Sunday, November 13, 2022

Ellery Queen : Halfway House, 1936




Ellery Queen's novel that ended the legendary first ten novels, Halfway House,  is a novel that contains many interesting things. Let's see why.

First of all, the introduction, always signed by the elusive criminal lawyer friend of Ellery Queen (who also appears in Face to Face) provides a fact that otherwise we would not have known: the title clearly differs from the scheme adopted for the previous 9, but we do not know why. . In fact, J.J. McC. asks Ellery Queen:

“As one of Ellery Queen’s more fanatical admirers I have long felt that if there was anything in this world surer than death and its concomitant it was the perpetuity of his title-scheme. From the Fall of 1929, when he wrote The Roman Hat Mystery, until last year, when The Spanish Cape Mystery appeared, the artful sequence of his book-titles has remained intact. I suppose it was their sheer repetition that made me expect an unbroken line of similar titles ad infinitum . . . or at least a line approaching infinity with the finite restrictions of terrestrial geography as the only limit.
And suddenly, like snow in July . . . Halfway House!
“It’s your own fault,” I told Ellery, as soon as I could reach him after hearing the news. “Studying those blasted plots of yours has trained me to ask ‘why’ to everything. Well—why?”
Ellery seemed mildly surprised. “But what difference can it make, J.J.?”“I suppose none; none of importance, anyway.

…But look here, that’s not answering my question.”
“It’s extremely simple. Gea failed me.”
“Who failed you?” 

“Gea. Tellus Mater. Goddess of earth.”

“You mean you ran out of geographical title-possibilities? Oh, come now, Ellery, that’s rubbish, and you know it.”
“Smile when you say that.”
“I wish you’d be serious! I’ve read the manuscript and I can’t for the life of me understand why you didn’t name the book something like . . .well, say . . . “ I gave it what is technically known as “the thing.” As a matter of fact, I’d been thinking about it all the way up.
But before I could spring it on him, he said: “You wouldn’t mean something like The Swedish Match Mystery, now, would you?”
“I swear,” I growled, “you’re the Devil himself. Well, what’s the matter with that as a title? It’s right down your alley.”
“But J.J.,” he murmured, “they weren’t Swedish matches.”
…“The truth is—Ella Amity gave me the title, and it was so apt I couldn’t refrain from using it.”
…“What difference would it have made if the shack was in Newark, or Elizabeth—if it was three-quarters of the way instead of halfway?”
“Oh, don’t be so literal-minded,” he said impatiently. “As a matter of fact, Trenton isn’t halfway between Philadelphia and New York. Ella’s phrase was poetic license. I’m speaking in a figurative sense purely. From the logical viewpoint what was the significance of the fact that the man was murdered at the Halfway House, at the stopover, at the omphalos, at the place of suspension? What logical question did it raise? Well, you know as well as I, and you know how everything—”

The novel could therefore have been titled The Sweedish Match Mystery. In reality, for the title to change, there is an underlying reason, and we will see it in the commentary on the novel.




Ellery, passing through Trenton, on his way to New York, meets his friend, the lawyer Bill Angell who convinces him to continue together, after he has dealt with a matter with his brother-in-law Joe, who is waiting for him in the evening in a place. Arriving there, a shack halfway between Philadelphia and Trenton, Bill finds Joe agonizing, stabbed in the chest, but before he enters the back door, he sees a Cadillac, parked in front of the front door, whizzing in the opposite direction to him. , led by a beautiful woman. In the room, shabby in decor, a coat stand with excellent quality jackets, curtains and a very tasteful carpet, and a brand new studio set that should have been given for their own birthday are out of tune. to Bill from Joe and Lucy Wilson. For the rest, the scene is occupied by a lighted lamp on a table and a plate full of burnt Swedish matches. Nothing else, except the murder weapon, still stained with blood, which has a small charred cork on the tip.

