A condensed version of this novel appeared in Cosmopolitan (June, 1936). I wonder what was cut out of, or later added to, the final product. This novel stands as one of the most intriguing Queen mysteries to date.
Once again, Ellery has “escaped” the city. And what does this mean? Most of the novel occurs outside of Manhattan. Could the subtle suggestion be that life outside of the big city is fraught with peril? Perhaps. The novel starts with another examination of Ellery’s culinary tastes: he’s found in a Trenton restaurant eating pig’s knuckles and sauerkraut. I can not really think of much more perilous food than pig knuckles.
The title of the book comes from the fact that the victim, who led two lives, was murdered in a shack he used to transform himself between his two worlds, of the idle rich and one of the working poor, halfway between New York and Philadelphia. A halfway house is also a transitional place of recovery, which fits the descriptions of the Depression. The title is also the first Ellery Queen novel to not follow the nationality/noun format. The introduction, fictional J.J. Mc’s final appearance, suggests that the book could have been called The Swedish Match Mystery, but I think we can all agree that Halfway House was a far better title. As far as other conventions go, this novel contains the final formal “Challenge to the Reader,” along with the conceit of the dying clue, which appears here as the victim’s final words.
However, what sticks in the mind is the actual story. A man lives two lives, one among the wealthy in Manhattan, and one as a traveling salesman in Philadelphia. Both persons are married. So, then the question is, which one was murdered, and, of course, who done it? It is an interesting question, especially when the third option, “both,” is added to the equation. Who could possibly have known the secret of the two identities? Who else could be knowledgeable of the two distinct worlds the victim inhabited?
A new character is introduced: the extrovert reporter Ella Amity, who ignores police lines to get her story. She even tolerates sexual harassment from the chief of police, Dejong: “DeJong winked at Ellery and slapped her round rump. She giggled, lunged at Bill Angell, hurled questions at him, scribbled some more, threw him a kiss, and darted out of the shack.” And it does not stop there.
A few pages later DeJong, determined to prove the murderer a woman opines, “And from time immemorial the female of the species has found in the knife the fullest expression of her homicidal impulses.” Really? Stabbings suggest female culprits? Are gins male? What, then, is poison? The imagination reels.
Of course, sexism remains rampant throughout the novel. This time around, though, the cousins seem a bit more removed from the characters than usual. For instance, at one point they write,“Her black low-cut evening gown with its daring lines might have caused another young man to stare with admiration, but Ellery was what he was, and he chose to study her eyes, instead. They were wide with fear.”
While certainly no Grapes of Wrath, this is a novel of the Great Depression, where money and class attitudes form the backdrop of existence. This comes to the fore several times:
“Did he own any bonds or stocks?”
“My dear Ellery, you forget we’re the lower middle class in the fifth year of the depression.”
Again, monetary concerns appear after a court case:
Ellery scuffed the rug. “Er, – how about the money? This thing must have put you in debt to the whole world. An appeal, I mean. It costs a lot, doesn’t it?”
“No, Ellery, I can’t accept…I mean, thanks just the same. You’re a brick.”
Class differences, different worlds, show up when Ellery begins socializing with a young socialite, much to the chagrin of her family:
“No, after you took me to see Waiting for Lefty and to that settlement house on Henry Street and the city lodging-house she simply exploded. She thinks you’re poisoning my mind.”
“A not unreasonable suspicion. Has the virus worked?”
One interesting break in the story comes with newspaper descriptions of the murder trial. The Associated Press story fills the reader with a dry description of the court room. Ella Amity’s description, concentrating on the defendant, from the lower middle class, is much more riveting. A short example: “She will be shackled to a deputy like a slave-girl of ancient times, to be placed on the block of Justice and sold to the highest bidder.”
Strong class commentary. This is a story of the Great Depression, of the best of times, of the worst of times, of duality. One stroke victim is even described, “it was if he were composed of two bodies, one alive and one dead.” Halfway House.