Saturday, July 30, 2016

Queen Watch: "The Adventure of the Judas Tree"

(Be forewarned. Parentheses lie ahead.)

Cercis siliquastrum, the Judas tree, is thought in folklore to be the kind of tree that Judas hanged himself after betraying Christ. While a number of linguists see this is a folk etymology based on a French phrase meaning "tree of Judea" the legend persists, not that the two ideas are mutually exclusive. Whether or not Judas Iscariot hanged himself from this tree, or any tree, or in fact was really the betrayer of Jesus, the name has a certain Biblical resonance, and there's a slight aura of Christian allegory to this episode. In that it feels like an Ellery Queen novel, some of which took on an allegorical role after Manfred B. Lee's conversion from Judaism to Episcopal Christianity.

(Jonathan Creek has also taken a title from the Judas tree. I can't review it because I've only seen the early episodes with Jonathan and Maddie)

The story here touches on the Christian - albeit not exclusively Christian, of course - themes of sin, justice, guilt, atonement, and redemption. This does not prevent it from being jam-packed with assholes.

After some opening business with the body, we cut to Ellery and Richard Queen at home. The former is under the sink, attempting to fix a leak and only making the problem worse. Velie arrives to inform his boss that there's been a murder in Brooklyn Heights. The Inspector leaves his son to deal with the mess from the sink and goes to the scene of the crime. While Brooklyn Heights is part of New York City the house is effectively a country manor. Victim George Sherman has been found hanging in his garden, a wreath of flowers from the Judas tree on his head. Ellery arrives driving in a helpless and reckless manner that, combined with the ongoing plumbing fiasco, makes a strong case for his sacrifice of basic skill for awesome training. Thereupon comes the first twist: as Inspector Queen informs Ellery, George Sherman was stabbed to death before he was hanged. Oh, and what's the awesome training? Well for one, Ellery takes a quick scan of the victim's study and from a look at the cups on a shelf tells his father to look for a left-handed killer.

As for the suspects, boy do we have some doozies. His former business partner is smug about both gaining full control of their business at a cheap price and being out of town when the murder was committed. The firm's council is the kind of lawyer who makes obscene amounts of money basically just to keep his mouth shut. The widow and the victim's doctor, aside from being lovers, are also just horrible people on every level you could name and some you probably couldn't.

(Cast notes on this motley crew. In order we have: Jack Kruschen, who played Jack Lemmon's neighbor and conscience Dr. Dreyfuss in The Apartment; Dana Andrews, full-fledged movie star of The Best Years of Our Lives and Laura, by this time in a period of genteel obsolescence; Diana Muldaur, sister of Geoff, former sister-in-law of Maria, and best known for her later roles on Star Trek: The Next Generation and LA Law; and George Maharis, one of the handsome lads of Route 66.)

Outside the household we find another two intriguing figures. One is Steven Yang, who knew Sherman in China during the war and had reasons to want revenge against him. Before he contacts Ellery everyone just calls him "that Oriental." This sounds jarring to contemporary ears, since we'd just use the perhaps overly broad "Asian." Of course the venom comes not just from cultural prejudice, but from the widespread belief that he's a murderer. When we meet him he turns out to be a raconteur, a gifted amateur painter, and a lover of ascots. He also claims to have found a broken man, and one who we know was already dying, so why bother killing him?

Then there's Father Devlin, a missionary who also knew Sherman overseas. The leader of an international charity, Devlin wears glasses that make him look like a less gleeful Dr. Strangelove, can't make eye contact with either Queen, and makes clumsy attempts to guide his own interrogation. Today his shiftiness would be a sign that he was crazy or had a sexual proclivity that you sometimes hear about priests having. In the more innocent time this was made it signified that he wasn't really a priest at all.

Perhaps coincidentally there was a real priest in England named Ronald Knox who not only wrote mysteries but also set down ten rules - implicitly parallel to the Ten Commandments - for writing whodunits. The unraveling of this episode's mystery requires a violation of one of Fr. Ronald Knox's rules. You could say it breaks two rules, but his injunction against including a "Chinaman" in a story was aimed at supernatural Eastern menaces like Fu Manchu. Mundane suspects who happen to be from China are a different story.

(BTW, Archie Goodwin, the "Watson figure in the Nero Wolfe series, is not at all stupider than the average reader. Neither is John Watson, especially when you factor in his being a surgeon. So while these are reasonable guidelines I'm not sure the best writers ever followed them, ahem, religiously.)

