Saturday, July 16, 2016

Queen Watch: "The Adventure of the Wary Witness"

Ellery Queen was created during the Interbellum wave of classical detective fiction. He was a gifted amateur, much in the vein of Dorothy Sayers's Peter Wimsey and Margery Allingham's Albert Campion, the latter bowing in 1929 like he did. (Christie's Hercule Poirot, by comparison, was an ex-cop.) He could be called the American equivalent of a British gentleman detective, although his father might come from a working class background. In any case he has his roots in the Golden Age. Murder mysteries of that era were artificial in construction and ultimately optimistic. More often than not the victim was horrible enough so that their death wouldn't strike the reader as a great loss. More often than not the culprit could be painted as someone deserving of their ultimate fate: death, lifetime imprisonment, or in special cases institutionalization. Most importantly, the hero could solve the crime by observing and thinking, and thus assure no one else would get hurt.

After the war, darker and tougher crime fiction became more prevalent, in authors as diverse as William P. McGivern and Graham Greene. The motion picture industry quickly got on board, leading to the rise of what French critics soon labeled film noir. While noir movies sometimes had happy endings, they had a tendency to imply a malign universe. In John Huston's forerunner of the genre The Maltese Falcon, Sam Spade turns in a deceptive woman he may love to avenge a partner he didn't even like. A later classic, Nightmare Alley, opens in a seedy carnival and dissolves into a nightmare of swindling, blackmail, and out-of-control alcoholism. Nobody in these films was clean, not once you got out into the world.

The Ellery Queen of Ellery Queen is more of a nice guy genius than gentleman detective, and the setting has been the New York of the economically unstable late 40s, but the rational optimism of Golden Age detective fiction has held pretty steady. That changes somewhat in "The Adventure of the Wary Witness." Ellery finds himself in the world of film noir, where he's not at home and not comfortable. Make no mistake, he can still unravel the mystery with aplomb. But the answers aren't going to make him happy.

There's not much in the way of "get to know the victim" in this instance. Actually it's victims, plural. One of them, a mobbed-up shakedown artist, is dead when the story begins. He's only seen in flashback, as the prosecutor and defense attorney make their summations, two different visions of the night of his murder. The defendant in the case is Linville Hagen, an old friend of Ellery's, giving him the kind of vested interest he usually doesn't have. Hagen's defense hangs on a woman in green who was also in the victim's flat on the night of the murder, and who can identify the real killer. If, that is, she can ever be found.

The woman, Dottie Lomax, does turn up. She's also the second victim. Or perhaps the first, as she seems to be one of those people obliterated by life at a very early age. A little digging turns up the fact that she was tricks as a preteen, that she was a morphine addict, that an emergency room treated her for a broken nose a week before she was meant to take the stand but that she wouldn't stick around to answer questions. Dottie's best hope for happiness, it seems, was to marry the hotheaded dimwit brother of the other victim. The plot thickens. But even this was taken from her, as the paterfamilias, played with awe-inspiring leonine grace by Cesar Romero, found her wanting as a daughter-in-law and had the marriage annulled after nineteen days.

(Side-note. This episode has two former villains from the 60s Batman series. Romero of course was the Joker, while series regular David Wayne was the Mad Hatter. A few others show up in the series. We also have a two-fer in the 60s sitcom veteran department, with Dwayne "Dobie Gillis" Hickman as Hagen and Dick "Second Darrin Stephens" Sargent as the DA.)

Frank Flanagan does a standard amount of clowning here, getting his hand slapped away from evidence by both Velie and Inspector Queen. Yet he also has a more pensive moment when he reminds Ellery that a lot of the men who went off to war came home changed. Ellery himself was apparently left out of that. My educated guess/headcanon has him being employed by the government in a more white collar wartime position, given that he was gangling, nearsighted and on the high side of draft age. But he definitely wasn't a soldier, which in this context makes him something of a hothouse flower. He's seen murder, but not slaughter.

We get glimpses of a sadder, scarier world here. It's in the tragic details of Dottie Lomax's abbreviated life. It's in the way victim Nick Dinello's wife barely tolerates Ellery's questioning as she drowns her sorrows. Even the all-too-human bond between Hagen's wife and his business partner muddy the waters at least. "The Adventure of the Wary Witness" is easily Ellery Queen's darkest hour, and you can only imagine that the Queens are relieved to have done with it.

