So welcome to the first Solve-Along! There’s a longer explanation here, but basically each week I’m going to read a book and write down my thoughts about the solution as I go along. Once it seems like the book is winding up I’ll pick a murderer and stick with it, and we’ll see if I was right or not. I promise not to go back and change anything if I make a complete fool of myself.
This week it’s the 1949 novel Cat of Many Tails by Ellery Queen. I actually don’t have the edition in the picture on the left, but mine’s a completely blank red Gollancz hardback. I don’t know if the dust jacket got lost or if Victor was going through his minimalist phase, but there isn’t even a title. Which is exactly what you want if you’re trying to approach a mystery completely blind, but I decided it didn’t make for a great picture…
[Obviously there’ll be thorough spoilers for Cat of Many Tails, but also some for the ABC Murders and Towards Zero by Agatha Christie and for Singing in the Shrouds by Ngaio Marsh]
Actually before I start I’d better state what preconceptions I have going into this, because that will (at least unconsciously) affect my reasoning when I try to solve the mystery. So here’s what I know about Cat of Many Tales, and my experience with Ellery Queen in general.
Reading about Ellery Queen can be a bit confusing if you’re unfamiliar with the series. Ellery Queen is both the pseudonym of the authors, Frederic Dannay and Manfred Lee, and the name of the detective. Which is typical of the sort of irritation I’ve come to expect from the series. Hopefully usage will be clear from context, but in general I’ll abbreviate Ellery Queen to EQ when I’m talking about the authors and just leave it as Ellery when I’m talking about the character.
I’ve read two EQ books in my life so far, and I didn’t much like either of them. One of them, The Greek Coffin Mystery, is frequently cited as the best EQ and is occasionally hailed as a masterpiece. I thought it was tedious crap, with the kind of twisty plot which would be great if only it wasn’t full of contradictions which meant it was nonsense. It also has one of the least memorable murders in the entire genre. So I wasn’t impressed. But then that tends to happen when I go into things with high hopes.
The other one was the Egyptian Cross Mystery. That was much better, but unfortunately the trick in it with the missing head has been done so many times since that it was obvious almost from the get go. And Ellery was still one of the most irritating detectives ever, one who used ‘logic’ that only worked because the authors said it did and then had the gall to be insufferably smug about being right. A good amateur detective always comes with a certain amount of smugness, but there really are limits. In the initial books, it seems like Ellery is clocking in at about 50 megaPoirots on the smugness scale (that’s almost a whole Vance if you’re working in imperial).
I know about a few other EQ plots, as well; mainly from reading spoilers on forums. No substitute for reading the books, of course, but I think I learned enough to expect a high degree of twistiness, probably at the expense of common sense. Also that Ellery Queen (the detective) completely changes character about half way through the series (but is pretty much always annoying).
As for Cat of Many Tails… I know that it’s one of the later ones (1949), so hopefully that’s late enough for Ellery to have undergone his personality change. I also know that it’s another highly recommended one, but that it’s quite different from all the rest. In fact that’s why I’m reading it. If I hate this one as well I’ll just accept that the EQs aren’t for me and never read another one. What else? I know that it’s about a serial killer. I also have a feeling that Ellery might visit a psychiatrist or a psychoanalyst or something in the middle, so I expect to have to wince through those chapters.
There don’t seem to be many chapters, so I’ll probably give each one its own section, unless I run across one in which absolutely nothing happens.
So here we go… Someone called the Cat is terrorising New York, strangling victims apparently at random. Now I’ve read enough serial killer plots from the Golden Age to know that that ‘apparently at random’ is probably going to be the way into this mystery. I doubt it’s going to be another ABC Murders (one true victim hidden amongst a lot of decoys), because Agatha Christie pretty much nailed that, but I’ll be on the look out for an obscure connection. I’m reminded of a Ngaio Marsh set on a ship and whose name I’ve forgotten [EDIT: It was called Singing in the Shrouds] which was pretty rubbish and had a ludicrous (and I guess pretty offensive, if you’re inclined to take offence) plot involving transvestitism. The link there, I seem to remember, was that the girls all had names which were also jewels. But I can’t remember why that made sense, so I happy to say that it probably didn’t. Still, that’s the sort of tenuous connection that turns people into psychos in mystery land!
