Sunday, January 20, 2013

Patrick Quentin : The Jack of Diamonds, 1936

The beginning of a successful collaboration

Patrick Quentin, as Ellery Queen and others, was not only a pseudonym, but also a firm. In fact it was the combination of 4 pairs of writers, who signed differently:
the most prolific was formed by Richard Wilson Webb (1901 - 1966) and Hugh Callingham Wheeler (1912 - 1987), since he signed several novels under the symbol Quentin Patrick, most with Patrick Quentin, and all with Jonathan Stagge. In practice, the beginning of this highly successful collaboration on the 1936, when Webb, who, signing Quentin Patrick, had written two novels, first with Martha Mott Kelley (1906-2005), then, when she was married, he had written one alone and two other with Mary Louise Aswell White (1902 - 1984), he found Wheeler, an old friend. It must be said that both Webb and Wheeler, were British by birth, but then, later on, emigrating both in the United States, they had become citizens.
The Jack of Diamonds, 1936, belongs to the couple formed by Webb and Wheeler. Like the novels of the series Peter Duluth, psychological elements are mixed with elements typical of English mystery, in an extremely characteristic.
The plot is which seem remarkable.
Katherine La Motte, soprano; Sir Henry Bentley; Libby Hunt Farley, bridge player of the beau monde; John Derwood Thring III, grandson of the founder of the Tract and Treatise publishing house; Judge Homer Rock; Baroness Lili Tresckow, of  eponymous fashion house, are invited by Theodore Frensham Vanderloon, to an unusual reception, whose purpose is "To kill Mr. Joseph Starner."
It isn’t a board game such as the famous Cluedo, even if the reason is that: in the course of an evening dies a guest. But unlike the Cluedo, the aim is not to identify the murderer, as .. to locate and to kill the victim. Yeah, that's right. But why?
Who has made deliver the invitations, you can not tell he is familiar with his guests, but, like them, unfortunately he knows very well Starner, which is a vulgar blackmailer: Starner blackmails all seven persons for different reasons, but in the same way he has stolen them and he continues to steal them.
What better occasion of a reception, which will be asked the same Starner, to kill him, after having conveyed the wishes of all seven blackmailed? Moreover, all seven, being united by the same understanding will protect each other, providing all the same story.
The thought is great: the opportunity will be to skate on the ice, near a lake, close to the residence of Vanderloon, except that some of the ice will be broken, so that falling there, there will be no escape. Obviously it’s need to be Starner to fall: the ice was broken near a pole, which it has to serve to the killer to cling and at the same time to give a boost to the victim, condemning him to certain death. To avoid that Starner can notice the trap, the only lanterns that give light to the whole, have been obscured near the trap: in this way none of the seven conspirators knows who has ever been to kill Starner
. In addition, the snowstorm provided by meteorological service, "to determine" the suspension of telephone communications, and means to reach the city providentially there will not be, because Vanderloon will have done so to review the car at that time.
Starner arrives, but .. not only that he is accompanied by the beautiful Carmelite, his adopted daughter. And this a hitch: no one thought that there could be a witness. However, soon the situation evolves: Carmelite begins to flirt with the baronet and the atmosphere is relaxing because Starner doesn’t notice anything and he is relaxed.
But the unexpected happens. The only person by group that has not had the slightest acquiescence in the conspiracy, was the judge Rock: he has the unfortunate idea to confess it just Starner, but Libby Farley Hunt realizes it and she says it to the other : now the situation has changed, and the game can end badly. The seven do not know what to do, are undecided, but then “the dances begin” and the seven throw themselves on the ice to skate: they are surprised, however, by snow, and the lanterns, the ones that had to ensure sufficient light, turn off: now hazardous conditions, be extended to all. However, there is the pole like a lighthouse warns of the presence nearby of the trap. Only skating, participate in, Carmelite: a concern anymore. If she fell?
At some point, however, someone actually falls. Starner died. Everyone is happy.
Men go to retrieve the body, while the women wait in the heat and darkness.
A shadow observes and talks to the right place: the terror and fear is painted on their faces: Starner is alive. So, who died?
The victim turns out to be just the judge.
Starner discovered the plot and how the attempt to eliminate him resulted in the death of judge. Both he and his victims are aware of the rest: if before the weight of blackmail was unsustainable, how it now will be that all can be blackmailed for a crime that they warp and  caused the death of an innocent? More, the victims realize that even if they could kill Starner, the presence of Carmelite may cause only a change of cashier in the logic of blackmail: she is really nice but a poor orphan subtracted from the orphanage, or she is a cunning blackmailer?
Sir Bentley assures onlookers that he will take care of her: he will marry her (if one is in love, it seems reciprocated) and then he will close the mouth of his wife, at the occasion. Here then it reappears the occasion: try to kill again Starner, with the Starner gun that the butler of Vandernoon, Bowles, philosopher and friend of the owner of the house, stole from the host suitcase.
A tray with the gun will be left on the piano in a room where the lighting will be provided only by candles: candles blown out, no one can pick out those who will subtract from the silver tray, the gun. However, the choice of the murderer, will be assisted by Fate: 52 cards will be distributed to those present and who will find it "The Jack of Diamonds", will be the hit man chosen by fate.
Only things do not go quite all the right way. Starner will be killed, but .. by whom, if the same Starner took possession of the gun?