Song and video have nothing directly to do with the episode, but struck me as aptly noirish. The band sounds to me like the wastrel offspring of the Fall and Husker Du.


semiconscious said...

we watched this last night, &, yes, it was a much darker episode than usual, with very little shtick. it's always a bit strange when watching this series to see so many familiar faces with so little to do. were these relatively younger stars (hickman, mineo) actually already over-the-hill? kinda seems so. anyway, i felt guilty at not figuring this one out (by neglecting to process a very clearly stated bit of information). the ending was appropriately down-beat, & everyone involved did indeed come off as especially unlikable (&, in their own ways, miserable). it was a nice change of pace, actually - the 'ellery as chick magnet' mechanic, in particular, was getting a litte old :) ...

the strangest part of the attached video? the fact that both of us immediately thought the character in the still for it was bashar al-assad?! :) . somewhat interesting, tho i'd say that, having watched/listened, it doesn't surprise me that this's the first i've ever hesrd of 'protomartyr' ('oh, the angst!')...

your take on pre vs post war detective fiction is well put. as previously mentioned, we're both currently waist-deep in a rex stout revival, & what's a bit unique, of course (& much like ellery queen), is how the series transits from the pre to post war period. my take (at this point, anyway): while many of the characters are both substantial & beautifully realized, the storylines continue to be far too contrived to ever do more than dance around the edges of noir. also, while completely unrelated to this, i feel i need to mention that this might well be the only mystery series i've ever read where the narrator is oftentimes an 'asshole'. not just 'cute', or 'confrontational', but a deliberate, obnoxious 'asshole'. it's weird :) ...

meanwhile, we'd been mixing our 'ellery queen' retrospective with a (first 2 seasons of) 'veronica mars' retrospective (the 3rd season being a disappointment best forgotten). it's the show that offers us all the opportunity to be the ultimate high school badass we'd all dreamed of being, while constantly reminding us that there're 2 distinct universes in this world: southern california, & everywhere else...

even when veronica mars isn't at its best, it's good. when it's good? it can often approach 'all-time' levels of tv awesome. i mean, even its theme song's awesome. highly, addictively rewatchable. if you've yet to succumb to veronica's charms, you need to make time :) ...

Ben said...

I didn't say too much about Mineo's performance in this. He's... fine. He's not called on to do more than the standard thuggy "dese dems dose" thing that an Italian actor from the Bronx had better be able to do. It's more than a little grim to note that he's one of two known real life murder victims to appear on the show. Put that together with Jim Hutton's death by cancer a couple of years after cancellation and it starts to seem like The Scottish Whodunnit. Hickman is a happier story in that at least he's survived to the present and seems content to have once been kind of a big deal. Although I'm sure he was expecting bigger things when he was cast as one of the leads in Cat Ballou.

I wouldn't be too chagrined about missing the solution. A gratuitously nice person among the suspects will arouse suspicion. One who just seems wimpy and broken - an accurate assessment in this case - can throw the reader/viewer. Given the conservative tendencies of mystery and cop shows, and the grief defense attorneys get in general, I was relieved that Ellery didn't do much grandstanding, just letting the facts speak for themselves.

"Oh the angst"? Somehow "Ach der angst" seems more appropriate, even though they're not German. Now that you mention it I see the Bashar al-Assad resemblance, despite the lighter phenotype. But I have to like a band whose lead singer embraces the grubby cubicle slave look.

The Nero Wolfe book I've read most recently was "A Right to Die", which was the sequel to "Too Many Cooks." It's an interesting snapshot of American thoughts on race around 1964. Among other things Archie's lecherous narration now extends to at least one young black woman. He actually sort of has a girlfriend in Lily Rowan but he still sounds like he's overcompensating sometimes. I've read someone saying that the Wolfe series was more of a domestic comedy about two bachelors than a mystery franchise, and that holds true in a lot of ways. Archie and Nero are the two best equipped to deal with each other's social kinks.

I was barely aware of Veronica Mars when it was on, in truth. That period was sort of "peak adolescent hero" in TV, so it probably got lost in the shuffle for me. I'm hearing a lot of good things about it, though, so I may go back and dig. The Wire, which also grew in reputation after getting cancelled, turns out to be worth it.