Saturday, May 28, 2016

Queen Watch: "The Adventure of the Blunt Instrument"

Writers, as distinguished from actors or musicians, are in a solitary field. Many are introverts by nature, but even those who aren't basically work on their own, wrestling with their own hangups in order to get something on the page. So there are fewer blowups and confrontations just because so often there's no one to confront.

Still, there are such things as literary feuds. If an author has any success, that can bump up against someone else's success, and then you get into personal clashes. See Mary McCarthy vs. Lillian Hellman, or Gore Vidal vs. anyone.

This time out the victim is one of Ellery's rival mystery writers, Edgar Manning. In a touch you could see as clever or too on-the-nose, he's named after the mystery field's most prestigious award, which was itself named after genre pioneer Edgar Allan Poe. And in fact the story opens with Manning winning a best novel award that's established in-universe as being a pretty big deal. When he accepts the award in public he comes off as merely full of himself, in a way that could be found charming. When he's safely - or not so safely - at home he calls Ellery to, it is obvious, rub the younger author's nose in it. Ellery, home with a cold that will recur as a running gag throughout the episode and keep him, refuses to rise to the bait and in fact tells Manning that he voted for the novel that netted him the trophy. But Manning's revealed himself as something of a cad, and the revelations about his character will only get worse as things go on. You know the drill.

But of course he's gone by that time. Manning mentions something about a rash person come by to balance the books, and then he's murdered, leaving Ellery as an aural witness. It takes a call back after the line goes dead to assess all of what happened. Then Inspector Queen goes out to the house to do some inspecting, reluctantly allowing his ill son to tag along.

Once they get there, the victim's put-upon secretary lays out the scene in perfect detail, unfolding into an uncannily cinematic recreation of the fatal after-party. Flashbacks that are more vivid and detailed than what nearly any person would tell in real life are an old Hollywood custom, of course. Sometimes it's subverted, with The Usual Suspects reaching the height of "never trust a flashback." That's not the case here, as a wrong-footing flashback would make the case impossible to solve before the episode's end.

Anyway, it seems that between his victory and his murder, Manning made sure to alienate about everyone in sight. His research assistant is drunk and bitter, and it's later revealed that the award-winning book was entirely from his own effort. Among his other offenses are playing his publisher and the publisher's ex-wife/competitor against each other, blackmailing his lover, and generally treating his secretary like crap. Most of these people will be satirized in his next novel as well.

As will one other suspect, a hardboiled detective writer pretty blatantly based on Mickey Spillane. This author seems to feel some pressure to be a street-smart tough guy in real life, browbeating other suspects and sometimes threatening to beat up Ellery. Our hero obviously finds this pretty amusing. He towers over the other writer, Nick McVey, of course. Whether I've mentioned this before or not, Jim Hutton was very tall, so much so that he and Paula Prentiss were frequently paired in movies because she was the only contract actress even in range, height-wise. That's not the reason he laughs it off, though, as a burly short man can do damage to a gangly one. But he's spent enough time with Sgt. Velie to know real tough guys don't have to advertise.

For solving the mystery it's helpful to note that if a work of fiction seems a little too quick to eliminate a suspect, there's probably more to the story than you know. Beyond that this one has a few assets in its favor. Jim Hutton has great fun in the central role, confident in his interpretation of Ellery Queen as an eccentric genius whose boy-next-door quality can't obscure the eccentricity or the genius. Two other performances stand out in contrasting ways: improbably glamorous Eva Gabor as the lover with a secret, and Method-intense Dean Stockwell as the frustrated assistant.

Then there's the look. This is one of the most beautiful Queen episodes, due to both the fluid camera work and the mix of Art Deco and Mid-Century Modern interiors. Say what you want about Edgar Manning, but he seems to have had taste.


susan said...

You've written another very thorough and entertaining review of an episode we'll soon be able to watch ourselves.

Yes, you'll be pleased to know our new collection has arrived and we watched the premiere story last evening, 'Too Many Suspects'. In a way, and certainly after having read some Nero Wolfe novels, it was kind of misnamed since there weren't really very many suspects to consider. Now I should remind you that although we did watch these shows a few years ago we hardly remember the individual stories at all (too many books and movies in between).

So, it couldn't have been Ray Milland because we knew from the introduction he'd been wearing a disguise when he went to the (unremembered bar). His wife seemed a very unlikely murderer and her story about someone entering the apartment and waking her appeared true. The secretary didn't seem to have a reason but her name was Gail and the tv news had been reporting a storm. The designer's Norma collection was an obvious anagram of Ramon and I thought he was the likely culprit. Yes, the son was a hothead but I hadn't guessed he'd gone back or that she'd let him in again. Then at the end Ellery did his thing in the very tacky (compared to the radio station) television studio and showed the point of the dying clue was that she'd pulled the plug the second the sun appeared on the screen. Now how could she have known that would happen as she crawled across the floor in her final moments?

Still, it was fun and you're right that the quality of the actors, sets and period detail are amazing. It's truly a shame that the program was cancelled after just one season.

I remember Jim Hutton and Paula Prentiss were a very comfortable match with one another as far as both having very open and pleasing personalities.

Ben said...

EQ was a rather unique experiment of a show. I hope you're enjoying.

Yeah, the title "Too Many Suspects" is pretty comical. The pilot movie has fewer suspects than any of the other episodes, which are about half its length.

As I may have mentioned before, the pilot does make a good decision about making the actual culprit less sympathetic, as compared to the book it was based on. That makes it a little less downbeat when they have to take him away. As for the dying clue, yeah, that kind of takes a leap of faith. The tackiness of the TV studio is probably historically accurate, at least.

They did aim high in terms of how the show looked and the guest stars. I guess they were counting on higher ratings than they got, given the budget. Ah, what might have been.

Thus far I've only read about the movies Hutton and Prentiss did together. I'm sure they made a loverly couple, though. Her I mostly remember as that doomed reporter in The Parallax View.