“Crime—the crime of violence induced by mastering emotion—is the highest refinement of the human drama. Murder is its own peculiar climax.”
This should be the happiest day of Harley Longstreet’s life. The handsome, successful stockbroker has just announced his engagement to actress Cherry Browne and invited a whole cocktail party’s worth of friends to continue the celebration at his home. Everyone hops on a streetcar, crowded on this rainy evening.
Only minutes later, Longstreet is dead, but how could he have been poisoned on a busy streetcar? Such an unusual crime demands a unique detective. Drury Lane was a famous actor until he lost his hearing. Now he hopes to perform on a very different kind of stage. The Longstreet murder is his first case—and it may be his last.
Despite a strong opening, The Tragedy of X cannot always sustain that promise across its gargantuan length. Ellery Queen (who originally published this novel under the pseudonym of Barnaby Ross) always knows how to stage a striking murder. The tensions of the cocktail party, the mad dash through the rain as the victim and suspects cram themselves into the streetcar, and the early stages of the investigation in the streetcar barn—all have a brisk, jangling energy. This energy reappears from time to time throughout the book, only to be quashed whenever Drury Lane enters the scene.
The novel’s prologue introduces Lane in a gloriously over-the-top manner, as Inspector Thumm and District Attorney Bruno make a pilgrimage to his country home, The Hamlet. Having heard that the retired actor wishes to change careers, they naturally decide that handing over this high-profile case to an inexperienced amateur detective is the right course of action. The sight of Lane at The Hamlet nearly changes their minds, however. Not just an estate, The Hamlet is a full-blown Elizabethan village staffed entirely by elderly grotesques (including Lane’s loyal, much-abused assistant Quacey, short for Quasimodo). “Massive, massive, old…Everything was old and flavored and redolent of Elizabethan England. Leather and oak, oak and stone.”
It makes sense that Lane would need a side hustle to finance his personal theme park, and he makes an impassioned case for himself as an investigator.
I think I can bring to this pursuit a rather unique equipment. I have murdered on the stage countless times; emotionally I have suffered the agony of plotting, the torture of conscience. I have been, among others perhaps less noble, Macbeth, and I have been Hamlet. And like a child viewing a simple wonder for the first time, I have just realized that the world is full of Macbeths and Hamlets.
At this point, the narrative flashes back to the murder as Thumm and Bruno explain what has happened with the case to date. So far so good. Once the story returns to the present, however, and Drury Lane takes his place in the spotlight, the pace slows to a crawl. There are a few eccentric touches, like Lane using theatrical makeup to disguise himself as other parties involved with the case, but these are more confusing than entertaining.
There are a number of excellent suspects in Longstreet’s murder, starting with his new fiancée Cherry Browne, who believed she was the main beneficiary of his will. The other guests at the engagement party include John DeWitt, Longstreet’s business partner. The two colleagues often clashed due to Longstreet’s slapdash habits—he never came to work before noon or left after three. DeWitt’s wife Fern was quite fond of Longstreet, who in turn had his eye on her stepdaughter Jeanne, much to the displeasure of her jealous fiancé Kit Lord. Even without this colorful group, a passenger on the streetcar might have spotted Longstreet and taken a little impromptu revenge. In the early years of the Depression, more than one person might be tempted to murder their stockbroker. The only difficulty is the murder weapon, a cork full of poisoned needles. Anyone might have slipped it into the victim’s pocket, but who would be carrying such an awkward and dangerous item in the first place?
A second crime narrows the focus to a single suspect for quite some time. As a result, the rest of the suspects only receive that first, cursory interview in the streetcar barn before being discarded, some never to be picked up again. Only Fern DeWitt makes a real impression. She’s decked out in leopard-skin from head to toe, but it’s not always clear whether Fern is predator or prey.
At various points, Lane admits that he could reveal the killer’s identity, but “We play on! My instinctive sense of the dramatic prevents me from spoiling a perfect climax for you.” What it does not prevent him from doing is constantly chiding Thumm and Bruno for their subpar detection, rebukes they tolerate with surprising patience.
The producer shapes Hamlet, whittles it, changes its proportions, redesigns it to fit Mr. Barrymore, instead of measuring Mr. Barrymore against the original specifications of the piece as fixed in their true proportions by Shakespeare. You, Inspector Thumm and District Attorney Bruno, commit the identical error when you shape the crime, whittle it, change its proportions, redesign it to fit [the suspect], instead of measuring [the suspect] against the fixed specifications of the crime.
The Tragedy of X is distinguished by some clever and wonderfully atmospheric murders, which take advantage of the wide array of commuter transportation available to killers in the tri-state area. In between murders, however, the pace slows to a crawl as Lane alternates endless monologues with bouts of nude sunbathing.
Yes, nude sunbathing. Throughout the novel, we have received ominous allusions to the sixty-year-old Lane’s handsome, youthful appearance, and eventually this theme reaches its natural conclusion, the full Drury.
Mr. Drury Lane lay, almost nude, on a bearskin, arms shading his eyes from the sun high overhead.
Inspector Thumm stopped short and Quacey grinned himself away. The Inspector could not conceal his stupefaction at the bronzed vigor, the firm youthfulness and muscularity, of Drury Lane’s figure. His lean, sprawling body, hairless except for a faint golden down, brown, hard and smooth, was that of a man in the prime of life. The shock of white hair on his head was a startling incongruity when the eye traveled the full length of the clean hardy body.
Lane invites Inspector Thumm to “discard your swathings and join me on the bearskin,” an offer he mercifully declines.
The real tragedy of X is that it contains a number of compelling elements, only to squander them on an inconsistent and overlong narrative. The Tragedy of X includes individual sequences that are exceptionally vivid and engaging, and the solution involves some nice deductions. However, it’s not a coincidence that the best moments do not include Drury Lane. Most of the time, it seems clear that Lane is intended as a parody of the eccentric, egotistical great detective, driving Thumm and Bruno crazy with his antics. Other times, however, the authors appear to be playing it fairly straight. It’s never obvious how seriously Lane should be taken. Either way, it hardly seems worthwhile to find out.
I worry that I unduly criticize these books because the writing isn’t bad by any means. Well, that is to say “if you examine the writing of any given page, all things seem in order.” And yet, I need something – whether a impossible hook, or just a glimpse of a soul – to pull me along. I have yet to encounter it with the Queens.
And then we come to the overall plan – there are a couple of other deaths to keep the plot jogging along – but it’s mindblowingly stupid and overcomplicated. Add to that a middle section of the book concerned with proving (or disproving) the innocence of the obvious suspect where, again, the critical piece of evidence is obvious and, to be honest, this is a bit of a letdown. Still worth a look, but you have to suspend your disbelief at times.
The Tragedy of X is available in ebook and audiobook formats from the Mysterious Press.