At the end comes the revelation. Ellery is mild and his father is somewhat courtly, but don't be fooled. They are there to ferret out the guilty. Even if this happens to be a case of "it's not the crime, it's the cover-up" some cleansing has been done.


susan said...

This was an episode we quite enjoyed. The references to the biblical themes you mention were well handled in that they didn’t make them so conspicuous that the conclusion was telegraphed. It’s interesting that Manfred B. Lee’s conversion to Christianity probably suggested much of the plot. You’re certainly right about the proliferation of jerks among the suspects.

Ellery and the leaking kitchen sink was pretty funny as yet another means of demonstrating just how hopeless he is at managing practical tasks, this one being one of those that really does call for an expert, unlike the day to day ones such as making coffee or remembering where he left his keys. His follow-up trick of bumping into the gardener’s truck came as no surprise but it was pretty neat the gardener was Bill Dana - a character actor well known to us when we were young as Jose Jiminez. There was no good reason for him to be funny but he always made us laugh.

I also recognized the actor who played Steven Yang, but it was Jer who told me he was James Shigeta, an actor who almost always was given the role of average Asian over the course of his long career. He played cool and sophisticated characters, heroes and villains both. That reminds me of an interesting subject that came up earlier in the week when we learned that Matt Damon has the starring role in a Chinese film called ‘The Great Wall’. I guess there’s been some understandable criticism about a white western actor playing a Chinese soldier but the producers are hoping to appeal to a broader audience and that’s understandable too. After all, it was another Chinese director who cast a great Japanese actor, Tadanobu Asano, to play Genghis Khan in a movie called ‘Mongol’. It does seem silly, though, considering the fact that up until now nobody has cast an other than white actor in a traditional white story. I’d love to see Denzel Washington as Indiana Jones or a Native American actor playing Gen. George Custer. for instance..

I never bought Ellery’s theory about the murderer being left handed because of where the cup had been placed on the shelf since in that case you’d replace it in the empty space. But of course at that point nobody knew George Sherman had committed suicide. Hmmm.. Ellery’s eventual solution turned out to be very clever after all.

The Ronald Knox rules were cool to read and are still sensible guidelines for that kind of story. The interesting thing we’ve both noticed, having read a number of Nero Wolfe books recently and Sherlock Holmes often enough to remember well, is that there is a big difference between the way Wolfe and Holmes treat their main assistants. Holmes always gives Watson all the information he has, which allows us readers to solve the puzzle; Wolfe, on the other hand, always keeps significant pieces of information to himself making it impossible for us to discover the the solution for ourselves. Although our suspicions about the culprit can often turn out to be correct, only Wolfe can provide the details of how the crimes were committed. Ellery Queen was much more fair this way too as was Agatha Christie.

Anyhow, good review once again. I’ll look forward to the next when you get around to it. Hopefully, Ellery found a plumber.

Ben said...

There's more online, in magazines and papers etc about the place of Christian symbolism in their work. Some of it may be people seeing what they want to see, as interpretation of art frequently works like that. Still, I think there's something there. And it worked its way onto the show in at least this case. Yeah of all the suspects, one or maybe two were at all likable.

I don't think I have or at least had any direct experience of Bill Dana's Jose Jimenez character. I do remember some business being based off of it in the Right Stuff movie. I do remember the "Si, Sy" routine that Mel Blanc would do on The Jack Benny Show.

Like many fictional detectives, Ellery's a logical thinker while also being an intuitive one. He seems to find out too late that logic and intuition won't help you much in the world of plumbing. Only the guy with the skills and the knowhow can take on that job.

I have heard about the controversy with Matt Damon starring in The Great Wall. There do seem to be some accomplished Chinese actors in it as well, but Damon's the only one who gets any attention in the trailer and poster. It seems to me like race and casting aren't the only problem here. It's also a matter of certain formulae needing to be followed down to the letter. The studio is giving the audience what they think it wants, and maybe they'er right but maybe it's backfirin.

But yes, James Shigeta is excellent here. Definitely the classiest suspect. He was apparently in Flower Drum Song as well, a movie musical I enjoyed a great deal.

The left handed thing was never ironclad, it's true. It feeds into the actual solution. I liked that part of what gave him the real solution was that Sherman had paid off the gardener a year in advance.

Rex Stout is kind of notorious for not entirely playing fair with the reader. In fact he seems to have been some what proud of the fact. I think it just goes to show that just as science fiction is ultimately an art and not a science regardless of how "hard" the author wants to be, detective fiction is fiction first and the author has a lot of leeway.

'Nother one up this weekend. There's a DVD box set that I've ordered from the library that will probably cause a gap, but I don't know when it will get here exactly.