Bill immediately calls Ellery who inspects the environment, and marks the gaudy oddities of that corpse, a man who, according to Bill, worked as a jewelry salesman driving around in an old car, but who then wore tailored clothes at the hands of the New York's most famous tailor, on Fifth Avenue, and had in the garage (a shack nearby) a new sports car and even a boat, with which he used to sail often, seen by people in the neighborhood, when his wife appeared to be out for sell sample stuff. But the thing that most disturbs Ellery, who continues to look at the corpse is the resemblance to a person he had met some time before at a dinner in New York, a financier of the Jet-Set. Called the police, commanded by De Jong, the first inspections are made, and tire tracks observed that testify how a car has been there twice, as well as another. Meanwhile Bill has found a precious stone on the carpet, probably coming from a ring setting, possibly of the woman he saw escape, who could also be the killer if not a witness. A figurine that once existed on a car's radiator cap is also found out on the ground in the mud. From the investigations, a car that would be missing that sticker, seems to be the one driven by Joseph Wilson's wife, Lucy, who, however, would have had no reason to kill her husband, especially since by all accounts she had been a happy couple for ten years, too. if there were no children, even if witnesses affirm that they saw the very car driven by a woman with a black veil, which however Lucy never wore. A few hours after the murder, a dramatic truth emerges from other investigations: the man killed in that shack, who was hiding in New York Joseph Kent Gimball and was a well-known financier, had not only two identities, but also two families: one a Philadelphia (wife Lucy) and one in New York (wife Jessica Borden Gimball, daughter of well-known millionaire Jasper Borden). Basically he was bigamous. The most disconcerting discovery will be given by the new testamentary dispositions, announced by the businessman Grosvenor Finch, a friend of the family, as well as the concessionaire of the National, well-known American insurance company, according to which the beneficiary of life insurance for a million dollars, would not be It was the best known wife, but the least known, that is Lucy, who from subsequent investigations will prove to have been the first of the two to have been married and therefore the legal one.

After repeated twists, including the arrest and second degree murder conviction of Lucy Wilson, Ellery will solve the mystery, after the authors have invited the reader to confront the solution that will be delivered, through the Challenge to Reader. , bringing to justice a murderer who has always remained in the shadows, and the solution will come from those twenty burnt matches found in the plate next to the lamp.




Let's see what are the peculiar characteristics of the novel, known and not.

First of all, as anticipated, with the title that does not follow a predetermined pattern, Ellery Queen embarks on a new path: that of novels that are less complex from a formal point of view, which do not aim at the striking solution of a bizarre problem, but which instead, despite being always enough complex, yield to a more refined prose (doesn't Ellery tell J.J. Mc. that the title is a poetic license?) and to plots that instead focus on a more well-rounded psychological characterization of the characters, as well as on peculiarities typical of a more varied and not restricted only to those who can appreciate the aesthetic qualities of a dandy follower of Philo Vance. Probably this tendency to also pursue a different audience of readers, aiming to increase the female one, responds to the need to distance oneself from a certain trend that derives from Van Dine, who had traveled at the beginning because the fashion of the time required it to impose itself. , to undertake more personal paths, giving greater visibility to the talents and plots that gave weight to the humanity of the stories. And this is exactly what happens in this novel.

Although the problem is less complex, it is always compelling, but it also embraces issues that have a very significant weight on human affairs: bigamy for example, and the family tragedies not only of Lucy Wilson but also of the Gimballs. And not surprisingly, the section of the five in which the novel is articulated has a great human and narrative weight, preceded by an introduction (The Tragedy, The Trail, The Trial, The Trap, The Truth) that sees the bar Lucy accused of premeditated murder, in order to pocket the million dollars, the battle in the courtroom, the witnesses called to testify, including Andrea Gimball, daughter of Jessica's first bed (the one who lost the precious stone in the shack halfway in which Joseph was found murdered, "Joe"), and condemns her. The section that notes on the three women involved, and on the brotherly love between Bill and Lucy and the carnal love between Bill and Andrea, opens the way to those novels that will come after this, in which Ellery also changes her physiognomy and her way of approaching, becoming less snobbish and misanthropic and instead more sporty and at the same time sensitive to female charm (Paula Paris the journalist who appears in the so-called mini Hollywood cycle). It is essentially a further evolution of Ellery's psychological profile that the most analysts had already observed: from Ellery married and even with a very young child, who lives in the Tuscan countryside, we had passed in the course of a few novels to an Ellery that he had a very problematic relationship with women, loving more the brain problems and the closeness of his father and the New York police; now we are witnessing a further evolution of the character, who leaves his New York field of action in general, and ventures into unfamiliar scenarios, characterized by a multitude of characters and the description of the great American suburbs, nature, and of the people, leaving forever or almost the father Richard Queen, the doctor Samuel Prouty, Sergeant Velie, the chosen agents and all the very world from Van Dine of the first novels.