The gun will be found next to the head, and a wound above his right ear at close range testify to the police a suicide attempt. But really Starner attempted his suicide or he was killed? Why on his shirt will be found a burning candle, as if the candlestick on the table, dropping him, it had spilled over, despite the fact that everyone knew that the candlestick was not on the table but on the fireplace? And how do you explain two shots instead of one?
The Vandernoon butler, Bowles, will have the last word and he will rebuild the actual course of events.
The work brings together two genres, combining cleverly: the Thriller and Mystery. The moment guests Vandernoon exposes his intention, that it should be common, which is it to "get rid" Starner, starts off a very special process: the Thriller is expressed in "consecutio temporum" of the crime that is being preparing. Starner will die? The authors (and the skill is in this) knew that in the case in which the victim would have been suppressed, the tension would be exhausted. And then sensed that only by creating obstacles, from time to time, they would create suggestions and  expectations are always different: the first is the arrival of a person does not hold, Carmelite; the second is given by the judge, that being faithful to his oath moral ( a man of old-fashioned justice) he can not commit a reprehensible act ; the third is given by the revelation of the plan to Starner and how he will react; the fourth:  the victim is not Starner; the fifth by the change of plan murderer; the sixth from double blow gun; the seventh from the possible intuition of another character who, alarmed by the disappearance of Starner, should alert the police.
Here and there, the voltage has points of maximum explosion, when the expectation that everything goes in a certain way, is called into question and the atmosphere at the same time makes her: for example, when women are placed in an enclosed space, in a room, in the dark or in the shadows, waiting for the corpse of Starner, and in that space where there they should be only, they hear the voice of evil and unexpected Starner: So .. as if someone had played a gong close. A terrible effect.
The Mystery instead begins where the crime was committed, and despite assume who the executioner is, the surprises will be many.
Despite a certain naivety of the fund, which corrupts the plot, namely the fact that two people who have been known for a few minutes, already decide to get married, which can happen only in a dream, the unusual shape of the investigator will undoubtedly refer to Reginald Jeeves (Bertram Wilberforce Wooster's valet) of Pelham Grenville Wodehouse.
Not only.
The same situation of the conspirators who try to kill their blackmailer and they will agree in advance that will cover each other, if they were to be questioned by the police, is very reminiscent, in fact, for me it's a shameless quote of Murder on the Orient Express by Agatha Christie, especially when the conspirators, as potential murderers, become .. avengers. Even if, as appropriate, the facts are constantly being reversed, so it is hard to recognize a common matrix.
What I think, however, testifies to the genius of the plot? A small insignificant detail: the burning caused by the candle stuck in the chandelier, which masks other burn. No one thinks that a particular kind may be important. But it is not.
And so no one notices how a chandelier that comes cited as resting on the mantelpiece, then it is found as falling off a table. Why it will have been moved?
Here is the touch of genius.
The hypotheses put forward about the literary references of which I believe to have been built this short novel, I think are sufficiently valid, based on the fact that the two, Webb and Wheeler were before becoming American citizens, British citizens. In addition, Webb is known, was "very well read" not only in the detective genre
One last thing.
Some, such as Pirani, author of an important Bibliographical Dictionary of Crime Fiction in Italy, say that the first story signed by Q. Patrick/P.Quentin would be Killed by Time, which appeared in 1935, one year before the story.
Others say that the first story would be just The Jack of Diamonds.
Mauro Boncompagni told me long ago that he had learned, from an american friend of his, about a letter written by Webb to Dannay (one of the two Queen) in which he talks about his first novel, appeared in 1933 on "Liberty", an American magazine, unfortunately without specifying the name (perhaps because Dannay already knew it).
However, it is evident that in the case of Killed by Time if not in the case of the other of 1933, one should speak of stories written before the two should meet again. So, stories belonging to the period in which, more or less, Webb worked with Mary Louise White Aswell, with whom, precisely in 1935, began publishing the second fruit of their collaboration, The Grindle Nightmare,1935
(also Darker grows the Valley).
One gets that right The Jack of Diamonds could be the first result of the collaboration Webb-Wheeler, perhaps.

Pietro De Palma


  1. I reviewed this two years ago, Pietro. Here's the link. I thought it was OK, a bit too familiar with callous characters some of whom seem sociopathic. And the entire plot is illogical. A skating party at night? Unsafe and foolish.

    I have a large collection of Q. Patrick stories as they were first published in The American Magazine. "Jack of Diamonds" first appeared in Nov. 1936, by the way. It looks like it could very well be the first Wheeler/Webb collaboration. I would love to dig up info on the lives of those two men, how they met and began their writing duo.

  2. I also think that this is their first work, as the entire bill of the short story is quite sour. There are good, sometimes great ideas (that of the burn is brilliant), and there are also scarce ideas: two people who fall in love in another two minutes and a little more and decide to get married; you say about skating night. Then there is the issue of gun: the gun was taken from the victim. One carries a gun because he wants to serve or offense (the murderer) or defense (the cop), but the first shot in what is prejudice? Would only serve if he planned the action before going to the reception, but the victim did not know anything about the plot. Even in the case where the shot blank was inserted after into the charger, why the victim would have brought with him?
    There are flaws who show that the story was an early work of the two, still immature, not fully filed. In my opinion, obviously.