"Let us remember that justice must be observed even to the lowest."- Cicero
Frederic Dannay and Manfred B. Lee garnered their fame under a joint pseudonym, "Ellery Queen," which became a franchise that spawned radio plays, TV-series, movies, comic books, board games, jigsaw puzzles and the illustrious Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine. All of that sprang from a bibliography as labyrinthine as one of their plots.
After The Finishing Stroke (1958), Lee was plagued by writer's block and the tandem decided to summon a flurry of ghostwriters to flesh-out Dannay's skeletal manuscripts, which was kept under wraps at the time, but the list of writers who operated as Ellery Queen included some interesting names – such as Avram Davidson and Edward D. Hoch. You can easily confuse one ghostwriter for the other, but I wasted a good fifteen minutes searching (angrily) for the hired hand behind The Glass Village (1954). It turned out there was none!
The Glass Village is a non-series novel and therefore I presumed, erroneously, it had to be ghostwritten, but I eventually stumbled to the fact that it was an Ellery Queen original. One of the few Dannay and Lee wrote without Ellery or Richard Queen.
It's an unusual, character-driven courtroom drama/legal thriller set in a sparsely populated, dying backwater, called Shinn Corners, tucked away in the New England countryside.
Shinn Corners lies in a valley, "looking like a cluster of boils on an old man’s neck," with stretches of "untidy land," the dried-up remains of what had "once been a prosperous river" and "the huddle of once white buildings" – giving a home to a dwindling community that has been "reduced to a total population of thirty-six." Over the past hundred years, the towns surrounding the valley had slowly lured away a lot of the working force of the tiny hamlet. The scattered "ruins of houses and barns and mills" and the remnants of a factory building are tangible reminders of a period when the village prospered, which now, in spite of its constant struggle for existence, keeps getting poorer every year. But at least it's a peaceful place.
Judge Lewis Shinn explains to a visiting relative from New York, Johnny Shinn, a veteran of World War II and the Korean War, how the grim specter of murder has graced the village only three times in "two hundred and fifty some years" – which occurred between 1739 and fifteen years before the events described in the book. A local boy was killed in an act of self-defense by a hired farm hand from outside of the community, "a furriner," who was acquitted by a court in a neighboring town and that left the villagers feeling deprived of justice. It will have some far-reaching consequences when murder returns to Shinn Corners about a century ahead of schedule.
Ninety-one year old Aunt Fanny, described as "a fabulous old lady," was born in Shinn Corners and became a minor celebrity in her eighties when she began to paint. She made "a fortune out of her Christmas cards, wallpaper and textile designs" and her paintings can fetch up to fifteen hundred dollars. A brief conversation she had with Johnny Shinn revealed her as one of the more kinder, understanding people of the village, but, of course, that was not to last – as someone obliterated her skull with a fire-poker in her paint room.
The brutal murder of Aunt Fanny coincides with the arrival in the village of a Polish tramp, named Josef Kowalczyk, who had been admitted to the United States in 1947, but the villagers, naturally suspicious of outsiders, want swift justice against the foreign element they hold responsible for the death of one of their own. They have evidence backing them: a hundred and twenty-four dollars was missing from a cinnamon jar from Aunt Fanny's home and that amount was discovered "in a dirty knotted handkerchief tied to a rope slung around Kowalczyk's naked waist," which clinches it for the angry villagers.
They refuse to hand over Kowalczyk to outside authorities, remembering what happened fifteen years previously, which lead to an armed standoff with a dozen state troopers. In order to prevent a blood bath, Judge Shinn convinces those outside authorities, including the governor, to stage a show trail in the village. It's a ruse "to allow tempers to cool down so the prisoner can be got safely away" and "tried in the regular way in a court of proper jurisdiction." The trial has to be purposely botched so it can be overturned at a later date.
Judge Shinn describes himself as "an unmitigated scoundrel" where "defending constitutional democracy and due process is concerned," which is forgivable, but his personal motivation seems a bit snooty and self-aggrandizing – stating that “even in a democracy” people "can't always be trusted" and basically have to be protected from themselves by "individuals here and there." Individuals such as himself. The inhabitants of Shinn Corners are portrayed throughout the book as bone-headed bigots, but the judge is really no different, except that his bigotry appears respectable, by "critically" gazing inwards instead of focusing on outsiders.
You've got to cut the people of Shinn Corner some slack, because here you have a small, dwindling and largely isolated community of hardworking, but very poor, people confronted with a stranger in possession of money that was stolen from one of their own who had just been murdered. It does not excuse the formation of a lynch mob, but I expected at least a small amount of understanding and sympathy for the villagers. There was, however, not a drop of that to be found.
Anyhow, the trial takes up the second part of the book and this is the point where the detective-element of the plot finally begins to manifest itself, which had previously been wrapped up in character-introductions, a tour of the village, a man-hunt and snippets of social commentary about justice, communism, war and McCarthyism. Everyone's whereabouts at the time of the murder are subtly checked, the final painting of Aunt Fanny receives a closer examination and there's the all-important clue of the missing pile of chopped firewood. All of this reveals the real killer in time to prevent a second attempt at lynching the hapless tramp.
The heart of the plot, clues and alibi-trick might have been better suited for a short story or novella, but, on a whole, I found The Glass Village a fascinating read and surprised it was never adapted as a TV-movie or mini-series. It would lend itself perfect for that and today's audience would probably enjoy the morally ambiguous cast of characters. Anyway, it was a very interesting, unusual and surprisingly successful attempt on Ellery Queen's part at writing a more serious crime novel. Because they made similar attempts before and some of them were outright disastrous (e.g. Calamity Town, 1942). It's also the reason why I could not bring myself to title this blog-post The Polish Tramp Mystery.