>The Alphabet in Crime Fiction community meme is continuing its terror-filled journey through the alphabet. We’ve now arrived safely at the letter “K,” thanks to the skilled leadership of Kerrie at Mysteries in Paradise. For this stop, I’ve chosen Ellery Queen’s The King is Dead, first published in 1952. The edition you see here is my 1980 double-book edition.
The King is Dead begins with an invasion of the apartment that Queen shares with his father, Inspector Richard Queen. A man named Abel Bendigo, together with two armed guards, interrupts the Queens’ breakfast to request their help. Abel’s brother Kane “King” Bendigo is a well known but eccentric, wealthy and very reclusive munitions manufacturer. He’s been receiving strange threat letters warning him that he’s going to be murdered, and Abel Bendigo wants the Queens to catch the sender of the letters before the threat can be carried out. At first the Queens demur, but the Bendigo name is so powerful and so much money has changed hands that even the President of the United States has requested the Queens’ help. So the Queens travel back with Abel Bendigo to Bendigo island where Abel and King Bendigo and King’s wife Karla live. Also on the island is Judah Bendigo, the third Bendigo brother.
When the Queens arrive on the island they find it to be more or less an armed encampment. The munitions factory that’s made King Bendigo famous and extraordinarily wealthy is heavily guarded, and every movement that the Queens make is carefully supervised. Nonetheless they settle in and begin their investigation. Bendigo keeps receiving threat notes, each of which gets more specific about the date and time of the murder. Finally the threat is complete: Bendigo is to be murdered at midnight on a particular Thursday. King Bendigo doesn’t take the threats against his life seriously, but in order to appease Abel, who does, he agrees to take precautions. On the night the threat is to be carried out, King locks himself in his hermetically sealed private office. The only other person in the office is Karla. Sure enough, at precisely midnight, a gun goes off and King Bendigo slumps over in his office chair, wounded by a shot to his chest.
The shooting of King Bendigo isn’t at all as clear-cut as it seems. First, there is no gun in the office. There’s no powder residue on Karla’s clothes or hands, so she couldn’t have shot her husband, nor could he have shot himself. Second, the gun used to shoot King was fired precisely at midnight by his brother Judah, who’d actually threatened his brother. But Judah was not in his brother’s locked office. He was with Ellery Queen at the time and the gun he fired never went off. So Queen is faced with an “impossible crime.”
Queen comes to believe that the key to this shooting is in Bendigo’s past, so he travels to the Bendigos’ hometown of Wrightsville, a small town in New England, leaving his father to keep tabs on the Bendigo brothers and Karla. In Wrightsville, Queen finds out about the brothers’ boyhood and growing-up years and it’s there that he finds out the key to the mystery – the real motive for the attack on King Bendigo. He also finds out who’s responsible for shooting Bendigo and how the crime was accomplished.
This novel has several elements woven through it. One of them is that this is, quite literally, a classic “locked room” mystery. Part of solving the question of who shot Bendigo is answering the “how” question. It’s a fascinating intellectual challenge and although all of the facts are easily available to the reader, it’s not a straightforward solution.
There’s also the element of the personalities and relationships among the Bendigo brothers. King Bendigo is the strong and powerful brother, both physically and mentally. Everyone’s a little afraid of him and especially of the powerful security team that protects him. Judah has always resented his brother’s success. Judah’s an “also ran” who’s found solace in the bottle. In fact, he’s thoroughly drunk on the night of the shooting. Abel manages his brother’s affairs and truly resents Judah’s inability to find something meaningful to do with his life. Those relationships among the three brothers were forged in their boyhoods and it’s fascinating to see their interactions and the ways in which they play out. Karla is an interesting character, too. She’s much younger than her husband, and on the surface, seems like a stereotypical “trophy wife.” There’s more to her than that, though, and it’s interesting to see her personality unfold as the novel progresses.
The connection between past and present is also an important element in this novel. The whole motivation for the crime is rooted in the Bendigos’ pasts, and Queen learns from newspaper articles and personal interviews what their pasts were like. As he learns these things, so does the reader. We also learn about the kinds of people the Bendigo brothers are and what makes them “tick.” This adds two layers to the story. One is the set of hidden secrets that still deeply affect the three men. It’s an interesting case of old sins casting long shadows, so to speak.
The other element this connection adds is a layer of psychology. While I wouldn’t go so far as to call this a psychological mystery, there is a strong dose of the way our backgrounds and individual psychologies influence what we do. From an historical standpoint, this novel is an interesting bridge between earlier crime fiction, which mostly focuses on external motivations like greed, jealousy, and fear, and the internal motivations featured in more recent crime fiction.
Although the key to the crime is found in the small town of Wrightsville, a great deal of the action takes place on Bendigo Island. This setting adds to the suspense of the novel. Most of the island is heavily guarded and even though it’s a physically beautiful setting, there’s a sense of paranoia as the Queens try to find out what’s behind the threats to Bendigo’s life. Everything is locked and sealed, the Queens’ every movement is followed and neither Queen is left alone for very long even though they’ve been given clearance to investigate. It’s almost as though the Queens are prisoners, rather than investigators. My edition of this novel doesn’t include a map of the island. In my opinion (so feel free to differ with me) mysteries that feature specific locations like this island really benefit from maps and sketches, so I’d have liked to see one. But it’s certainly not really difficult to follow the plot and action.
Finally, there’s the relationship between the Queens. As with the other novels in which both Queens appear, this one makes it very clear that the Queens love and respect each other, although neither is particularly demonstrative. They have complementary skills and trust each other implicitly.
The King is Dead is an old-fashioned intellectual mystery with a dose of psychology. It takes place against a fascinating island backdrop and shows Queen’s deductive prowess. But what do you think? Have you read The King is Dead? If you have, what elements do you see in it?