Another Review: Queen, Ellery - Halfway House (1936)
- Halfway House (1936) seems like a medium-level EQ work. The first two
long chapters are absorbing, as EQ and the police investigate a crime
scene, and learn more and more about the suspects' lives and the
events of the night of the murder, from observations and deductions
about it. These sections contain some imaginative plot twists. Then
the rest of the book is mainly filler, except for a couple a good
revelations (such as Andrea's statement at the end of Chapter 4), till
Ellery explains his solution at the very end. The book would have been
better at novella length, with this filler chopped out. The early two
chapters, the revelations in the middle, and the finale are all of one
unified form: vigorous deductions in which the detectives try to
explain the situations they find at the crime scene.
The finale depends on one strand in EQ's writing. Various clues to the
killer's identity left at the crime scene are developed by EQ into a
profile of the potential killer. Then EQ goes through the list of
characters in the story, showing how this profile fits one and only
one of the suspects. It is similar to the deductions from the shoe in
The Dutch Shoe Mystery, although the clues in Halfway House are less
purely physical than those in Dutch Shoe. As in The French Powder
Mystery, some of the best deductions turn on the flow of knowledge,
such as who knew things and who did not. And also on what people might
have known, had they been observant. The revelations in the early
chapters recall The French Powder Mystery in another way: they deal
with different geographical zones, and their boundaries.
Fans of pure detection will enjoy this, and the book follows in a
honorable tradition of "deduction through clues" in the detective
story. It pairs with The French Powder Mystery as a book with a
continuous stream of interesting detection and deduction, with a
special emphasis on investigation of a crime scene. But the finale
seems mild compared to EQ's best work. There is no complex plot, no
wild crime schemes or final revelations. Some of Queen's logic is
interesting, especially his reasons for concluding one character is
speaking the truth.
An early example in detective fiction of a "profile approach" is E. C.
Bentley's Trent's Last Case (1913). Chapter 11 of Bentley's novel
reconstructs hidden aspects of the murder, develops from this a
profile of five elements that must fit the killer, then deduces a
unique suspect who fits all five criteria for the murderer. This is
the approach EQ will later use in Halfway House. Before Bentley, the
technique can also be found in Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes story,
"Silver Blaze" (1992). Doyle arranges his profile of the killer less
systematically than Bentley and EQ will: both Bentley and EQ make
explicit lists of profile elements, and Doyle does not. But the Doyle
tale does unearth two hidden clues about the events of the crime,
which in turn work together to indicate one and only one suspect.
Doyle's work has the whole technique in its essential form.
A warning to readers: most editions of Halfway House contain spoilers
on their back covers, that give away some of the novel's early
surprises. One is advised to ignore these, and just read the book
without glancing at them. This is good advice in general: most blurbs
reveal too much! The early surprises are foreshadowed by plenty of
clues. This make their wild developments more pleasing and acceptable
to readers - unlike the equally baroque (if very different)
revelations at the end of The American Gun Mystery, which only had two
slim clues to support the major plot twist.