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Cat of Many Tails

Page history last edited by Jon 9 years, 7 months ago

Queen, Ellery - Cat of Many Tails (1949)

 

This is one of the best of the Ellery Queen mysteries, although it is rather schizophrenic in structure as well as theme. It starts out with a classic ABC murder plot (a series of killings where the intended real victim is 'disguised' by being one of a group of apparently random murders by some maniac). Halfway through, the murderer is revealed by a bit of luck -- his mistake plus meticulous observation by EQ -- and then the book becomes a cat-and-mouse story with the police trying to trap the killer. And finally, there is a surprise revelation in characteristic Queen manner, including Ellery's typical irritating angst attack, leading him to go off to Vienna on New Year's Eve to consult with an ancient and rabbinical old psychologist. (Note EQ's difficulty in accomplishing the trip -- this is post-WWII, when Austria was still partioned amongst the Allies.)

 

The serial-killer plot is a good one, with a truly novel solution based on what really connects a bunch of victims with apparently nothing in common. Also, the setting in late 1940s New York City is very well done, with its set piece about the effect on public morale of a random killer called The Cat by the tabloid press. This is effective, if overdone as is usual with an author who indulges in hyperbolic prose -- some could argue very pretentious and overwrought. In some ways, it is interesting to compare this with a real case, the Son of Sam business of the 1970s, where the media frenzy is accurately and amusingly shown, but the fictional events are totally improbable and overdone, with 39 dead after a panic riot during a vigilante meeting and press conference with the Mayor and Police Commissioner.

 

The entrapment section is more thrillerish, although it is well handled with suspenseful elements, creepiness, and the irresponsible behavior of a couple of Ellery's cohorts (who are typically irritating as a type often used by the author), and Ellery himself bumbling along -- he is not very effective as a man of action. This would make a fine movie, if it were done by a director like Hitchcock. The killer's own frustrations are nicely shown, as are his clever machinations.

 

Finally, the author has a trademark resolution where it turns out the first solution was mistaken for the most part, at least as to whodunnit. This is effective but it does not quite ring true based on the way the characters had been presented, and it suffers from EQ prose mannerisms such as one-sentence paragraphs consisting of a phrase. Ellery is characteristically guilt-ridden over his perceived 'mistake' and needs to indulge himself with a mea-culpa to a guru figure. (This scene, frankly, is awful.)

 

In all, I would rate this as one of Ellery Queen's two or three masterpieces. (A reader must be prepared to put up with his flaws as a writer and accept the book as written.) As mentioned, the New York setting is superb and there are some very ingenious plot elements and clues.

 

Warning: Pretentious writing has always been Ellery Queen's worst flaw as a writer, no matter how clever his plots. (That's why I say you have to take it as written when calling "Cat" one of the best of the EQ's.) Sophomoric/adolescent come to mind. EQ as the sorrowful Young Werther. The books would have been vastly improved with some ruthless cropping by one of the "Black Mask" editors. But no doubt Dannay thought he was writing deathless prose and wouldn't have stomached any meddling.

 

Wyatt James


 

Like Xavier, I finished Cat yesterday and had mixed feelings. Although it's often been called a masterpiece, I thought it was quite flawed in places.

 

The plot is not entirely original - it's a combination of Christie's ABC Murders and a couple of Anthony Berkeley novels in which a character is identified as the murderer halfway through only for it to turn out at the end that he was protecting another person. Was I alone, by the way, in suspecting Mrs Cazalis? As soon as Dr Cazalis was suspected of being the Cat, my nasty suspicious mind began to wonder whether he wasn't. Queen was known for his double solution gambit and it's almost axiomatic (except in books by Sayers and Mitchell) that a character who is supposed to be the murderer isn't. Only Mrs Cazalis could have had access to her husband's filing cabinet and the cords. Cazalis's sending his wife away to Florida and his attack on Celeste when he knew that he was being watched by the police suggested that he was deliberately offering himself up as a suspect and getting his wife out of the scene.

 

I also thought that the writing was rather bad in parts. The chapter where Dr Cazalis was being followed by the police reminded me of Christopher Bush or Philip MacDonald at their not infrequent worst - all that tedious detail about which street he was going up and when. The last three pages were absolutely dreadful - that nauseating scene where Ellery carries on like an egomanic adolescent and Dr Seligmann offers the moral of the book. Simultaneously pretentious and banal.

