Half-Way House by Ellery Queen

Ellery bumps into another old friend, who he hasn’t seen for years. Meeting Ellery must be some sort of curse, as following this, his friend, Bill, goes to a rendez-vous with his brother-in-law. As he approaches the front door in the dark, a woman runs past him and he discovers his brother-in-law dying, stabbed through the chest. His dying words implicate a woman as his killer. But which one?

This is going to be a hard one to review fairly, as it’s constructed in five acts. Most of the plot hinges on the revelation at the end of the first act, but, as this is sixty-plus pages into the book, that’ll be a spoiler. So excuse me if I’m a bit vague at times when reviewing this one.

This is the tenth Ellery Queen novel and the first not to be called The Something Something Mystery, although the foreword does claim that it could be called The Swedish Match Mystery. The “Match” part I understand, but the Swedish bit… maybe I dozed off. It’s quite possible for parts of this book.

There’s a clear change of style that has happened here. There’s more going on in the story than just the mystery, but unfortunately, those bits are fairly obvious. Well written, but obvious all the same. The five acts are basically set-up, investigation, trial, developments and revelations. As you can probably work out, the trial in the middle is for the wrong person, but it does go on a bit with no really advancement in the plot. The authors at times seem more interested in the romance between Bill and one of the suspects and if you’ve read any Golden Age detective fiction, you can see where that is going – The Sittaford Mystery being the only exception that I can think of.

At the end of the day, there’s a cleverly constructed mystery hidden in this book, although the main problem is that it isn’t really that interesting and the murderer is very guessable – after The Chinese Orange Mystery, the writers seem to have adopted Agatha Christie’s other most over-used theme. I should say that one or two of Ellery’s conclusions are a little presumptive as well. Maybe the central characteristic of the victim, which I won’t spoil, was fascinating in 1936, but it isn’t really these days. It hardly measures up to an extra body in a coffin, does it?

So, perfectly enjoyable book, but rather predictable, both in the mystery and non-mystery elements. I can see why I had heard absolutely nothing about it beforehand.

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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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4 Responses to Half-Way House by Ellery Queen

  1. Well, if you want to know more about Swedish Match, see here: http://www.swedishmatch.com/

    These books from Ellery’s middle period were increasingly aimed at sales to slick magazines for serial publication before coming out in book form, so there is less ratiocination and more devoted to potential romance. I agree that the idea behind the HALFWAY HOUSE itself doesn’t seem all that original any more, though you could argue that Doyle had used a variant in one of his more celebrated Holmes story (Holmes, House, geddit?). It might be worth including their excellent novella ‘The Lamp of God’ which came out at around this time and which has a great ‘impossible crime’ scenario in it.

    • “The Lamp of God” will be included when I get round to the short stories, as it’s part of my edition of “The New Adventures of…” I think I might go back to those after the novels – not sure yet.

      Thanks for the heads up on why there was a change of style – it is a little jarring after the previous books, but the mystery is still of the same style at least, even if it’s not as interesting.

  2. Patrick says:

    Another excellent review, Doc! I haven’t read nearly as much EQ as others, but what I have read I’ve enjoyed despite flaws that you have chronicled admirably thus far.

    • Actually, you’ve hit on a point that’s been bothering me recently in that I’ve mostly been pointing out the problems rather than praising the good bits. I’m going to try and concentrate on positive things for my future reviews – note the word “try” in that sentence.

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