“No one said anything for a long time, and the chill wind of tragedy crept into the room. It was hard to believe, looking out into the sunny gardens, that the master of all this peace and beauty and luxury lay, a stiff headless corpse, in the County Morgue.”
Ellery Queen’s Christmas plans are unusual even for him—the famous sleuth is spending the holidays in Arroyo, West Virginia, where schoolteacher Andrew Van has been crucified and beheaded, his body nailed to a signpost and posed in a T shape. Unable to make any headway on the murder, Ellery slinks home in defeat.
Only a few months later, however, a second shocking crime takes place, this one much closer to home. Wealthy businessman Thomas Brad has been found dead on the grounds of his Long Island estate. Brad’s corpse is crucified, beheaded, and posed just like Van’s. Ellery is certain the crimes are connected, but what could these two men have in common? The answer could lie in the nudist colony that has just moved in across the bay…
I began this book with high hopes, after the stunning achievement of The Tragedy of Y. Unfortunately, The Egyptian Cross Mystery surrounds a fairly good murder mystery with three hundred pages of pointless and mostly uninteresting distractions. The story begins in a lively manner, but Ellery’s early and single-minded focus on one particular suspect quickly plunges it into the doldrums, pushing every other character off the page.
Even Ellery’s father, Inspector Queen, wants nothing to do with this one. That means that instead of working with his familiar cast of New York City detectives and prosecutors, Ellery must win over skeptical law enforcement officials in other jurisdictions. His college professor Dr. Yardley serves as his Watson, though a far from uncritical one. For instance, when Ellery dramatically announces that the corpses are being beheaded and crucified to form the T shape of a tau, or Egyptian cross, it is Yardley who spoils his fun by gently pointing out that they are not at all the same thing. “I’ve heard so much about your pyrotechnical ability as a detective that the reality—sorry if I’m sacrilegious—lets me down,” he grumbles. “When do you commence, Queen?” It’s the same question the reader may be asking.
Ellery’s theory about the Egyptian cross could be important because, aside from the unusual murder method, the deaths of Andrew Van and Thomas Brad seem to have only one thing in common: ancient Egypt. An eccentric man who goes by the name Harakht and dresses in Egyptian robes was traveling through West Virginia at the time Van was killed. By the time of Brad’s murder, Harakht is settled down on an island near Brad’s estate, worshiping the Egyptian sun god Ra with a group of like-minded souls. He, his partner Paul Romaine, and their followers have ditched the flowing robes in favor of wearing nothing at all, to the outrage of their new neighbors (“They were seen capering around Oyster Island absolutely nude, like human goats, and well—we’re a decent community”).
Aside from the nudists, other suspects include Thomas Brad’s wife and stepdaughter, their secretive chauffeur, a mysterious English couple who live next door, and Brad’s secretary, whose sister has joined up with the nudist colony. Brad’s business partner Stephen Megara is supposed to be off cruising on his yacht, but nobody seems to know exactly where. And I think I have now spent about as much time discussing these characters as the authors do. Almost immediately, Ellery becomes fixated on one suspect, allowing his obsession to drive the entire investigation.
While this does cut down on lengthy suspect interviews, it only provides more opportunities for lovingly detailed searches of Brad’s estate. The searches do generate a few good clues, including a nice chain of deductions drawn from a seemingly abandoned game of checkers. Ellery also shows some self-awareness by alluding to the disastrous search from The Roman Hat Mystery, for which I still have not forgiven him. For every worthwhile clue, however, we get a full chapter of grown men crawling around on the carpet measuring the marks left by furniture legs.
What makes this all the more frustrating is that the book begins very well and, every so often, will suddenly start to perk up again. At last, I would think, it’s finally getting good, only to be disappointed again and again. Even the nudist colony fizzles out, much like the Fourth of July fireworks over Long Island Sound.
They were silent as they watched a long finger of brilliant light zoom into the dark sky and burst in a flash of dropping velvet colors. The single shell seemed to be a signal; instantly the entire coast of Long Island erupted, and for a space they sat and observed the celebration of the North Shore. Faintly, in the sky above the distant New York shore across the Sound, they made out answering flares, like tiny fireflies.
Now and then someone gets beheaded and crucified, which does liven things up for a while. The murders are exceptionally bloody, and the Queens revel in the gore, with detailed descriptions of every mutilated corpse. This is not a book to read while eating. Even Ellery, who could never be accused of having a weak stomach, is troubled by the level of brutality on display.
You read the old stories, history—of Caligula, of the Vandals, of Moloch, of the Assassins, of the Inquisition. Dismemberments, impalements, flayings…blood, the pages are written in blood. You read…But mere reading doesn’t begin to give you the full, the hot and smoking horror of it. Most of us can’t grasp the monstrous versatility of madmen bent on destroying the human body…Here in the twentieth century, despite our gang wars, the Great War, the pogroms still raging in Europe, we have no clear conception of the true horror of human vandalism.
While the solution itself is not very complicated, the precise motive does rely on previously unrevealed information. The mystery is still easy to solve without that information (Ellery does so, and I certainly did), but I’ll never be a fan of outside information being casually dumped into the denouement. The excitement level goes up considerably near the end, as Ellery embarks on a desperate chase, but even this drags on and on like everything else in this book. They might as well have just printed a set of airline schedules and be done with it.
The Egyptian Cross Mystery proves there can be too much of a good thing. There are so many promising setups in this book that fade away into the monotony of yet another search, another flurry of telegrams, or one more journey. Characters and subplots get dropped until there’s almost nothing left. By the time the killer was finally revealed, the same could be said for my patience.
Despite the thriller elements there’s a puzzle here as well, of course. Personally I don’t think it’s one of the better Ellery Queen puzzles. When I can guess the identity of the murderer something has gone very wrong somewhere, because I’m generally hopeless at that sort of thing.
While it may not be perfect and I have to admit that the first tenth of the book underwhelmed me, I was more entertained by this than I have been with any of its predecessors. It is a clever story that plays fair, that works to keep the reader engaged throughout the whole novel and that builds to an exciting conclusion.
The problem here is, the author has thought up a clever, but extremely guessable, plot but cannot find room to introduce any real alternative suspects.
The Egyptian Cross Mystery is available as an ebook and audiobook from the Mysterious Press. In November 2020, it will be released in paperback and hardcover by American Mystery Classics.