But so far all we know is about the victims is that one of them is called Archibald Dudley Arenethy. So not much to go on there. Also the first sentence says it going to be a “nine-act tragedy” so that probably means nine victims (or eight and the murderer) by the end. Keeping a hidden connection secret with eight items to go on seems like a tough job. Maybe I’ll have a rethink.
In other news, it’s pretty horribly overwritten: “Traumata”, “Weltanschauung”, “inexplicable fungus of the atom bomb”… and I’m only on page 7! Not that I have any particular problem with an author flexing his vocabulary, but so far it’s all just been fluff (e.g. Can you really “sway in catalepsy”? That seems like an oxymoron).
My hopes aren’t high.
Ellery’s here already. I’m a bit disappointed. I thought it might be like one of those later Poirots when Agatha was sick of him and he was only in it for about three chapters. Still, he hasn’t done anything annoying so far. He’s just sitting about in his pants, trying to write. So I’m feeling a little kinship, actually.
(Although now I’m distracted thinking about the underwear choices of famous detectives. Miss Marple, of course, would have something sturdy and practical. But who would really be surprised to find that Poirot had secretly been wearing something lacy and covered in buckles for all those years? And Henry Merrivale would naturally shun the whole cussed business, we’re probably lucky he bothered to wear clothes at all!)
Inspector Queen has been given the Cat case (that’s Ellery’s Dad, by the way. It really is quite confusing! Inspector Queen i’s one of those old gents in book series who never ages or dies. He’s probably about a hundred by this point). We’re also told that there have been five stranglings so far, but there’s been no more info about the victims.
Oh wait. Here we go. Five victims, all strangled with an Indian silk cord that’s left behind at the scene. Not always the same colour…
1. Archibald Dudley Abernethy. Distinguishing feature seems to be that he had no distinguishing features (“No evidence that he was even a homo”… real progressive, EQ!). Blue cord.
2. Violette Smith. Prostitute and general skank (man, this bigotry is catching!). Salmon pink cord.
3. Rian O’Reilly. Married, hard-working, dirt-poor Irishman. Blue Cord. (So this is strongly looking like “blue for a boy, pink for a girl”. But that seems a bit too obvious. And even if it’s right, I’m not sure what it would mean.)
4. Monica McKell. Wealthy heiress (if it’s going to follow an ABC murders style plot then she’s the most likely candidate for being a real victim). Salmon pink cord.
5. Simone Phillips. Paralytic. Salmon pink cord.
And of course no obvious connection between any of them. I must say, this is a much more interesting and diverse collection of “victims with nothing in common” than usual. Quite often the key is in the names, but I can’t see anything here. Three of the names are alliterative, but there’s no way I can see to make the other two fit the pattern. Still, the dialogue’s definitely indicating that there is a connection to be found. I’ll keep thinking.
No-one’s really mentioned the cord colour pattern yet, even to pose it as a question.
Sixth victim. Beatrice White. Harlem resident, charity worker and general do-gooder. Salmon pink cord.
She was black, and so because this is 1949 there’s a bit of slightly depressing race stuff to wade through, where EQ tries to appear sympathetic and progressive but fails completely. There’s some grim stuff about all the ‘horrible people’ she ran into on a daily basis, including “negroid Chinese”. Still, shabby attitudes in detective fiction is a topic for another day. And luckily the scene changes pretty quickly to the mayor, who’s got a cunning plan to safe face: make Ellery the official “Cat-catcher” so that the police won’t look bad when things go tits up. This might be the worst thought out plan ever, but it’s not the stupidest reason an amateur detective has ever been brought into a case, so we’ll let it slide.
