“Of course the traces of the crime have been removed. The top layer, so to speak. Perhaps even the middle layer. But away down deep, underneath, we may find—who knows?”
French’s is the biggest and busiest department store in Manhattan, known for its elaborate display windows. The unveiling of the latest window always attracts eager crowds. This time, however, the spectacle is horrifying. As a model demonstrates a murphy bed, the bed folds down from the wall, revealing a corpse hidden inside. Even worse, the dead woman is the wife of Cyrus French, the store’s owner. The father and son detective duo of Richard and Ellery Queen will have to discover the most intimate secrets of the store in order to solve this very public crime.
The French Powder Mystery shares all of the vices and most of the virtues of Ellery Queen’s debut novel, The Roman Hat Mystery. It is far too long, talky, and sluggishly paced. (There is an entire section of the book devoted to Ellery’s search of an apartment that may not even be a crime scene—one chapter per room!) Ellery wears a pince nez and liberally sprinkles his remarks with Latin. Yet it also features plenty of period charm and an undeniably clever mystery that will keep readers guessing until the end, quite literally.
The department-store setting adds some unusual elements to the story, especially the chaos of finding the body in the window.
The spectators outside still presented a tableau—they were stricken into silence, petrified with fright. Then a woman on the sidewalk, her face pressed immovably to the glass, screamed. Immobility became frenzy, silence a dull unpunctuated roar. The crowd surged away from the window, pushing madly backward, stampeding in terror. A child fell and was trampled in the crush. A police whistle blew, and a bluecoat ran shouting through the crowd, using his club freely. He seemed bewildered by the uproar—he had not yet seen the two still figures in the exhibition-window.
French’s is one of those old-fashioned full service department stores that simply don’t exist anymore. It includes a bookstore, multiple restaurants, its own medical staff, and a daily lecture program on such topics as “the work of the Viennese Hoffman.” Cyrus French even maintains a huge personal apartment on the top floor with an extra layer of security: “a burglar-proof apartment in a burglar-proof building.” Only a few people hold keys to this apartment, including Cyrus French, his daughter Marion, his wife Winifred, her daughter Bernice Carmody, French’s secretary Westley Weaver, and the four members of the board of directors. Overall, however, countless people have access to the store, leading to a massive group of suspects.
Ellery does not appear to consider Weaver as a potential killer, since the two were “bunkies” in school. Unlike the previous book, where Ellery mostly tagged along after his father, here the two start out with separate investigations, with Weaver serving as the younger Queen’s admiring Watson. This lets Ellery give free reign to his most delightfully pompous Great Detective qualities.
My favorite is the miniature detective kit, “given to me with the benediction of the Herr Burgomeister of Berlin last year for the little aid I gave him in snaring Don Dickey, the American gem thief.” Pressing a switch releases little leather pads that have tiny forensic tools sewn on. He rattles off literally dozens of items, most of which would surely be useless at such a small size even assuming they could all fit. This wonder item is “four inches wide by six inches long, and weighs slightly less than two pounds.” Two pounds! Honestly, if you are going to stretch out your pockets by hauling around a metal device the size of a book and weighing as much as a quart of milk, you might as well just go all the way and carry a proper bag like a big-boy detective, but Ellery obviously loves showing off his new toy. The French Powder Mystery is full of hilarious golden-age flourishes like this that only add to the fun.
While the narrative moves along well enough, the book is awfully long, and there is so much of everything. Too many suspects, too many clues, too many interviews. There’s a go-nowhere subplot about Inspector Queen’s struggles with a new police commissioner. Weaver is involved in a dull romance with Marion French. A variety of ethnic stereotypes come into play. It’s just a lot.
The whole thing culminates in a tour-de-force summing up that painstakingly explores every piece of evidence as Ellery eliminates twenty suspects one by one. It’s a masterwork of suspense, slowly ratcheting up the tension until the last possible moment. However, seeing all the evidence laid out in this way exposes how much padding and redundancy fills the rest of the book. My favorite aspect of this conclusion is its single-minded focus on the identity of the killer. Let’s face it, nobody really cares how things are going to shake out for these characters after the denouement. Solving the murder is the only reason we’re all here. After that, nothing else matters.
Like the department store itself, they don’t make them like The French Powder Mystery anymore. It’s an enormous enterprise that offers everything but the kitchen sink. And while the experience can be fatiguing at times, there’s also a sense of fun, of reveling in all the tricks and twists that golden-age detection has to offer, that carries through all the way to the end.
This is in many ways the standard early Ellery Queen book – highly recommended.
I found it such a dull trudge that, had I not read and enjoyed other Queens prior to this, the experience of dragging myself through this coupled with the turgid talkiness and frank cheating of The Roman Hat Mystery would eighty-six my Ellery Queen in Order undertaking right here.
While I may not have had the best experience with the first Ellery Queen novel, I think overall this second one is much more entertaining and leaves me much more hopeful about continuing with my quest to work through these in order.
So how do I grade this? Mmm, tough question. This is still an improved effort over the first Queen novel, that is for sure. It’s fairly long, and I only mention that because it is so heavy on investigation. Not too much of the story stands out to me except the beginning and the ending. But the ending is good, and I suppose that is what matters to me the most.
The French Powder Mystery is available as an ebook from the Mysterious Press.