Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Vintage Mystery Challenge Review: CAT OF MANY TAILS by Ellery Queen (1949)

It was a real pleasure for me to read CAT OF MANY TAILS for the first time. I thought I'd read it before and found, to my surprise, as I read along, that I hadn't. I know I've read Queen before, but right now my memory is zip, so I'm approaching the books as if for the first time.

Confession: I've always had a sort of problem with the Ellery Queen books - one of the reasons why they are not on my top TOP list of favorites - and this stems from the two fictional characters themselves, Ellery Queen who is a combo brilliant detective/writer and his dad, NYC Police detective Inspector Queen. They are just not very interesting people. In truth, they are a rather boring 'couple'. So it's fair to say that the crimes in these stories are meant to be more important and/or interesting than the detectives who solve them. I won't quibble with the idea. But for me, there usually has to be some sort of connection or affection for the main characters. Otherwise, I'm only reading for the puzzle. Not that that is, necessarily a bad thing, but it's just not what lingers for long in my memory. It's affection that lingers. (By the way, I was never all that fond of the tv series, either.)

A quick word of expo: Ellery Queen, author of the Queen books was the pseudonym of writers Frederic Dannay and Manfred B. Lee. They also founded the Ellery Queen magazine. Within the fictional stories, the main character is named Ellery Queen, who also edits the Ellery Queen magazine. A bit confusing, but you get used to it.

Okay, so having said that, I still enjoyed CAT OF MANY TAILS. It's such a damn fine puzzle and the setting, a frenzied fearful NYC - a serial strangler run amok - is well developed and brought to vivid life. The NYC of the 1940's/50's is the New York I grew up in, so I do retain affectionate memories of the city at that time.
The stranglings in Queen's book are particularly ugly crimes, they appear to be consciousless acts of random brutality. Or are they? What is the connecting link between the 9 victims? The police are stumped. The press revels. The city is in a panic. The crimes go on. The detecting brilliance of Ellery Queen is called for. He is brought in as a special investigator, but the stranglings continue.

When the final denouement occurs, it is less than completely satisfying because of its 'tortuous' nature. Writer Ellery Queen was, perhaps, unhappy with his own solution, so he turned it around and offered another.

Still, I recommend the book. It brought back the world of 1940's/early 50's New York City. A funny thing: when reading this, I saw EVERYTHING in black and white. (Possibly influenced by my own few remaining photos of the time.) It was a b/w world, I suppose, until the advent of color film. But for me, Ellery Queen seems even MORE b/w than most. Something in the prose, most likely.

I also read and liked Queen's THE SCARLET LETTERS, but not enough for review. It was a good domestic murder, a psychological exposition of a very twisted mind. (Though not reviewed, I'm assuming this counts anyway towards my Challenge reading total.)
This review of CAT OF MANY TAILS is my first submission in the Vintage Mystery Reading Challenge. See details of the Challenge here at Bev's blog, My Reader's Block.


  1. A fine review! I'm not a huge Ellery Queen fan (at least of the books) myself. I have to take these books in small doses. I did love the TV series, though. Especially the part when Ellery turned to the camera and said, "So, do you know who did it?" and then went to a TV break to give you time to think.

    No problem with the link. I can use it however you give it to me. Congrats on knocking out two!

  2. Thanks, Bev, I think we both feel similar vibes about Ellery Queen. Though you liked the show and I never did. But I must say, I did, on several levels, enjoy CAT OF MANY TAILS.

  3. I agree with your comments, Yvette. I like Ellery Queen, but he can be hard to take in large doses. I think CAT OF MANY TAILS is one of the best; the serial killer is well done (and far from the cliche those killers have become in today's mysteries). I agree, the conclusion was a bit of a stretch - but it was fun all the same.

  4. Yes, a very fun book, Les. I like how the city was made to seem one of the characters. That's probably why I liked the book as much as I did.

    I'll probably read another Queen or two along the way for this Challenge, but not immediately. I've got several books waiting to be picked up at the library, so after the John Dickson Carr, who knows where I'll wind up? ;)

  5. Thanks for this review. I read Ellery Queen stories--the magazine--while in high school a millenium ago, as my father brought them home.

    I don't remember them, so I'll approach reading these novels as a totally new adventure.

    I will seek out this book, as it was set in NYC, my hometown and as it sounds worthy of reading.

    Am now reading "The Thin Man," total fun. Hammett had a great sense of humor, while writing tersely.

  6. It sounds like the type of book I'd enjoy! I love reading novels with NYC as a backdrop.

  7. I've never been able to finish an Ellery Queen book. I've started a few of them over the years but just couldn't get into them as much. I may have to give it another go. Great review.

  8. Haven't read them have not even heard of them! so thanks for the review.

  9. CAT OF MANY TALES is a landmark book in the world of detective fiction. Glad it got attention in the 21st century. Queen (both the writer and the character) can tend to irritate. I read nearly all of his books as a teen and re-read two last year. I found Ellery really annoying at times now that I'm much (much) older. I'm not surprised to read that many modern readers find him lifeless and colorless and that Ryan couldn't finish the book he selected. The early books (from the 1920s and 1930s) are filled with pedantic lectures and you just want to smack Ellery for all his snobbish intellectualism. But no denying that some of his plots were sheer genius.

  10. kathy: But remember, a little Ellery Queen goes a long way. We're going to be reading lots of great authors in the Vintage Mystery Challenge. that's for sure. I just got home with a shopping bag full from the library. Ha!

  11. Pam: This particular one really uses the 'spirit' of NYC pretty well. Not that NYC comes off looking all that great. But it's well done. Pam, if you like mysteries set in NYC, try the books of S.J. Rozan, Jim Fusilli or Reed Farrell Coleman. There are many others, obviously, but those three are just off the top of my head.

  12. Ryan: I can understand your problem with Ellery Queen. But this one is mighty good. Give it a try.

  13. Mystica: you're welcome. As I said, we're going to reading lots and lots of terrific vintage mystery writers in this challenge. Lots of review coming up! :)

  14. J.F. Norris: Thanks for dropping by. Yes, Queen is to be taken in small doses. And really, you know, sometimes plot does carry the day. As in this one. But I must say, CAT OF MANY TAILS has some pretty good characters as well as a great plot. The so/so ending leaves a bit to be desired, but it's still an enjoyable book. I read Queen too as a young reader and liked him better then. (Though I never loved him.) But I'm willing to give another of his books a try. He is part of my reading past and I won't abandon him. :)

  15. I will try to find this Ellery Queen. I'm convinced.

    And I'll follow the vintage books written about, and then select what I'll read.

    I'm trying not to sign up formally for challenges--as it feels like assignments, deadlines and college again--but I did complete two last year, one formally, one informally--and I'm so glad I did.

    I am still reading "The Thin Man," which is delightful. No complaints here. Not only was Hammett an exemplary (and terse) writer, but he could sure write dialogue--and humor.

    I'll be sorry for this one to end.

    Do you read Hammett's books? If so, after "The Maltese Falcon," and "The Thin Man," what's best?

    Thank you. These posts are so interesting.

  16. Kathy: I'm so glad you're liking my book posts. They are such fun to write. I love recommending books more than just about anything.

    I'm only just now coming to know about challenges and like you, I don't like reading under pressure. The challenges I've signed up for this year appear to be pressure-free. But if I don't enjoy the experience, I won't repeat it, that's for sure.

    As for Hammett, I have to say I'm not familiar with any other of his books except the two you mentioned.

    Have you read Raymond Chandler? He is usually 'linked' with Hammett, both considered 'fathers' of the hard-boiled detective story.

    I also love Ross MacDonald's Lew Archer books.


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