Thursday, February 23, 2006

Dead Man's Tale, Ellery Queen

Title: Dead Man's Tale
Author: Ellery Queen
Rating: Poor

Ed Ting and I go back a ways. We were at the U of I together years ago, and ran with many of the same crowd, including our fine leader here, Uncle Doctor Reverend Douglas J. Shaw. It was a good crew, and we had a good time.

As the readers of this forum know, Ed has been reviewing Ellery Queen novels for some time now, and giving most of them rather breathless reviews. One of those reviews resulted in a conversation, which resulted in his loaning me three Ellery Queen novels. Such are the tangible results of ancient friendships.

Dead Man's Tale is the first of those three. It's a double with Death Spins the Platter, and it came first, so I read it first. Of the three, I believe it is Ed's least favorite.

OK, I hear you ask, what do I think of it?

Way back in high school, so many years ago I barely remember it, I took a creative writing course. (Yes, I know, this isn't anything about the book yet. Please be patient!) In that class, we wound up hitting on a common thematic element in the stories we wrote. One student - whose name I honestly cannot remember, but should go down in history - wrote a detective story in which the detective goes through all the motions of solving the crime, and finally announces he has the answer. This announcement comes as he and his sidekick are crossing a street. They are both run down - and killed - by a passing car, and the story ends. That became "the creative comp" ending - kill your characters off before things were done.

And we did that, in spades. Nearly everyone in the class wrote one or more stories in which everyone of any importance dies, generally with the story still unresolved. We'd read these stories out loud in class and laugh. It was, in hind sight, pretty silly.

While Dead Man's Tale doesn't quite follow the creative comp strategy it comes amazingly close. (See, I did get back to reviewing the book!) Most everyone dies. Shot. Generally for the wrong reasons, but just close enough to the right reasons to keep the plot moving forward.

So, to drive the point home, this is a review of things this book is not. And the first thing this book isn't is a "creative comp" book, but only because not quite everyone winds up shot by the end. It's a close thing, but it falls just short there.

It also isn't a mystery. Now I may have an oddball Ellery Queen book here, but there is nothing for me to try to figure out as it goes along. It tells a story, linearly, and we know who is doing what as it happens. New characters are introduced, of course, but only as needed. Then they are generally shot.

Something else the book isn't: it isn't about Ellery Queen. He never makes an appearance. Now please correct me if I am wrong, but I always thought the Ellery Queen books featured a detective named (naturally) Ellery Queen, who solves mysteries. Apparently not this one. What have I missed?

And finally, one last thing this book isn't: well written. I found the prose choppy, and the characters were all pretty wooden. Of course, just how much can you learn about a character in a few paragraphs. And that's all we get, usually, since the next time we see them, they're busy being shot.

I hope the other two Ellery Queen novels I have are better than this. Ed seems to think they are, and I trust his judgment, for now.