Saturday, May 7, 2016

Queen Watch: "The Adventure of the Mad Tea Party"

The classic tale of detection is a form of fantasy.

This shouldn't be surprising, really. The form was invented by Edgar Allan Poe, who also wrote about, for instance, a man's dead second wife rising from the grave as his deader first wife. It was popularized by Arthur Conan Doyle, a genuine Spiritualist who may have been a bit gullible in general. Writers of the Interbellum Golden Age may have been more rationalist, but the air of the fantastic remained.

Unlike other forms of fantasy, detective stories of the classical type need to act in accordance with the physical laws of the universe. That's the point. A clever reader can follow along, take note of clues, and at least entertain  the hope of solving the crime before the sleuth. Impossible crimes aren't really impossible. If Lord Moneybags was killed in a locked attic room, the solution won't involve the killer jumping out the window and flying away or walking through walls. No, the fantasy is of a social and conceptual kind. It's the idea that a crime may beggar belief and be committed in the presence of absurd people, but that a dedicated thinker can reframe the story in a way it all makes sense.

In the time between the wars there also came a rival method of writing the mystery, commonly known as hardboiled. In the hands of Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, murder and robbery should ultimately be solved, but in something like real world terms. Exotic weapons and flamboyantly eccentric detectives were discouraged. Hammett and Chandler were a breath of fresh air in their time, but a lot of what they wrought in terms of influence turned out to be fantasy that was less honest about being fantasy: impossibly tough and brave heroes and grubby yet convenient crimes.

This rather lengthy preamble gets us to "The Adventure of the Mad Tea Party", adapted from a 1934 short story, an hour of television that seems to know exactly where its strength lies. It not only embraces an air of fantasy and fairy tale, it's filled with elements from Lewis Carroll's proto-surrealist children's classics Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass.

It begins, naturally enough, on a dark and stormy night. The victim-to-be, Spencer Lockridge, verbally unloads on someone we don't see. He then gets up and dons a gaudy grey top hat, taking on the appearance of the Mad Hatter. He can't spoil his nephew's weekend, you see.

Meanwhile, Ellery shares a train's club car with a literary and theatrical agent (Jim Backus, off on another three hour tour.) The latter is trying to sell Ellery on a stage adaptation of one of his detective novels. When they arrive at the home of Lockridge, the would-be producer, a full costume rehearsal of the titular tea party. And when the masks come off, boy do they come off. The briefest conversation among host and guests reveals that nearly everyone regards all the others with acidic contempt. Lockridge, his wife, her mother, an architect: all prove adept at insults, but a little too thick and obvious to play mind games. It's amateur hour Albee.

Floating around on the edges is Doyle (note the surname), a butler who isn't a butler. As Johnny, the nephew for whom the party is being thrown, tells Ellery, Doyle is a bodyguard who used to work for the Pinkerton Agency. (Coincidentally or not, the same firm employed a young Dashiell Hammett.) He's not in the play, but in his own way he's in a masquerade as well. A laconic black man in a time when opportunities are limited all over the country, Doyle keeps an appraising eye on all the guests. He also comes close to castle doctrine-ing Ellery when the latter is on a late night search for reading material.

Nephew Johnny himself honestly doesn't seem like he'd be all that thrilled by an Alice-seemed party. One suspects that his uncle clasped onto a liking he had as a younger child. Johnny is wiser, or at least savvier in a cynical way, than his years, if probably not as much as he thinks. His vocabulary is filled with the language of hardboiled detective stories as well as some mild street level slang. While he tips Ellery off to an adulterous affair going on under his uncle's roof, his know-it-all attitude also drives our hero to one of his most hilariously snarky moments on-screen. Jim Hutton doesn't have to be so nice all the time.

When Lockridge disappears it initially seems like it might be a kidnapping, or even a simple lark on his part. Of course the audience knows this isn't the case, both because of the genre of the show and because it has an announcer who tells us who the victim will be before the episode even starts. What follows is more stewing and the kind of wild backstabbing that you expect from this crowd. A mass drugging is in the works as well, creating a skip in the narrative. More strange things follow.

All in all this has to count as one of the strongest episodes. I think it might actually be the best one without Simon Brimmer. Inspector Richard Queen is eventually brought in, though. As for Sgt. Velie, I don't want to give too much away.


susan said...

I agree with your conclusion that detective fiction is a form of fantasy, but one that must follow certain rules of the laws of physics as we understand them. It works in other forms of fiction too, including traditional works of science fiction and fantsy. You just can't have anything happen as it might in a dream. For instance, if you claim that you’re writing about agriculture, it won’t pass muster to portray people swinging oars at the sky to knock halibut down from the clouds, and if you say you’re writing about physics, it won’t do to show researchers weighing the grin of the Cheshire cat from Alice in Wonderland on a scale made of chicken-flavored ice cream. The laws of nature should be assumed to apply.

An interesting thing about early 20th century detective fiction is that while it presented scenarios that are entirely fantastic when looked out from our contemporary point of view the stories always held together as feeling very real for their time. The Nero Wolfe books can't be described as classically hardboiled but they do have the effect of being logical in the world Stout created for his characters.

(One funny thing we've noticed this time is that poor Theodore Horstmann seems to have no life of his own at all. He has no friends, no interests other than the plants, and lives in a cubby up on the roof. Plus, Nero doesn't always treat him very nicely.)

I was intrigued in reading your review of this episode to see what delight you took in the overall story. We both did. Now we really are going to have to order a new set of the Queen series and watch them again. It will be fun to compare our impressions of the stories with yours.

Ben said...

This is true. If, to take one of your examples, you wanted to write about people who knock halibut down from the clouds, you would have to at least establish the possibility of fish in your story breathing air and floating above the stratosphere. (Might be hard to get the reader to invest in that concept.) I do enjoy a touch of the surreal, but stories where absolutely anything can happen, as in a dream, are really hard to do well.

I wonder if audiences in the last century had a greater tolerance for the fanciful or if it's just taken on a different form. Probably the latter. Still, I do enjoy the conceptual boldness that a lot of older books have.

Jerry talked about poor Theodore Horstmann as well. The only thing I can think, as a positive counterbalance, was that he was so honored to be in the company of these great flowers that Nero's abuse seems trivial.

Your reactions may be different from mine - almost inevitable in at least a few cases - but I do think you'll enjoy the trip back.