Sunday, February 13, 2011

The Alphabet in Crime Fiction: Ellery Queen's The Four of Hearts

The Alphabet in Crime Fiction community meme is at its sixth stop on our perilous journey through the alphabet. Thanks, as always, to our guide Kerrie at Mysteries in Paradise for keeping us safe on the tour. This week’s stop is the letter “F,” and I’ve chosen Ellery Queen’s The Four of Hearts, published in 1938, as my contribution. My edition of the novel is a part of an interesting 1951 three-novel collection called The Hollywood Murders; that’s the book you see pictured.

As the novel begins, Queen’s getting ready to leave Hollywood after an extremely unproductive six-week contract with Magna Studios during which he hasn’t been given anything useful to do. He finally manages to make contact with Jacques Butcher, head of the studio and current Hollywood Boy Wonder, and is drawn into the creation of a new Hollywood bio-picture. The movie is to feature the lives of famous Hollywood actors John Royle and Blythe Stuart, who were at one time linked romantically in a stormy and very public love affair. When it ended, each married someone else and had a child. The Stuart/Royle feud has continued through the years, and been passed on to Bonnie Stuart, Blythe Stuart’s daughter, and Tyl Royle, John Royle’s son. The object is to get Stuart and Royle to work together again co-star in the movie, and Queen is to work on the screenplay.

Much to everyone’s shock, Royle and Stuart not only agree to do the picture, but they rekindle their romance. In fact, they decide to marry, to the dismay of their children and the studio brass who’d counted on making a film about the couple’s feud. The Magna Studio team decides to make the most of the situation and turn the Royle/Stuart wedding into a studio spectacle, complete with a big “Hollywood” honeymoon send-off for the couple and their children. The ceremony is to take place at an airstrip, from whence the four are to leave on the wedding trip.

When the plane lands, though, both Royle and Stuart have died of what turns out to be poison. At first, their children blame each other. But it’s soon clear that someone else was responsible. This murder seems to be a classic “locked room” mystery, since only Stuart, Royle and their children were on the plane. The only clue to the murders seems to be a series of strange letters sent to Blythe Stuart, each one containing a playing card. Bonnie Stuart and Ty Royle begin the very rocky process of getting along with each other as they try to find out what happened to their parents. Then, Bonnie begins to receive strange letters that are very similar to those her mother had received. Now it looks as though there’s a killer after the younger Stuart/Royle generation, too.

Queen looks into the case and discovers that the murders have everything to do with Stuart’s and Royle’s pasts, so he makes the acquaintance of Paula Paris, Hollywood gossip columnist, who knows everything about the history of both families. In the end, Queen makes sense of the mysterious playing cards and the murders and finds out who killed Blythe Stuart and John Royle and why.

Like many of the Ellery Queen mysteries, this one is an intellectual puzzle as much as anything else. We follow along as Queen figures out how the victims could have been killed when there were only two other people on board the plane, neither of whom is the murderer. There’s also the matter of the playing-card messages. There’s an interesting intellectual challenge as Queen gets to the truth about what those messages mean and how they tie in with the murders. That aspect of the novel is engaging, especially for readers who enjoy “locked room” scenarios and deciphering the meaning of strange, cryptic clues.

Another element that runs through this story is the jaundiced view we get of Hollywood. In fact, here’s the first sentence of the novel:

“It is a well-known fact that any one exposed to Hollywood for longer than six weeks goes suddenly and incurably mad.”

There is plenty of “star ego,” studio intrigue, publicity hunting and money-grubbing. There’s also an “inside look” at the creation of a movie, not because it’s of high quality, but because it’ll be a box-office hit. There are all sorts of jaded “Hollywood types,” too. For instance, there’s Queen’s agent Alan Clarke, who’s “been there, done that.” He’s used to inflated egos and he’s willing to say anything to keep Queen in Hollywood, chiefly because if Queen leaves, Clarke’s out his agent’s fee. And then there’s Sam Vix, Magna Studio’s head of publicity, who’s also world-weary. When he meets Queen, Vix says,

“‘Say, I heard about you…You’re the guy worked here for six weeks and nobody knew. Swell story.’

‘What’s swell about it?’ asked Ellery sourly.

Vix stared. ‘It’s publicity, isn’t it?’”

Vix is only too happy to get whatever mileage he can from the drama between the Royles and the Stuarts.

Some of the characters in the story, especially Bonnie Stuart and Ty Royle, aren’t well-developed and almost seem caricatures of themselves. In one sense, of course, that’s problematic; readers want well-developed characters. On the other hand, though, those characters seem to work well in this particular context The novel is as much a critique of the empty glitter of Hollywood as it is anything else, so it makes sense that some of the characters would seem to have more style than substance.

