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And on the Eighth Day by Ellery Queen
Review by Larry HomerMost of the Ellery Queen mysteries dealt with the hero's exploits as the debonair intellectual author living in Manhattan, who frequently assisted his father (an Inspector in the NYPD) with baffling murder cases. Sometimes he would end up solving cases that occurred in the town of Wrightsville, in upstate New York, when the authors wanted to get him away from big city life for awhile. This one breaks the mold, however - it is ostensibly set in an obscure religious community concealed in a remote corner of the American Southwest, but they are so back-to-basics in their lifestyle that it leaves Ellery feeling as if he has gone back in time two thousand years to the Holy Land (Israel, Palestine, Galilee and Judea, call it what you will). This makes the story particularly interesting for fantasy readers who like to read about strange, exotic cultures.
It is by sheer accident that Ellery stumbles across this community as he is driving out of California following a hitch as a screenwriter for U.S. Army training films at a Hollywood studio during WWII - at least, sheer accident from his point of view. The first man he meets, however, is the Teacher (religious leader) of the community, and when Ellery introduces himself, his name is heard as "Elroi Que'nan."
Elroi is a good Hebrew name which could suggest a divine connection, and Que'nan is the name of the community. The Teacher leaps to the conclusion that Ellery ("Elroi") has been sent by God or whatever supernatural force the Teacher believes in - details of the Que'nanite theology are carefully left vague. The Teacher frequently refers to "the Word" in such a way that Ellery wonders if it might be an odd pronunciation of "World" or some other concept. Ellery somehow doesn't have the heart to vehemently tell the old man, "I'm not an angel or prophet or any sort of heavenly messenger - it's all just a big coincidence and I don't spell my name the way you think I do."
To be fair, it is very possible that the Teacher had a point about Ellery's having been deliberately steered in this direction to arrive exactly when he did - even if Ellery didn't think so at the time. You see, the people of Quenan have long prided themselves on staying utterly - and I mean utterly - isolated from all the evils of the wider world - murder, adultery, and so forth. But soon after Ellery arrives, a murder is committed. As a self-trained criminologist with considerable experience in such matters, he applies himself to the task of finding the killer.
There are some serious moral quandaries here. For instance, Ellery knows, intellectually, that he ought to figure out which county in which state he is currently in (somewhere in the general vicinity of the California/Nevada border, he reckons) and call in the sheriff's department and/or state police to look into this matter. (The nearest telephone is many miles away, but he could find it.) But he doesn't. There is such a different atmosphere in this little settlement that he hates to think of being the first to ruin it by calling the place to the attention of the secular authorities. (It seems that no one else in the entire USA is aware that this village exists - the Teacher and one other man make the occasional shopping trip to a general store some distance away, and the storekeeper assumes they are hermits living in a little cabin someplace in the hills).
Despite the fact that no one in the community had ever heard of "fingerprints" before, Ellery nonetheless has some real challenges ahead of him in solving the case, and convincing the leaders of the community that he has done so, and seeing "justice" done. There are some wrenching moments involved as he becomes emotionally attached to the community and some of its members, but ultimately the story is given what might be called a dramatically satisfying resolution. The last scene in particular took me completely by surprise (don't look ahead!) and adds a little more weight to the theory that some superhuman Power is in fact stage-managing developments in Qumran - although you can interpret it all as sheer coincidence if you really want to.
This story was published in 1964. It has been stated that this story was inspired by the mid-20th-Century discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, and subsequent greater scholarly interest in studying what was known about the isolated community at Qumran, about two thousand years ago, which produced them. However, the scrolls were not discovered until a few years after this story is set, meaning the author was cleverly able to avoid having Ellery be familiar with them and make the connection and try to get the people of Que'nan to talk about such things, although he does make a calculated guess as to which particular religious sect of the old days might have continued until the present day in the form of a steadily dwindling number of faithful families living largely unnoticed in larger societies until they set up their own little down in the late 19th Century.
Incidentally, online information indicates that this story was ghostwritten by Avram Davidson, the once-noted-but-now-obscure SF/Fantasy writer of the old days, which is another reason this book is particularly appropriate for the Fantasy Freaks Forum. This explains why the story is incredibly well-written, which is the real test. Unfortunately it was one of the first Ellery Queen novels I ever read and left me with somewhat inflated expectations for those from the late 20s, 30s, and 40s, all of which were - I believe - actually co-written by the two cousins who originally created the Ellery Queen character and used that same name as the "author's" name when releasing their novels and short stories. Only later did they start bringing in ghost writers, as in this case.
Grade: 5 out of 5 amulets.
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