“Fact of the matter is, Lane, we’re in something crazy, I’m not getting any money out of it, it’s the nuttiest yarn you ever heard, and I’ve got to do something about it.”
Since leaving the police force to set up shop as a private detective with his daughter Patience, Inspector Thumm has encountered some strange propositions. This one has to be the oddest, however. A man with a blue and green beard hires him to guard an envelope, which he promises contains “a secret worth millions.” What seems like easy money proves to be anything but. As one crime follows another, Patience, the Inspector, and their friend Drury Lane are drawn into a literary scandal that will change their lives forever.
Drury Lane certainly knows how to make an exit, though I can’t say I’m sorry to see him go. Drury Lane’s Last Case is interesting but flawed, with a truly shocking, innovative solution that hasn’t been earned by the narrative that precedes it. The problem with a literary mystery is that the stakes never seem high enough to justify murder; here, the cluing is far more convincing than the motive. The story moves along briskly (in fact, the pace is almost frenetic at times), yet still manages to get bogged down in an avalanche of detail.
Lane is a larger-than-life figure, a former theatrical star who turns to detection after losing his hearing. Over the course of the series, Lane has grown older and more subdued, tending to leave active detection to the Thumms. At first, there seems to be nothing in their new case that would interest him, until they begin to suspect that the Inspector’s mysterious visitor has something to do with a break-in at the Britannic Museum. A glass case containing a priceless antique book is smashed, but nothing is taken…or so it seems. The book is a 1599 edition of The Passionate Pilgrim, poems attributed to William Shakespeare. Patience and the Inspector turn to their friend Drury Lane, the famed Shakespearean actor, for expert assistance. (Their options are limited: in their world, Shakespeare is incredibly famous, yet somehow only being researched by about four people.)
The most entertaining passages come early on, as Patience and her father try to track down a party of Indiana schoolteachers who may be mixed up in all this. Their efforts lead them to a genteel hotel whose staff is not amused by their investigation, as well as to a fleet of sightseeing buses.
The taxicab deposited them precariously in a clutter of monster buses lined up at the kerb on the south side of Forty-Fourth Street near Broadway. They were vast gleaming machines decorated whimsically in a motif of pink and blue, like acromegalic infants primped out by a sentimental mother. Their nurses, to a man young stalwarts attired in smart blue-grey uniforms, sleek-calved and military, lounged on the sidewalk outside a little pink-and-blue booth, smoking and talking.
By far the most tiresome aspect of the story is the bumptious wooing of Patience and Shakespearean scholar Gordon Rowe. Romantic comedy has never been Queen’s strong suit. Here, the love story takes the form of borderline harassment, as Rowe steamrolls over Patience’s protests that, for example, she would really prefer to be called by her name when working on a case rather than being addressed as “darling.” He does display a little self-awareness, admitting, “this sort of childish vulgarity is my escape. It’s not very bright, I know, and I’ve never felt myself capable of holding my own in the social sense.” While it’s refreshing to see it actually acknowledged that his pushiness is inappropriate, that doesn’t make it any more pleasant to experience, especially since Rowe’s approach seems to be rewarded. In The Tragedy of Z, Patience never let romance interfere with her work. Now, she can think of nothing else. She continues to insist, “I don’t see why the mere fact that a woman is biologically different from a man should prevent her from cultivating her mind.” As usual, Rowe doesn’t take her ambitions seriously. “You’re destined to lead a very prosy life, my dear,” he predicts. “Marriage and babies…How horrible!” Patience replies, but it is a prophecy that hangs ominously over the rest of the book.
There is an irritating bounciness to most of the characters, who seem to determined to make their way through life as loudly as possible. When Patience isn’t mooning over Gordon Rowe, she’s slapping her secretary on the backside, urging her to “go out and get kissed properly.” It’s hard to see how her father, Inspector Thumm, solves any cases when his default setting is to bellow insults at everyone he sees. The Britannic’s patroness, Lydia Saxon, charges into rooms “with the awful irresistibility of an infuriated she-elephant.” Honestly, the most intriguing aspect of the case to me is the hostile relationship between Mrs. Saxon and her curator Crabbe.
There was something of the quality of ancient papyrus in this creature: rasping dry skin, almost a rustle of brittle bones as he walked, and the pale predacious features common to Italian signors, Spanish pirates, and antiquarians.
They loathe each other, yet continue to live together in her mansion, and Crabbe clearly enjoys winding up his temperamental employer. Bizarre as their dynamic is, it’s one of the few relationships that seems realistic, in a book that badly needs some genuine emotions.
Only the final twist makes Drury Lane’s Last Case special, but even that depends entirely on shock value. I do want to give the Queens credit for the boldness of their solution. This would have been, I think, an unprecedented ending for the time. To fully succeed, however, a solution of this nature needs to touch the reader’s emotions, as the authors did so superbly in The Tragedy of Y. In this case, the ending pleases the brain without coming anywhere near the heart.
In trying to rewrite literary history, the cousins simply present a barely credible tale.
Drury Lane’s Last Case is available as an ebook from the Mysterious Press. An audiobook version is also available.
The Drury Lane Series by Ellery Queen (writing as Barnaby Ross)