To these new characteristics that Ellery opens up to, and which can be glimpsed with the desired change of title of the novels, abandoning the one directly deriving from van Dine's novels, and which are obvious, are added the more hidden, cryptic, but no less interesting ones. , indeed on a certain side, even more: those deriving from the nature of the relationships between the two cousins ​​creators of the character, Frederick Dannay and Manfred Bennington Lee, hidden behind the common pseudonym, which from some letters found much later, it was found to be extremely thesis, conflicting, and that the two united only in the drafting of the plots and in the writing first of the novels and short stories and then of the radio plays. This internal struggle, aimed at affirming who was actually hidden behind Ellery Queen, can be detected through a metatextual analysis, giving value to hidden meanings, especially numerological, relating to the Jewish nature of the two cousins ​​(and always present in rabbinic religious texts).

Affirming that you feel the need for a text that addresses once and for all the symbolism present in Queen's work and often hidden, it must also be said that someone has applied to it. 



Remi Schulz (bearded) photographed together with French journalist and writer Bernard Werber

For example, Remi Schulz, a French author, scholar of Hebrew literature and sensitive to the fascination of enigmistic problems, especially numerological, who in his Quaternité Blog,, often examined the work of Ellery Queen. And in two excellent articles above all, disclosed in a section of the famous site dedicated to the American novelist and investigator, "Ellery Queen A Web site on Deduction" by my friend Kurt Sercu, the whole hidden Queen theme is addressed (




As for the novel in question, apart from the already known evidences regarding the name of Ellery Queen (Ellery has a double L and Queen a double E), which put in the foreground the theme of the two twins who would like to divide but cannot to do, and which is evident above all in The Twin Siamese Mystery, there are numerous hidden meanings already evident in the title (Halfway House, has a double H as you can see) and in the name of the city in which the house is located (Trent's Town , which has a double T, as the newspaper where works Ella Amity, Trenton Time): always the theme of the double. Trenton and his house (Halfway House) is halfway (almost) between Philadelphia where Lucy lives and New York where Jessica lives. This is not exactly halfway between the two journeys, but it is "gematrically". Remi Schulz noticed that the relationship between cities is also numerological: in his article "Naccipolis" (, Remi observes that if we calculate the gematric value of New York, Philadelphia and Trenton (Gematria is a science of Judaism that studies the words used in the Hebrew language giving them a numerical value), provided that A = 1, B = 2, C = 3, D = 4, E = 5, F = 6, G = 7, H = 8, I = 9, J = 10, K = 11, L = 12, M = 13, N = 14, O = 15, P = 16, Q = 17, R = 18, S = 19, T = 20, U = 21, V = 22, W = 23, X = 24, Y = 25, Z = 26, PHILADELPHIA is equal to 16 + 8 + 9 + 12 + 1 + 4 + 5 + 12 + 16 + 8 + 9 + 1 = 101; NEW YORK is equal to 14 + 5 + 23 + 25 + 15 + 18 + 11 = 111; TRENTON is equal to 20 + 18 + 5 + 14 + 20 + 15 + 14 = 106. And 106 is exactly halfway between 111 and 101: (111 + 101): 2 = 106.

But the theme of the double is also present in the surnames of the two wives, married to a bigamous man (as if to say two people linked to a single denominator: the two cousins linked to the common pseudonym Ellery Queen): Angell and Gimball (both have a double LL). Not only. Schulz points out that the two families Angell and Borden are opposed to each other also by reason of some of their elements, which are Bill Angell and Andrea Borden. Opposite also these, A-B (or 1-2) and B A (2-1), form a Chiasm, essentially an X. The Cross of Saint Andrew is linked to the X, and here there is also an Andrea . Another coincidence is that the X is the 10 in Latin and the ns. novel is precisely the tenth.