Ellery’s apparently onto something but, naturally, he isn’t going to tell anyone what yet. Is anyone NOT infuriated when detectives do this? Detectives keeping important shit to themselves would be the connection to look for if I was a psycho killer! I’m guessing it’s just going to be the colour-coding stuff.
And now the relatives are beginning to turn up. Presumably it’s here that I need to look for the killer. Do any of the Golden Age serial killer plots have a woman as the murderer, I wonder?
Celeste Phillips and Jimmy McKell have shown up and pledged to work for Ellery. He’s responded by getting them to spy on each other (although they’d have to be idiots to not work out that that’s what’s going on).
Ellery has apparently spotted four things in common between the crimes. But he’s still not talking. Ass.
Seventh victim. Lenore Richardson. For a moment Ellery was under the impression that her uncle, Dr. Cazalis was the victim and he was upset. He seems to have spotted something about the ages of the victims. Apart from the fact that they’ve been getting younger by a few years each time, from 44 down to 32, there doesn’t seem to be a specific pattern. Lenore Richardson is 25, which is a bit of a jump. So either the pattern doesn’t matter beyond a general decrease in age or there’s another victim that hasn’t been found yet.
Dr. Cazalis is described as “eminent”. He’s currently my number one suspect for that reason alone.
Hmm. He does “unnerving finger exercises”. So maybe he’s too suspicious. I’m certainly now inclined to think that this latest murder is the key one. They’ve spent a long time on it, and EQ doesn’t strike me as the kind of author who could bear to keep the murderer under wraps until half way through the book.
Now Dr Cazalis has jokingly mentioned the phone book. There’s a distinct phone book theme emerging…
Ellery has finally decided to open up about some of his theories. He doesn’t seem to have got much further than I have. He’s noted the decrease in age, and the jump to 25. He’s noted that the women were unmarried. He’s noted that everyone had a phone (we’re at a bit of a disadvantage here in 2012. It’s hard to remember that that’s an unusual fact). He’s definitely noted the colour thing, but he still doesn’t seem to have pointed it out explicitly, for some reason. His dad is amazed at the age thing but disheartened that there’s nothing better. It’s only page 80, Inspector Queen! What were you expecting?
[An aside about plots which revolve around newspaper hysteria. This will probably get its own post in future. Authors seem to always want to have it both ways with the media. They’re happy to do the ‘salacious journalism’ satire, where countless column inches are devoted to the gory details and futile ‘analysis’. But if you’re going to do that then you can’t also have it that only the detective could possibly notice something as trivial as the fact that the victims’ ages are decreasing with each murder. In the real world that’s EXACTLY the sort of thing that would crop up in the newspapers, probably after only two or three victims had been found.]
EQ get a point in the John Dickson Carr “wench” game! I didn’t even realised they liked to play. Page 82: “I’m happy to report that this is a wench of exceptional merit.” Full marks for being upsetting, but JDC would have had made sure to slip in a mention by page twenty at the latest.
More word stuff:
I know I’m over-fond of hyphens, but “gasstove” looks bizarre.
On the other hand, “crumbums” is ace! Don’t see that much any more.
What on earth does “shag her legs off” mean in this context? ‘Work really hard’, I suppose…
Back to the plot. Jimmy has found out that Celeste had a motive to kill Simone. But it’s not convincing. Oh and Jimmy had a motive to kill his sister. Ellery summarises the plot of the ABC murders, so it looks like that’s out as well.
A few of the usual theories are bandied about and dismissed. Are there two killers? Are Celeste and Jimmy (who did turn out to be idiots) in it together? Is there a geographical patten to the killings?
None of these things seem likely, and Ellery says so.
Word-wise I was interested to see that Ellery eats pizza, but that even in 1949 in a New York setting it got put in italics like all the other foreign words. [EDIT: Except ‘zloty’, much later. I wonder why.]
