Halfway House (1936) by Ellery Queen

Halfway House by Ellery Queen

8 Stars (8/10 stars)

Truth is a curious thing. It will not be denied, but one can hasten its inevitability.”

Halfway between Trenton and Philadelphia, convenient to nowhere, the house clings forlornly to the edge of a swamp. It is “a random, dilapidated affair of weather-beaten clapboards, with a sagging roof half-denuded of its shingles and a crumbling chimney…In the shadows of near night, there was something repellent about the place.” Bill Angell doesn’t understand why his brother-in-law Joe Wilson has asked to meet him in such a desolate spot, especially late at night. But someone else has beaten Bill to the house. To his surprise, a hysterical woman runs out the front door, driving off at top speed. Inside the tumbledown shack, Joe lies dead.

Joe Wilson’s life has been cut in half by murder. As police soon learn, however, Joe’s life was cut in half long before that dark night in New Jersey. And unless Ellery Queen can solve the mystery, Bill will be forced to choose between his career, his family, and the woman he loves.

Halfway House is a novel that tries to have it both ways, and succeeds. It marks the transition between two different versions of Ellery Queen: the logical, painstakingly detailed puzzle mysteries of the authors’ first period and the more character-driven, calculatedly commercial offerings of their second period. Here, the Queens strike a perfect balance. Halfway House incorporates all of the dexterous cluing that first-period Queen does so well, supported by a well-paced plot and deeper characterizations.

The opening of Halfway House is a perfect little slice of horror, as Bill quickly discovers that the only thing worse than being alone at night is sharing that darkness with a corpse. “It was very quiet in the shack. He felt the overwhelming loneliness of his position. People who breathed were far away, and laughter was a remote and inconceivable luxury.” The eerie atmosphere surrounding the house is splendidly evoked, along with Bill’s shock at his encounter with the strange woman.

The figure was a woman’s, and her hands were before her face as if to shut out the sight of something obscene. She stood there for only an instant, a silhouette the details of which were indistinguishable. With the light behind her and her figure in the darkness, she might have been young or old; there was a slenderness about her that was ambiguous. He could make out no details of her dress. This woman had screamed. And she had fled from the shack as if sick and blind with loathing.

In the aftermath of the murder, Bill and his sister Lucy are stunned by aspects of Joe’s life that they never suspected. How could an unsuccessful traveling salesman from Philadelphia be involved with the prominent Borden family of New York? Jessica Borden Gimball and her daughter Andrea are equally puzzled by the situation. Jessica’s father, business tycoon Jasper Borden, is elderly and frail after a stroke: “it was as if he were composed to two bodies, one alive and one dead…Ellery saw that this man was already in his tomb.” Nonetheless, he remains a formidable adversary for Ellery, willing to do whatever it takes to keep his daughter and granddaughter from falling under suspicion. There are also a few random hangers-on who have attached themselves to the crime, like feisty reporter Ella Amity and the Bordens’ friend Grosvenor Finch. Are they driven by curiosity, or a more sinister motive?

While the solution to the mystery depends as strongly as ever on logical deduction and physical evidence (including one clue hidden in such plain sight that I was kicking myself for having overlooked it), the human factor is far more present than in any previous Ellery Queen book. Several first period Queen novels withhold the motive for the crime until the very end, even after the Challenge to the Reader assures us that we have all the evidence needed to solve the case. From the authors’ perspective, this is a feature, not a bug. Early Ellery Queen is far more interested in what people do than why they do it. The emphasis is almost entirely upon the physical environment of the crime scene. If the evidence Ellery finds there shows that a particular person must have committed the murder, then that is all that matters. Motives are interesting but optional.

