This book was advertised as the first new novel about Ellery and his father in five years. Let’s do the math. The novel from five years earlier was The Finishing Stroke (1958), which did indeed include Ellery and Richard Queen, but most of the book took place in 1929, a return to the earliest days of Ellery’s detecting. The book before that was Inspector Queen’s Own Case (1956), which did not include Ellery. The previous novel, The Glass Village (1954) had been changed to not include either Queen. The novel before that was the last one in anything like current time, The Scarlet Letters, which had arrived ten years before. That’s a serious amount of time. The main given reason is the Manfred Lee had writers block, and so it wasn’t until 1963 that Frederic Dannay took the bull by the horns, plotted a Queen mystery as always, and hired a ghost writer to write the darn thing.
The result was The Player on the Other Side, written by noted science fiction author Theodore Sturgeon. The plot is excellent, but the text, at least in the first chapters, serves as a reminder of how great a writer Manfred Lee was. Honed in the early writing of four novels a year, tested in the writing fields of Hollywood, thriving on radio scripts, his experience with grabbing readers and not letting go was great, and greatly missed in this novel.
To wit, Sturgeon fills the book with bits like:
“What is it, dear?” Myra murmured.
“Nothing,” said Ann, which was not true. For sitting so close to Percival’s tusked leer, she had shuddered.
After a while, though, the novel falls into better writing. Perhaps the cousins allowed the opening chapters to stand as Sturgeon wrote them, and highly edited the rest.
The story, though, oh the story. We return to Ten Days Wonder, when Ellery became disgusted with himself playing God, and now he is up against an opponent playing God, convincing the poor handyman to kill heirs to a fortune because the handyman thinks the opponent is God himself sending him missives from on high. Ellery did not want to play God, and this ne’er-do-well relishes the role.
And, it goes deeper, too:
“I don’t want to sound mystic or anything, Dad, but sometimes I used to get the feeling I was a kind of natural counterpoise -“
“Well, that I existed because a certain kind of criminal existed. That I did what I did because he did what he did. He was” Ellery probed finely-“he was the player on the other side.”
“Other side.” The Inspector wet his lips as he watched Ellery’s hands at the bar.
“Yes. Well, that’s it. I haven’t been able to write any more because the player on the other side doesn’t exist any more.” He squinted at the small print on the bitters bottle. “the times have outdated him-swept him away, and me with him. I mean the old me. See what I mean?
“Come on,” the Inspector said.
“Right away, Dad. Because you constituted authorities have come up with just too much wizardry-a speck of dust, and you know the murderer’s height, weight, prep school and breeding habits. Police science today specializes in making the unusual usual- instant communications, electronic bugs, consulting head-doctors, non-criminal fingerprint files…Why, even the TV writers, for all the hoke and hooey they shovel out, deal in dosimeters and polygraphs and other miracles of the lab, and sometimes they even use ‘em right.” Ellery fell back on the sofa, waved his glass. “So what chance does little-old-the-likes-of-me have, with my old-fashioned wonders? there’s no wonderment left in the real world any longer. or rather, everything is so wonderful the wonders gone out of it. I can’t outthink a solid-state binary computer; I can’t outplay an electronic chess opponent- it’ll beat me every time. Skoal.”
After this rant, Ellery declares he will take on no more cases. But, of course, he does, but the point has been made. Ellery Queen has lost faith in being able to concoct detective stories that reflect the times. For Ellery, we attract our opponents, and our opponents reflect what is in us, and after decades, the need to identify the evil other has been outgrown. Ellery has purged that demon, and no longer needs to detect.
But, there are always demons, further psychological terrors, to discover. And religion. This novel finds Ellery finding the identity of someone presenting as God, and so does the next one.
I’ll leave with one last metaphor thrown out by Inspector Richard Queen: “You’ve scraped something off the bottom of this case, right?” I would argue the cousins were not so much scraping, but seeking something deeper than the bottom of the barrel.