Monday, November 15, 2010

In The Spotlight: Ellery Queen's The Fourth Side of the Triangle

Hello, All,

Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. Under the pen name Ellery Queen, cousins Daniel Nathan (alias Frederic Dannay) and Manford (Emanuel) Lepofsky (alias Manfred Bennington Lee) introduced the Ellery Queen character to the world in 1929 and started a phenomenon. The Ellery Queen mysteries are famous for their intellectual puzzles and interesting clues, and any series that discusses crime fiction is, I think, less without a mention of the “Queen team.” So today, let’s take a closer look at Ellery Queen’s The Fourth Side of the Triangle.

As the novel begins, we meet Dane McKell, son of wealthy and successful businessman Ashton McKell. Dane’s ambition is to be a writer, although his father is determined that he’ll take over the family business. Everything changes for Dane when his mother tells him that there’s another woman in his father’s life. Dane is determined to find out who the woman is, so he follows his father one night. He discovers that his father’s mistress is Sheila Grey, a well-known and successful fashion designer. Dane determines to meet Sheila Grey and force an end to his father’s relationship with her. When he does meet Sheila, Dane finds out the truth about her involvement with his father; he also finds himself falling in love with her. The two begin an affair that ends tragically one night when Sheila Grey is shot.

The case is given to Inspector Richard Queen, and he and his son Ellery begin to investigate. The first suspect is Ashton McKell, who was at Sheila’s apartment on the night of her murder. When his name is cleared, his wife Lutetia is suspected. Then, when Dane’s relationship with Sheila is disclosed, he, too, is suspected. As each member of the family is first suspected and then cleared, we learn more about them, and about the events of the night Sheila Grey was killed. The members of the McKell family aren’t the only suspects, either; Sheila Grey was very discreet, but she had several relationships. The Queens discover, in fact, that she and McKell were being blackmailed. There’s also the fact that Sheila Grey was a successful designer with several jealous rivals. In the end, Sheila Grey herself provides the most important clue to her murderer’s identity, and when Queen discovers what that clue is, he solves the puzzle.

There are several elements that run through this story and tie it together. One of them – and the one for which the Ellery Queen novels are so famous – is the fact that this is an intellectual puzzle. The police do collect evidence, and the medical examiner’s conclusions are also a part of the solution to the mystery. However, the most important clue to the murderer is a cryptic piece of evidence that Sheila Grey left behind. The evidence is there, but it’s not until Queen makes sense of it and understands what it means that he finds out who really killed Sheila Grey.

That said, though, there are also elements of the police procedural in this novel. Inspector Queen and his officers make sense of forensic details, interview suspects and witnesses and discover the various characters’ motives. In fact, that procedural aspect is integral to the novel, although this isn’t a “police precinct” novel that follows the officers as they go about their jobs. It’s those police procedures that narrow down the list of suspects and help the Queens focus on the most likely ones. These procedural details add legitimacy to Queen’s solution of the mystery, too. In fact, it’s an important laboratory finding that puts Queen on the right path after he’s guessed what Sheila Grey’s cryptic clue might mean.

The Fourth Side of the Triangle also makes use of an important psychological element, and psychology is woven throughout the story. For example, at the beginning of the novel we learn about Dane McKell’s dysfunctional family. He’s got a very successful father who’s disappointed in him, and a mother straight from the Victorian Era. Here is how Dane McKell sees his parents:

“…Dane could not think comfortably of his parents in sexual embrace; but in his case the Freudian reasons were complicated by the kind of mother and father he had. His mother was like a limpet clinging to a rock, getting far more than she gave; for she could only give acquiescence and loyalty…It seemed obvious to Dane that his father, on the other hand, was a man of strong sexuality, in common with his other drives and appetites.”

Dane himself is angry at his father’s infidelity, mostly on behalf of his mother. At the same time, he is not shocked at all, considering the kind of person his mother is. As the Queens look into the murder of Sheila Grey, we learn quite a bit about the McKell family and the relationships among its members.

Psychology is also important in the murder itself. Sheila Grey is an independent woman who has no desire to get married. She’s not promiscuous, but she sees no reason to settle down and become someone’s wife and later a mother. In fact, she describes herself as a “one-man-at-a-time-gal.” Sheila says this about her own psychology:

“I’m essentially a selfish woman…It’s not that I don’t care about what happens to people; but I’m most concerned with what happens to me in this very short life we’re given. I suppose I’m a materialist. My notion of love doesn’t require marriage to consummate it, that’s all. In fact – I’m speaking only for myself – I reject the whole concept of marriage. I’m no more capable of being happy as a housewife, or a country club gal, or a young suburban matron than I am of renouncing the world and taking the veil.”

Sheila Grey is also murdered for what you might call a psychological reason (as opposed to, say, a greed-related motive). Here is what the murderer says:

“…I’m sorry, I’m sorry, there’s something wrong inside me, there always has been since I was a kid. Everything went wrong.”