Vigilante groups form. The mayor tries to placate them. A not completely unconvincing riot breaks out. By the standards of the previous EQs I’ve read, it’s almost realism. One thing I would question: would the leader of the vigilante groups really be so self-effacing and apologetic in the morning? I’d like to think so, but I’m not convinced. Have people ever been that reasonable and ready to publicly admit to their mistakes?
Ellery goes to Rockefeller Plaza and talks to the statue of Prometheus(!) who turns out to be a preachy bastard. Which is annoying, and ridiculously unsubtle, but it’s only a few pages. I’m feeling strangely charitable. This book is actually pretty enjoyable except when the authors try to assert that it’s anything more than a silly murder mystery.
Language wise, I’m always pleased to see the word ‘hatless’ used to indicate that things are going tits up.
“…both were hatless, bleeding, in tatters…”
It’s hard to imagine a time when bareheadedness was even slightly noteworthy, let alone a reasonable shorthand for disaster.
Eighth murder. Stella Petrucchi. 22. Pink cord.
A mention of Beatrice, Nebraska, gets me thinking. Beatrice White was a victim. It turns out that Stella is also a town in Nebraska. But no dice. Sadly no-one is lucky enough to live a town called “Archibald”! I wonder if that was an intentional red-herring? There didn’t seem to be any reason to bring up the town.
Ninth murder. Donald Katz. Blue cord.
So there’s a discrepancy with Katz’s driving license and after some faffing about Ellery discovers that not only were the eighth and ninth victims born on the same day, they were delivered by the same doctor… Dr Cazalis.
So I was wrong. I must be. I just don’t believe that EQ would reveal the murderer on page 156 of a 250 page book. But what now? Is that the connection between the victims or is there another one? The phone book business still hasn’t been explained. Should I be trying to find someone who wants to frame Dr Cazalis? But that’s surely too nuts? That’s nuttier than Towards Zero. Could it be a double bluff? And really it IS Jimmy and Celeste? I don’t like double bluffs, I don’t think it’s possible to pull them off in a satisfying way. But that’s no reason to think people won’t try. Is it a Strangers on a Train sort of deal? Jimmy and Celeste meet, realise they both want to bump someone off, realise (somehow?!) that both victims were delivered by the same doctor and so come up with a bizarre plan to frame him and get away with their two murders? It’s not really that convincing an idea, but at the moment I can’t think of anything better. Hardly any other characters have had a look in.
So basically I’m stumped.
Jimmy looks into the life of Dr Cazalis. Lots of loose ends apparently tied up. It’s really quite clever. The victims were all in the phone book because they were the only ones still traceable from the doctor’s medical cards. The women were all single because if they’d married they’d have changed their name and been untraceable. The one large age gap was due to the war. The colour-coding suggests not just the colours for boys and girls but the colours for BABY boys and girls. The doctor lost his own children in childbirth, possibly due to umbilical strangulation. So everything seems to have been neatly wrapped up, and I’m less convinced than I was at the end of the last chapter.
But where does that leave any theories? It’s surely useless to look for a new connection. That would be too much of a coincidence. So framing Dr Cazalis seems the key. I really can’t think of anything better than my Jimmy and Celeste theory. Jimmy does seem mighty keen to see Cazalis locked up. Later on “Jimmy and Celeste were both looking a little frightened”. But of course that’s only natural.
So Ellery works out who the next victim is going to be. Celeste goes undercover with the family, which seems really dumb. Maybe EQ really need her on the scene to commit a final murder and frame Cazalis?
Cazalis doesn’t seem to be acting in a very guilty fashion…
Oh wait, now he does. He’s stalking the victim in a pretty hardcore way. Hmm. Back to the drawing board.
Option 1: This needs to be taken at face value (or there is going to be a double bluff but this is it – we’re in the setup phase, with a twist and an untwist due for later). Cazalis is the Cat.
