“It could mean nothing at all. Coincidence, for example, although coincidence and I haven’t been on speaking terms for years.”
Cat of Many Tails took place in New York City, Double, Double in Wrightsville, and now Ellery returns to Los Angeles in The Origin of Evil. Once again, the cousins examine the city zeitgeist, and this novel is placed firmly in time: the summer of 1950, and the end of the post-war peace with the start of the Korean War, or, as one character puts it, “beg pardon, a United Nations police action.” Off to war, off to legalized murder we go again, having seemingly learned nothing from the horrors of World War II. Why? Well, that is what the cousins explore in The Origin of Evil.
The answer one character gives is “human nature.” Sure enough, an anthropologist is involved, one who has changed his name from that of the first man, Adam, to Alfred Wallace, a keen observer of nature, for whom the Wallace Line is named. The names of the main characters are plays on our ancestors: primates become the Priams, Neanderthal becomes Leander Hill, and Cro-Magnon becomes Crowe MacGowan. Other characters are named after other sorts of human development. For instance, Keats and Collier are literary references. The characters have been let loose in the world, but their actions set in motion by an invisible puppeteer, a puppeteer with the human need to dominate, red in tooth and claw, as it were. Seems that the origin of evil is encoded within us, and we must both accept it and fight it. One character goes off to fight “evil” in Korea, and Ellery hires the murderer as his personal secretary!
One character explains it all:
I’ll tell you what this is all about, Mr. Queen. It’s about corruption and wickedness. It’s about greed and selfishness and guilt and self control. It’s about black secrets and black hearts, cruelty, confusion and fear. It’s about not making the best of things, not being satisfied with what you have, and always wanting what you haven’t. It’s about envy and suspicion and malice and lust and nosiness and drunkenness and unholy excitement and a thirst for hot, running blood. It’s about man, Mr. Queen.
It is also about reactions to change. The novel opens with a wonderful metaphor of the death of Hollywood, murdered by television. It also talks about the changes that will be brought about by a nuclear war:
Cities uninhabitable. Crop soil poisoned for a hundred years. domestic animals going wild. Insects multiplying. Balance of Nature upset. Ruins and [? Page 50] and millions of square miles radioactive and maybe most of the earth’s atmosphere. The roads crack, the lines sag, the machines rest, the libraries mildew, the buzzards fatten, and the forest primeval creeps over Hollywood and Vine, which maybe isn’t such a bad idea. But there you have it. Thirty thousand years of primate development knocked over like a sleeping duck. Civilization atomized and annihilated. Yes, there’ll be some survivors – I’m going to be one of them. But what are we going to have to do? Why, go back where we came from, brother – to the trees. That’s logic, isn’t it? So, here I am. All ready for it.
Then there are the burgeoning changes in attitudes towards sex, or, at least, women’s sexuality. Ellery and the local detective have very strong positions on the topic, and they are not highly evolved. Delia Priam greets visitors in “brief tight she’s and a strip of sun halter,” for which she is called “a bitch.” Further, her husband has been paralyzed for a decade, and she is condemned by Ellery for fulfilling her sexual needs elsewhere. Ellery refers to her as “a stud pasture.”
This is all very heave and serious stuff for a popular mystery novel. Remember, at this time, the Adventures of Ellery Queen was airing weekly on national television, and a short story was appearing just about every month in the white bread newspaper insert This Week. Knowing the expectations of their readership, they filled The Origin of Evil with plenty of humor and interesting relationships. For example, as in The Cat of Many Tails, star-crossed lovers team up to find clues and outwit Ellery. They are, of course, unsuccessful. Perhaps my favorite line in the novel comes when Ellery’s maid announces a visitor: “It’s a naked man. You in?”
This is a good read, one of the best by Ellery Queen, of the type of novel with overtly social and political concerns which they began broaching in Halfway House, and certainly amped up with Ten Days Wonder, and would continue with for the rest of their career.
I agree with much of your analysis but the themes has usual are secondary to the puzzle plot. The plot is clever in some respects but implausible in others.
The whole angle about Ellery How much of the mystery did you figure out? Personally I figured out the pattern of the gifts and the “real” solution. The “fake” and official solution and the part about the letter I missed.
“Official” means who was legally charged with the crime.
Contestants on “Wheel of Fortune” need to read Ellery’s mini-lecture on how important a certain letter of the English alphabet is.