At first blush, The Scarlet Letters does not fit the mold of the political novels Ellery Queen was writing in the early 1950s. However, when we remember the differences in sex mores between the 1950s and now, then this book does, indeed, become an indictment of American attitudes about sexual relations, and how a murderer uses those societal expectations and standards to escape detection.
An insanely jealous husband catches his wife in an affair and kills her lover. That plot-line is an accepted part of our culture, and traditionally the murderer is excused for his rash behavior and set free. Here, though, the husband fakes jealousy, hires a man to seduce his wife, and mistakenly kills the lover instead of his wife. Dying lover, however, writes a message in blood, two scarlet letters, for Ellery to decipher.
While this novel does say a lot about mid-twentieth century American marital conventions, there are no long expository speeches like in The King is Dead, The Origin of Evil, or Double Double. This one is more subtle. This one even brings back that old sexual tension between Ellery and the long lost Nikki Porter, neither of whom, of course, ever marry.
Ellery is not very sympathetic to the victims of blackmail based on sexual conduct. Blackmailers who expose secret love affairs of high society women would only damage the reputations of the women involved, who have the means to survive public scrutiny, and “children would be involved, and teenagers in finishing schools, and innocent relatives on their yachts and at their hundred per cent white Protestant American clubs.” Ellery sighs, concludes without much sympathy, that, “even society people had rights.”
Where Cat of Many Tails was a novel about the people of New York City, The Scarlet Letters is a novel of the places of the city: the lovers meet at different places taken from an alphabetical list from a tourist guide to the city, including restaurants, hotels, a zoo, all busy, public places. The reader unfamiliar with the Big Apple may even want to visit the city after reading this novel, appetite whetted by just a few of the pleasures and sights the city has to offer.
Lastly, this is a character study, an investigation into jealousy within a marriage. The actual murder happens extremely late in the novel, so we get to see the predetermined crime unfurl in slow-motion, as well as enjoy the cousin’s writing style. There were a series of Frank Zappa albums a while back, called “Shut Up and Play Your Guitar.” This novel allows the cousins to “Forget the murder, just write us a novel.”
At one point, the cousins, with a wink and a nod, have Ellery Queen sign a hotel register under the name “Barnaby Ross,” which could be a form of foreshadowing, since the next novel would be written by someone calling himself “Daniel Nathan.”
The second Ellery I ever read. Its portrait of the Manhattan of the 1950s is second to very few novels. I’ve always wanted to do something similar with New Orleans, a city I know far too well.