Ellery Queen’s great 1935 novella “The Lamp of God” turned out to be the perfect antidote for the lousy weather here Thursday.
The forecast was for sleet, and maybe ice, starting late Wednesday night and continuing through Thursday morning. My response to such a forecast is to a) batten down anything that needs battening down and b) decide what to read during the deluge,
I had been meaning to reread “The Lamp of God” for years—it’s probably three and maybe four decades since the last time I read it, even though I have gone on more than a couple of Queen binges since. But those binges are almost always focused on the novels, particularly the great run of their middle period, the 1940s and early ‘50s, starting with Calamity Town. I would read an occasional Queen short story, sometimes a handful of them, but their shorter-length masterpieces, 1934’s “The Adventure of the Mad Tea Party” and “the Lamp of God” from the following year never got picked up.
That changed this week.
I reread “Mad Tea Party” this past Tuesday, and enjoyed every bit of its crazy cloud-cuckoo-land playfulness. For all its whimsy, it’s a major Queen story, and a lovely example of the cousins’ ability to fabricate a universe unto itself, in which outlandish clues and misdirections are part of the natural order of things, things which, set asunder, only Ellery can set aright.
“the Lamp of God” is something else—and something more.
By 1935 Ellery’s character was in full evolution from the snobbish Philo Vance-clone of the early novels into a more recognizably human figure. Still brilliant, still obsessed with order, but less supercilious, less artificial, less derivative, less affected. Indeed, only once in “Lamp” does Ellery fiddle with his pince nez—and while I can’t guarantee it I believe this might be the last mention of that particular Philovian affectation in the entire Queen canon.
The Ellery of “Lamp of God” is on the brink of becoming the Ellery of Calamity Town, Cat of Many Tails, Ten Days’ Wonder and the other masterpieces that lay just few years ahead.
“Lamp” offers a magnificent stage-setting for the debut of this new, improved Ellery—in fact, the setting, and the mystery that unfolds there is arguably the most magnificent of all the Queen venues (although the forest fire that rages around the mountain-trapped Queen in The Siamese Twin Mystery is a close second).
Certainly the mystery that unfolds against “Lamp’s” setting is the most audacious the Queens ever wrote.
The novella is set on a remote Long Island estate during a fierce snowstorm. A young heiress has come to America to re-establish communications with the miserly father from whom she’s been estranged for decades. Ellery is asked by the miser’s attorney to accompany him and the heiress to the estate—where they are immediately snowed in, along with a gargantuan physician, the physician’s wife, and a hulking, mysterious (aren’t they all?) groundskeeper. The miserly father has died, secluded in his immense, decrepit, foreboding stone mansion. Ellery and the others are put up in the more comfortable (though lacking in modern conveniences such as electricity and plumbing) house beside it.
The stage is set.
The story grabbed me as I began to read in the middle of the night and held me on past dawn as a cold rain fell outside. We were spared the ice and sleet, but Thursday was a raw, bitter day, and I stayed in, reading “Lamp” and marveling at what the Queen cousins wrought as they wrote.
There is of course a murder. There is a missing fortune in gold. There are multiple suspects. And there is, most audacious of all, the strange case of the stone mansion the disappeared in the night.
Seriously—in the annals of impossible crimes, the disappearance of an entire stone mansion has to be at the top of the list.
Pince nez aside, I don’t think the cousins missed a single note in the entire short novel. They hold the reader’s attention in thrall, the characters are convincingly drawn, the mystery unfathomable, even by Ellery who, though committed to agnosticism, finds himself invoking God more than once—and from more than one religion.
To say much more would be to spoil the revelations (sic) that cascade over the novella’s final pages. I will say only that the cousins play fair—everything in the story makes sense. Admittedly, the novella takes place in a Queenian pocket-universe, though less artificial than the one in “Tea Party,” and the tricks that are pulled out of a hat in the denouement come from a hat in a believably real world, not a Mad Hatter’s Wonderland.
This is a marvelous story, well-deserving of John Dickson Carr’s opinion that it’s one of the ten best mystery stories of all time (the time of Carr’s opinion being the mid-40s). I have no doubt that it’s the finest thing the Queens wrote at less than novel length, and is the equal of all but two or three of their novels.
Perfect reading for perfectly awful weather! (And any other kind of weather, too.)
“The Lamp of God” is included in The New Adventures of Ellery Queen, Kindle version available from Amazon.