 

The first half of the book was very good, particularly the descriptions of an increasingly panic-stricken New York culminating in the riots at the town hall. (Queen does seem to be very concerned with mob violence, both here and in Calamity Town and The Glass Village.) On the whole, the first half of the book seems stronger than the second, where it became slightly dull and pretentious. On the whole - 7/10

 

Nick Fuller

 


EQ seems to have first used the Q.B.I. approach - brief, synopsized tales about realistic New York City residents - in the opening chapters (1 - 4) of his Cat of Many Tails (1949). They stress realistic accounts of the lives of all classes of New Yorkers, people who are "typical" of some segment of life in the city, and little eccentricity. EQ could have learned this from MacHarg's O'Malley stories, which use a similar approach. This approach is realistic, non-flamboyant, serious, without being actually hard-boiled. Characters are not typically "tough" either. Instead, they form vignettes of daily life. Much emphasis is put in Queen's tales of the difficulties of hard working people trying to earn money to support a family. O'Reilley in Cat is a good example. There are so many brief vignettes in the opening chapters of Cat, that the book can seem more like a story sequence than a novel. The same year as Cat was published, 1949, EQ began his series of brief tales for This Week magazine, many of which would wind up being collected as QBI. Ellery will coin the phrase "QBI" to describe his detective auxiliary force in Cat, in fact. Some of the satirical dialogue about Monica and her well to do father reminds one of such Calendar of Crime stories as "The Inner Circle".

 

The first four chapters of Cat offer a well done mix of detection and social portrayal of New York City. However, after this point, the book becomes much more suspense oriented, and much less like a true detective story. The mystery plot of the book resumes in Chapters 8 and 9. These chapters help explain the patterns Ellery discovers in the early part of the story.

 

There is also coverage of Civil Rights issues in these early chapters (1-4). A reporter for a black newspaper in Harlem makes some pointed pro-Civil Rights comments. These sections (Chapter 3) are consistent with EQ's introduction of non-stereotyped black characters in his 1930's works. There are also some brief but pointed remarks on Anti-Semitism.

 

In Chapter 1, EQ rails against pundits who claim that radio crime fiction programs are causing juvenile delinquency. EQ had such a radio program himself, so this was a personal issue. Clearly, long before violence on TV was a national concern, violence on radio preoccupied people too. Violent comic books were also a national obsession - in 1948 there was a mass comic book burning in Birmingham, New York by the community leaders, for example. The surviving examples of the Ellery Queen radio program I have read are distinctly non-lurid. They are well crafted mystery puzzles in good taste. It is hard to imagine them promoting crime or juvenile delinquency. Cat instead goes after sensational news coverage of real crime by both newspapers and radio, suggesting that such non-fiction sources were more often to blame than mystery fiction.

 

Cat is not the first novel about serial killing. In fact, we can cite John Rhode's The Murders in Praed Street (1928), Philip MacDonald's Murder Gone Mad (1931) and The Mystery of the Dead Police (1933), Francis Beeding's Death Walks in Eastrepps (1931), EQ's own The Egyptian Cross Mystery (1932) and Agatha Christie's The ABC Murders (1936). Of all of these works, Cat is especially close in format to Christie's novel. There is the same emphasis on an intellectual search for common factors behind the series of crimes. As in Christie's book, the victims' relatives get involved, and take part in the investigation as an auxiliary. In Chapter 5, Ellery even brings in what he calls the "ABC theory of multiple murder", which seems to derive from Christie's novel.

 

Jerome and Harold Prince published their first detective story, "The Man in the Velvet Hat" (1944) in EQMM; it benefited considerably from suggestions by Ellery Queen, according to the authors' later introduction. The story has features that anticipate EQ's later Cat of Many Tails (1949). Both deal with a serial killer preying on a large city. Both feature a diversity of victims, drawn from all social classes and ethnic groups, including a black victim. Both show realistic sociological detail in describing such victims. In both stories, the crimes are overpublicised, till a panic breaks out at a public function, and people are killed in the disturbance that follows. In both stories, the mayor works with the police, demanding a solution to the crime. In both tales, a trap is laid for the killer. These similarities are all in what might be called the "public" aspect of the stories, dealing with how the crimes are perceived and dealt with. The actual puzzle plots in both tales about the guilty party are completely different.

 

Behind many of these writers stand Fritz Lang's motion picture M (1931). In Lang's film, a whole city is terrorized by a serial killer, and the whole city becomes a protagonist in the story, with many small vignettes showing life in the city. A government minister and the police chief are characters in the story, directing the man hunt; we see the Mayor and police head in EQ performing the same role.

 

Mike Grost


 

See also http://at-scene-of-crime.blogspot.ca/2012/03/cat-among-pigeons.html

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