“A murder’s no place for a young girl.”
Patience Thumm is back from her grand tour of Europe and eager to jump into the family business—which happens to be murder. Her father, the former Inspector Thumm, has left the New York City Police Department to become a private investigator. The Thumms are hired to look into the shady activities of Senator Joel Fawcett. Their misgivings are justified when Fawcett is found murdered, clutching a broken toy box in his dead hand.
A case this challenging calls for a master detective. Thumm calls upon his old friend Drury Lane, who is lured out of retirement to investigate the murder. In Patience, Lane recognizes a budding detective whose skills might equal, or even surpass, his own. And despite her father’s misgivings, Patience is determined to prove that a woman’s place is at a crime scene.
With The Tragedy of Z, Frederic Dannay and Manfred Lee continue to bring together all of the lessons they learned in their previous books. This is an atmospheric, well-paced, meticulously plotted detective novel, winningly narrated by Patience. You can even tell the characters apart (not always a given with early Queen). One dazzling feat of deduction follows another. And I dare you to find another mystery that stages its denouement in an execution chamber—during the execution. It’s a tight story with a wonderful sense of showmanship; the only thing it lacks is the emotional payoff of its predecessor Tragedy of Y. All of the suspects and victims are at least a little grotesque, so it’s difficult for the reader to feel too invested in the outcome.
The Queens seem to have figured out early on that their Drury Lane mysteries were at their best when they featured Drury Lane the least. The Tragedy of Z, which takes place ten years after Lane’s previous adventure, at first seems to take the radical step of omitting him altogether. Seventy-year-old Lane is essentially retired, a frail old man who stays close to his Elizabethan compound, the Hamlet. Even when he does join the Fawcett investigation, he keeps a low profile; there is a sense that he may be passing the torch along to Patience. Lane still has a few tricks up his sleeve, however, and the solution results from a true collaboration between the two.
Patience is young and inexperienced as a detective, though she catches on very quickly. When Senator Fawcett is killed, she is apprehensive about visiting her first murder scene. The corpse turns out to be surprisingly mundane, the still point around which a frenzy of activity revolves.
Of those present, he was the most serene, the least concerned […] Through the dancing haze before my eyes, I looked, and looked, and thought that it was indecent for a dead man, a murdered man, to sit so quietly and unconcernedly while all the world scuttled about his room, invading his privacy…
Patience often indulges in an arch, rather pretentious style of narration that allows her to elide over situations that might prove embarrassing, like her budding romance with Jeremy Clay, their client’s son. She insists that his attentions are “inane” yet, reading between the lines, it is clear that she is enjoying the relationship more than she would like to admit. Still, she never gets carried away. Her career as a detective comes first. Her biggest challenge on that score is convincing the men in the room that she belongs there at all, starting with her overprotective father.
You think you’re back in the days of crinoline and nine petticoats, don’t you? You think women oughtn’t to vote, and smoke, and curse a damn, and have boy-friends, and raise hell, eh? And you still believe birth control is a device of the devil, don’t you?
While some of her “showing off” is youthful impulsiveness, much of it is an effort to demonstrate her competence to a skeptical audience. Patience is especially nervous to meet her idol, Drury Lane, and has prepared a monologue to explain some of her deductions thus far. It’s a bravura performance that wins him (and the reader) over completely.
The Thumms need Lane’s help because they believe an innocent man is being railroaded for Senator Fawcett’s murder. The small town of Leeds, New York, is dominated by the grim facade of Algonquin Prison. A recently released prisoner named Aaron Dow has been accused of the crime: he was the one who built the toy box Fawcett was holding, the broken piece marked “HE.” There are countless others who wanted the crooked senator dead, however, including Jeremy’s father, Elihu Clay, local vice queen Fanny (who smokes cigars and wears beautifully tailored men’s suits), and even the Senator’s equally shady brother, Dr. Ira Fawcett. Despite the Thumms’ best efforts, however, the town has closed ranks against the outsiders. A powerful political machine controls everything in Leeds.
The prison casts an ominous shadow over the story, an ever-present reminder of what awaits Aaron Dow if he is wrongfully convicted. Patience worries that she is “impotent to save that poor creature from jerking out his cheap little life in the embrace of the electric chair.” A visit to the prison does nothing to allay her fears.
It was empty, silent, lifeless. Even the walls here leered and muttered to me soundless tales of horror, and these were the walls not of cells, but of offices. I wondered what shrieking phantasmagoria inhabited the terrible structures all about us.
Later, Lane attends an execution which disturbs him enormously. He describes it to the Thumms in excruciating detail. This is a haunting monologue which also incorporates important clues. Later, in the hair-raising denouement, Lane will crash a second execution to present the solution. This is the scene that makes the entire book worthwhile, as Lane fires off a series of airtight conclusions, casually eliminating dozens of suspects on the spot before zeroing in on the guilty one. It’s an absolutely brilliant spectacle.
The Tragedy of Z demonstrates that the Queens are continuing to hone their craft. Like Patience, they’ve done a lot of growing up, but their fertile imaginations and youthful zeal remain unabated. And some things never change—rest assured that, even at seventy, Drury Lane still has a great body.
The Tragedy of Z is overall weaker than The Tragedy of X and The Tragedy of Y, there’s no doubt to that in my mind. But the conclusion of Z is perhaps the strongest of the three Tragedies, providing a much better showcase of how clues and deductions are handled in Ellery Queen novels. The rest of the book isn’t bad per se, but the star of the book is definitely the final chain of revelations made by Mr. Drury Lane.
The Tragedy of Z is available as an ebook and audiobook from the Mysterious Press.