes place and Robert lies dead – someone went back and put a real bullet in Thurlow’s gun.

This novel is a classic, or at least, it should be. I imagine some would find the writing style a bit of a chore – Dannay and Lee do like their metaphors and every character makes a point of using twice as many words as necessary. There are even a couple of scenes that are in play script, for goodness sake. However the book is so much fun, this didn’t bother me in the slightest. It gave me the impression that the writers were enjoying themselves when writing it, and that transferred itself magically to the page.

As ever with Dannay and Lee, this is a completely fair-play mystery that will still (probably) completely fool you. There were a couple of points where I thought there was a lapse in logic only for it to be revealed that these were important plot points that only made sense with the final revelations. The explanations make perfect sense, there are more than enough clues to help you spot the murderer and there are more than enough red herrings to distract you.

Good luck finding a copy – Abebooks has a few second hand ones, as does Amazon. Don’t get too excited by the cover of the 1992 reprint though! I suppose the final recommendation has to be that it took me five days to read 160 pages of large-print Water-blue Eyes. It took me a morning to polish off 180 pages of small print Ellery Queen. Couldn’t put it down. Oh, and it just bumped The French Powder Mystery from My Favourite Mysteries list.

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About Puzzle Doctor

I'm a mathematician by nature and as such have always been drawn to the logical side of things. Hence my two main hobbies being classic mysteries and logical puzzling. Oh, and cats. No logic there, I'm afraid.
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16 Responses to There Was An Old Woman by Ellery Queen

  1. Pingback: My Favourite Mysteries – Part One | In Search of the Classic Mystery Novel

  2. Queen’s ultra complex examples of deductive detection are always a delight but I must admit, this is one of their titles from the classic period (ie before Manfred Lee’s writer’s block led to the partly ghosted titles that started to appear from the 1960s along with the paperback originals that don’t actually feature Queen) that I have come back to less frequently but I shall certainly dig it out – I had no idea it was that hard to find a copy. I hope I can find it … Reading the whole thing in one morning however is the kind feat I know I can’t possible accomplish however. Bravo!

  3. puzzledoctor says:

    For some reason I’d got it into my head that this was from after the writer’s block and spent a while not getting it when I saw it available (only £2 on ebay for a 4th edition, so keep looking) – I need to make myself a Queen checklist of the ones that I still need. I’ve got Double, Double, Halfway House, The King is Dead and The Glass Village (no Ellery in that one) unread on my shelf – I need to get my hands on The Dragon’s Teeth, Inspector Queen’s Own Mystery, The Finishing Stroke and The Scarlet Letters.
    I think the thing that appealed to me about this one over other Ellery’s is that a lot of the early ones that I’ve read, I’ve completely forgotten about what happened in them. This one seems more memorable.

  4. In terms of Lee’s involvement, as far as I understand it (and I updated the Wikipedia page accordingly a while ago), and apologies if this is all familar, it became a problem after THE FINISHING STROKE (1958) which was in many ways seen as the last case for Ellery Queen with its references to his first case back in 1929. After that, between 1963 and 1968, Dannay’s plot synopses were fleshed out by the likes of Avdram Davidson and (most notably) Theodore Sturgeon rather than Lee, who however apparently got over his writer’s block to work on FACE TO FACE, COP OUT, THE LAST WOMAN IN HIS LIFE and A FINE AND PRIVATE PLACE – which for sentimental reasons I hope is true becase FACE TO FACE and PRIVATE PLACE seem to me to be the cream of the novels written post 1958, with the exception of Sturgeon’s THE PLAYER ON THE OTHER SIDE, easily the best of the titles Dannay wrote without Lee’s input. Lee was the sole editor of the paperback originals written by the like of Jack Vance and Talmage Powell. The Crippen & Landru publication of THE TRAGEDY OF ERRORS, the Dannay synopsis that Lee didn’t live to work on and which would have followed PRIVATE PLACE, includes the correspondence between Dannay and Lee which while making for sometimes uncomfortable reading as there was clearly a lot of jealousy and acrimony between the two cousins, seems to confirm unequivocally that the two were writing together again by this time.

