Sunday, January 24, 2010

The Alphabet in Crime Fiction - The Origin of Evil by Ellery Queen

It’s Week Fifteen on the alphabet in crime fiction community meme’s dangerous journey through the crime-laden alphabet. That means the letter “O.” Thanks to Kerrie at Mysteries in Paradise for leading us safely on our way. My choice for this “stop” is Ellery Queen’s The Origin of Evil, published in 1951. It was originally published as a separate novel, but I read it as a part of this trilogy called The Hollywood Murders (as you can guess from the picture, it's one of my secondhand bookstore finds), so that’s the edition I’m using for this post.

The Origin of Evil begins at the home that Ellery Queen has rented in the suburbs of Hollywood. He’s come to Hollywood to write a murder mystery, but has trouble convincing the local press that he’s not there to investigate some lurid crime. Queen’s futile attempt at writing his novel is interrupted one day when nineteen-year-old Laurel Hill comes to visit, to ask for his help. Laurel has recently lost her adopted father, Leander Hill, to a heart attack that she’s convinced was deliberately induced. When Queen asks her why she thinks her father was murdered, Laurel tells him her family’s story. Leander Hill and his neighbor, Roger Priam, were partners in a successful jewel business. One day, Hill received the macabre gift of a dead dog with a warning that there was more to come. Laurel’s found out that Roger Priam also received a warning, although she’s not sure what that warning was. Shortly after those warnings, he and Priam had a frantic conference; before long, Hill had died. From what Laurel Hill’s been able to piece together, she believes that her father and Roger Priam have an enemy from long ago who’s now taking revenge on them. She asks Queen’s help in finding out who sent the warnings and therefore, caused her father’s death.

At first, Queen’s not at all inclined to help his guest. The story sounds strange and Laurel Hill has no real proof that her father was murdered. Against his better judgment, though, Queen finally is persuaded to at least ask a few questions and find out what he can. His first stop is the home of Roger Priam. Priam was Leander Hill’s partner in the business, but he’s wheel-chair bound and hasn’t been able to take an active role in the business for some time. Priam is furious at what he sees as Laurel’s meddling in his business, and angrily sends Queen away, saying that he can deal with his enemy. At first, Queen’s only too happy to let Priam do so, but he’s persuaded again to look into the matter. His curiosity is piqued when Priam begins receiving more warnings, each of them cryptic and macabre. Matters come to a head one night when Priam is nearly killed.

Queen finally puts all of the pieces of the puzzle together and, together with Lieutenant Keats of the local police, figures out who sent the warnings and was responsible for Leander Hill’s death. As it turns out, Priam and Hill had a long history together that went back much further than their business partnership. Their past caught up with them when an enemy from long ago found out who they really were. In the end, Queen finds out about that past and solves the riddle of the cryptic clues.

As Queen investigates the warnings, he encounters some interesting characters, each of whom plays a role in the Hill/Priam drama. For instance, there’s Roger Priam himself. Priam’s uneducated, vain, bad-tempered and abusive. He’s also shrewd and smart and knows far more about the warnings he’s gotten than he’s willing to say.

There’s also Delia Priam, Roger Priam’s beautiful and seductive wife. She seems far more interested in Queen the man than in Queen the sleuth. Although she does help Queen by letting him know when new warnings arrive, Queen finds that she’s keeping so many secrets that he’s not sure if anything she says is the truth. Queen also finds out that there’s no love lost between her and Laurel Hill.

Another fascinating character in this novel is Delia’s son, Crowe “Mac” McGowan. Mac’s one of the most eccentric characters in the story. He lives in a treehouse, and in general wears as little as possible, quite often nothing at all. He claims that society is on the brink of destruction from nuclear weapons, so he’s preparing for life after The Bomb. McGowan is in love with Laurel Hill, although she’s not as attracted to him.

Finally, there’s Alfred Wallace, Roger Priam’s enigmatic valet/nurse/secretary. Wallace stays calm under almost any stress, and almost seems amused at his boss’ choleric temper fits. He’s well-spoken and suave, and he provides an interesting counterpoint to Priam’s volatile personality.

The Origin of Evil is a product of its time, so feminist mystery lovers will note (and probably not appreciate) the obvious sexism that permeates the novel. Also, the novel doesn’t have a “neat” ending. We do learn who the killer is and what the reason is for the mysterious warnings. However, we don’t get a sense of catharsis.

Despite those factors, there are several aspects of the novel that make it interesting. One is, ironically, the very fact that it’s a product of its time. We get a very interesting “snapshot” of Hollywood in the early 1950’s, when the Hollywood suburbs were just beginning to develop. The novel also gives us an interesting look at the “Red Scare” and the panic about the atom bomb that were so pervasive, especially in the United States, at the time.

Another interesting aspect is the fact that all of the major characters (including Queen himself) are hiding things. We learn what each is hiding bit by bit, and that pace holds the reader’s interest. Also, there are a few interesting plot twists that keep the reader guessing. The Origin of Evil is worth a read as a “period piece,” especially for those who enjoy intellectual puzzles.

On Another Note…..

My sincere thanks to Courtney Reese for awarding Confessions of a Mystery Novelist a “Happy Award.” I’m quite flattered, and as you can see, I’m displaying the award proudly.

As a part of this award, I’ve been asked to share ten things that make me happy. So……here goes:

1. My wonderful family and the two terrific dogs that very kindly allow us to live with them

2. My dear friends, including those I’ve known for a long time, those I’ve recently met, and those I haven’t met in person yet : ) - all of you enrich me

3. Secondhand bookshops with liberal browsing policies

4. A new release from a favorite author

5. Discovering a new author whose work I love

6. Listening and singing along to my favorite music

7. A slowly-sipped cup of Jamaican Blue Mountain coffee or Lapsang-Souchong tea

8. A chilled glass of Chardonnay

9. Choclate-covered almonds (in strict moderation – they are definitely not allowed on my diet)

10. Finding money in the pocket of my pants or skirt

So there you have it….. ten of the many things that make me happy. I’ll be passing this award along in due course. For now, thanks again to Courtney. Please do visit her blog; it’s a lively portrait of a very interesting writer.


  1. Emma - Thank you : ) - much appreciated.

  2. I don't think I have ever read any Ellory Queen books - yet another gap in my crime fiction knowledge. I simply have to find some more hours in the day somewhere.

    And congrats on your award, you have a great list of happy things though I am a chocolate-covered macadamia girl myself :)

  3. Bernadette - Thanks : ) I actually love chocolate-covered macademias, too. I can see the appeal : ). And no worries; you have no idea how many authors I wish that I had the time to read. I think we all have those gaps.

  4. Congratulations on your award - and I have another one for you :D

  5. Love your post as always. You bring up some very interesting points about each book.

    Congratulations on the award. Well deserved. Enjoyed finding out new things about you. I see we like the same things more and more. :)

  6. Dorte - Thank you : ). I'll be right over...

    Mason - Thanks for your kind words : ). Isn't it fun to find outnew things about each other? We do seem to have a lot in common.