Saturday, April 16, 2016

Queen Watch: The Adventure of the 12th Floor Express

This one is something of a mixed bag. On the minus side the culprit is pretty easy to figure out. I don't mean that it's easy to figure out Ellery's actual, step-by-step solution. That's fairly arcane. But the prima facie case, the person with the right mix of means, motive, and opportunity, presents itself relatively early. So when Jim Hutton's Ellery turns to the audience in that charming way of his and asks if we've got it figured out, you may just be waiting for him to fill in the details. Of course if you're like me you won't mind at all the concept of this person doing a lengthy prison stretch.

On the plus side, this is very well-directed by Jack Arnold. Arnold was in the main a TV director, but he had some good B-movies under his belt too, having helmed The Incredible Shrinking Man and High School Confidential in the fifties. The same year as this episode he also directed a Fred Williamson movie called Boss Nigger. The seventies were weird. Anyway, it's not a showoffy directing job, but he uses the medium very well. There's a moment at the Queen home where Ellery figures out a piece of the puzzle - not the whole thing, not yet - and the camera moves in a way that clues you in to what he's thinking.

The plot concerns a newspaper publisher, Henry Manners, who gets onto a private express elevator in his paper's building and who has been shot dead by the time he reaches his floor. So this episode is set in the world of big city journalism, which in media going back a ways often does overlap with crime and police work. Think of Hecht and MacArthur's play The Front Page and its movie adaptations. Not too surprisingly, this episode marks the return of Gazette reporter Frank Flannigan, boisterous and excessively pleased with himself. And it's also arguably the first locked room mystery on Ellery Queen. If the murder of a man on an elevator no one else could ride doesn't seem impossible, what crime does?

Another thing to note about this one is the way it's rooted in the show's period setting. The pilot movie and most of The Adventure of Auld Lang Syne The rest of Ellery Queen's first and only season take place in 1947. The Cold War is in its very early stages here. But not so early that suspected communists and subversives aren't already being blacklisted and otherwise abused. The Red Scare makes an appearance here in the form of a lawsuit being brought against the paper by an unseen luminary whom one of the star columnists has slimed in its pages. The columnist is played by Pat Harrington, Jr. which means that a week after Howard Cunningham as a shouty sexual harasser, the audience got Schneider as an insufferable redbaiter. Even regular viewers of One Day at a Time - which I wasn't - might have trouble recognizing him, though. As with the racism of the past, with McCarthyism - which admittedly wouldn't be called that yet in 1947 - the creator will want to put their heroes on the right side of history. The Queens are on the right side of history here, but it doesn't seem false because they're so obviously dealing with a fraud.

Speaking of history, 1947 was also not a particularly great time for career women. In fact you would have seen more women working outside the home 2-3 years earlier, due to the fact that so many men were overseas or otherwise relocated by Uncle Sam. Once the war was over, the pressure was on for women to go back to the way it had been. Seen in this context Harriet Quarters's determination to make it as a publisher is quite admirable. Yes, she goes into all-business mode as soon as her brother is murdered, which is what makes her one of the prime suspects. And yes, as a woman of means she has options that a middle class wife might not. Still, compare her to the weepy secretary who didn't see anything because her boyfriend was proposing to her. One's codependent, the other is concentrated.

All-in-all a good story, if not a spectacular one. Something much wilder is just around the corner.


susan said...

I'm really glad you're enjoying these so much that you've taken the time to consider them in such depth. That somebody can be murdered on an elevator between the lobby and the 12th floor without, seemingly, having the thing stop on the way is quite a puzzle. Like the others, I can't pretend to remember this episode either since we did just watch the series once and that was a while ago.

It was interesting to read about Jack Arnold as the director and I like the idea that he found a subtle way to indicate what Ellery was thinking at a particular moment. Good directors always know how to make an already entertaining concept better.

I found an archived NYT article called Ellery Queen's Double Lives that briefly mentions their beginnings as authors, but concentrates on their magazine. On the 10th anniversary in 1951 Agatha Christie had Ellery Queen on her list of the 10 best living mystery writers. I've read elsewhere that P.G. Wodehouse enjoyed their work too (He was close friends with Rex Stout).

Last week when I began reading a Nero Wolfe book called 'Too Many Cooks' I soon noticed a very weird thing. The story takes place at a country hotel/spa in west Virginia where Nero Wolfe has accepted an invitation to address Les Quinze Maîtres, an international group of master chefs, on the subject of American contributions to fine cuisine. So the setting for the novel in in the South where a large number of black people lived and worked. The copy of the book I began reading was second hand and seemed to be in good condition until I got a little way in when suddenly an entire paragraph had been blacked out with a magic marker. I started flipping through the rest of the book and found words and passages that had been treated the same - the ink often obliterating whatever was written on the following page. Somebody had taken serious offense. Anyway, because of an accident with ordering there was a second copy of the book not too far away - actually it was on the mantle in the lobby where we'd left it for a neighbor to read. Thank goodness it was still there. It turned out that characters in the book (including Archie sometimes) were calling black people by names that are now very offensive, and not just black people either, but just about every other minority you could imagine. Through Nero it eventually turned into a lesson about mutual respect among people but it was still something of a shock to hear those terms used in such a casually cruel way. While I understood why the earlier reader had reacted badly I still couldn't excuse him deliberately destroying the book.

Anyhow, you're right too that women were soon chased back to their ordained places in the kitchens and beauty parlors after the war. Many of them weren't happy about it while others obviously were because it soon turned out there was a large number of children to be cared for. Nobody yet has figured out a proper balance for that but maybe we're getting closer. My personal idea is that everyone should get paid decently for working a whole lot less. I mean just how much stuff of all kinds do we need? I can hardly bear to look at all the plastic just at the grocery store, never mind everywhere else. So much waste.

This is turning into a letter so I should stop soon. I loved reading your thoughts on this episode of Ellery Queen and will be looking forward to the next whenever you get around to writing it.

Ben said...

Oh yeah, I can certainly understand not having details fresh in your mind after a certain amount of time.

TV directors, as compared to movie directors, shoot a lot of scripts in a relatively short amount of time. Usually someone else's script. On the one hand this can lead to less personal involvement in the filming. But it can also give them time to learn and reflect on what works, giving them a few new ideas.

Interesting article from the NYT. One surprising bit was from the list of authors who had published in EQMM. Edna St Vincent Millay? I wonder which poem(s) they published of hers. Or did she dabble in detective stories?

I read Too Many Cooks not too long ago. It was different in a couple of ways. For one thing it took place in West Virginia, meaning Wolfe and Archie were well outside of the Manhattan stomping grounds. And yes, the appearance of black characters with speaking parts is somewhat surprising in a mystery novel from the thirties. Archie Goodwin is a little provincial here, using somewhat offensive language. It was a different time and all that, but I wonder if Rex Stout was doing it on purpose. In terms of cross-racial understanding, Wolfe seems more progressive than his secretary/leg man, which makes for an interesting contrast since Archie is the more ingratiating and outwardly heroic of the characters.

No one's truly excess. I think work should be personalized. People can make different kinds of contributions.

There's been another entry since this one, of course. Another's coming up soon. Definitely don't mind hearing from you.