Reviewed by MIKE GROST:

ELLERY QUEEN – The Origin of Evil.   Little Brown, hardcover, 1951. Reprinted many times. Paperback editions include: Pocket 926, 1953; Pocket 2926, 3rd printing, 1956 (both shown). Signet, 1972; Perennial, 1992.

ELLERY QUEEN The Origin of Evil

   Years after his first two Hollywood books, Ellery Queen returned to Hollywood for a third novel, The Origin of Evil (1951). Once again, like The Devil to Pay, it deals with businessmen in L.A., not the movie industry. The central conceit of the story, “the household under siege from an avenger from the past”, is right out of the Sherlock Holmes tales.


   The Origin of Evil has an abundance of mystery plot. There are many separate mystery puzzle ideas:

    ? A core plot recalling Ten Days’ Wonder in its basic structure, about a common pattern in a series of events (solved in Chapter 14).

    ? A separate clue to the killer (solved in Chapter 15).

    ? Secrets of various characters: that of Delia (set forth in Chapter 1, solved in Chapter 9), that of Crowe Macgowan (set forth in Chapters 4 and 5, solved in Chapter 16).

    ? A puzzle about the past of the victims (start of Chapter 9, solved in Chapter 14). Its set-up (Chapter 9) is an example of the intensive police investigations into characters’ backgrounds that run through EQ. This look into the past of the business partners recalls a similar search into the past of the business associates (Chapter 5) in The Egyptian Cross Mystery. The solution reverses plot ideas found in “The Needle’s Eye”.

ELLERY QUEEN The Origin of Evil

   Early on, there is a nice if small example of an EQ specialty: an Impossible Disappearance (Chapter 4). It is solved right away. The disappearance plot is of a different, and perhaps simpler, structure, than those in many other EQ works. Instead, it shares a broad resemblance to another impossible crime involving footprints, the radio play “The Adventure of the Haunted Cave” (1939). Both tales have different puzzles and solutions, though.

   This multitude of mystery is good. However, many of the individual ideas are fairly simple. They are solid, but not at the peak of EQ’s ingenuity. The Origin of Evil is somewhere in the middle rank of Ellery Queen’s achievement: a decent book, but not a classic. Still, it is a pleasure to read a book focused so strongly on mystery and detection.

   The Finishing Stroke (1958) will also be an EQ novel with a major mystery in the Ten Days’ Wonder “find the pattern in a series” mode, and an “impossible disappearance of a person” subplot. The impossible disappearance will play a larger role in The Finishing Stroke than in The Origin of Evil, however.

   Some of the characters turn amateur detective in the middle of the book, recalling the amateur sleuths who assist Ellery in Cat of Many Tails. These sections involve some decent detective work, tracking down the origins of objects used in the attacks on the house (Chapters 6,8).

ELLERY QUEEN The Origin of Evil


   The book expresses pessimism over the arms race, and describes Yugoslavia and Iran and Korea as possible places where war could break out: 50 years later this seems frighteningly prophetic. The Origin of Evil shows the start of the Korean War on the US home-front, just as Calamity Town did for the beginning of World War II. One suspects that EQ chose the Los Angeles setting largely for these aspects of the novel.

   In addition to the arms race, there are two depictions of high tech environments in The Origin of Evil.

   The Origin of Evil is blunt in its depiction of sexuality, like some other later EQ novels. Mickey Spillane was dominating the best seller lists at this time, and EQ was clearly writing in tune with the zeitgeist.

   The Origin of Evil, like Ten Days’ Wonder, has a younger man in love with the beautiful wife of a powerful paternal figure of a man. In The Origin of Evil, the young man in love with the wife is Ellery himself. In both novels, the romantic triangle has undertones of an Oedipal conflict.

   These books, along with Cat of Many Tails, are the main products of EQ’s Freudian psychoanalytic period (1948-1951). One suspects that such Oedipal symbolism was consciously intended by the author. I confess I don’t believe in Freudian psychology at all, and don’t see the artistic value of such imagery in the novels.

ELLERY QUEEN The Origin of Evil


   I did like the young hero. His name, Crowe Macgowan, seems to be inspired by Cro-Magnon Man, suggesting he is an evolutionary throwback. Crowe Macgowan is one of the eccentric, non-conformist characters, that often make Golden Age mystery fiction so interesting. Such characters have almost disappeared from most contemporary English-language crime novels, which instead glorify conformity.

   Alfred Wallace is also an unusual character, who seems odder and odder as the novel progresses, and we learn more of his back-story.

   The suspect Mr. Collier wanders through The Origin of Evil, making recurring appearances, and sometimes philosophizing about life. A similar recurring philosopher character is the young black man in The Tragedy of Errors.

— Reprinted from A Guide to Classic Mystery and Detection, by Michael E. Grost, with permission.