Showing posts with label Easter. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Easter. Show all posts

27 March 2016

The Glass Village -- Suspending Disbelief?

Probable impossibilities are to be preferred to improbable possibilities.                                                                                             Aristotle
What do you know?! Haven't you heard of suspension of disbelief?                                                                                                    Ed Wood, Ed Wood 
Unfortunately, my disbelief is very heavy, and [at times] the suspension cable snap[s].                                                                     Roger Ebert
        It only seems proper on Easter Sunday for SleuthSayers to focus on Ellery Queen. What? Some of you may ask. After all, the Queen mysteries were written by Frederic Dannay and Manfred B. Lee, who were born Daniel Nathan and Manford Lepofsky, respectively. Francis M. Nevins in Royal Bloodlines describes the two as follows: “Both were born in 1905, nine months and five blocks apart, of immigrant Jewish stock in a crowded Brooklyn tenement district.” So -- how do you get from there to Easter? 

       Well, while the basis for this remains an unsolved mystery, the holiday Easter is repeatedly referenced throughout the works of Queen. Those references, often hidden, could easily provide the basis for an Easter article. Unfortunately for me, that is an article that I have already written. Anyone wanting to re-visit (or visit) that previous discussion of Ellery Queen’s hidden (and mysterious) “Easter eggs” can do so by clicking here

       My re-visit to the Queen library this Easter is a bit more attenuated. Easter is a holiday premised on faith and belief; acceptance of that which we might otherwise deem to be impossible. Faith is an oft analyzed foundation of religious belief. But it is there that mystery fiction and religion part ways. By and large mystery readers take little on “faith." Instead, mystery fiction requires a well-grounded basis for “belief” premised on demonstrable logic in order to explain the otherwise inexplicable and thereby keep the reader in tow. 

       When fiction is at its best it immerses the reader in a believable world, one in which we can live comfortably; where occurrences, clues and characters are of a sort that we would expect to encounter. But often laying the foundation for such a world presents a formidable challenge to the author. This is particularly so in Golden Age mysteries, such as those of Ellery Queen. It is hard to reasonably anticipate, for example, a reasonable world that offers up dying messages or locked rooms. When the otherwise unbelievable occurs in theology (think Easter) the devout among us often are able to answer incredulity with faith. For the mystery reader, however, it’s a bit tougher. And the preferred bridge to believe the otherwise unbelievable is the literary tool "suspension of disbelief.” 

       This handy little device -- which was excellently discussed in guest SleuthSayer Herschel Cozine’s recent article and by Fran Rizer a couple years back -- is defined by our old pal Wikipedia as follows: 
Suspension of disbelief, or willing suspension of disbelief, is a term coined in 1817 by the poet and aesthetic philosopher Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who suggested that if a writer could infuse a "human interest and a semblance of truth" into a fantastic tale, the reader would suspend judgement concerning the implausibility of the narrative.
The trick to the tool, as the above quote suggests, is that “semblance of truth” requirement. The reader has to be given just enough to go along with the plot device that otherwise presents as implausible. And as the quote from Roger Ebert at top of this article also suggests, if that semblance of truth proves insufficient to tempt the reader down the author’s intended path, well, the suspension cable snaps, risking the loss of the reader. 

       And that brings us back to Ellery Queen and a particular mystery where, at least for me, that cable has never been sufficient to withstand the load the authors demand of it. My reference is to the 1954 mystery The Glass Village.

       In over fifty years of reading Queen The Glass Village has always been my personal stumbling block. Recently I confronted The Glass Village again and, after previous failed attempts this time I finished the novel. But not without some grumblings.

       Before getting to all of that, a little background is in order.

       My latest confrontation with The Glass Village began a couple months back after I wrote a SleuthSayers article focusing on some underlying riffs in Ellery Queen’s Calamity Town. Looking back on the completed article, particularly in light of some very erudite comments offered by some SleuthSayers readers, I decided that it was a good time to re-visit not only Calamity Town, but the Queen mysteries that immediately followed it. There was good reason for this re-visit. When I first started reading Queen in my teenage years the path I followed through Ellery’s adventures meandered a bit. Some volumes I checked out of the local library, but more often than not I acquired Ellery Queen mysteries piecemeal at used book fairs held often in my hometown of St. Louis, Missouri. (My Queen library still has many volumes from those book fares, each with a ten cent or twenty-five cent price inscribed inside of the cover.)