Option 2: This is the worlds biggest coincidence. Cazalis seems like a stalker but there’s a perfectly innocent explanation. From the way it’s written, I’d call it a cheat if this turns out to be right.
Option 3: It’s a clever scheme. Jimmy and Celeste have tricked Cazalis into doing these things. But how would that work?
Option 4: Something else. No idea what.
So everything comes to a head and Celeste ends up in an alley with Cazalis dressed as the victim. She seems to have been strangled, but she’s survived. If Cazalis is dead then they’re clearly guilty.
Oh but he’s not. And he admits it. Or at least he doesn’t deny it. But there are still sixty pages left.
Right. I’m not sure I’m going to get any new information. Nothing much is happening anyway. Cazalis has clammed up, Jimmy and Celeste have got married (Jimmy boasting about his newfound millions!) Ellery is at a bit of a loose end.
So it really, really looks like Cazalis knew what he was doing. If I stick with my assumption that he isn’t the murderer, what could the explanation be? Well he could have a personal reason for doing the tenth murder, and is leaping on the copycat wagon. But then he’s going to have to have a pretty serious plan for not turning out to be the Cat after all and he doesn’t seem to have one. So that’s probably too convoluted.
He could know who the murder is, and is taking the fall. But then that would implicate Mrs Cazalis, who’s hardly been in it. She would have a motive, I suppose; in fact basically it would be the same as his. He’s supposed to have snapped after failing to deliver his two children, so she could have snapped for the same reason. Although her motive would be a weird sort of anger towards him for delivering all the babies but hers successfully. That would make sense (in EQ land) but seems a bit disappointing: Mrs Cazalis has only been in a few scenes. But then in The Greek Coffin Mystery the murderer was basically a background character with zero personality. So it’s not unprecedented.
Can I squeeze Jimmy and Celeste into this? Perhaps. If Dr Cazalis thinks that Mrs Cazalis is the Cat then it would explain his behaviour. But that doesn’t mean he’s right. So maybe he’s very kindly thrown himself on his sword without Jimmy and Celeste having to do anything about it. That’s all kinds of nuts, but it’s quite neat. And EQ is famous for that sort of convoluted solution, with people incriminating themselves entirely by mistake and other people being smart enough to take advantage of it. But then this book is supposed to be a bit different. It certainly feels a lot different from the other two I’ve read. (I’m enjoying it, for one!).
So I think those are the only two theories that make sense. And now, as often happens when you try and solve mysteries this way, it depends on whether I can work out which solution the author is likely to prefer. Based on my previous EQ experience I’m going to plump for the second one. There are enough pages left to unravel all the complications, and EQ seems unsentimental enough to prefer the ending where the lovebirds are conniving psychos rather than simpering ninnies.
Ellery looks like he’s about to rush off to see the psychiatrist. I hope this isn’t going to upset me too much…
Ah. Cazalis clearly has an alibi. I can’t be bothered to look back and check the dates of the murders, but he must have been in Switzerland for one of the early ones. If Jimmy and Celeste were trying to frame him that was a bit careless. But I suppose it has to unravel somehow…
Ellery heads to Vienna through the chaos of post war Europe. Professor Seligmann is a jolly old chap who doesn’t spout too much mumbo jumbo. And humble Ellery is a lot less irritating than cocksure Ellery. That was actually quite painless (although maybe upsetting if you don’t know any German at all). But what’s the solution?
Damn. I jumped the wrong way. It was Mrs Cazalis, and he was trying to protect her out of guilt. So I did get it, but then I abandoned it in favour of the crazy option. Pah.
So Ellery was right in the end. But not before Mr and Mrs Cazalis commit suicide. Ellery feels guilty for about two seconds before Professor Seligmann talks him out of it. THE END. Apart from a strange postscript on names to reassure anyone who might be upset to find their name in the book. I wonder why they felt they had to bother with that.