Even if the psychology is still not very deep, the characters here do feel like recognizable human beings acting for reasons of their own, rather than puppets being manipulated by the author to fulfill the demands of the plot. Jasper Borden is a particular standout; as tragic as it is to see a still-sharp mind fighting against a dying body, Borden is too tough to pity. On the other end of the spectrum, Ellery Queen’s male romantic leads are reliably awful, and Bill Angell is no exception. His romance with Andrea Gimball is not too intrusive. However, it does lead Bill to seemingly put Andrea’s interests ahead of his sister Lucy at times, which is not endearing. It is also worth noting that Ellery’s relationship with local police, in the form of Chief De Jong, is more adversarial than in previous Queen books, forcing Ellery to work a little harder.

Halfway House by Ellery Queen

Halfway House plays with concepts of identity and disguise—not only in the staging of the crime scene, but the more subtle ways people present themselves to others. Though every murder case uncovers deep secrets, sometimes it is the smallest secrets are most closely guarded. Time after time, suspects in a mystery novel would rather risk being arrested for murder than admit to something that might undercut their carefully crafted self-image. Here, the artifice is stripped bare. Joe Wilson is far from the only character who is leading a double life. Most of the suspects are desperately trying to maintain a public face that is often at stark odds with reality. They show a mask to the world every day, and the transition between private and public self is often a difficult one. The crime scene itself represents this struggle of being trapped between two different selves. It looks like a real house but isn’t, not quite.

You have a house in which the occupant neither slept nor ate—a place with extraordinarily few of the characteristics of a dwelling and all the indications of…a transient shelter, a wayside convenience, the merest stopover.

This is a place to creep off to in darkness, to shed one skin and take on another. The apparent ease with which the characters embody familiar archetypes (the girl reporter, the society matron, the business tycoon) only makes them more suspicious. No one could really be such a stereotype…or could they?

Oddly enough, while the book frowns upon the suspects’ efforts to reinvent themselves, it seems to approve of Ellery’s attempt to impose a new identity onto someone else. Despite his friend Bill’s interest in Andrea, it is Ellery who spends the most time with her after the crime. Ostensibly, he is trying to shake Andrea out of her rich-girl ennui and awaken a social conscience by exposing her to proletarian art. In practice, this seems an awful lot like dating, which would make Ellery’s plan to remold her personality feel a bit darker than the novel intends.

Ellery’s newfound interest in social justice is just one of the ways in which the novel is steeped in the ambiance of the Depression, something which has barely touched previous Queen adventures. At one point, Jasper Borden refers to “the crash of ’29 and ’30.” I find this interesting because we tend to think of the stock market crash as a single event, one big crash on October 29, 1929, that instantly changed the world. Real life is rarely so convenient, however. Those living at the time would have not have experienced one shock, but a series of them, slowly eroding their security. Money is on everyone’s mind. The dire economic situation makes the gulf between the haves and the have-nots especially wide. Many of the characters in Halfway House are either aggressively pursuing opportunities or scrambling to keep what they have, sometimes with deadly results.

Halfway House represents a major breakthrough for Ellery Queen. Like most Queen novels, it begins with a tantalizing premise and ends with a brilliant solution that more than lives up that promise. The difference lies in the middle, which skips deftly from one dramatic moment to the next. Though not all of these attempts at human drama are successful, enough of them do hit the mark. Halfway House provides readers with a murder mystery as marvelously complex as any of the Queens’ earlier work, but it also gives us something else: a reason to care.

Second Opinions

Crossexamining Crime

Therefore despite some flaws and some unconvincing melodrama this book is worth reading. It may not be for all mystery fans’ taste, but people for who like puzzle oriented mysteries that are not too farfetched, this is a great book. 

The Invisible Event (Spoiler Warning)

I enjoyed it.  I really enjoyed it.  It moves at a good lick, the clues are thick and plentiful – I actually solved this one come the Challenge to the Reader – and the convolutions  of the plot work pretty well overall.  This is what EQ books should be like!

The Passing Tramp

While there is some typically ingenious EQ clueing here, there also is emotional melodrama that is less successful, in my view.

Reading Ellery Queen

This novel stands as one of the most intriguing Queen mysteries to date.


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