“Did the old chap have a fainting spell?”
“The old chap,” said Ellery grimly, “had a bullet spell, that’s what he had. He was murdered, Major—drilled through the heart.”
Buck Horne isn’t just a movie cowboy; he’s the real thing. He can bust any bronco, rope any steer, and hit any target with his trusty pistols. Lately, he’s been riding a very different kind of range: Broadway. Buck is hoping that appearing with Wild Bill Grant’s rodeo at the Colosseum will revive his screen career. Instead, it ends his life.
Twenty thousand spectators watch in horror as Buck is felled by a gunshot, his body trampled by dozens of horses. One of those twenty thousand people is Buck’s killer—but one of them is legendary detective Ellery Queen.
The American Gun Mystery isn’t too bad once you get to the murder. Before that happens, however, the reader has to wade through plenty of interplay between paper-thin characters, most of whom speak in ridiculous western dialects (“I don’t know nothin’ ’bout poor ole Buck’s passin’, sir. Ter’ble thing to see, sir, all them hosses stompin’ on poor Buck”). First-period Queen rarely features very distinctive characters, but they’re usually just sort of dull, whereas here the characters manage to be actively annoying without being at all memorable. The murder injects some life into the story, but the solution raises as many questions as it resolves.
Since his involuntary retirement from the movies, Buck has been living a quiet life on his ranch in Wyoming. The wild west show is not only a chance for a possible comeback, but also an opportunity to spend time with his old friend Wild Bill, Bill’s son Curly Grant, and Buck’s foster daughter Kit Horne, who has taken over where her father left off in movies as a cowgirl star. With forty performers and countless cowpokes working behind the scenes, there is plenty of opportunity for an enemy to infiltrate the show.
Other suspects include Tony Mars, the shady owner of the Colosseum, screen siren Mara Gay, and her current husband, nightclub owner Julian Harvey. The murder and its aftermath are captured on film by newsreel photographer Major Kirby, though for a while the footage doesn’t seem to help much. All of these suspects, plus a few who are revealed later, are in the audience or on the floor of the Colosseum during the crime. They’re a colorless crew, though Queen seems to have a special dislike for Mara, ragging on her at every opportunity.
Mara Gay ruled a kingdom which had no geographical boundaries and whose subjects were abject slaves. She was the incarnation in rose-painted flesh of a forbidden dream. And yet, at this close range, there was something cheap about her. Or was it the result of the usual disillusionment of adjusted focus?
Ellery Queen is unequaled at creating exciting settings and murder scenes, and The American Gun Mystery is no exception. The wild west show provides a colorful canvas, with Buck Horne sitting “astride like an old god, with perfect ease” as his guns glitter in the bright lights, only to be shot down and “swallowed up in a tangle of snorting, rearing horses.” The authors effortlessly conjure up the excitement of a huge opening night crowd, as well as how easily and frighteningly the mood of an audience can turn.
The spectacle of unrestrained mass anger can be terrible; but there is nothing quite so depressing as the spectacle of mass resentment held in check by authority. The auditorium of the Colosseum was thunderous with silent rage. Few faces did not glare sullenly; and those that were meek were horribly tired. If this was the most stupendous reconnaissance in the history of modern policing, it was also the most disagreeable. If looks could kill, there would have been two hundred officers and plain-clothesmen stretched out stark cold on the floors.
(In a nice wink to the reader, Ellery even complains about the public nature of their cases: “We return to criminal investigation in the best Queen manner—nothing less than suspects by the carload…Our next murderer will undoubtedly choose the Yankee Stadium…”)
Inspector Queen and Ellery are in the crowd that night because their child servant, Djuna, is a big fan of western films. The implications of Djuna’s character have always been uncomfortable, and the more we learn about him here, the stranger they become. Djuna is a sixteen-year-old boy of Romani descent who was “picked up” in Europe by Inspector Queen to assuage his loneliness while Ellery was away at college. Given that Ellery is at least a few years out of school at this point, one wonders exactly how old Djuna was when the Inspector snatched him up and put him to work. Though the Queens are very fond of Djuna, he is clearly their employee first and foremost. He seems to work around the clock, cooking, cleaning, and running the Queen household singlehandedly. We are assured that Djuna has plenty of money to indulge his love of movies due to his “generous allowance.” Allowance? He should be receiving a generous salary for his full-time employment. I can only assume the next book in the series will feature the Queens being investigated for child-labor violations.
The solution to the murder is both tricky and annoying. The Challenge to the Reader is more defensive than usual, which is understandable once Ellery reveals how much hidden information his solution relies upon. (Isn’t it disingenuous to insist that the reader could have easily guessed this information when Ellery himself needed to consult others?) If you keep an eye on the physical evidence, this crime is actually solvable, aside from one aspect that I’m willing to excuse simply because it’s so hilariously strange. It’s the motive that lets down the story. This is a very 1933 motive, which Ellery obviously considers so damaging that he can only hint at it. While everyone gets the idea, more or less, it’s difficult to know what to make of Ellery’s actions in the case without knowing the complete motive.
The first time I read The American Gun Mystery, I found the long leadup to the crime, with its barely-there characters and old West cliches, so difficult to get through that it left me with negative feelings toward the entire book. This reread was a more positive experience, but American Gun remains a mixed bag. The atmosphere is excellent, the mystery is acceptable, the characters are useless. There’s a lot of blood and thunder, but the result is not entirely worth the effort.
Still, while a few elements of the resolution leave a bit of a bad taste in my mouth, I have to say I did enjoy the process of getting to that point. The story is one of the most colorful and lively of these early Queen tales and I am hoping that its relative tightness and evocative action bodes well for my experiences with subsequent installments.
[…] this is by far the weakest book so far, both in plot and in writing style.
This is a flawed Ellery Queen but while the flaws in The Spanish Cape Mystery proved fatal The American Gun Mystery is mostly successful if you overlook that pesky and annoying little .25 automatic. Generally enjoyable, although not as good as The French Powder Mystery, The Siamese Twin Mystery or The Greek Coffin Mystery. Recommended.
The American Gun Mystery is available in ebook and audiobook formats from the Mysterious Press.