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?