This novel begins:Cosmopolitan October 1938

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

Mr. Ellery Queen groped for the bottle of Scotch on the open trunk…”

Leaving the east coast for Hollywood did Ellery Queen a world of good. The cousin’s experiences there provided excellent fodder for social commentary, which was emerging in the earlier tales, and which would come to be the most interesting aspect of their mysteries. While the basic elements clearly remain the same (wealthy family involved in murder of patriarch/matriarch), some of the details have changed (old money to new money, doctors to actors). The social scene and attitudes of Hollywood also provide grist for the creative mill, as the cousins definitely had some things to say about that.

Even the actual mystery provides interest. Two long-feuding middle-age stars, whose children also feud, receive mysterious playing cards in the mail, and the two suddenly fall in love, marry, and are murdered. Their son and daughter, also stars, come together over the tragedy, fall in love, begin receiving playing cards in the mail, marry, and, well, it is a good thing Ellery Queen was in town!The Four of Hearts 3

Queen was in town, as he was in The Devil to Pay, to write screenplays. In The Four of Hearts, he finally meets his boss ( a character based on Irving Thalberg), and they become quick friends. Inspector Glucke returns, and a new love interest, who Queen actually kisses, is introduced: Paula Paris, a gossip columnist too afraid of crowds to be able to leave here home (this fear of people is termed “homophobia”!!). The minor characters are more three-dimensional than usual. Dr. Junius, trapped in a retainer situation while he woulds rather be a writer; Lew Bascom, the drunk screen-writer, Alessandro, the club-owner who left his criminal past behind in New York, and so on.

The interesting food reference this time around: “flap-doodle, with onions on the side.” The earliest use of the term flapdoodle comes from the 1833 novel of sea-faring, Peter Simple and the Three Cutters, written by Frederick Marryat:

The marine officer came on board very angry at being left behind, and talked about a court-martial on me for disrespect, and neglect of stores entrusted to my charge; but O’Brien told me not to mind him, or what he said. “It’s my opinion, Peter, that the gentleman has eaten no small quantity of flap-doodle in his lifetime.”

“What’s that, O’Brien?” replied I; “I never heard of it.”

“Why, Peter,” rejoined he, “it’s the stuff they feed fools on.”

Current dictionaries define the term as merely foolish, and Queen never tells us if the onions are cooked or raw. But, I digress…The Four of Hearts 2

The description of the victim’s funeral alone is worth the price of admission, with snippets of gossiping mourners, the detail of a fan snatching a black handkerchief from a famous mourner, and so on. Also, it is worth mentioning that there are hints and clues sprinkled throughout the novel which are not revisited during Ellery’s final exposition of the crime, which makes re-reading the book, even knowing the identity of the culprit, rewarding, as well. The cousins have learned to not bog down the denouement with every last detail spelled out.

Other details , which have nothing directly to do with the mystery, stand out: “The last thing he saw as he closed the door was Mr. Lucey stooping, dazed, to pick up his fallen lollipop,” added to create a fuller world with more intriguing inhabitants.

The Four of Hearts 4Also, one character finally figures out the conspiracy behind all of the Ellery Queen mysteries: Ellery Queen himself is the murderer! After all, he’s the one finding all the clues which point to other people. “You see? He was lying all of the time.” Fortunately, Queen is able to pin the murder, as usual, on someone other than himself. The point being, with the deeper characterizations, and the ability to see the novel as more than a whodunnit, the cousins developed a more removed tone to the books, which would dearly benefit them.

3 thoughts on “The Four of Hearts (1938)

  1. On the second page, Ellery mentions while packing, “If it hadn’t been for the Sperry murder I would have been back East long ago.” What is the Sperry murder? In the novel before this, “The Devil to Pay” he deals with the Spaeth murder while he’s in Hollywood. Could it be a typo?

  2. Rick, it’s been some years since I re-read TDtP, so I’m not sure whether there was a character named “Sperry” anywhere in it. You may be right that it was a typo. I’ll check.

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