       The upshot of this approach was that I read the Queen library as I acquired it, which is to say out of order. I skipped from The Siamese Twin Mystery to Double, Double, and then proceeded to The Player on the Other Side before going back to Calamity Town. It was years before I reached Cat of Many Tails. It occurred to me lately, however, that it would be interesting to re-read these works, particularly those written in the 1940s and 1950s, in the order that they were published. I set this course so that I could more clearly follow the nuanced changes in Dannay and Lee’s writing, and in Ellery’s character, particularly his humanization as he coped with his own mistakes in the early Wrightsville stories, confronted those human foibles in Cat of Many Tails, and then moved on through other works, ending with 1958’s The Finishing Stroke, once intended as the last Queen mystery.

       In the midst of this span, is The Glass Village, published in 1954. 

       The Glass Village is a rarity among Queen mysteries. While there are many novels that profess to be “written” by Ellery Queen that do not feature Ellery and/or his father as essential characters, the vast majority of those books were not in fact written by Frederic Dannay and Manfred B. Lee. Rather they were the infamous works franchised out to other writers. The Dannay and Lee contributions to these decidedly inferior stories amounted to little more than some final editing. But there are two exceptions to this rule. And aside from the 1968 police procedural Cop Out, The Glass Village is the only novel written by Dannay and Lee as Ellery Queen that does not feature Ellery or the Inspector.   

Frederic Dannay and Manfred B. Lee
       As an aside, reportedly this almost was not the case. There is, some evidence that The Glass Village was originally intended as an Ellery Queen Wrightsville mystery that was then revised to remove Ellery and Wrightsville while the writing was already under way. (Indeed, the debut episode of The Further Adventures of Ellery Queen, broadcast on NBC on September 26, 1958, is based on The Glass Village and re-fashioned the story so that the detective-protagonist is, in fact, Ellery.) We can only speculate as to why Dannay and Lee decided on a different approach, but there are several possibilities. First, a key element of The Glass Village requires a finite and limited number of town residents, something that would not have been possible in the context of the larger community of Wrightsville. Second, Dannay and Lee frankly may have been uneasy concerning the descent into mob mentality that The Glass Village would have required of the residents of Wrightsville -- people Ellery often describes with admiration and affection. The story, after all, is an allegory to the McCarthy mania of the early 1950s, and Dannay and Lee may not have wanted the good citizens of Wrightsville to play the Mcarthy-ite roles required by the story. 

       So there were many reasons that I could have opted to avoid The Glass Village when I revisited Queen, principally revolving around the lack of Ellery. But it seemed to me that would be a bit unfair. The book was widely heralded, when published, as a celebration of 25 years of mysteries authored by Ellery Queen. And even though it is not directly part of the “Ellery as detective” canon, the authors made certain that it did not stray too far.  Shinn Corners, the locale for the novel, is geographically close to Wrightsville, the town Ellery frequents, and we know this from references in Ellery’s Wrightsville novels. There are other hints that also tie the mystery back to those in which Ellery is present, and the young detective protagonist in Glass Village is fashioned with several knowing winks to the avid Queen reader.  That character, “Johnny Shinn,” approaches the mystery as would Ellery, sports a name with the same number of characters as “Ellery Queen,” and one character in the The Glass Village persists in mispronouncing that last name as “Sheen.” In light of all of this I could only conclude that Dannay and Lee intended that I should read the book. So I (finally) did. 

       This brings us back to my problems with The Glass Village, which involve suspension of disbelief, how it works, and how sometimes it doesn’t.  The Glass Village begins very well, and contains some excellent prose and believable characters, but to me it grinds to a halt mid-way when it asks of the reader a suspension of disbelief that simply cannot easily be delivered.

