His prey was man, and he prowled around the bottom lands of iniquity with an enchanted weapon, swelling in fame with each bloody chase. Never had evildoers seemed fiercer, or more cunning, or more willing for the bag. For he was Ellery, son of Richard, mighty hunter before the Law, and none might prevail against him.
God dies and Ellery retires: Ten Days’ Wonder is a slightly different Queen novel. It is the first last Ellery Queen novel [followed by The Finishing Stroke (1958) and A Fine and Private Place (1971)]. In this third Wrightsville novel, the cousins delve deeper into small town life, expanding on the characters and events of the previous novels, while exploring the manipulative powers of people acting like an all-powerful, charitable yet vengeful god. We also learn that Wrightsville is in New England, perhaps near New Haven, Connecticut, or, as the novel calls it, Connhaven.
Some things remain the same; the ordinary, never-changing world created by people seeking a sense of security remains static. For instance, Miss Sally’s Tea Room still serves the Wrightsville specialty comfort food Pineapple Marshmallow Nut Mousse.
The cousins also chronicle the changes in Wrightsville. Ellery’s first visit, in Calamity Town, had occurred only a few years earlier. Within less than a decade, though, the changes to the small town are becoming obvious, with moves from locally owned stores to national chains, pawnshops and the “Atomic War Surplus Outlet Store.”
Meanwhile, Ellery continues to harbor the city-slicker’s arrogance about small-town minds: “When your wits are your stock in trade, to be outwitted is a blow. To be outwitted in Wrightsville is a hay maker.”
The tale: Before WWII, Ellery met expat sculptor Howard van Horn in Paris, and has kept more or less in touch with him since, although he has never learned that Howard hails from Wrightsville. Howard’s home household consists of his adoptive father (Diedrich), step-mother Sally (also “adopted “ by the father at a young age), Diedrich’s demonic brother Wolfert, and their mother, who lives separately and wanders the grounds. Howard and Sally have an affair, and are blackmailed. Shenanigans ensue.
Constantly in the background is the unseen hand of coincidence and religious belief.Rational explanations, despite Ellery’s best efforts, can not provide answers for everything:
What really bothered him was that he was Wrightsville-bound on a case for the third time. It was a disheartening coincidence. Ellery dislike coincidences. They made him uneasy. And the longer he thought about it, the uneasier he became.
If I were superstitious, he thought, I’d say it was fate.
Strangely enough, in each of the previous Wrightsville investigations, circumstances had nudged him into the same unsatisfying speculations. He wondered, as he had wondered before, if there might not be a pattern too large to be discerned by the human eye.
So, Ellery is open to the idea that things happen for a reason, which is the basis of religion. On the other hand, Ellery expresses disgust at the concept of a meddling God: “Your father was an itinerant evangelist, a fundamentalist fanatic who preached the anthropomorphic, personally vengeful, jealous God of the Old Testament – who, as you told me, used to ‘beat the hell out of’ you and your brother; you were, you said, scared to death of him.”
This exploration of the ideas of causality in the universe, and, more importantly, how gods are imagined and imitated by humans forms the basic underlying thread of this book. Howard is an uncontrolled force of nature, yet still controlled by his imperious father. Also, Howard arrived at the van Horn household like Moses to the Pharaoh, like Skeezix to Walter Wallet, as an infant in a wicker basket. When it comes to religious imagery in Ten Days’ Wonder, well, you’re soaking in it.
And then there is Ellery, who himself plays God by determining who gets arrested and who does not, by, ironically, exercising free choice in how and when he reveals the identities of murderers. In all three Wrightsville novels, Ellery does not go public with the identities of the culprits. He has his reasons, of course, but should those come into play, or should he realize that in a nation of laws, the criminal justice system is the only place culprits should be tried?
Ellery has issues with this. “You’ve destroyed my belief in myself. How can I ever again play little tin god? I can’t I wouldn’t dare. It’s not in me…to gamble with the lives of human beings,” he says as his retirement speech. Never again will he play the detached locked room detective, figuring out the contents of hermetically sealed rooms.
The next novel, Cat of Many Tales, throws away that old Ellery Queen, and sculpts radically different mystery novel.
Oh, and as a postscript: the novel was turned into a movie starring Anthony Perkins and Orson Welles in 1971. Ellery Queen, the character has been replaced with a “Paul Regis.” Heres the IMDB link, and a place to see the film.