The Scarlet Letters (1953) by Ellery Queen

Martha Lawrence was concerned about her husband, Dirk. Dirk was becoming increasingly jealous and this, coupled with his temper, was worrying her, especially, at least as she told Ellery, he had nothing to be jealous about. But then the scarlet letters began arriving.

Installing Nikki Porter as a spy in the Lawrence household, Ellery soon becomes aware of notes received by Martha consisting of a single red letter and a time. Following her, it becomes clear that she is in some sort of relationship with an actor. Not being able to shake the fact that something seems wrong about the whole set-up, Ellery and Nikki keep investigating, but it is only when someone eventually is killed that events come to a head.

Eventually. Page 134 out of 160 in my copy. That’s 84% of the way through the book, while we’ve had to wade through pages of wondering why Ellery doesn’t just ask Martha about the relationship which would have sorted out an awful lot of stuff. We get some “interesting“thoughts on wife-beating – “you don’t even have the excuse of being drunk”, Ellery tells Dirk, as if being drunk makes it OK. Even then, Dirk doesn’t suffer any punishment for punching his wife in the head twice.

That’s not the only part where attitudes seem off, even by 1953. The villain’s plot, apart from being incredibly convoluted and generally unlikely to succeed, hinges on an attitude that just seems… wrong. The fact that something means that something else isn’t just understandable but actually excusable just seems very, very wrong and unbelievable.

On the mystery front, once the dead body shows up, we get what is apparently the first dying message in a Queen novel – the victim writes “XY” before dying which somehow Ellery deciphers. It makes Face To Face almost seem believable.

What’s interesting here is that idea about it being the first message in a novel – because this doesn’t feel like a novel. It feels like a short story that’s been glued onto the end of a shaggy dog story about a woman trapped in a marriage to a very unpleasant individual. To be fair, some of Martha’s behaviour does make sense at the end of the book, although not talking to Ellery about things doesn’t.

All in all, this is a pretty poor book, both in attitudes and as a mystery. Best to avoid this one.


  1. There are earlier examples of Queen using a dying message in a novel. The first, I believe, is The Tragedy of X, which even comes with a lecture by Drury Lane on dying messages (the famous lump of sugar). I much prefer the one deployed in The Siamese
    Twin Mystery
    . I agree with you that this one is pretty weak from start to finish. By now, Queen was definitely in full-fleshed “experimental” mode.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. I remember trying to read a Queen back in the day, but I found the style incredibly boring, like watching cardboard characters shuffle around a poorly realised setting. This review doesn’t bode well for future attempts.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’m with you, @Borley Bookworm. In addition, Queen books are unique in my experience (maybe I’m just not widely enough read?) in leaving gaping holes (and I’m truly a take-it-as-it-comes sort of reader, never searching out solutions or difficulties but wanting the author to bamboozle me): in one case, the murderer seemed blindingly obvious to me immediately but none of the characters thought so and it was revealed as a stunning surprise at the end; in another, the police clearly needed to ask *why* X did Y immediately, but never did until near the end when it was brought out as a stunning insight.

      In addition, one of his late books was so stunningly offensive in content and attitude that I took it out to the dumpster immediately after finishing it. I couldn’t let it stay in my apartment. But I’m going to be generous and not hold it against the oeuvre as a whole.

      Liked by 1 person

      • What were the attitudes you found offensive in relation to, if you don’t mind me asking? The one I remember reading was something about a man killed and strung up at a crossroads, I think. It gave the obvious and hack-y impression that your experience seems to have given you.


      • I assume we can only be speaking of LAST WOMAN IN HIS LIFE, their penultimate novel. It is obviously a very naive book, one written in almost complete ignorance and sadly it shows.


      • The worst part to me is that when Queen finally does unload the solution, it’s a lengthy chain of logic involving some pretty weak links. Something like “only two people could have known this” or “only the murderer would have moved the teacup” and I’m reading it thinking “but do we really know that?”


      • I love both, realky excellent mysteries but as you say, incredibly different in tone and style though both have a thrilling, apocalyptic feel about them.


    • Right you are, @Cavershamragu. I suppose it must be obvious to anyone who knows The Last Woman in His Life. (I’m going to spoil it, but in my opinion it deserves it.) I’m gay myself so I suppose I have an involvement there; but honestly, I’ve been around a long time and I can usually roll with attitudes in books from 60 or more years ago, remembering what the times were genuinely like. But TLWIHL goes out of its way, and is just willfully ignorant of how male-male relationships worked, even for its time (other light fiction of the period is savvier). Plus what passes for cluing is amusingly inept. We get a description of the contents of a character’s study, intended as a secret indication that he is One of Those; but it’s just a laundry list of novelists, composers, poets then considered (not always accurately, I might add) to be gay. Hard to miss the import of half a page of proper names.

      Liked by 2 people

      • One suspects they thought they were being cutting edge at the time. Certainly not s topic handled as directly by any of their obvious contemporaries (Christie, Carr, Marsh, Mitchell, Gardner, et sl). I was probably about 13 when I first read it and as a plot reversal to me it was a big surprise (impressive considering they had to change the dying clue for those like me reading in Italian). I think, read now, it’s also that they take a big issue of the day and it’s just a source for a plot point. One could argue that this levels the playing field and normslises the conversation but that’s surely the naivety I was referring to. Not read it in 40 years but I know the great and knowledgeable John F. Norris of Pretty Sinister Books was as equally turned off by it as you were. And he read it far closer to the original publication date than I did. Plus as a straight guy I was very ignorant myself in the early 1980s.


  3. Undeniably one of the lesser novels from the 1950s – in fact probably sticks out as the least of their books from that decade. On the other hand bit easy to pick on attitudes being a bit out of date with a 70-year old novel. The cousins, compared with most of their contemporaries from the late 20s, were pretty liberal.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.