writing in balance

When I was young, I was really into the mystery novels of Ellery Queen. There was one book in particular that always stuck in my mind. In it, a famous novelist was murdered, and the detectives discovered a locked room in her house, adjoining the room where she wrote. Another woman had lived in that room, in secret, apparently as a prisoner, and she had actually written the books which had made the novelist rich and famous.

This setup stayed in my mind for years (decades, really), but I didn’t know the title of the book. I didn’t remember anything else about it, and I wasn’t even 100% sure that it had been written by Ellery Queen. In the pre-web days, it was a lot harder to find out the answers to these sort of questions, and in any case Ellery Queen books are not much talked about these days (and there are a lot of them – quite a few of the later ones ghostwritten – and most of them are usually out of print).

But then I found it, I think from a summary on Amazon. It’s called The Door Between. I immediately bought it and read it, of course, and I quickly realized two things.

One was that I had remembered those few details accurately. The other was that it was badly written.

The early Queen novels were pretty classicly cerebral, but this one appears to reflect a desire to be more muscular. All the male characters seem to yell all the time, and mostly they seem to be about to punch each other. There’s a hard-boiled detective character who’s a pileup of cliches. He’s apparently there as a foil and contrast to Ellery Queen, who’s so unmuscular that he’s still wearing his pince-nez glasses (they would be done away with soon after).

There are some cringe-worthy Asian stereotypes, too (both Japanese and Chinese). And I don’t accept the argument that this is just a reflection of the times (the book was written in 1936), since the Philo Vance books – which were earlier and which were a big influence on the Queen books – are almost completely free of this sort of thing. In fact, Vance often earns the scorn of the official police by treating people of other races, including servants, the same way he treats white people.

The main character in The Door Between, a teenage girl, spends most of the early pages being unaccountably grumpy (after an early life which is reported as being entirely sunny). Then she realizes that she Needs To Be Marrried. She pursues and catches a fiance (this whole part of the book is pretty painful), and then she spends the rest of the book being accused of murder, repeatedly. She reacts to each accusation by weeping, usually clutching the lapels of some man’s jacket, and feebly protesting her innocence. All the man around her seem to fall in love with her, for no apparent reason, even to the point of fiddling with the evidence to keep her from being accused again. Which never works, of course.

But, that being said, the story is great. The cental premise (the prisoner who actually writes the books) is powerful and plausible. The solutions are clever and well set up (it was a standard trope in Queen books that there would be a series of solutions revealed, each one completely airtight but each one then exploded by new evidence being discovered). And the book ends as some of the Queen books from this period did, with a public reveal of the “solution,” and then a scene where Ellery confronts the actual murderer with the final explanation, which will never be made public.

This was the great theme in the middle-period Queen books, that revealing the truth behind a murder can often cause more harm than good. Quite a few of the books in these years explored different aspects of this idea. I haven’t really used this yet in the Jan Sleet mystery stories, but I’m sure I will. I’m quite influenced by Ellery Queen, as I’ve talked about here and here and here.

But there’s a reason I’m writing about this here, which is that, as I re-read The Door Between now, I wonder how’d react if I was reading it for the first time now. I’m a lot more discriminating than I was when I was a kid, after all. Would I stick it out, getting past the bad writing, to find how how good the story was? Maybe not.

I was thinking about that when reading an indie novel recently. Within a few paragraphs, two words were used incorrectly, one sentence was very badly constructed, and one word was misspelled. I was tempted to chuck it. No matter how good your story is, if people get turned off by your words and your sentences, they may not finish your book, and in any case they’re much less likely to buy your next one.

As we’ve talked about before, here and elswhere, indie books don’t get the benefit of the doubt. So, my point is that indie writers need to be sure everything is correct, particularly things which really only require a dictionary.

“Ellery Queen” was actually two men. One did the plots and the other wrote the words. With The Door Between, one was firing on all cylinders and one wasn’t. For those of us who do both (which is most writers, of course), we need to be sure our words live up to our ideas (and vice versa – I’ve read blogs for example where every word is used perfectly and every sentence is a thing of beauty, but the writer has absolutely nothing to say).

Anyway, there’s my point. The Door Between has given me a lot of pleasure, but only because I read it for the first time when I was very young. Otherwise, I would have missed out on all it had to offer me.

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