Sunday, March 20, 2011

The Alphabet in Crime Fiction: Ellery Queen's The King is Dead

The Alphabet in Crime Fiction community meme is continuing its terror-filled journey through the alphabet. We’ve now arrived safely at the letter “K,” thanks to the skilled leadership of Kerrie at Mysteries in Paradise. For this stop, I’ve chosen Ellery Queen’s The King is Dead, first published in 1952. The edition you see here is my 1980 double-book edition.

The King is Dead begins with an invasion of the apartment that Queen shares with his father, Inspector Richard Queen. A man named Abel Bendigo, together with two armed guards, interrupts the Queens’ breakfast to request their help. Abel’s brother Kane “King” Bendigo is a well known but eccentric, wealthy and very reclusive munitions manufacturer. He’s been receiving strange threat letters warning him that he’s going to be murdered, and Abel Bendigo wants the Queens to catch the sender of the letters before the threat can be carried out. At first the Queens demur, but the Bendigo name is so powerful and so much money has changed hands that even the President of the United States has requested the Queens’ help. So the Queens travel back with Abel Bendigo to Bendigo island where Abel and King Bendigo and King’s wife Karla live. Also on the island is Judah Bendigo, the third Bendigo brother.

When the Queens arrive on the island they find it to be more or less an armed encampment. The munitions factory that’s made King Bendigo famous and extraordinarily wealthy is heavily guarded, and every movement that the Queens make is carefully supervised. Nonetheless they settle in and begin their investigation. Bendigo keeps receiving threat notes, each of which gets more specific about the date and time of the murder. Finally the threat is complete: Bendigo is to be murdered at midnight on a particular Thursday. King Bendigo doesn’t take the threats against his life seriously, but in order to appease Abel, who does, he agrees to take precautions. On the night the threat is to be carried out, King locks himself in his hermetically sealed private office. The only other person in the office is Karla. Sure enough, at precisely midnight, a gun goes off and King Bendigo slumps over in his office chair, wounded by a shot to his chest.

The shooting of King Bendigo isn’t at all as clear-cut as it seems. First, there is no gun in the office. There’s no powder residue on Karla’s clothes or hands, so she couldn’t have shot her husband, nor could he have shot himself. Second, the gun used to shoot King was fired precisely at midnight by his brother Judah, who’d actually threatened his brother. But Judah was not in his brother’s locked office. He was with Ellery Queen at the time and the gun he fired never went off. So Queen is faced with an “impossible crime.”

Queen comes to believe that the key to this shooting is in Bendigo’s past, so he travels to the Bendigos’ hometown of Wrightsville, a small town in New England, leaving his father to keep tabs on the Bendigo brothers and Karla. In Wrightsville, Queen finds out about the brothers’ boyhood and growing-up years and it’s there that he finds out the key to the mystery – the real motive for the attack on King Bendigo. He also finds out who’s responsible for shooting Bendigo and how the crime was accomplished.

This novel has several elements woven through it. One of them is that this is, quite literally, a classic “locked room” mystery. Part of solving the question of who shot Bendigo is answering the “how” question. It’s a fascinating intellectual challenge and although all of the facts are easily available to the reader, it’s not a straightforward solution.

There’s also the element of the personalities and relationships among the Bendigo brothers. King Bendigo is the strong and powerful brother, both physically and mentally. Everyone’s a little afraid of him and especially of the powerful security team that protects him. Judah has always resented his brother’s success. Judah’s an “also ran” who’s found solace in the bottle. In fact, he’s thoroughly drunk on the night of the shooting. Abel manages his brother’s affairs and truly resents Judah’s inability to find something meaningful to do with his life. Those relationships among the three brothers were forged in their boyhoods and it’s fascinating to see their interactions and the ways in which they play out. Karla is an interesting character, too. She’s much younger than her husband, and on the surface, seems like a stereotypical “trophy wife.” There’s more to her than that, though, and it’s interesting to see her personality unfold as the novel progresses.

The connection between past and present is also an important element in this novel. The whole motivation for the crime is rooted in the Bendigos’ pasts, and Queen learns from newspaper articles and personal interviews what their pasts were like. As he learns these things, so does the reader. We also learn about the kinds of people the Bendigo brothers are and what makes them “tick.” This adds two layers to the story. One is the set of hidden secrets that still deeply affect the three men. It’s an interesting case of old sins casting long shadows, so to speak.

The other element this connection adds is a layer of psychology. While I wouldn’t go so far as to call this a psychological mystery, there is a strong dose of the way our backgrounds and individual psychologies influence what we do. From an historical standpoint, this novel is an interesting bridge between earlier crime fiction, which mostly focuses on external motivations like greed, jealousy, and fear, and the internal motivations featured in more recent crime fiction.

Although the key to the crime is found in the small town of Wrightsville, a great deal of the action takes place on Bendigo Island. This setting adds to the suspense of the novel. Most of the island is heavily guarded and even though it’s a physically beautiful setting, there’s a sense of paranoia as the Queens try to find out what’s behind the threats to Bendigo’s life. Everything is locked and sealed, the Queens’ every movement is followed and neither Queen is left alone for very long even though they’ve been given clearance to investigate. It’s almost as though the Queens are prisoners, rather than investigators. My edition of this novel doesn’t include a map of the island. In my opinion (so feel free to differ with me) mysteries that feature specific locations like this island really benefit from maps and sketches, so I’d have liked to see one. But it’s certainly not really difficult to follow the plot and action.

