Friday, September 23, 2011

Book Review: The Virgin Heiresses (aka The Dragon's Teeth)

The Virgin Heiresses (aka The Dragon's Teeth) by Ellery Queen (1939)

Two phrases came to mind when I finally put down this book: "backdoor pilot" and "eight deadly words."

Why did I find the first phrase applicable? According to Wikipedia: A backdoor pilot is defined by Variety as a "pilot episode filmed as a standalone movie so it can be broadcast if not picked up as a series".It is distinguished from a simple pilot in that it has a dual purpose. It has an inherent commercial value of its own while also being "proof of concept for the show, that's made to see if the series is worth bankrolling". This definition also includes episodes of one show introducing a spin-off.

One of the main characters in this book is Beau Rummell, the son of one of Inspector Queen's old colleagues who opens a detective agency with Ellery Queen. Much of the book is seen either seen through the eyes of Rummell or centers around him and his interactions with other characters. Rummell appeared in none of the books published previous to this one and continues to not appear in the books published afterwards. It feels as if the authors were either trying out a new character or a new style of writing. In the opinion of this reader they do neither well.

Which brings us to the second phrase, Dorothy Heydt's eight deadly words "I don't care what happens to these people." The characters failed to interest me enough to care whether they lived or died or were railroaded for committing murder. Ellery Queen himself seemed to have been replaced by an even more bloodless pod-person version of himself and the rest of characters rarely rose above being (very thin) cardboard cut-outs being moved around rather lackadaisically by authors who did not themselves really care what happened to most of them.

The measure of how boring, uninvolving and uninteresting this book was is that I didn't even have the heart to catalogue the racism, sexism, classism and essentialism of the story and characters.

Rating: 0 stars


  1. "I don't care what happens to these people."

    The kiss of death.

    I just finished a "hard" science fiction novel which had been enthusiastically recommended to me by someone with whom I share many literary tastes. This, alas, turned out to be one of the exceptions.

    Most of the characters, I didn't care about their impending doom-- and they were all doomed. As for the protagonist, the so-called hero, the one man who could see what was happening and come up with a Plan, by page 100 of a 600-page book I was actually rooting for him to fall into a volcano.

    Seriously. It happened to millions of other people in that book, why not him? Obnoxious, smug, insufferable creep that he was.

  2. Are you willing to share what book it was or might that hurt someone's feelings.

    My current "pet peeve" book right is Cryptonomicon which is mentioned all over the web as a classic, must-read book by a current science fiction author and which I find to be so hatefully misogynistic and viciously racist that it is hard-sledding indeed.

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  4. I think a tie-in episode can be a backdoor pilot too, and that's closer to what we have here than something designed to be show independently - for example, the second and third CSI series were launched with special episodes of the previous series that introduced the new characters.

    Some of middle-to-late-period Christie strikes me as thoroughly uninvolving too - I can't now remember which one it was, but everyone was at best a chancer and at worst blatantly crooked, and I didn't really care who died or who'd done it...

    Amaryllis: ayup. I got this reaction to the universally-lauded Feed (Mira Grant) - six chapters in and I was starting to shift from "I don't care about this people" to "I hate these people for taking up my time". So I stopped there.

  5. I was talking about Moonseed, by Stephen Baxter. It was recommended-- in fact, lent-- by a real-world colleague, not any of my on-line book buddies.

    Anyway, I've already told him something of what I thought, although I said there were some interesting things about the book, too; and there were. Just not the people.

    It's a disaster novel in which some kind of alien substance is accidentally introduced on Earth and started eating through the rocks. All the rocks, all over the world, spreading through the crust right down to the mantle, thus causing the above-mentioned volcanoes and earthquakes and tsunamis. Some of the sections describing the physical and social disasters were interesting, although he'd throw off one-liners like, since the first effects were felt in Britain, the British government tried to re-conquer Ireland for the escape space. And he'd say no more about it, while I'm thinking, "wait, what?! Bet that went over well! Anyway, why didn't they just take back Canada-- much more room, farther away from the infestation, stable central landmass, ties of loyalty...what's happening?" But we'd bounce back to Henry and the details of his latest battle with some clueless bureaucrat, and hear no more about it.

    The book was full of minor characters who'd be introduced for a page or two, usually in some moment of stupidity or pettiness, and then they'd get caught in the latest earthquake and that'd be the end of them. We don't know them, why should we care? The intermediate, so to speak, supporting characters never really convinced me to care about them, either; the relationships and situations were I thought unrealistic. And as for Henry, our protagonist, you already know what I thought about him. I got really tired of him being right about everything all the time, but it wouldn't have been so bad if he wasn't so pointlessly obnoxious all the time.

    Well. Anyway. The book was okay when it was blowing things up, but otherwise, not so much.

    @Firedrake: I've never heard of Feed, Mira Grant, but apparently I haven't missed much. But "Feed Mira Grant" sounds like a command directed atthe Man Who Melted Jack Dann.


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