       Specifically, a major premise of the story is that in order to calm the near riotous citizenry of Shinn Corners it is decided that a trumped-up trial must be conducted. Over the years each time I have attempted to read The Glass Village it is at this point that I roll my eyes, sigh, and set the book aside as my suspension cable snaps. I admit that a lot of this may be because I am an attorney, and the utter silliness of the kangaroo court imagined by Dannay and Lee and then convened in Shinn Corners has a particular personal grate to it. But there are problems here regardless of the reader’s background, and those problems (I believe) are sufficient that any reader, when asked to suspend disbelief, predictably would reply oh, come now

       For the “kangaroo trial” that is at the heart of The Glass Village to work the reader must accept the novel’s premise that the small town of Shinn Corners is so geographically remote from the rest of the world that, over a course of days, no higher authority could or would enter the town to rescue a prisoner threatened by an enraged town bent on mob vigilantism, and further that no higher judicial or legal authority would intervene to stop a trial so strangely assembled that jurors also serve, at times, as witnesses during the proceeding. Indeed, the story requires us to believe that governmental authorities outside of Shinn Corners in fact agree to step back and leave the town to its own devices in order to forestall mob violence. The attempts to explain away this citadel isolation of Shinn Corners -- largely that the town has become a mob that threatens any outside authority that attempts to intrude -- is simply not credible.  When would this ever occur in such a setting?
       What police force, what State government, would back down in such a situation? In effect, Dannay and Lee ask us, the readers, to buy into a thinly concocted premise, since that premise is necessary in order for elements of the story to work. But the leap of faith, at least for me, is too great. All I can do is roll my eyes. The premise fails the “semblance of truth” requirement for suspending disbelief. 

       Sadly, this flaw in the mystery spoils the whole endeavor for some, myself included. And it needn’t have. All the plot needed was a better “semblance.” Queen did this well, for example, in The Siamese Twin Mystery, where the setting is necessarily isolated from the rest of the world by a forest fire. That provides enough of a semblance of truth for us to suspend disbelief and proceed with the novel. So, too, in And on the Eighth Day it is not difficult to accept the premise that the town of Quenan is geographically (and historically) isolated from the rest of the world for a reason, again, necessary to the story. 

       Could Queen have provided a better “semblance of truth” in The Glass Village? Well, clearly. Stephen King did so in his miniseries Storm of the Century, in which a town, located on a remote island off of the Maine coast, is isolated from the mainland by a believable storm. And there are models for Glass Village-like seclusion in the real world -- towns located on islands off the coast of England, for example, that are inaccessible for months during winter, or Smith and Tangiers Islands located in our own Chesapeake Bay. Constructing such a locale, and then using it as the setting for The Glass Village could have provided that “semblance of truth” and thereby saved countless rolling eyes. 

     Many, including my friend, Queen scholar and emeritus law professor Francis Nevins, profess to have been able to move past this credibility stumbling block in The Glass Village without grumblings, and have praised the rest of the work as a very superior mystery. And I recognize their point -- the character development and cluing are fine; the narrative otherwise sparkles. But for me, that is still a pretty significant “otherwise.” Some things I can take on faith. But for a mystery to work, I need a reasoned basis to stay on board the ship.

       Ahh well. After all of these years I have finally completed The Glass Village. Eyes well exercised from rolling, it is time to move on. 

10 April 2014

Easter is Coming, and My Back's to the Wall

by Eve Fisher

This weekend, I am going to the pen for another weekend workshop.  Two weeks from today, when I'm writing this, I will be hosting a massive Easter Feast.  Thus, a post with more cooking than writing, and more customs than plot.  Oh, well...

Back to the Easter Feast:  So far, I expect 11 adults, 4 children, 1 baby, and perhaps 4 more adults coming, but who knows.  We just made the spanakopita this morning and put it in the freezer.  I have a 7 pound leg of lamb that I'll start thawing around Good Friday, and will stuff with garlic and herbs.  My guests - most of whom have been here before - know their jobs, and each bring a wonderful dish, so that I don't have to cook much else but the lamb and the spanakopita, and put out some olives and bread.  It's a Greek feast, but we're having it on Tuesday, rather than Sunday, so that more people can come.

Easter is a huge deal in the Orthodox church.  Yes, I know it's a huge deal in every Christian church, or should be, since without the Resurrection, the rest is iffy, to put it mildly.  But in the Orthodox church...  even my atheist father (a handsome Greek boy, as you can see) demanded red-dyed Easter eggs.  In the Orthodox church, Easter is the high holy day of days.

