Face To Face by Ellery Queen

Face To FaceRoberta West has a problem. A while ago, she fell for the lothario “Count” Armando, a man currently wed to the chanteuse Glory Guild. He proposed that Glory needed to be killed for their future happiness, but, as he would be the prime suspect, he would arrange a cast-iron alibi for himself while Roberta did the deed. She refused and had nothing more to do with him…

… until a few nights previously, when he appeared on her doorstep and proceeded to spend the next two hours in her company for no particular reason. No reason, that is, until Roberta discovers that Glory has been murdered – and she has given Armando a perfect alibi.

This is the story that Ellery Queen is told on his return to New York and he, and his Scottish chum, Harry Burke, are determined to prove Armando’s guilt. But is he guilty? And if so, who was the woman he coerced into committing the crime this time?

Back to Ellery, and yes, I’ve jumped out of sequence again to partake in the Past Offences 1967 Book Challenge. This is the first book in a long time (apparently – there are better informed people out there) that the classic Ellery Queen duo of Dannay & Lee wrote together – the first since, I think, The Finishing Stroke, nine years previous. And it’s a return to the style, in part, of the earlier books, with a genuine puzzle plot instead of the “human drama with a twist” prevalent in the Wrightsville books.

Well, I think that’s what they’re going for here, at least.

There are a couple of immediate things that strike me, though. First off, in the Wrightsville books, Dannay & Lee seemed to be able to write people as if they were actually human beings – well, some characters at least. Here, everyone seemed to be a little off. Not exactly caricatures, but not really feeling like real people. One central character has a very good reason for this, but even so, only Harry Burke seems like a halfway-real character to me, and most of Armando’s lady loves vanish into the ether as soon as they appear. But that’s fine – the early Queen books had some terrible characterisation in them, but carried the day with twisty-turny plots.

Second though… the plot isn’t actually that clever. The dying message – Glory manages to write “f a c e” before she dies – is ridiculous, in the fact that she thought it would help, that Ellery even deduces the first level of its meaning and then the jump to what it actually means…

And I spotted the murderer early. Never helps. Partly, it must be said, because at least two books that I’ve read in the last year – new, bestselling crime novels – use a variation on the same very basic idea. To be fair, this book uses the trick is a sensible way, unlike the nonsensical use in the modern books, so plaudits for that, but it still stood out to me. Other reviewers, such as Sergio over at Tipping My Fedora, praise the revelation, and I expect that if I hadn’t guessed it, it’s have caught me too.

And it’s never a good sign when you spot two of the main clues that point towards the killer and dismiss them as sloppy writing rather than as clues. Because Ellery (who takes months to solve this, literally) really should have considered this but as he didn’t, I figured they weren’t the clues that I was expecting. Because they’re pretty obvious.

And my copy’s got an ugly cover. I mean, what the hell is that supposed to be? Does Armando have a papier-mâché face or something? Must have missed that.

So what do other people think? Well, Santosh, one of my frequent commenters posted that “Though the basic plot is very clever, the clue left by the dying victim is utterly ridiculous. No dying person would leave such an unreliable clue!” I’d debate the very clever bit, but completely agree on the clue. You could make a case that someone who is dying and is also obsessed with puzzles might write something like that, but that’d be pushing it.

Face To Face 2John Dickson Carr (yes, him) wrote: “I maintain, and will hold this under torture that this is the best Ellery Queen (in) a quarter of a century… the most ingenious form of a twist or double cross that he has devised”. Well, a quarter of a century puts us back to 1942, so fair enough on the first bit, but the most ingenious? I’d probably point to The Siamese Twin Mystery for that, imho.

I wonder… what would I have thought about it if I hadn’t spotted the killer? Would the puzzle have been enough for me to sing the praises of this one to the rafters? I honestly don’t know.  A puzzle that fools me will (almost) always overcome shoddy characters, but this one didn’t fool me at all. Recommended, provided you let me know if you were fooled…

 

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16 comments

  1. Well, it’s a shame you saw the solution coming. When I first read this in my early teens I only had a couple of Queen stories under my belt – so enjoyed the complications about the dying clue, but yes, it is definitely a bit absurd to me now. And I didn’t see the twist coming, which obviously makes a big difference with this kind of story, especially as it is meant to be emotionally upsetting for at least one other major character. One should also put things in context – the previous Queen books of the 60s were far less down to earth and I do like it’s comparative naturalism – but yes, again, the operative word there is ‘comparative’. To me, along with PLAYER ON THE OTHER SIDE (co-written by the great Theodore Sturgeon with Dannay) it remains far and away the best Queen novel of the decade – but yes, that is qualified praise …

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  2. I haven’t read this one. It sounds interesting despite your ambivalent review. As far as dying clues go, let’s just admit that the whole idea is absurd. It’s true that if I’m ever murdered I’m going to scrawl “Rache” on the wall in my own blood, but I have a weird sense of humor. I think you have to just suspend disbelief when it comes to dying clues.

