There Was An Old Woman

There was an old woman who lived in a shoe.
She had so many children, she didn’t know what to do.

She gave them some broth without any bread;

And whipped them all soundly and put them to bed.

It started like a normal day in court for Inspector Queen and his son Ellery. They were to witness a normal case of misdemeanor, when they are drawn to a public scene caused by an old woman, looking like an evil, little version  of Queen Victoria, Cornelia Potts. She reigns over her empire of shoe factories from her Palace, where she lives with her six children. Her rule is strict, as this is her only way to control her strange offspring, but nobody would have suspected that a duel over honour would end the order and call for an investigation for the truth. But the truth is shrouded in darkness in the elegant mansion at the Drive and is guarded by children living in towers, sugar-coated houses or illusions of grandeur. Can Ellery Queen reveal the sordid truth in this macabre tale of greed, madness and illusion before the unknown culprit drags another innocent victim to an early grave?

This was my first Ellery Queen novel, because somehow the title intrigued me while rummaging through the shelfs of our university library. The good thing is that, similar to Sherlock Holmes, the cases are only loosely connected. And while the novel introduced a rather important side-character from the radio-shows to the novel canon, it can be enjoyed without any prior knowledge of the Queen universe.

I found the story highly entertaining and was glad that I picked one of the later stories, which had already returned to the rather imaginative, surreal style of detective fiction, in favour of grotesque scenarios and fantastic cases. And I have to admit, the Mother Goose framework really got me, because it was not only imaginative for it’s time, it also made the imagery so vivid and the setting so alive, I almost couldn’t put the book down – or rather I dropped two other books for the time being. To be honest, during certain passages I almost doubted that this was honestly written in 1943, as most of the book read like a Japanese novel of the New Orthodox School, with all those hints towards literature and popular culture, little jokes and sarcasm and Ellery Queen’s mannerism.

The characters were fitting for what they were supposed to do. Admitted, most of them were archetypes and served to illustrate the case and create red herrings, wrong tracks and diversions, but they did it in a fun and entertaining way. Cornelia and her three oldest children, Thurlow, Louella and Horatio are the highlight of the book. There were no problems for me imagining them right away, even though I saw a Manga De Dokuha version in front of my eyes.

It’s a normal thing in modern Japanese mystery fiction to use popular rhymes, songs and legends as a background for the story, but I can’t seem to recall many English-speaking mystery authors doing that. Agatha Christie comes to my mind and now Ellery Queen, but I wonder if there were more.
You will find out during the story why it is fitting for the story and how it is incorporated into the plot, but I found it highly entertaining, as it furthered not only the plot itself, but also gave the setting a very unique style, keeping it from disappearing into the masses of detective mysteries written during those times.
This really made me wonder how much of an influence Ellery Queen mysteries really had on Japanese mystery fiction. Sure you read his name everywhere and every author gives a nod to him here or there, but I’m really interested in learning where the exact inspirations lie by reading more of these stories.


The case itself was a nice little whodunnit puzzler, with the added possible truth – probable truth – real truth twists in the end, which seems to have become a staple for Ellery Queen novels during the Golden Age phase. I have to admit I didn’t get to the solution completely, even though my guesses weren’t that bad. Many hints are hidden between the lines and they are only revealed as the story progresses, but the puzzle is always kept a fair challenge towards the reader as well. It wasn’t that much of a grand murder case and probably quite tame in execution compared to other contemporary novels. The weapon is a gun and there’s not much bloodshed or gruesome carnage, but the setting and the case itself made up for it, at least for me. I have to read more Queen mysteries in order to judge whether this is normal or an exception.

I think I will continue reading Ellery Queen, but I will return to the beginning and start with The Roman Hat Mystery. Ellery as a character is said to be quite different in the early cycle and bear some striking resemblances to S.S.Van Dine’s Philo Vance. I hope I’ll still like him, because I found the dry humour and hidden likability o Queen to be one of the driving forces behind the story’s charm.

