The Devil To Pay by Ellery Queen

And after what seems like an age, although it’s only actually a couple of months, we return to Ellery Queen, and we’re off to Hollywood!

Well, to be precise, the vicinity of Hollywood – Ellery has been dragged to the west coast to write a screenplay and, while trying to arrange a meeting with his producer, decides to stick his nose into the murder of Solly Spaeth. Spaeth is a businessman whose recent deal has ruined a lot of people, including his friend and neighbour Rhys Jardin, and who isn’t happy with the fact that his son, Walter, and Jardin’s daughter, Val, are conducting one of those typical-of-the-era detective story romances. When Spaeth is found stabbed by a sword in his bedroom, suspicion seems to ricochet back and forth between Walter and Rhys. It’s up to Ellery, going undercover as a reporter, to get to the truth.

The last couple of books in the series were a bit of a drop in form, in my opinion. Would this one raise the quality again?

Well, I think it’s better than the last two, as the mystery is much better clued, and annoying as the romance is – I love you, I hate you, etc – it’s nowhere near as annoying as the character of Eva in The Door Between. It’s another of these five act stories, in other words, it was written for a magazine – a woman’s magazine, if I understand correctly, hence the “romance” element, and the first couple of acts are a little flat, mainly because Ellery’s hardly in them. When he does show up, complete with beard, he’s more charming than ever – compare him to the character in the early stories and you’d think it’s someone else. But once he does get involved in the action, it rattles along quite nicely.

The murderer is a bit underwhelming – there’s a number of clues indicating the character, but at the end of the day, the clever bit of the plot is… well, it seems a bit wasted on the story. There is something interesting here, but somehow the presentation seemed to let it down. There is a mild similarity, plot-wise, with The Door Between – and saying that, if the problem hadn’t occurred, surely the actual murderer would have been caught very easily by anyone with half a brain.

Still, it’s a step up, so let’s hope the quality continues to improve. Cautiously recommended.

Oh, one last thing. You meet an old school friend who has now grown a beard. The next day, you meet him and he’s shaved the beard off and brushed his hair a bit different. I think you’d still recognise him straight away, don’t you? That’s not a spoiler, by the way, just a quick pop at “Undercover Ellery”.

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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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13 Responses to The Devil To Pay by Ellery Queen

  1. TomCat says:

    The only thing I remember from the Hollywood and Wrightsville novels is that I despised them. I was not a fan of the more character-driven approach taken in these novels, preferring the complexity and bizarreness of the New York-based stories, but I wonder how I would perceive them today – now that I possess that small pinch of maturity.

    By the way, will you be reviewing any of the episodes from the wonderful Ellery Queen TV series?

    • Well, I’d have to find a copy of it. Not really a “watching videos on the computer” sort of person – maybe if it’s on Youtube, I can stream it via my PS3, if the quality’s good enough. I’ll have a hunt around.

      As for the book, it’s the first of the Hollywood/Wrightsville ones and I did find it an improvement on Half-way House and The Door Between but so far, the only post-“The Something Something Mystery” that has stood out is There Was An Old Woman, which I loved. Still, I’ll persevere. I don’t recall The Four of Hearts being that bad and I haven’t read The Dragon’s Teeth before…

      Still bracing myself for the inevitable Cat of Nine Tails backlash, but maybe I’ll like it this time…

    • The 1975-76 TV series starring Jim Hutton and produced by COLUMBO creators Richard Levinson and William Link is great fun and a very affectionate tribute to the Ellery Queen stories, especially the radio version of the character. It is available in separate editions on DVD from the US and from Australia – I would recommend the latter as it includes the alternate titles for the pilot (which regularly shows up on Channel 5 in the UK) and includes, exclusively, the stab at CAT OF MANY MANY TAILS starring Peter Lawford, which is pretty daft (Levinson & Link had worked on that too but ultimately took their names on it when it got rewritten) but is certainly worth a look. in a recent episode of LEVERAGE, Timothy Hutton, Jim Hutton’s son, went to a fancy dress party as ‘Ellery’, wearing an outfit based on the one used by his Dad in the 1970s show, which I thought was really sweet.

  2. I didn’t think the 1950s Ellery in Hollywood was anywhere near as charming as the earlier Ellery but I read only 1 or 2 so can’t speak with authority.

    And, hmm…., yes I think I recognize said friend.

    • I think the character is written as being charming as no-one, apart from his dad or whoever is standing in for him seem to be the only people who find him irritating in these books. However, I agree, I find the obnoxious early Ellery much more fun to read about.

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  4. Ho-Ling says:

    This was the first ‘real’ Queen I ever read (the first being A Study in Terror), followed by the rest of the Hollywood novels so my early experience with Queen were rather skewed, but my opinion on the book has not changed. I still consider The Devil To Pay as my least favorite Hollywood!Ellery novel, as it feels the most different from the Classic!Ellery novels (which I like the best). The romance subplot was not interesting, compared to other novels,the puzzle plot had been simplified to the extreme… and I just didn’t like the characters. Which is something I often have with the Hollywood/Wrightsville!Ellery stories.

    • Completely agree about the characters. When the murderer is revealed, I just shrugged and thought, “So what?”. Didn’t care about them at all. Although the puzzle is much more simplified than in other books, at least it doesn’t require the sort of nonsense that The Door Between needed in order to even make it a puzzle. For that reason, this stands above that book for me, but I know that better things are to come.

  5. Patrick says:

    Well, if this keeps going, I won’t even read my Vintage Mystery Reading Challenge books– everyone is beating me to my own picks!

    A good review, though I admit your review of WORLD’S GREATEST SLEUTH was a bit more enticing…

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