And food is an important part:  After 40 days of Lenten fasting - and in the Orthodox church that means no meat, fish, eggs, dairy products of any kind, oil or wine.  (Sundays you can have oil and wine.)  VERY devout Orthodox abstain entirely from food on Good Friday.  (In case you're wondering, I don't do any of this.)  And then, after the Holy Saturday midnight service, there is a love feast, and the next day:  lamb.

Leg of Lamb:
Take a leg of lamb (bone in), and trim of it of any excessive fat.
Cut slits all over it, about an inch or two apart, and in each slit put in salt, a sliver of garlic and/or some herbs (thyme is really good).
Salt and pepper it on the outside and dribble it with olive oil.
Roast at 350 until a meat thermometer reaches about 130 degrees
             (should take about 2 1/2 hours for a 7 pound leg)

1 package Filo pastry (I buy it frozen; life is too short to make your own)
1 stick of melted butter
2 boxes of cooked frozen chopped spinach OR 2 bunches of fresh spinach, chopped and cooked
Saute - 1 chopped onion and 3 cloves of crushed garlic in olive oil until tender
Blend - 8 oz. diced or crumbled feta with 2-3 eggs (you want it thick)
mix everything together and set aside.

NOTE:  The key to filo pastry is to work FAST.  I never let go of the buttering brush until I'm done.
Take an 8x10 or 9/11 sheet-cake pan.  (Actually, I use the disposable aluminum sheet pans that you can get 2 for $1.99 for this job.)  If you're going to freeze it before you cook it, line it with aluminum foil.
Put 2 sheets of filo in the bottom, brush them with butter, and then start layering the filo pastry, a sheet at a time, with half the sheet hanging over the edge at various angles (you'll fold them in over the filling at the end), buttering the half-sheet in the pan.  Build this up into a nice buttered filo pastry lining.  Then, when you've used up all the sheets, pour in the filling, and start overlapping and buttering the edges - a sheet at a time - that were hanging outside the pan.  (Save a sheet if you need extra coverage at the very center.)
Bake at 350 degrees for an hour.  Slice it into squares and serve.

Lamb and spanokopita are universals, but the cookies served depend on what part of Greece you're from. In my grandmother's house, it was kept simple and delicious:

Greek KoulouriaKoulourakia:
1 cup butter, creamed with
1 1/2 cups sugar
ADD - 3 eggs
            1 tsp vanilla extract
MIX:  4 cups flour with 1 tbsp. baking powder

Take handful and roll it out into a thin rope (1/4 to 1/2 inch wide), about 6 inches long; then twist them as in the photo.  Brush with a milk wash, and bake at 375 degrees until golden brown.  (Yes, they crack.  They also keep forever in a nice air-tight tin.  If you can keep them away from everyone.  And they taste great, dunked in tea, coffee, or even a bit of brandy...)

 Καλό Πάσχα!  (Happy Easter!)

10 April 2012

Easter Eggs – The Sequel

   Since Leigh has the Sunday domain at SleuthSayers, he drew Easter and offered a column this week that addresses a topic similar to mine today.  While I didn’t quite hit the holiday itself, apropos of the re-birth that is Spring, an article focusing, just a bit, on Easter beckoned me as well.  So today’s piece, similar to Leigh's, is about Easter Eggs.

   The Easter Eggs that we are hunting for today are not of the candy or hard-boiled variety.  Nor are they of the computer variety that Leigh addressed.  They are, however, hidden and, unlike those discussed by Leigh, the ones this article focuses on actually relate to Easter..  And consistent with the recurring themes of SleuthSayers, to find them one does not comb the back yard.  One combs mysteries. 

    An Easter Egg, as Leigh explained on Sunday, is a hidden message, or an “in joke.”  Leigh's column focused on Easter Eggs  in the context of computer programs, and it is there that the term itself first originated.  While the practice of embedding hidden messages has existed for many decades, the term “Easter Egg” reportedly was coined in the 1980’s in the context of the then-popular Atari Adventure games authored by programmer Warren Robinette, who was fond of dropping hidden messages into the midst of his games.  There are plenty of examples of Easter Eggs outside the computer gaming context however -- there is, for example, a popular pastime at Disney World of looking for the resort’s many “hidden Mickeys,” and just over a week ago John Floyd offered an article dedicated to Alfred Hitchcock’s habit of appearing in cameo in  his movies.  Each of these meets the definition of an “Easter Egg.”