~ by seizonsha on 2011/04/03.

3 Responses to “There Was An Old Woman”

  1. Ah, an Queen I haven’t read yet. But There Was an Old Woman is of the not-so-interesting period of Queen (fresh from the Hollywood era novels into early Wrightsville novels), in my opinion. The best Queen novels, also from “our” point of view, are the nationality novels. And yes, Queen is a bit more of Philo Vance who Needs a Kick in the Pance in the earlier novels, but I actually like him in those books more than in his more slick appearence afterwards. From a shinhonkaku reader’s point of view though, later Queen is more interesting though, I guess, with a definite /doubt/ that exists within Queen about what he should do and how. Whereas earlier novels are pure puzzlers and Queen (the character) corresponds with that, the later novels are less… puzzle-focused. Which mean they are still rather puzzle-focused compared to other writers though.

    Murders with a pattern are not a common Queen theme (as you say, it’s more in the line of Christie), though like Christie, Queen liked to play around with words, so the structure of his books (chapters, chapter titles etc.) often follow a certain pattern, as oppossed to the content of his books following a pattern.

    I think one of Van Dine’s novels was the first (major?) novel built around a nursery rhyme, but I’m still not very far in my Van Dine readings. Even though it’s not much =_=

    Kawana has written an interesting paper on nursery rhymes and Japanese detective fiction, though it contains spoilers for several books, both Western and Japanese (most importantly Yokomizo’s Gokumontou):

    Kawana, Sari (2007) ‘With rhyme and reason: Yokomizo Seishi’s postwar murder mysteries’. Comparative Literature Studies, 44:1-2, 118-143.

    • Thank you very much for the tip on that paper. I liked Kawana’s ‘Murder Most Modern’ as it was the only competent piece on Japanese Detective Fiction I could find while co-writing my Bachelor thesis. Though I’m not always agreeing with her on all topics, I will definitely try to get a hold of it.

      I’m just starting to read Van Dine, so that might actually be true. If I find anything I’ll try to mention it.
      And yes, the pattern is more of a Christie thing, possibly a little bit with Carr (though most of the time his background mythology is completely fictional). The Ellery Queen stories maybe went through too many changes to really construct a solid pattern as with Christie (she was almost TOO predictable by the end). Ellery Queen on the other hand was maybe too much a victim to stylistic changes based on trends in different media (though I’m basing this on secondary literature alone).
      I’m really excited to see which Queen I’ll like best. I kinda liked this story because it was very focused on atmosphere and ran almost like a movie script.

  2. Ho-Ling is correct in stating that There Was An Old Woman is from a different period, in which EQ had almost completely moved away from the pure puzzle orientated plots, of the international series, to dabble in character exploration (Wrightsville/Hollywood novels) and inordinately bizarre settings (also known as the Ellery in Wonderland series) – that sometimes border on the surrealistic. But some of these books are actually very good and have plots that hark back to the first period EQ books. Cat of Many Tails is a great example, if you can ignore the character angst on Ellery’s part (due to his failure to safe the victim from the previous case) and I remember liking Double, Double (another one of those books in which a killer goes around town murdering people based on nursery rhymes), but the exact plot details have become a bit foggy.

    Anyway, I urge you not to neglect the short stories, like the collections The Adventures of Ellery Queen and Queen’s Full, as EQ was grossly underrated in that department – and I found that even people who can’t stomach the novels tend to like the short stories.

    Seizonsha, have you ever read or heard about a writer named Clyde Clason? He’s also from the Van Dine-Queen School of Detection, but a lot better than the former and usually on par with the latter – and his detective isn’t an insufferable ass. The Man from Tibet (about a collector of Tibetan artifacts who’s apparently murdered by ‘supernatural forces’ in a locked room) is generally considered his masterpiece, but Poison Jasmine and Dragon’s Cave are also worth to take a look at.

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