One character who is interesting and who adds much to the novel is Hollywood gossip columnist Paula Paris. As Queen soon discovers, Paris knows everything there is to know about Hollywood. Her syndicated column appears in countless newspapers and everyone who’s anyone knows her. Paris is an interesting reminder of how much power gossip columnists have in Hollywood, especially in the days before the Internet made Hollywood as directly accessible to fans as it is today. In fact, Vix tells Queen,

“‘You’re in for an experience, meeting Paula for the first time.’

‘Oh, these old female battle-axes don’t feaze me,’ said Ellery.’

‘This isn’t a battle-ax, my friend; it’s a delicate, singing blade.’”

And so Paris turns out to be. When Queen meets her, he’s surprised to find out that she’s charming, witty, intelligent and quite shrewd. And agoraphobic. At first, Queen can’t figure out how Paris is as well-informed as she is without leaving her home, but he soon finds that she’s developed such a loyal following that people from all over come to her to share gossip. She never needs to leave her home because she’s got such an impressive network of sources of information.

As it turns out, Queen and Paris begin a relationship, and Paris returns in other novels and short stories during Queen’s “Hollywood period,” although the two don’t stay together.

The Four of Hearts combines an intellectual mystery with a biting and sometimes funny look at what’s behind the superficial glamour of Hollywood. But what do you think? Have you read the novel? If you have, what elements do you see in it?


  1. I've never read this one. I love stories set in old Hollywood, so I'll put this one on my list. Thanks!

  2. Anne - Oh, my pleasure. There are some outdated things about the novel, but it's got a solid mystery to it, and it is full of the "Old-school Hollywood tinsel-y" atmosphere. I hope you'll like it.

  3. I love locked room puzzles! I'm putting this on my list.

  4. Clarissa - Oh, I hope you'll like it. The "Queen team" were famous for those intellectual puzzlers and this one has, if not a 100% everyday-believable sort of solution, one that's at least engaging and interesting.

  5. I'm quite sure I haven't read this one...and yet it sounds so very familiar! I hope I'm not have a pre-senior moment! Great choice and wonderful write-up.

  6. That sounds like a fantastic book. Unfortunately, it is not available in India, so cannot get on Mt. TBR.

    Thanks for the great review, Margot.

  7. Bev - Thank you :-). I know what you mean about having those "pre-senior moments - all too frighteningly well...*sigh*. If you haven't read it, it really is kind of an interesting read...

  8. Rayna - Oh, I am sorry to hear that. Or maybe not, if you hadn't wanted to add to Mt. TBR ;-). At some point, if you are really interested, let me know. Perhaps there's an online source I'll be able to recommend.

  9. My mom was such a big Ellery Queen fan back when she was able to read more. I need to look for some large print EQ books for her.

  10. This sounds like a great read. I'll have to add it to my TBR stack. That's one reason I enjoy this challenge so, you point out such wonderful 'new to me' books.

    Thoughts in Progress

  11. Thanks for this contribution to this week's CFA Margot. Part of the interest in the Crime Fiction Alphabet is to see what everyone chooses.

  12. Patricia - Ellery Queen's been winning friends since 1929, and it's amazing the number and different kinds of people who really love these books. There are lots of them in large print and audio, too.

    Mason - That's awfully kind of you. That, to me, is part of what's great about the online community; we all get good ideas for what to read next from each other :-).

    Kerrie - Oh, that's definitely part of the interest for me, too. I really enjoy finding out what people decide to contribute. Of course, what that does to my TBR is another matter... ;-).

  13. Thanks for this Margot - I think this book is right up my alley! Time to start searching...

  14. Elspeth - I really think you might enjoy it. It's got some sexist overtones, but so did much of what was written in 1938.... And I do think you'd like the '30's culture of the book.

  15. What an interesting choice. The name Ellery Queen is terribly familiar but he's not an author I've ever thought of reading. I hope he's in print in the UK still, because I do like an intellectual puzzle.

  16. Jane - Thank you :-). Some of Ellery Queen's intellectual puzzles are memorably good; they really are. I'll say right now that some of the novels are quite dated in terms of the "-isms" one finds in them. If you can set that aside, they really are puzzlers :-).

  17. Been a while since I read this one, but I definitely enjoyed it - I think it was the first on the non "The Something Something Mystery" that I read. I'll have to dig it out when the Alphabet gets round to Q.

  18. Classicmystery - LOL! I hadn't thought about those titles, but you make a point :-). There really is something to this story, too; glad you enjoyed it.

  19. This was a very good review, except for one slip up. Bonnie and Ty weren't on the plane where Jack and Blythe were killed. The fake pilot/kidnapper tied them up in one of the airport hangars. At that point in the novel, the only suspect for the murder of Jack and Blythe was the pilot who kidnapped them.