“For every hundred open-and-shut cases there’s one that requires a mind trained in a dozen universities, including the university of crime.”
Ellery Queen has a secret: the great detective is actually terribly squeamish. He’s happy to receive a private tour of Dutch Memorial Hospital, until he learns that it includes observing an operation. And this is no ordinary surgery. The patient is Abigail Doorn, the founder of the hospital, whose unexpected fall earlier that day has left her in a diabetic coma with a ruptured gallbladder. As the unconscious Abigail is wheeled into surgery, doctors make a shocking discovery. Abigail is dead, strangled before she even hit the operating table.
Ellery and his father, Inspector Richard Queen, discover that Abigail Doorn’s talent for making money was equaled only by her knack for making enemies. Any one of them could have killed her. As Ellery ruefully observes, “Mrs. Doorn was strangled while she was unconscious and waiting to be operated on; somebody seems to have impersonated the operating surgeon; nobody can identify the impostor; and we’re generally up a tree. It’s been a bad morning.”
With The Dutch Shoe Mystery, Ellery Queen takes one step forward and two steps back. From a technical standpoint, Dutch Shoe is an improvement on its two predecessors. The narrative is more streamlined, the suspect list is manageable, and the investigation is competent—there are no big clangers like the one that nearly derails the solution of The Roman Hat Mystery. While this third book lacks some of the frustrations of the other two, however, it’s also missing the joie de vivre that made it worthwhile to look past those issues. The Dutch Shoe Mystery is solid and workmanlike, but not much fun.
This is a shame because the circumstances of the murder are fascinating. Abigail’s injury requires emergency surgery, but her diabetes complicates matters. Since doctors cannot operate until her blood sugar naturally lowers itself into a safer range she is kept in an anteroom under the watch of nurse Lucille Price for several hours. (The description of how dangerous diabetes was during this period is sobering. Medical staff are actually relieved that Abigail is in a coma and will not need ether because administering anesthesia to a diabetic could so easily turn deadly.) The room in which Abigail slumbers adjoins two operating theaters, an elevator, and a supply area, not to mention the main corridor of the hospital. Murder seems impossible with doctors, nurses, and orderlies constantly bustling through the crime scene.
To add to the confusion, Nurse Price and other witnesses swear that Dr. Francis Janney, the irascible chief surgeon, spent considerable time in the anesthesia room. Though Janney was Abigail’s pet, she was threatening to cut off the research he has been conducting with Austrian émigré Moritz Kneisel. Janney claims he has an alibi witness but refuses to identify the man. As Ellery notes, Janney has a distinctive limp that would make him easy to imitate.
More importantly, however, the entire hospital staff dresses alike in their white uniforms. Add a surgeon’s cap and mask, and any killer could pass unnoticed. Indeed, the clue that most fascinates Ellery is a discarded uniform that includes a pair of white canvas shoes, one of which has a broken lace mended with adhesive tape.
Even a patient or family member could slip in, and there are plenty of those around. The outside world viewed Abigail as “the voice of virtue. To her dependents and retainers she was the breath of evil.” Abigail’s brother Hendrik, plump and middle-aged, makes for an unlikely playboy. Nonetheless, his love of the ponies and the ladies has gotten him into trouble. All of Hendrik’s dialogue is rendered in a thick “Dutch” accent: “I play at cardts, horses. I am—what you call—a spordtsman. My luck has been badt—wery badt. So! This man—he lendts me the money.” Abigail’s daughter Hulda is in love with the family lawyer, Philip Morehouse, who destroyed documents immediately after his client’s death. Housekeeper Sarah Fuller has remained in service with the Doorns for decades despite the mutual hatred between her and Abigail. What kept these two women together for all those years?
Inspector Queen is especially intrigued by “Big Mike” Cudahy, a notorious gangster who just happens to be hospitalized at Dutch Memorial. Big Mike has the best possible alibi—he was being sliced open by surgeons at the time of the murder—but the same cannot be said for his criminal associates. The Cudahy-Doorn connection is definitely worth examining.
This should be a colorful cast of characters, but aside from the gloomy, scripture-quoting Sarah, none of these individuals make much of an impression. The Dutch Shoe Mystery lacks the spark that animated the previous two Queen novels and made the reader eager to clamber over the rough spots. Here, there are far fewer rough patches, but also much less passion. The most striking scene is the lead-up to Abigail’s surgery, which captures both the strange beauty and terrifying impersonality of a modern, scientific hospital.
The orchestra of the Amphitheater had settled down now to a hushed expectancy. Ellery thought it very like the moment in a legitimate theater just before the rise of the curtain, when the audience holds its breath and absolute quiet descends on the house…Under a triple brace of electric globes of immense size, emitting a cold, steady and brilliant light, stood an operating-table. It was denuded, pitiless in its lack of color.
This scene is all the more pleasing because it’s clear that this perfect temple of science is about to be invaded by the very human problem of murder. It is when Queen grapples with this dilemma, leaning into the unique nature of the hospital setting, that The Dutch Shoe Mystery is most compelling. However much they may wish to, these scientists cannot leave their emotions at the door of the hospital. It doesn’t matter how clean and white the operating room may be, how much glass and chrome glitters beneath the lights—bodies are fundamentally messy. Hearts and brains cannot be tidied away into little drawers.
If Queen had been willing to explore these themes more deeply, it might have breathed some life into the story. As it is, The Dutch Shoe Mystery is a neat but listless puzzle. Although a major piece of information is withheld to create a dramatic ending, the solution is easy to guess even without it. The clues all fit together nicely; it’s just hard to be invested in the outcome. The Dutch Shoe Mystery is an efficient machine that could use a little more bedside manner.
As you may suspect by now, this isn’t a book that I’ll be recommending. It does sport a nice Carr-ian twist, but that isn’t enough to make up for a flat story.
While the previous two books were a grind at times, I was at least interested in following them through to the end and finding out exactly how the crimes were committed. The Dutch Shoe Mystery tested my patience and I was found wanting.
So, another well put together exercise in logic, with added character thrown in. Just don’t think too carefully about the fact that one character clearly must know who the murderer is and I’m pretty sure a bunch of New York cops from the 1930’s could have got the info out of him before the second murder.
I agree with Ben over at The Green Capsule that there is way too much mulling, interviewing, and reviewing the evidence going on in between murders and solution. If the point was fair play to the reader–waving evidence under our noses repeatedly–then it doesn’t come off (see previous paragraph). In actuality, this 305 page book could have been cut to maybe 250 (251, if we add in a portion to at least hint a bit better at the crucial piece of evidence). Still, it was a good plot with a nice bit of misdirection.
So despite that short catalogue of negatives this was actually a better Queen experience than many of the others I have had.