Halfway House (1936) by Ellery Queen


JJ at The Invisible Event decided to follow in the tradition of many a movie studio by releasing news of his next two Spoiler Warnings months before the reviews were due, giving all those in the mystery community quite a while to read and collect our thoughts on the book so that we could engage in conversation that wasn’t held back by the common rule preventing spoilers in any form of media. Given this large time-frame, I should have finished this book and written my thoughts about it a long time ago, but other more intriguing novels got in the way and I had to blaze through the reading of this book in order to meet my self-imposed deadline of a review before the post went up. Let these tedious explanations now stop and let the actually reviewing begin!

Ellery Queen is an author with whom I have a very troubled relationship. At his best, he can produce masterpieces of ratiocination (The Greek Coffin Mystery), character ( The Murderer is a Fox), and drama (Calamity Town). But at his worst – oh, at his worst, he produces incredibly tedious novel’s filled with verbosity that stifles the reader and investigations or plot’s that are either stagnant most of the time or are barely even comprehensive. Most of the books that I dislike are part of his “Nationality” series while the books that I do enjoy are from the Wrightsville or post Wrightsville period. Halfway House is at the cusp of both styles, being seen as more character driven while still retaining the fiendishness of early Queen and as a result it is the perfect book to look at when studying the evolution of Queen.

The book is about the murder of Joe Wilson or the murder of Joseph Gimball. For, Joe Wilson and Joseph Gimball were one in the same – one man with two identities. One was a lower middle class peddler while the other was a wealthy man and each identity was married (bigamy, how juicy!). Joe (I can’t keep mentioning both names, to much hassle) is found stabbed in a small shack outside of Trenton, the place that he used to change his identity, the Halfway House of the title. Inside the shack, a variety of strange clues are found; including several burnt matches and a burnt cork, adding the common befuddling clues that Queen so often included. Ellery Queen is a friend of the man who discovered the body and so decides to investigate -leading him to ask the question; was the victim Joe or Joseph? Was he killed for being the peddler or for being the society man? Perhaps he was killed for being both at once! The book soon enters into a trial sequence and ends during the aftermath – answering the many questions behind the death of two men.

Halfway House is a fascinating book and is one of the best early Queen’s. It has all of the things that I enjoy about early Queen ( grand deductions, intricate clues) and several of the things that I enjoy about later Queen ( more characterization, great trial sequences). The book’s central premise is astounding, but in the end it doesn’t fully pay off. The solution to the clues of the matches and burnt cork are decent, but not fully satisfying – letting me down quite a bit as I had expected so much more. The killer is fairly clued and there is a brilliant clue that’s smuggled into the plot perfectly, though it was memorable enough to allow me to solve the puzzle as soon as a certain element behind the solution was revealed in the denouncement.

The book is much better written than most of the other early Queen’s. I actually could understand almost everything and wasn’t bogged down by an endless sea of investigation and deduction and investigation and deduction. There is an incredibly thrilling court scene here that contains some of the best moments I experienced with Queen, rivaling Calamity Town while just barely missing the mark. The characters here are much more fleshed out with Lucy Wilson being a standout. She is focused on for much of the beginning and comes of as one of the prosecuted woman that were featured in many of Carr’s best works, and has color and depth throughout the story while developing continuously. Andrea, being Joseph’s stepdaughter ( this family tree is very confusing) is also fairly decent and overall, the woman in this book are much better than the men in terms of substance.

There is a romantic subplot here that really slows down the plot and hurts the overall story. Many Queen novel’s would be much more improved if the unnecessary romance sub plot’s were removed ( The Door Between being a good example) and this one isn’t an exception. Even with it’s mistakes ( weak ending, romance) this is still a criminally underrated novel. It is Queen choosing to really experiment with the detective story that he had done repeatedly and comes off as a resounding success that is tiers above most of his early works. I honestly don’t understand why this isn’t more read and loved and I honestly hope that it receives more accreditation as the year’s go by.

A lovely if imperfect read that should be as praised as the books before and after it. 3.8/5 from me and with a rekindled hope instilled in my GAD reading soul. Can’t wait to discuss all of the juicy ( and spoilerish) details tomorrow.

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