Finally, there’s the relationship between the Queens. As with the other novels in which both Queens appear, this one makes it very clear that the Queens love and respect each other, although neither is particularly demonstrative. They have complementary skills and trust each other implicitly.

The King is Dead is an old-fashioned intellectual mystery with a dose of psychology. It takes place against a fascinating island backdrop and shows Queen’s deductive prowess. But what do you think? Have you read The King is Dead? If you have, what elements do you see in it?


  1. Not only have I not read this one but I don't think I've read any Ellery Queen at all. Maybe I did years ago before I kept any kind of list but it hasn't stuck with me. I should remedy that but I don't know how to fit in reading the classics of the genre as well as all the new stuff.

  2. Thanks for this informative essay Margot. I have two old Ellery Queen books on my TBR mountain {The French Powder Mystery and The Greek Coffin Mystery} which I hope to read sometime.

  3. As with Bernadette I do not think I have read any of the Ellery Queen novels. Do you recommend one of the mysteries to start with in reading Queen. I am getting so many good suggestions on reading from this meme I am feeling sad about all the books I would like to read but do not know when I will be able to read.

  4. I've not read this book, but I'm going to look for it now. I love locked room mysteries...and Ellery Queen. :)

  5. Bernadette - I know what you mean. There is so much good crime fiction out there that it's very hard for me to make reading time both for the classics and for the good new stuff coming out. Maybe if I gave up eating and sleeping - or my day job ;-) - I'd have time for it all.

    Norman - Funny you would mention The French Powder Mystery. A good friend gave me a first edition paperback of that novel, and I keep it set aside and take care of it very carefully. I don't have a lot of first editions. I think you'll like the story when you get the chance to read it.

    Bill - That's the thing, isn't it? I'm learning, too, about all sorts of new books and authors I'd not heard of before. It's just a matter of making the time to read them. As far as a suggestion for where to start with Ellery Queen, may I suggest Calamity Town. I profiled it for this meme last year, and you can read about it here.

    Elizabeth - If you like those impossible mysteries, and you like Ellery Queen, this is a good 'un. I know I couldn't figure out how it was done at first.

  6. I think I read some Ellery Queen books years ago - but can't name any! I'll look out for this one and Calamity Town. Thanks for the info.

  7. Margaret - Oh, I've done that, too - read books when I was young, but don't remember them. Both this one and Calamity Town are, I think, good reads but interestingly enough, they're different sorts of reads. I think that speaks rather well for the authors - shows some versatility.

  8. And yet another title goes onto my TBR list! Thanks, Margot.

  9. Elspeth - You're quite welcome :-). This one's really an interesting intellectual challenge...

  10. I was hoping someone would pick this for the letter K! I love Queen's books and this is one that I need to re-read as it;s been a while. Personally I think, coming as it does right after an amazing series of books including DOUBLE DOUBLE, TEN DAY'S WONDER, CAT OF MANY TALES and ORIGIN OF EVIL, which are in many ways the pinnacle of Queen;s later works, KING does feel much smaller (and not just because it's shorter), much less grand in conception - it also lessens the religious and allegorical leanings which were very noticeable in the others. Thanks so much for looking at it in such detail - I shall now dash off and read it again (I have the same double edition with TEN DAY'S WONDER that you seem to have). Thanks again.

  11. Sergio - Thanks for adding your perspective to this. You are so right, too, about the moral and religious themes in novels like Ten Days Wonder and The Origin of Evil. Those themes and the sheer depth of the plots make those "larger than life" kinds of novels. The King is Dead is less that way, as you say, although there are, of course, biblical references in the novel. I also thought it was interesting that in this novel, the "Queen Team" tackles the troubling issue of profiting from the manufacture of munitions, even though that's not one of the biggest themes in the novel. Perhaps the authors wanted to focus back on the old-fashioned intellectual puzzler, rather than focus too much on other themes.

    And that's so neat that you have the same edition of that book that I do! I found mind in a really interesting little second-hand bookseller (always, in my opinion, a great place to look for good reads).

  12. I haven't read any of Ellery Queen's book, but I remember watching several movies based on the books and always enjoy them. After reading this, I'm definitely making a trip to the used book store to see how many of Queen's books I can find. Always fun to see what's next on the list.

    Thoughts in Progress

  13. Mason - That's one of the things I really like about this meme. I get to learn about all sorts of books and authors I've heard of but not read. I also like "meeting" new authors, too.

    It's funny you'd mention the movies. I got hooked on the Ellery Queen series starring Jim Hutton when it was on years ago. They aren't really true to the books, but I still loved 'em.

  14. I really must read Queen again before long. A true star of the Golden Age.

  15. Martin - You're absolutely right about Queen. The "Queen Team" created some very memorable stories, and those novels are some of the Golden Age's fine intellectual puzzlers.