Friday, July 27, 2018

Friday Forgotten (or Overlooked) Book: CAT OF MANY TAILS by Ellery Queen (1949)


This is a re-working and lengthening of a post from nine years ago. I might be doing this (re-working older posts) for the next few weeks as I happily read my way through as many George Bellairs books as I can find. Yeah, yeah, I'm in the middle of an author frenzy. Haven't had one of those since my Ngaio Marsh marathon of a few years ago. I get like this sometimes. But I wouldn't want to bore you by writing about Bellairs constantly, hence my mining of long ago posts. (I'm also currently reading a bunch of romances - happily ever after stuff which, again, would bore most of you to tears.)

Confession: I've always had a problem with the Ellery Queen books in general - reason why they are not on my top TOP list of favorites - and some of this stems from the two fictional characters themselves. Ellery Queen is a brilliant detective/writer who, along with the occasional help of his dad - NYC Police detective Inspector Queen - solves all the crimes that the regular police can't. But somehow - as written - these two are just not very interesting people in and of themselves. In truth, Ellery and his cop-pop are a rather boring, fuddy-duddy 'couple'. (Ellery's angst as the series progresses is actually cringe-worthy.) 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 character(s). Otherwise, I'm only reading for the puzzle. Not that that is, necessarily a bad thing - hey, it worked for John Dickson Carr - but it's just not what lingers for long in memory. (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/cousins 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 a book I thought I'd already read when I settled in for a re-read a few years ago, but turns out I hadn't.

CAT OF MANY TAILS is an entertaining puzzle set in a frenzied, fearful NYC where a serial strangler has run amok. The city is in the middle of a heatwave, everyone is sweating, frightened and impatient. The newspapers run amok. The cops fester against dead ends.The NYC of the 1940's/50's is the New York I grew up in, so I do retain affectionate memories of Manhattan at that time.

'August 25 brought one of those simmering subtropical nights in which summer New York specializes. Ellery was in his study stripped to his shorts, trying to write. But his fingers kept sliding off the keys and finally he turned off his desk light and padded to the window.

The city was blackly quiet, flattened by the pressures of the night. Eastward thousands would be drifting into Central Park to throw themselves to the steamy grass. To the northeast, in Harlem and the Bronx, Little Italy, Yorkville; to the southeast, on the Lower East Side and across the river in Queens and Brooklyn; to the south, in Chelsea, Greenwich Village, Chinatown - wherever there were tenements - fire escapes would be crowded.....The parkways would be bug trails. Cars would swarm over the bridges - Brooklyn, Manhattan, Williamsburg, Queensborough, George Washington, Triborough - hunting a breeze. At Coney Island, Brighton, Manhattan Beach, the Rockaways, Jones Beach, the sands would be seeded by millions of the sleepless turned restlessly to the sea. The excursion boats would be scuttling up and down the Hudson and the ferries staggering like overloaded old women to Weehawken and Staten Island. 

Heat lightning ripped the sky, disclosing the tower of the Empire State Building.....'

I remember those times - air conditioning was in its infancy (except in ice cold theaters and some restaurants). We hung out on the stoops or the fire escapes. All we had were fans - if we were lucky. Yet, somehow we survived. That's the sweaty setting for this particular tale of serial murder.

The stranglings in CAT OF MANY TAILS are particularly ugly crimes, especially since we get to know a bit about the victims BEFORE the murderer strikes. (It always appears worse when you have something invested in the hapless victims.) The crimes appear to be conscienceless acts of random brutality. But are they? Is there a connecting link between the nine victims? The police are stumped. The press revels. The city is in a panic. The killer lurks. Obviously, the detecting brilliance of Ellery Queen is called for. Despite his on-going angst and protestations (brought about by the case in a previous book), the brilliant sleuth/writer is convinced to take on the job of special investigator, but the stranglings continue.

Anyone who is familiar with the workings of mysteries and their plotting will (by the middle of the book) figure out who is more than likely to be the culprit but still, that doesn't spoil the fun. Oh well, excuse me, death by strangulation isn't exactly fun - but you know what I mean.

Now if only the book wasn't weighed down by the psychological (and to my mind, totally unnecessary) mumbo jumbo extremes of the last couple of chapters, all would be wonderful. As it is, the book succeeds DESPITE the last bits of psycho mumbling. CAT OF MANY TAILS still manages to be a terrific book. Though the tortuous way that Ellery goes about finding the truth in the end is truly fatiguing. 

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've stopped reading Ellery Queen for the most part because A) wasn't crazy about the sleuth to begin with and B) the books began to wear me out. All that philosophizing, all those multiple endings...

Having said that, CAT OF MANY TAILS is definitely worth a read.

Since it's Friday, don't forget to check in once again at author Patricia Abbott's blog, Pattinase, to see what other forgotten or overlooked books other bloggers are talking about today.

13 comments:

  1. sometimes Ellery and company are indeed unbearable; especially the Wrightsville novels... but i admit to liking the father-son relation and how they respect and work with each other: the ancillary characters help the gestalt, i think... i don't think i've read this one: maybe i did sixty or sixty five years ago... anyway, i'll see if i can look up a copy... tx for the interesting post...

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    1. You're welcome, Mudpuddle. I know I'm probably in the minority over Ellery Queen, but yeah, those Wrightsville books - UGGO!!! Though I must say I did like a few of the early Queen books.

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  2. I read lots of Ellery Queen books years ago and I liked them. I want to read some now and see what I think but I haven't decided where to start. This one sounds good, and I have heard good things about it.

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    1. It IS good, Tracy. I used to like them too, but I've gotten old and grumpy.

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  3. A fair cop on the Queens as characters, though I'm fonder of the literary, tv and probably the radio series than you...fwiw, EQMM was all Dannay's baby during his four decades there...I think Lee was more involved with their earlier magazine. Thanks!

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    1. I haven't listened to the radio version, Todd. Maybe I'll look on youtube one of these days. I didn't always dislike these books, but I guess I outgrew them. Who knows?

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    2. I agree with you about the characterless characters. I like the older Ellery Queen mysteries better than the later ones. I find myself picturing Jim Hutton and David Wayne as I read many of them. I do like the period atmosphere of the 1930s and 1940s best.

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    3. Well, as you might know, Lee grew to have writer's block, and the cousins hired ghost writers to do their books in the later years...some very impressive writers indeed as ghosts, but the ghosting did tend to tell.

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  4. My Dad was a big Ellery Queen fan and, while EQ is not among my favorite literary detectives, I enjoy the books. I confess I haven't read this one, so your review has me intrigued enough to add this to my vacation reading list.

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  5. Agree with your comments about the closing chapters. I find a lot of later Queen fatally fatiguing. Their sort of artificiality worked best in my view in the 1930s.

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  6. This book was recommended to me when I first thought to read an Ellery Queen mystery. I liked it pretty much, and had nothing to compare it to. I - a decade later - tried another, The Spanish Cape Mystery (1935) and liked it quite a bit. Much later again I read the Wrightsville books and decided never to read another Queen novel. Those multiple endings! Argh! If I changed my mind, I'd read another of the earlier ones, perhaps The Greek Coffin Mystery or the Chinese Orange Mystery.

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  7. "Cat of Many Tails" was filmed in 1971 as "Don't Look Behind You" with Peter Lawford as Ellery &Harry Morgan as his "uncle". It was my first Ellery Queen novel & not a bad introduction to the series

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  8. I never caught the Ellery Queen bug. Not sure why. I think I might have read one or two short stories, but never a novel. Not sure even your review will be enuf to get me on board, Yvette. In fact, I'll wager the review was more fun than an EQ book would be.

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