    Some of the strangest Easter Eggs that you will encounter in mystery literature, however, are those found in the mystery novels of Ellery Queen.  Most of the hidden messages in the works of Queen are so obscure that you can read the mysteries they are contained in and never realize that they are there.  And generally Queen's Easter Eggs are completely unimportant to the underlying mystery story.  Usually these references are to dates that have a hidden meaning, and more often than not those dates have something to do with . . . the holiday Easter.   

    How strange is this? 

    Well, first of all, these hidden references – hidden messages that in fact refer in many cases to Easter – pre-date by decades the coining of the phrase “Easter Egg.”   And I know of no other Easter Eggs that actually reference the holiday Easter.

Manfred B. Lee and Frederic Dannay
    Secondly, this fixation on the Easter holiday, and the repeated obscure references to it, occur in books written by Frederic Dannay and Manfred B. Lee, who were born Daniel Nathan and Manford Lepofsky, respectively.  Queen scholar Francis M. Nevins in Royal Bloodlines describes the two as follows:
Both were born in 1905, nine months and five blocks apart, of immigrant Jewish stock in a crowded Brooklyn tenement district.” 
Why would these two Jewish cousins begin hiding references to the holiday Easter in their works?  I asked that very question of Richard Dannay, Frederic’s son, at the 2005 Ellery Queen centenary symposium hosted by EQMM in New York.  Richard’s answer was “I have absolutely no idea.”

    A word of caution here:  to delve into the hidden meanings behind the dates in Ellery Queen mysteries is to invite a headache.  A comprehensive analysis of possible meanings of date and numerical references in the Queen oeuvre has been set forth in the webpages of Remi Schulz, the French Ellery Queen scholar.   Only some of Remi’s theories and analyses have been translated into English, but a summary of Remi’s reasoning also appears in two essays that can be found on Kurt Sercu’s Ellery Queen:  A Website on Deduction.  Remi’s theories concerning the Queen novels are Byzantine in their complexity, but today, fitting of the recent holiday, we will focus almost solely on Easter.

   With all of that as introduction, let’s jump onto the roller coaster.  Fasten your seat belts, and hold on tight! 

    What is likely the first reference to Easter in an Ellery Queen novel appears in The Four of Hearts, published in 1938.  There a character in the mystery dies on April 17, which, in 1938, was Easter.  The reference is obscure and, as with virtually all such references in the works of Queen, does not relate to the underlying mystery.  The story is, in many respects, an homage to Maurice LeBlanc’s Arsène Lupin mystery Le Triangle d’Or, which, itself, has many references to the holiday Easter.  Standing alone, the date in The Four of Hearts would likely mean nothing.  But, as will be seen, it hardly stands alone.

    Four years later, in Calamity Town, published in 1942, the first Ellery Queen mystery to be set in the Queen-created upper New York town of Wrightsville, a culminating episode occurs in chapter 27, which is titled “Easter Sunday:  Nora’s Gift.”  Interesting, but still, we could be dealing with coincidence.

    In 1950 another Wrightsville mystery was published, Double, Double.  The chapters in Double, Double are all titled with dates, beginning with April 4, and culminating events occur in the chapter entitled “Weekend, April 8-9.”  In 1950 that weekend was Easter.

    Dannay and Lee likely intended the Queen saga to end with the publication of The Finishing Stroke in 1958.  Easter did not figure into that story, which instead focused on Christmas week – and also on the date “January 11,” a reference that relates to Manfred Lee’s birthday.  The date has nothing to do with Easter, but it has some personal importance to me as well, which I previously explored in a Criminal Briefs article three years ago.

    But by 1963 Ellery arose from his literary death with the publication of The Player on the Other Side, and the Easter game was again afoot.  During the course of  Player we learn that a central character was born on the 20th of April, 1924.  You guessed it – Easter.

    That particular date is cloaked in at least two other obscurities.  First, exactly thirty-five years before, on April 20, 1889, Hitler was born.  Beginning with that reference in 1963 the works of Queen occasionally combine references to Hitler in tandem with Easter.  But second, in the circle of the year April 20 is precisely one half of a year separated from October 20, the day on which Frederic Dannay was born in 1905.  So just as The Finishing Stroke references Lee’s birthday on January 11, so to, The Player on the Other Side references, albeit more obscurely, Dannay’s birthday, and does so by tying the date to Easter. 