Along with the intellectual and psychological elements in this novel, there’s also the element of social change. In Sheila’s attitudes towards love and marriage, we see reflected the way women’s roles have changed over time. Sheila has very non-traditional views about love, marriage, child-rearing and so on. By contrast, Lutetia McKell is what you might call a throwback to the Victorian Era. She never handles day-to-day finances (although she is an heiress), she doesn’t have a job nor any independent career ambitions of her own, and her views of love, sex, marriage and parenthood are thoroughly Victorian.

Dane McKell has, to an extent, inherited some of his mother’s old-fashioned views. Once he falls in love with Sheila, he wants to marry her and have a family. She, on the other hand, wants no part of marriage. In their debate about love and marriage, we see reflected some of the social upheaval of the 1960’s (this novel was published in 1965).

The Fourth Side of the Triangle has elements of the intellectual puzzle, the psychological mystery and the element of social change, tied together, you might say, by the police investigation. But what’s your view? Have you read The Fourth Side of the Triangle? If you have, what elements did you see in it?

Coming Up on In The Spotlight

Monday 22 November/Tuesday 23 November – Murder at the Kennedy Center – Margaret Truman

Monday 29 November/Tuesday 30 November – The Moonstone – Wilkie Collins

Monday 6 December/Tuesday 7 December – Tied Up in Tinsel – Ngaio Marsh


  1. Very interesting. A book I must read!

  2. Martin - Thanks. I think you'd like this one quite a lot. It's dated in some places, but overall, is a very effective blend of different sub-genres.

  3. I have to check my Kindle, hold on... *elevator music* Nope, I don't have it. I purchased a Super Mystery Collection with over a 100 books and I thought this one could be on it. It's too bad because now I really want to read it.

    On a side note, my husband read my short stories on your site yesterday and he didn't like them. He said the second one "is really morbid".

    He is my biggest critic.


  4. Clarissa - I really do think you'll like this one. It is a good 'un. There are some aspects of it that are dated that you might not like but overall, it's pretty terrific.

    And I'm sorry your husband thought your stories too morbid. They are chilling, but they are so powerful!!

    And you are so lucky to have a Super Mystery Collection! I want one! :-).

  5. An interesting spotlight. You've introduced another great book I need to add to my 'to be purchased' list. So many elements to keep the reader guessing.

    Thoughts in Progress

  6. By the way... this book was used for the pilot of the Ellery Queen TV series in the 1970s, and retitled as "Too Many Suspects".

  7. Mason - So glad you found this interesting. I really do like novels that weave different elements through them, and this is one of them, I think.

    Crime_Mystery - Thanks for that reminder of that terrific (at least in my opinion)and too-short-lived series starring Jim Hutton and David Wayne. I'm glad it's available now on DVD; I'm not what you'd call a big television watcher, but that one's on my shopping list :-).

  8. How in the world did I not know Ellery Queen was a pseudonym for a couple of cousins? I love the stuff I learn when I visit you, Margot.

  9. Patricia - Why thank you! That's awfully kind of you :-). There is so much good crime fiction out there that I think it's just about impossible to know everything about it.

  10. I haven´t read any Ellery Queen yet, but it may be possible to find some of their stories (Kindle edition) for next to nothing. Thanks to Kerrie I discovered a site yesterday that offers thousands of free e-books. Yummie!

    I wondered whether you have spotlighted any Scandinavian crime novels? (You may have, and I may even have read your post; it´s just that flawed memory chip of mine ...)

    I think Hakon Nesser or Jo Nesbø could be good choices. Or what about Yrsa Sigurdardottir or Johan Theorin?

  11. Dorte - You are absolutely right about highlighting some of the great Scandinavian crime fiction. I've already done Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö’s Roseanna, but it's more than time to add to that! Thanks for the suggestion :-).

    And thanks, too, for the news about that E-book site. I don't have a Kindle, but I'll have to see what I might be able to download to my hard drive :-).

  12. I have been wanting to read an Ellery Queen for some time now- this seems like a great book to start with.

    Margot, I can't thank you enough for making me fall in love with mysteries all over again. Cynical me had actually thought she had exhausted all good mysteries only because you don't find too many good books on the Indian shelves.

  13. Rayna - You are so very kind :-). I have to say, crime fiction is my favourite genre (in case you couldn't tell :-) ), so I can't help being very enthusiastic about it. I just am. I'm so glad you enjoy talking about it, too.

    And I have to say how much I have learned from you, too, and how much wisdom you've offered. That is one reason why, I am sure, there's more than one of us on this planet - to teach each other..

    Back to the book at hand... This one is one of the later Ellery Queens, so as a character, Queen's changed a lot since his debut in 1929 (although the authors never really aged him). Still, it's a good story, and I think you'll find it interesting.