This one is generally regarded as Ellery Queen’s best novel, and for good reason. The hermetically sealed bonds of the earliest novels have been broken wide open, and instead of a rich person murdered in a locked room, there are nine victims of various races, ethnicities, ages and social standing. The “locked room” has transformed into New York City in a heat wave, and the millions living in the pressure cooker. It is a good mystery, and a good look at the social forces filling the world with a random fear at the end of the 1940s.
“The old oblate spheroid was wobbling on its axis, trying to resist stresses, cracking along faults of strain. A generation which had lived through two global conflicts; which had buried millions of the mangled, the tortured, the murdered; which rose to the bait of world peace through the bloody waters of the age and found itself hooked by the cynical barb of nationalism; which cowered under the inexplicable fungus of the atomic bomb, not understanding, not wishing to understand; which helplessly watched the strategists of diplomacy plot the tactics of an Armageddon that never came; which was hauled this way and that, solicited, exhorted, suspected, flattered, accused, driven, unseated, inflamed, abandoned, never at peace, never at rest, the object of pressures and contrary forces by the night and the day and the hour – the real victims of the universal War of Nerves…it was no wonder, the philosophers said, that such a generation should bolt screaming at the first squeak of the unknown. in a world that was desensitized, irresponsible, threatened and threatening, hysteria was not to be marveled at. it had attacked New York City; had it struck anywhere in the world, the people of that place would have given way. What had to be understood, they said, was that the people had welcomed panic, not surrendered to it. In a planet shaking to pieces underfoot it was too agonizing to remain sane. Fantasy was a refuge and a relief.”
Ellery is still reeling from the Van Horn case of Ten Days’ Wonder: he had sworn not to interfere in other people’s lives any more, but, of course, five unsolved murders in a city about to explode pull him back into the fray. In the end, he faces more self doubts. There is an interesting twist here. This would traditionally have ended as a courtroom drama, but here, as the trial begins, Ellery flies off to Vienna to discuss issues with a famous psychiatrist. Ellery’s concern about meddling in people’s affairs, and how horribly that has gone recently leads the doctor to remind Ellery that, despite how he might feel, he is not really God, nor will he ever be. Apparently, control is God’s domain, and anything we like to think we can control is illusory.
Good advice in that time of panic. Although less than a dozen people are killed by “The Cat,” more than three dozen are trampled in a riot at a meeting of anti-cat vigilante groups. People do tend to lose perspective when a new fear comes along, seems to be one of the messages the cousins were trying to get across.
Or, at least one cousin, anyway. The letters between Lee and Dannay written during the writing of this novel have been published in Blood Relations (2012). Man, oh man were they contentious with each other. Dannay wrote the outlines of the novels, and Lee wrote the actual text. Lee saw great opportunities with Cat of Many Tails to expand the number and type of characters, as well as the “world themes” in the novel. The cousins disagreed on just about every point, especially whether or not the fifth victim, which gets Ellery involved, should be African-American or not. What was the implication of the last victim being Jewish? And so on. Dannay seemed to be a little more cautious than Lee.
Despite the sniping behind the scenes, the story does have its humor. For instance, when asked if he has any nylons, “ ‘No,’ said Ellery gravely, ‘My father, you know.’” Not all of the humor comes across, though. The brother of one victim, and the sister of another, become the light romantic relief in the novel, but the brother, Jimmy McKell, is such an unbelievable ass one has to wonder if he is the long-lost brother of Jar Jar Binks. Yes, that bad.
Cat of Many Tails was eventually turned into a really bad TV movie, in 1971, called Ellery Queen: Don’t Look Behind You. Feel free to skip the movie, and relax, enjoying reading this classic mystery novel.