     Were there to be any doubt as to the recurrent Easter themes (as well as references to Hitler) in the works of Dannay and Lee, those doubts would be dispelled by And on the Eighth Day, published in 1964.  While this mystery is one of my favorites, many Queen fans do not like it at all.  The book is unlike any other Queen novel, much more of an allegory -- an Easter allegory -- than a mystery.  Although written in 1964, And on the Eighth Day recounts Ellery’s visit to a hidden southwest religious community twenty years earlier, in 1944.  As was the case in Double Double, the chapter headings in Eighth Day are dates, beginning with April 2 and ending, on April 9.  You guessed it – in 1944 this was Easter week.  Moreover, the story revolves around a book, thought to be a recovered religious tract long lost by the community, that had been re-discovered and purchased by the leader of the community on April 8, 1939 – yet another Easter. 

    One of the strangest aspects of And on the Eighth Day is the fact that there are many “clues” in the book that are never in fact dealt with or even addressed during the narrative.  These include a very significant (and Easter-related) anagram, which (because I hate spoilers) I will leave unexplained, just as Ellery did.  Also, the title of the actual lost religious tract is never disclosed, although I have speculated elsewhere as to what the title might have been.  (Remi Schulz took these speculations, much to my amusement, as gospel – here is a link to his discussion for anyone interested.) 

    And what does the title of the mystery itself mean?  An obvious answer is the fact that the story unfolds over an eight day period.  But, as always with Queen, there is more to it than that.  The book of Luke, 1:59, suggests that the Eighth Day was the “naming day,” or day of circumcision for Jesus. (“And on the eighth day they came to circumcise the child. And they would have called him Zechariah after his father.”)  Readers of And on the Eighth Day  will note that there is, indeed, a naming of sorts on the eighth day of the narrative.  There are also repeated and unexplained references to the number “50,” in And on the Eighth Day – as an example, the number “50” appears on the buttons of the leader of the community’s robe.  While the significance of this is never explained by Queen (the authors) or Queen (the detective),  there is one, and only one, book in the Bible containing precisely 50 chapters – the Book of Genesis; the book that begins with a recounting of what transpired beginning "on the first day.”  Finally, and I think most intriguing, is the fact that the Jewish “Eighth Day” holiday is Shemini Atzeret, a holiday that occurs on the eighth day of the Festival of Sukkot.  And why is that interesting?  In 1905 Sukkot began at sundown on October 20 – the day that Frederic Dannay was born.  So which of the foregoing oddities explains the title of the mystery?  My bet, knowing Ellery Queen, is “all of the above.”

    From the obvious Easter motifs in And on the Eighth Day Queen brings us back to Easter by way of obscurity.  In Face to Face, published in 1967, there is absolutely no reference to Easter.  However, near the end of the mystery Ellery is called upon to help find  someone to officiate at a wedding, that, contrary to Christian tradition, is planned for Palm Sunday.   Face to Face concludes the next day at a New York airport.

    Queen’s next book, The House of Brass, published in 1968, centers on the Inspector and has no Easter references.

    But then, in 1970 – fully three years after Face to Face –  Ellery is back in The Last Woman in his Life, which begins just minutes after Face to Face concluded -- on the same day and at the same New York airport.  The Last Woman in his Life nowhere uses the word “Easter,” but  if you start with the date of the Palm Sunday wedding in Face to Face, count the additional day in that book, which is also the day on which The Last Woman in his Life begins, and then calculate out the days that transpire in Last Woman it becomes apparent that the victim in Last Woman, who is the son of a carpenter, was  murdered on – Easter Sunday.

    So, there you have it.

    Given all of this, when I was working out the outline for The Book Case, an Ellery Queen pastiche in which a 102-year-old Ellery solves one last murder, I made certain that the reader could calculate that the murder, in fact, took place on Easter.  This seemed the right thing to do.  But if you asked me why it was the right thing to do, I still would have to shrug and give Richard Dannay’s answer – I have absolutely no idea!