Well I’m pleased to say I really enjoyed that. It zipped along nicely, and I hardly ever wanted to flush Ellery’s head down the toilet. It also made quite a lot of sense. So a massive improvement over The Greek Coffin Mystery. I’m almost inclined to read another one right now.
The mystery’s far from perfect, though. While it’s not unfair, it’s certainly not a pure detective story like the other two EQs I read. The connection between the victims is very clever, but there’s no real way to work it out. Similarly, there’s no way to legitimately connect Cazalis to the murders until Ellery finds the birth certificates. It all makes sense in retrospect, but Cazalis is introduced solely as a psychiatrist, and by 1949 mysteries had long since outgrown the idea that being a doctor means you know everything about all aspects of medicine ever. Would revealing his history as an obstetrician really have given too much away? Especially since he’s a red-herring anyway…
And there’s no way of reasonably suspecting Mrs Cazalis until Cazalis gets arrested, which isn’t until over halfway through. And she quickly becomes the obvious choice, unless you’re trying to be over-clever like I was!
So in general I was surprised by the lack of clues. I’ve already mentioned about Cazalis’ secret OB/GYN speciality, but there were quite a few other things which probably could have been slipped in without risking giving everything away. Late in the book, Ellery mentions a conversation he had with Dr Cazalis which led to him discovering the doctor’s alibi, but for some reason this conversation is missed out from the scene where Ellery and Cazalis first meet. I think the odds of the reader finding the alibi for themselves is very low. They’d have to think to check, find the dates, remember the time difference between New York and Zurich, etc. etc. I would definitely have included the conversation.
Making Cazalis suspicious early on is handled well. It’s not too in your face, and I think a lot of experienced mystery readers will latch onto the same things that I did. Pitching a mystery so that readers of all experience levels are fooled is really tough. So credit where it’s due. But then he’s accused outright too early for that good work to pay off. I don’t think anyone who’s read mysteries before will believe that the second half of the book is going to be a straight manhunt. And anyone who has read another EQ before reading this one (which presumably is most people? I guess people rarely just read one book from the middle of a series) is going to be even less likely to fall for it.
I think if I was writing this I would have seriously truncated the bit where Celeste goes undercover. I might even have cut that out entirely. And I think I would have expanded the early investigation to compensate. They went through the first victims at a fair clip, which usually I’m in favour of, but I think I could have stood a bit more police work. I certainly wasn’t bored with what I read. That would have given EQ a bit more room to fit in some more clues and maybe some more face time with Dr and Mrs Cazalis without giving a game away.
With the book paced that way, I think Dr Cazalis would be a more convincing red-herring. If he’d been suspected 80% of the way through the book I would have been more inclined to believe that the last portion was about catching him. And I don’t think the manhunt portions were so exciting that it was worth castrating the mystery sections.
Still Dannay and Lee certainly got a lot better at writing. I wonder if they wrote specific bits and pasted it together of if it was a real collaboration over every word. The first chapter was pretty horribly overwritten but it really settled down after that. The dialogue was often unconvincing, but that was more than compensated for by snappiness. The psychology was more convincing than in a lot of mysteries. Only Jimmy McKell seemed completely artificial. The riot stuff and the increasing tension was well handled. I especially liked the suggestion that the decreasing ages of the victims meant that children would soon be in danger, but that they never actually stooped to shoving some grim infanticide into the plot to spice it up. I’m not as down on modern authors as some classic mystery fans, but I can’t imagine the kids would have escaped unscathed if this had been written today! Most importantly, I enjoyed it and wasn’t ever bored. Even great mysteries have a tendency to bog down once the investigation kicks in, but they handled the tricky middle section very well.
So definitely a success, but not really a masterpiece.
Next week I think I’ll try and find something modern and grim. Maybe some of that infanticide I mentioned. Gotta mix things up!