In yesterday's post, I wrote about how unseemly I find it when the media fawns over royalty. I will make exceptions for certain royal figures, such as the King of the Bop and Ellery Queen. Ellery Queen was a 'house name', originally for cousins Daniel Nathan and Emanuel Benjamin Lepofsky- besides being an author pseudonym, Ellery Queen was the detective protagonist of many of the stories. A stable of other authors also wrote under the 'Ellery Queen' pseudonym, including my beloved Jack Vance (one can say I'm a bit of a fanboi), the 5th anniversary of whose death will fall on next Saturday.
I recently got my hands on a copy of one of Jack Vance's three 'Ellery Queen' novels, 1966's The Madman Theory, a police procedural concerning the murder of a businessman hiking in Kings Canyon National Park with a small group of business associates and a brother-in-law. This is the first of Jack Vance's mysteries that I've ever read- until recently, they were extremely hard to get hold of, and prohibitively expensive. Jack Vance's Science Fiction and Fantasy novels are baroque, gorgeous tapestries depicting strange planets and stranger persons... intricate anthropological surveys of societies which never were. Constrained by a 'house style', Vance seemed to use a lot of restraint while writing as 'Ellery Queen'. Fresno police inspector Omar Collins, the protagonist of The Madman Theory, is a low-key version of the typical hyper-competent Vancian hero:
At nine o’clock on the morning of Tuesday, June 16, three men arrived at the Fresno airport: Dr. Albert Koster, assistant to the Fresno County Coroner; and Sergeant Easley and Detective Inspector Collins of the Sheriff’s office. Koster, a small oval sort of man with a waxen scalp and hornrimmed glasses, carried a black case. Sergeant Easley was almost as bald, but he was rectangular, with the patient look of a butcher’s block. Inspector Omar Collins, the tallest of the three, was spare in the flanks, with coarse black hair, a broken nose, gloomy eyes, and a quality of unpredictability that made people shy away.
Given the amount of characters necessary to set up the 'whodunit' plot, and to provide a sizable cast of victims who fall prey to the murderer, Vance had to draw them in broad strokes. Pharmaceutical firm employees, transplanted Okie musicians, wives and girlfriends are succinctly described, though Vance occasionally got in some of his typical dry humor:
“It’s something to look into.” Collins made a note. “Apparently he got on well with Bob Vega.”
“Bob has outlasted every man that’s ever worked for Earl. He’s a real careful manager. In fact you could call him a bunny except where the ladies are concerned. There Bob throws caution to the winds. I don’t know how many times he’s been married—I doubt if he knows himself. Anyway, Vega’s energy is pretty well sopped up by his wives and ex-wives and wives-to-be. He doesn’t have time for juggling the accounts.” Kershaw spoke in a tone of amiable contempt, as if any ordinary man would find the time.
In another wryly funny passage, Vance describes a collaboration between Inspector Collins and a lieutenant from the San Jose police department:
Collins made no reply. He had formed no high opinion of Loveridge’s competence, and he suspected that the young lieutenant held similar sentiments toward him.
The description of the national park is where Vance's characteristic flair comes to the fore, though his signatiure use of recondite adjectives is missing:
Orchards, vineyards, housing developments tailed off into alfalfa fields, which turned into dry pasture. The foothills began to swell and loom, until they became the spurs of the Sierra Nevada. Eucalyptus and live oak gave way to manzanita and pine, then to fir and redwood. Kings Canyon opened before them: a glacial trough a mile wide and a mile high, with the Kings River a silver trickle on its floor. The helicopter flew east, between granite crags.
The plot is a typical murder mystery/police procedural- Vance puts Collins through his paces: interrogating witnesses, seeking clues, trying to piece together a motive. Illegal drug manufacturing, embezzlement, marital infidelity, or the madman theory of the title... all are considered, though a mounting body count points to a methodical effort to eliminate loose ends.
There are moments of grue- one cannot write a murder caper without bloodshed, but Jack Vance, himself a musician, seemed to find a particular horror in the fate of a musician whose teeth are smashed out and hands cut off in order to stymie identification of his corpse:
Collins grimaced. Poor guitar player. He would have thrown up at what was about to happen to his hands.
The Madman Theory is a fun read if you have a tolerance for some discreet grue. It was my introduction to another facet of the career of one of my favorite authors, so I found it particularly fascinating.