I can well imagine this book springing to life in the mid-nineteen fifties, as American culture sped towards serving the needs of the very young Baby Boomers, pushing aside all that was old. The story is about aging, about people forced into retirement before they are ready for pasture grazing, about women feeling too old to be useful to anybody, even themselves. It is about the need for elders to repurpose themselves in the face of the onslaught of the younger generations.
In that sense, Inspector Queen’s Own Case follows in the same line of Queen novels dealing with social issues which came to the fore with Ten Years Wonder, only without the lengthy lectures on religion, war or McCarthyism. And, although Ellery Queen makes absolutely no appearance, this can be considered one of the cousins’ best mystery novels.
What does it mean to not have Ellery Queen in the story? Ellery Queen is the solver of mysteries, the thinker who puts the facts together and determines the culprits identity, and then, as often as not, does not turn the culprit over to the authorities. Here, the old people kind of stumble over the truth, and the murderer never goes to jail, and the truly horrible person goes on with his horrible life.
Richard Queen is the protagonist of this story. Ellery is gone, as are Velie and that cast of characters. Even New York City only makes cameo appearances: most of the action takes place in a gated island community in Connecticut. There needs to be a love interest, of course, and that is provided by in the person of Jessie Sherwood, who, at 49 years of age, Richard is convinced is too young for his 63 year old self. She tries to convince him otherwise. The gated island is Nair Island, which could be a stand-in for Nash Island in Darien. Not too far away is the public state park, for which the nurse may have been named, Sherwood Island.
But, I digress…
This novel does not simply beast the stale drum of “old people are valuable.” Lee and Danny were a little advanced as authors for anything that simplistic. They show different attitudes towards aging: Queen’s squad of retired cops call themselves the 87th Sreet Irregulars, an obvious reference to the young boys in Sherlock Holmes’ Baker Street Irregulars (although the current, masterful BBC series Sherlock has aged the Irregulars somewhat). The old men are trying to reach back towards childhood, towards youth. Contrasted with this is Abe Pearl, who has gracefully retired from the New York City Police Department and now enjoys a useful non-retirement as Chief of Police in a small Connecticut town. Richard is at odds as to how to not go gently into the night. Eventually, Jessie begins to convince him that it is not nightfall quite yet.
This issue of age is at the forefront, but so is the treatment of babies. The center of this case revolves around the seedy world of secretive adoptions, closed affairs where the birth certificates were filled in with the names of the wealthy adoptive parents, with no mention of the biological parents. There is also interesting commentary on conflicting attitudes toward child rearing. “Jessie privately wished she [the wealthy adoptive mother] wouldn’t insist on wearing a mask at the least provocation; the baby didn’t like it. Besides, Jessie held the unprofessional view that the more an infant was shielded from common germ and virus infections in his early months, when he still had certain immunities, the more susceptible he became later. But Mrs. Humffrey went by the book, or rather by the books; she had a shelf of them over her bed.” The books from that era are notorious, especially the ones that said a mother must never hug or touch their children. Thankfully, the work of Harry Harlow was just around the bend.
Lastly, this novel was subtitled November Song. There are two reasons for this. The first is that November is getting toward the end of the year, and the year’s cycle is often used as a metaphor for the stages of life. So, November Song is about someone edging toward the end of life, as Richard Queen and most of the novel’s characters are. It is also a harbinger of the second end of Ellery Queen. The next novel, The Finishing Stroke, would be the second final Ellery Queen novel, and yes, it takes place in December.