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      • Not having read the book myself, I didn’t mean to question your judgment in this particular case. I was just making the general point that the dying clue is an unrealistic convention of mystery stories–not that there’s anything wrong with that! I like them, personally.

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  3. The dying clue is really silly and far-fetched. She could have simply handed over a letter to her lawyer to be opened after her death.
    However, the dying clue is not that critical to the plot. I found the plot clever and I enjoyed the book.

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  4. I have just reread the book and I feel that it could easily have been shortened by 25%.
    Also, I note that you have not mentioned the breast fixation of Armando. 🙂
    “…and the breasts under the sweater had risen noticeably. (Most noticeably by Carlos Armando, whose eyes quivered like mercury seeking a balance, never leaving her chest.)”
    “The laying on of eyes was becoming positively obscene.”

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    • Actually, there’s a lot about the language that I didn’t mention – the casual use of the word “rape” for example, and the generally unsuccessful attempts to move with the times into the sixties. And yes, the description of one character (and this is from the author, not a character) as basically a pair of breasts and nothing else is hardly a step forward for gender politics…

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  5. I think an interesting point you make – and that Cavershamragu adds to – is the importance of when one reads a certain mystery and whether or not one solves it. I read Face to Face probably in my late teens and enjoyed it immensely. I was fooled by it, which might make a difference. However, years have gone by, and I have read the entire Queen canon, some more than once, and while I want to read FtoF a second time, I know that I might be disappointed. For one thing, the setting for the revelation in this book is not new to Queen, and without spoiling it more than I have to, this setting has basically resulted in some variation of the same trick we see here. So IF I had read the books in chronological order, I might have solved the puzzle and not been as impressed. (Isn’t it funny how, when we win the puzzle battle, it tends to reduce our love of the book itself!) Secondly, in my recent re-reading of many Queen titles, I have noticed that the authors manipulate Queen’s genius to serve the needs of the length of the book. So, as you say, Queen SHOULD have given some thought to the truth much earlier in the story, but he doesn’t so that the book can continue. The same thing happens in THERE WAS AN OLD WOMAN, which shares a number of features with this book, and it occurs in many of the books. Finally, I have always been fond of the dying message, but that fondness has waned with age and maturity. The message in THE LAST WOMAN IN HIS LIFE was even more absurd (given the time it would have taken the victim to figure everything out and utter his last word), but it’s fun nonetheless. The FtoF message is not nearly as clever. Hmm, now you’re giving me pause: would re-reading this one be a waste of time?

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    • Some very good points, there, Brad. And i empathise with the decision to re-read or not. The Ellery Queen project stalled for almost a year as I couldn’t face re-reading The Murderer Is A Fox. It was fine the first time through, but knowing who the killer is removes most of the point of reading it. Still haven’t got back to it. One day…

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  6. Not a bad Queen book but not one of the best. It is somewhat like Scarlet Letters which talks about romantic relationships between men and women. I kept thinking there had to be a extra twist to the solution but no it was straightforward but this is no nowhere near has tricky as some of the other books. Especially the early ones. Reading this after the Greek Coffin Mystery is quite a contrast.

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  7. On the dying message clue. Yes it is a convoluted. And yes she could have just left a note to her lawyer. The thing about some of the Queen novels is you sometimes have people behave in absurd ways that only make sense for the need of the writer to have something puzzling to the reader. Her doing this is sort of like the moving of the body from the house to the coffin in Greek. Or a few other examples. It is too bad because if they had eliminated some of the actions in their books I believe Queen would be more popular than it is today. Hence this series can be very uneven as mystery novels.

    This illogical behavior did not bother me as much as in other books because the solution does not really rely on finding the hidden message. Even without her note you could guess the truth.

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