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  11. Paul Zuckerman says:

    Trying to avoid a spoiler, this book has a surprise reveal on the last page, which really has nothing to do with the mystery and everything to do with other media, when one of the characters is revealed to be someone important to Ellery but not in the novels up to then, or, for that matter, much afterwards. Now, how is that for a cryptic remark? :)

    • You’re right that knowledge of this could be a spoiler. I was aware that a certain character appeared in bizarre fashion for the first time in this story. Knowing who that character was did help me put two and two together as the finale approached.

  12. Noah Stewart says:

    An interesting review, and I was surprised to see your level of enthusiasm for this novel that I think is usually considered one of the lesser ones in the Queen oeuvre. I have to say that I don’t share your enthusiasm, mostly because I have always thought that the level of characterization in this book is very shallow. Simply put, the characters aren’t realistic and a couple of the Potts siblings are very nearly farcical. I admit that the classic puzzle mystery doesn’t benefit from in-depth characterization — in a general sense, it makes the murderer stand out like a sore thumb — but, to my taste, cardboard-flat characterization works better than outright burlesque.
    There is a sidelight to this, though, that I wonder if you had considered. I believe it’s well-known that Dannay/Lee flirted with the idea of becoming full-time Hollywood screenwriters and it’s fairly clear that (a) Hollywood wasn’t all that enthusiastic about their efforts, and (b) some of their novels could be called their Hollywood Period (Four of Hearts, for instance). Given the last line of the novel, and a certain character’s profound involvement in the films that were made about Ellery Queen about at this time, isn’t it worth considering that the over-the-top characterization of, say, Thurlow Potts was because Dannay/Lee were trying to create a character for film, rather than print? It’s just always seemed to me that There Was An Old Woman would have made a much better film than a novel, because a talented character actor would have been able to bring Thurlow Potts to life and given him humanity and depth. But, probably because Hollywood wasn’t as fond of Queen as Dannay/Lee were of the possibilities of Hollywood success, the screenplay, or even its synopsis, didn’t sell and the authors converted it into a less-successful novel.
    I should add that Dannay/Lee were quite capable of creating realistic characters in a novel about an eccentric family headed by a nasty-minded matriarch who controlled the purse strings. They did so quite ably in The Tragedy of Y, and there are strange similarities between the two novels. The difference to me is that I enjoyed the realistic family much more than the farcical one.
    My own favourite Queen puzzle mystery, and one to which I would recommend you, is Halfway House (originally to be called, as I understand it, The Swedish Match Mystery). Just enough characterization to be interesting without taking away from the need to have all characters equal in depth — and a flatness in background that doesn’t distract from the puzzle itself, as happens later in, say, The Murderer Is A Fox or others of the Wrightsville novels, which are rich, realistic and as a result less than puzzling mysteries.

    I will continue to look for new offerings from this extremely interesting blog — thanks for your time and efforts!!!

    • Thanks for the kind words. One of the reasons that I enjoyed this one so much is that it seemed to be almost a throwback to the early books. Yes, the characterisation is all caricature, but that didn’t bother me as I enjoyed the plot. Halfway House on the other hand, I found rather dull – a straughtforward mystery and dull – if realistic – characters.

      I freely admit that my EQ tastes aren’t quite the norm – for example, I really don’t like Cat of Many Tails as an EQ book, which is probably because the first nine books that I read and fell in love with (apart from the nonsense in The American Gun Mystery) were the first nine books, where the puzzle was everything. But what would the world be like if everyone liked the same thing?

      Thanks for the prompt – must get round to The Four of Hearts soon…

  13. Pingback: Calamity Town by Ellery Queen | In Search of the Classic Mystery Novel

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