“That’s what comes of investigating a crime in which all the suspects are daffy. Reason! Motive! Logic!” He threw up his hands. “Bah!” he said.
For decades, the antics of the “mad Hatters” have delighted New Yorkers and tormented the father of the family, York Hatter. It’s sad, but not surprising, that York has finally taken his own life. In the aftermath of his death, however, conditions have not improved at the Hatter mansion, where everyone must follow the will of the wealthy and mentally unstable Emily. Any of her children or employees might wish to free themselves from Emily’s dictatorial ways. Yet when the murder attempts begin, they are aimed at an unexpected target. Actor turned detective Drury Lane must determine whether one of the Hatters is truly mad before the entire family is wiped out.
The Tragedy of Y finally brings all of Ellery Queen’s gifts together into one brilliant work. The crimes are striking, the characters are distinctive, and the solution is breathtaking. While still a bit too long, the pacing is also much tighter, with many of the tedious scenes of searches and interviews that dragged down previous books streamlined or eliminated altogether. Queen no longer feels the need to pretend that thirty different suspects are all equally likely to have committed the crime; instead, Lane focuses his attention on only a few locations and suspects, with excellent results.
The Hatter family first comes to the attention of Inspector Thumm and District Attorney Bruno through the disappearance of York Hatter. Once a promising chemist, York found himself increasingly dismayed by his wife Emily’s harsh, erratic ways, which have damaged their adult children.
One of them was always in the news. If it was not blond Conrad attempting to wreck a speakeasy in his constant cups, it was brilliant Barbara leading a new poetry cotillion, or holding levee under the lavish endearments of the literary critics. Or it was Jill, youngest of the three Hatter children; beautiful, perverse, sniffing sensation with avid nostrils. Once there had been the faint rumor of an excursion into the land of opium; occasionally the tale of a carousing week-end in the Adirondacks; always, with bimonthly monotony, there was the announcement of her “engagement” to some son of wealth … never, it was significant, to a son of family.
York’s disappearance is seemingly resolved when a body surfaces in New York Harbor. Its pocket contains a suicide note signed by York Hatter. In the months that follow his death, however, the Hatters are cursed by a series of sinister events. The crimes all seem to be meant for Louisa Campion, the beloved daughter of Emily Hatter’s first marriage. Louisa is deaf, blind, and mute, but her other senses are highly developed. She is able to provide more clues than the killer might have expected, which only puts Louisa, her half-siblings, and Conrad’s wife and two young sons in even greater peril.
The character of Drury Lane is toned down a great deal here, compared to his introduction in The Tragedy of X. He comes off as quite a credible detective, rather than the ego monster of the previous book (though the narrator still can’t help reminding us that the sixty-year-old Lane doesn’t look a day over forty). There is a strange dynamic forming between the three sleuths. In the first book, Inspector Thumm and DA Bruno are starstruck by the famous actor, only to find themselves helpless as he steamrolls over them. Now, Lane seems to make Inspector Thumm and DA Bruno uncomfortable with his very presence, yet Thumm, at least, is more than willing to clap back. When Lane compliments him for a good idea, Thumm responds sarcastically, “I get ’em sometimes—mostly when you’re not around. You take something out of me.” Lane’s deafness is barely mentioned here, though once again he tries to impersonate a person whose voice he has never heard—good luck with that. However, his deafness does allow him to be sensitive to Louisa’s situation. He is able to win her trust even as it never occurs to the others that she might be able to communicate.
It’s hard to know what to make of the book’s treatment of Louisa. Lane and a few others are kind to her, and she is actually the most observant witness in the case. She notices more, and communicates more clearly, than any of her relatives (even Thumm admits that Louisa is the only member of the family who’s all there, mentally). Yet the narrative itself seems to hold Louisa at arm’s length. Much is made of her blank, staring eyes; she is described as madly flapping her hands about even after it is known that she is speaking in sign language. Emily Hatter’s deep love for Louisa is one of her few endearing qualities, but everyone else considers it further proof of Emily’s insanity. Thumm, Bruno, and even Louisa’s own siblings refer to her as “the deaf-mute” and “the deaf, dumb, and blind woman” instead of by name. Thumm has a soft spot for Barbara Hatter, in part because she has what he considers the “correct” attitude toward Louisa: “I won’t say she loves the deaf-mute, but from all I’ve fished out of ’em Barbara pities her, tries to help her get some interest in life—what you’d expect a real woman with a heart in her to do.” Given the book’s themes, this portrayal of Louisa as something incomprehensible and less than human has ominous implications.
Questions of eugenics and breeding come up over and over in Tragedy of Y. It’s repeatedly stated that Emily should never have had children, given her disease, which is strongly hinted to be syphilis. Strangely, however, the famous “madness” of the Hatters is so subtle that only the keenest eye can detect it. Even the infamous Emily comes off as more eccentric and misunderstood than actually insane, a woman who makes men uncomfortable because she will not compromise herself to please them.
Into the mortuary trooped a silent company: a woman and three men. It was not necessary to wonder why the woman should be in advance of the men; this woman, you felt, would always take the lead, hold the reins, press the charge. She was old, old and hard as petrified wood. Her nose was a pirate’s hook; her hair white, and her eyes dipped in ice, blue, and unwinking as a buzzard’s. That chunky jaw would never waggle in surrender.
Since so much of the story depends upon the idea of inherited disease, it’s worrisome that detecting this madness is so difficult and subjective. Drury Lane makes much of the fact that the Hatters look perfectly normal and healthy—only a trained eye like his own could spot the signs of mental instability. In fact, the signs are so small as to be barely discernible to the reader. I only recall two examples of the siblings behaving abnormally in the entire book: Conrad flying into a rage during an interrogation, and Conrad and Jill becoming hysterical at the reading of their mother’s will. But since it’s common knowledge that the Hatters are mad, it’s easy enough to see tiny proofs of it if you, like Lane, are looking for them. Disturbingly easy.
That ending, though…what a shocker it must have been in 1932. Even now, when readers may not be so surprised by this particular twist, the way it plays out is astonishing. And even better, the solution really is the only one that makes sense; all the evidence points to it, with the choice of weapon serving as one particularly inspired clue. So far, I have found the first two Drury Lane novels to be harder and more mean-spirited than the Ellery Queen books; that ruthlessness is put to perfect use here, as Lane presses inexorably forward with a course of action that most detectives would shrink from.
The Tragedy of Y strikes me as the first “real” Ellery Queen book. Each of their preceding novels has some unique aspects that make it easy to understand their growing popularity, and The Greek Coffin Mystery is especially impressive, with its ingenious solutions. But this is the first time all of the necessary elements have come together to create a complete and immersive experience. It’s truly a stunning achievement, with an ending that will linger in the memory.
This is one of those rare titles that just grabbed a piece of me and held on to it.Murder in Retrospect, Green for Danger, Fog of Doubt, She Died a Lady, Death Comes as the End, maybe even The Hollow – these are books that stick in your mind, and The Tragedy of Y goes down as one of those.
This is a vast improvement on The Tragedy of X. Drury Lane seems a more human character this time round and has reined in his quotations, to the extent that he does seem quite different to the character of Ellery Queen this time round.
So to sum things up, the story is readable overall, even if its solution is extremely predictable. It could’ve done with some polishing and it may have worked far better without Drury Lane in a starring role. A more appealing detective is called for— a more reasonable, likeable one, not an exaggeration of unlikeable mannerisms.
The Tragedy of Y is available as an ebook from the Mysterious Press.