The Player On The Other Side (1963) by Ellery Queen

A big hello to the new subscribers to my wittering – and a hello to the poor souls who get this appearing regularly on Facebook whether they like it or not! It’s time for the letter Q in the Alphabet of Crime Fiction and I couldn’t pass up the obvious Q – namely Ellery Queen, here represented in the form of The Player On The Other Side.

The Player On The Other Side sets an interesting problem. We know almost from the start who the killer is – a handyman of limited intellect known as Walt, but we also know that Walt is getting instructions telling him what to do – in effect, he is a human weapon, while the person using him to kill is hidden. You may recall that Ellery Queen (the author) was a collaboration between Fred Dannay and Manfred Lee, but this book was the first of a sequence produced when Lee had writer’s block and as such the plot by Dannay was ghost-written, in this case by science-fiction author Theodore Sturgeon.

If I didn’t know it in advance, I doubt I would have noticed the change in scribe. Ellery’s dialogue seems to be lacking some of the dafter expressions that he tends to spout in the earlier novels that I am more familiar with, but this may reflect the style of the later books. But does it measure up to the earlier books?

Well, I had trouble putting it down. Yesterday I found myself basically carrying around school (teacher, not student) on the off-chance of reading a few pages in a quiet moment, but it was not to be. However, Mrs Puzzledoctor was working last night so I shoved some tunes on the Ipod and savoured almost the whole book in one go.

The plot starts off quite typically for Queen – it’s the old eccentric family that seems to turn up all the time in these novels, and, surprise surprise, there’s a tontine concerning their shared fortune – i.e. last man standing gets the lot. Before you can say Watch Out!, the handyman has his instructions and Robert York has a large piece of masonry where his head used to be. The rest of the family start to follow…

It’s a fairly typical Queen investigation, which held my attention throughout the book. There is one thunderingly obvious clue (and not many others) to the identity of Walt’s master and there is a lovely notion as to why Walt would obey without question, but… Now I need to be careful here, as these are spoiler-free reviews, but the identity of the true villain needs a lot of suspension of disbelief and the motive is very slight. I really can’t say
anything else without giving the game away, but I felt that the ending was a bit of a cop-out.

However, if you’re a Queen fan, and have avoided this as it wasn’t a Lee-Dannay collaboration, I’d recommend it. If you’re not, go and read There Was An Old Woman first, or one of the others recommended by my fellow mystery lover over at Tipping My Fedora and then come back to this one once you’re properly indoctrinated.


  1. I usually enjoy Ellery Queen, despite the obvious flaws. (The only exception to date has been “The King is Dead”.) This book sounds very interesting. I love the sound of the premise, and it’s interesting to hear that it was ghostwritten.

    Ah, the disappointing ending. My old nemesis come to rear its ugly head again, has it? I hate it when that happens: when a novel has you completely engrossed, turning the pages, eagerly wanting to see what happens next, and it ends with such a colossal letdown that you’re not sure what to think. (The book I’m currently writing a review on, when Google Talk informed me of this post, is actually the reverse of that situation- but just as puzzling!)


    • It seems odd to me that you didn’t like “The King is Dead”, which is my favorite EQ. Admittedly, it’s been many years since I last read it, but I’ve done so twice, which is a rarity.


  2. Ah, The King Is Dead is quite near the top of my “to read” pile – might leave it a while then. I think the main thing here that bugged me was the relatively simplistic nature of the plot (and the slightly silly ending) – I’ve certainly enjoyed the early Queen’s more than the more atmospheric but less plot-driven later books – Cat of Nine Tails is always touted as a classic, but it’s not a favourite of mine.

    Once the Alphabet of Crime Fiction is over, I might attempt a chronological trip through the Queen back catalogue – it would be interesting to see how the style changes and also try and work out why I find it difficult to remember anything about the early books, despite having enjoyed reading them…


  3. Excellent choice and an excellent review – there’s a near cosmic psychological nihilism to the atmosphere of some Queen books which for me can make reading them occasionally a bit spooky – which is a weird distinction perhaps, but this is certainly one of those titles. Really glad you liked it as it’s long been a favourite from his later novels.

    Incidentally, if you want to read another (solely) by Theodore Sturgeon (who incidentally appears as ‘Kilgore Trout’ in Kurt Vonnegut’s books) and want to remain outside of the author’s usual Science Fiction and Fantasy stylings, you might be interested to in SOME OF YOUR BLOOD, which is another trip into the world of abnormal psychology and has a finish that is truly unique (but that some might consider much too outrageous).


  4. I distinctly remember reading this book, when I was knocking them from my to-be-read list one after another, and wasn’t bothered by the washout ending – because I had too much fun dreaming up an unnecessarily complicated solution that included the actual murderer.

    You see, considering the date it was published, early 1960s, and other books from the same period, I was half expecting some kind of pseudo-psychological inspired solution and foresaw the eventual ending. But then one of the victims got his face obliterated with a rock and I went, “Aha, they won’t fool me a third time with The Birlstone Gambit,” and carefully build a complex solution in which the supposed victim acted as a sinister puppet master – instructing and manipulating the murderer behind the scenes to kill his relatives.

    Well, you know yourself how wrong I was in the end, but it didn’t dampen any of the fun I had weaving that tangled web.

    I know this is completely useless information, but your review brought it all back and this is one of the few EQ titles, from their later period, that I fully enjoyed reading.


  5. Great minds think alike, TomCat. That was exactly the scenario that I’d envisaged as the real villain of the piece (with an outside bet on another character who’d only briefly appeared and had absolutely no motive!) as there really didn’t seem to be anyone else with a credible motive.

    At least I was right about the last bit…


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