Four of Hearts (1938)
It was a script that could only have come from Hollywood: the
spectacular wedding of two superstars after a scandal-filled courtship...a wild trip by
private plane to an exclusive hideaway... a deadly double overdose of drugs... But these
corpses weren't play-acting. And once again Ellery Queen was cast in the role of master
detective, as he found nothing was quite what it seemed in the never-never land of
moviedom - except sudden, violent death
|"QUEEN AMONG THE MOVIE MOGULS Here is a grand mystery with an extremely ingenious, intricate, and water-tight plot. The setting is Hollywood, and something is happening all the time. It's fantastic and uproarious, and full of Hollywood patter at its lushest. It's expertly solved, with an effective extra turnover at the end resulting in a surprising and thrillful finish ..." -- cover Pocket Book edition|
|Above top left to right bottom: Both dust cover and hard cover for Stokes, Grosset & Dunlap editions; dust and hard covers for Triangle books and Tower books (World Publishing co.). (Click on the covers to see the differences) *|
"As you like it" by Walter Sidney, October
"The Four of Hearts is a neatly turned mystery story if there ever was one. So well-fed are its characters, so flip is its dialogue, it almost justifies the Stokes Company's brag of "destined to be ranked as a classic." Classic or no, the Messrs. Stokes have an uncommonly good book on their hands.
Never having read an Ellery Queen novel before, we don't know whether Mr. Queen is in the habit of injecting himself into the story as omniscient sleuth or not. But the author's shrinking violet trick was no mistake. Mr. Queen, Detective, is a person well worth meeting. He certainly get around, and the presence of his humorous acuteness in almost every scene is no small factor in keying the tale up to its 4.500 R.P.M. pace.
And when Mr. Queen, Author, brings a character to life, he of she stays alive - that is, until some one happens to dope her Martini or his Sidecard with a little morphine. We mean Jack Royle and Blythe Stuart, feuding first families of the screen, who were murdered. And Bonnie Stuart and Ty Royle (Jack's son and Blythe's daughter), Paula Paris, Lew Bascom, Jacques Butcher and company - who weren't.
We don't know why Ellery Queen called his book The Four of Hearts, and not "The Eight of Spades" or "Two of Clubs" or "Jack of Spades" - which are all more important in the story. But he could have named it after one of Slim 'n' Slam's records and it would have been just as good. It's in the cards."
The Charlotte Observer - October 9, 1938
"Ellery Queen's latest novel is his weakest. His previous one Devil to Pay wasn't up to his usual standard but now he has sunk below par. It all happened we believe when he moved to Hollywood to write for a film company. Evidently the influence of Hollywood wasn't wholesome. And as Ellery Queen states: "It is a well-known fact that any one exposed to Hollywood longer than six weeks goes suddenly and incurably mad " We agree: Go East Mr. Queen go East!"
The Sunday Sun and Guardian Magazine, April 30. 1939 - Four of a Kind
Thoroughly unpleasant are the first 60 pages of Ellery Queen's decoration of his own chest for marvelous gifts of crime divination, interspersed with clumsy helpings of the slang of Hollywood. And still it develops into an extremely clever yarn with sufficient Impetus to take the mystery addict to the moment when Mr. Queen says reverently: "You look like one of the Seraphims." But none need cry "Holy."
Less minimalistic than the other two
Hollywood stories, since it's center stage is presented with typical
"Golden Age" entanglements. Still in Hollywood,
EQ goes beyond The Devil to Pay. Wonderful
storyline that takes us
to the first Queens, with the real solution to be fairly deciphered from the
offered clues. By contrast, this second Hollywood book, shows more of Queen's plotting artistry. It is
also the only one of his Hollywood books to have a setting within the film industry
itself. Agatha Christie and S.S. Van Dine are mentioned by name in
Chapter 1 of The Four of Hearts. Ellery Queen makes clear who his closest literary relatives are by
referring to the imaginary mystery writer Ellery Van Christie. Just as he
barely concealed are his feelings towards Hollywood with his opening line: "It
is a well-known fact that any one exposed to Hollywood longer than six weeks
goes suddenly and incurably mad."
Right: Page in Cosmopolitan October 1938: first publication of this story. Click for cover.
Daily Telepgraph, March 25, 1938 - "Mystery of the Week-
Playing Cards Murder" by Dr. Watson, Jun
"I HAVE often challenged the honesty of the slick Ellery Queen, but never his ingenuity. He gives evidence of reasonable honesty and of extraordinary ingenuity in his latest mystery, "The Four of Hearts." He presents the problem of an intelligent murderer whose difficulties are threefold: (1) He must beat the clock with three murders; (2) He has no hope of escape if his motive (seemingly obvious in retrospect) is at any time even suspect; and (3) He is forced to add a fourth scalp to his belt because his third intended victim decides to marry. The slayer — a resourceful but unconvincing fellow— meets this trinity of difficulties so skillfully that no motive is apparent. He sends crazy warnings of his intentions to murder. He his eternal rest spectacularly and audaciously. And, with obvious/motive waiting to trip him fatally at every step, he adopts -a technique which establishes complete and utter mystery in motiveless killing. That technique is the supreme example of a murderer converting his most dangerous hazard into his stoutest alibi.
Incredible Absurdity. The murders are laid in Hollywood, against a lively back ground of liquor, film star feuds, and wisecracks, with plenty of action and brisk, if lucky, detection. There is, however, one staggering, and incredible absurdity.
The student , is calmly asked to believe that a screaming Hollywood newspaper, which is boosting an aeroplane wedding of two world-famous film stars, would keep buried in a feature column inside the paper on the eve of the wedding an astounding front-page news story that the married couple would be kid napped. I have never read anything more fantastic in 20 years' devoted study of the literature of mystery and detection. On the credit side, I welcomed the fact that the murderer's warnings were sent to his victims in the shape of playing cards — a convenient code, of which I was previously ignorant. I know now that the Jack of hearts means "a preacher," and the Jack of clubs "a law breaker," the queen of spades "a strange woman," and the seven of clubs "prison." And I feel that I have lifted the veil on one of the secrets of the infinite since the further discovery that, while the four of spades means "Have no thing more to do with a certain person about whom you are doubtful," the meaning becomes reversed when the card is torn in half.
Mrs. Ellery Queen? The code has obvious topical possibilities. For instance, although there are unfortunately no playing cards which signify "bones" or "grave" or "fire," it would have been possible for one of the detectives who arrested Mr. McKay in Auckland to give him a neat surprise by handing him this poker hand:
Ten of diamonds: "Large sum of money."
King of spades: "Strange man."
Ace of spades (torn in half): "death" (meaning reversed).
Two of diamonds: "Trouble caused by deception." Five of spades: "Unpleasant meeting."
There is a grim eight of hearts ("thoughts of marriage") as a shaking climax to the mystery. Ellery Queen falls in love and presumably will be married. Even those of us who have doubted his honesty, while enjoying his slickness, will deplore this matrimonial murder of his detective future. Marriage and detection don't mix."
Other articles on this book
(1) The Alphabet in Crime Fiction - Ellery Queen's The Four of Hearts
Margot Kinberg (Feb 2011)
(2) Reading Ellery Queen Jon Mathewson (Jan 2015)
(3) The Grandest Game in the World Nick Fuller (Aug 16. 2021)
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