However, the X, in our case, it may represent the "two-faced" of the 2 cousins​​, their "double": in fact the X, the Greek letter CHI, represents the chiasm, which has a cross shape: the elements are arranged opposite each other.
The one in the comparison of the other, so that what is in the lower left is reflected in what is in the upper right, and so on. Moreover, the correspondence to chiasmus as a pair of opposed, it is akin to that of the two mirror images according to a symmetrical axis, directed towards each other or both of which look at the two opposite directions, a two-faced which recalls the God Janus (the more we note that if we
stylize the representation of the god Janus, we obtain a X. (

The presence of the numerological or gematric value of A and B as 1 and 2 is verifiable even then it is said that Ellery meets Bill on 1/6 (which would also be the day Joe dies) and 2 would be the day Bill's birthday. Another curiosity is given by the fact that we have seen how often in Queen's novels, the numbers 10, 20, 5 chase each other, as in our case. It is the consequence of the fact that Dannay, who was the one who worked out the plot on which his cousin then acted, giving the literary form, always tended to emphasize his participation.

Dannay was born on October 20, 1905. Where does Halfway House hide this date? The chapters of the novel are 5 (The Tragedy, The Trail, The Trial, The Trap, The Truth), the words making up their titles are 10; and in addition, since all words begin with T, we have a Tautogram which is made from the letter T, to which the value 20: 20-10-1905 is assigned gematrically.

However Remi notes ( how since the tenth word Truth has two T's in it, it is different from the other 9 that precede it, and so it is by itself. Defining everything we could say that the ten words with the different one, could be made with 9 + 1 which is essentially the parable of the 9 novels all following the fixed title and the one that stands out, the tenth, precisely Halfway House. The 9+1 theme is also in another thing: among 10 clues that lead to the murderer, 9 point to 2 person and it's the tenth (+1)  that shows the good one.

In chap. 3, The Trail, a man named Joseph "Wilson, also known as Joseph Kent Gimball, in Mercer County, State of New Jersey, on the night of Saturday, June the first, 1935 is said to be killed." If we compare it to the dates of birth of the two cousins, Dannay born on October 20, 1905 and cousin Mannay on January 11, 1905, we see how June 1, 1935, becomes the thirtieth anniversary of the average birthday of the two cousins: in fact , and it is easily demonstrable, pen in hand, from January 11th to October 20th there are 282 days, and coincidentally the period of time between January 11th and June 1st date of Joe Gimball's death is equal to 141 days, that is half of the time interval between the dates of the two cousins' birthdays. But beyond that, in support of that this is no mere coincidence, there is the fact that in The Finishing Stroke, there are twins born on the night of 6/1/1905, and 6/1 is the reverse of 1/6.

If we want to see well, there is still more.

Halfway House is the bridge between two lives, where Joe Gimball felt without anything, not tied to Lucy or even to Jessica, and the boat trips testified to his need to find himself sometimes alone, to escape the fearful stress to which he was delivered, marrying two women and living in two different cities, two different existences: always the 2 that recurs in the novel. But if we see better, there is another curiosity that emerges: even the two cousins ​​had given their two existences to an invented pseudonym, and until the release of Halfway House, no one suspected that they were the creators of Ellery. Queen. Here is another reason to say how this novel marks an ideal watershed even before Calamity Town: the reason was probably the desire to leave behind a cliché that had already had its time, because by now Van Dine was no longer what it was a time, and open up to new experiences, while revealing that the two of them were the creators of Ellery, and after all perhaps it was also a way to recreate around himself a certain aura of mystery that arose overwhelmingly years earlier, also in relation to the releases of the Dury Lane novels signed by Barnaby Ross, it had gradually faded away. And so we can establish a parallel between the human story of the two cousins ​​and that of Joseph Kent Gimball: how the two existences and the two hidden lives had come to light when Joseph Kent Gimball alias Joe Wilson was killed, so the two The hidden lives of the two cousins ​​come to light when the novel Halfway House is published: L'homme menant une double vie dans Halfway House est assassiné il 1er juin 1935, 30e "anniversaire moyen" des Queen. This is the occasion of the sortie de ce roman que les cousins ​​ont dévoilé leur identité.

Finally, there is another subject in the novel that presents duality once again, and that is old Jasper Borden, Jessica's father. it can be appreciated in the English text when its hemiplagia is presented as 2 bodies united in one, one living and the other dead: "two bodies united, the one dead the other living".

And there is still more to say .. But to do that we would have to talk about other novels, such as Double, Double or The Finishing Stroke.

We will resume the discussion at the appropriate time.


Pietro De Palma