“The case,” he said slowly, “far from being solved, has just begun.”
Racing up Arrow Mountain in a desperate attempt to escape the forest fire that has cut off the road behind them, Inspector Richard Queen and his son Ellery are relieved to discover a house at the top of the mountain. Their refuge is short-lived, however. Something strange is going on at the Xavier mansion, a situation that can only end in murder. As the flames creep higher and higher up the mountain, the entire group is facing certain death. What they don’t know is how that death will come—from the fire, or at the hands of a human killer.
The Siamese Twin Mystery grabs the reader from page one and never lets go. It’s hard to imagine a more irresistible setup than being trapped on a burning mountain with a crazed killer, and the fire isn’t just a gimmick; it’s indelibly woven into the narrative throughout. An exquisitely constructed detective story suffused with gothic atmosphere, Siamese Twin is everything a mystery fan could hope for.
Though father and son are grateful to Dr. John Xavier for offering them shelter from the fiery night, it is immediately clear to them that they’ve stumbled into something they do not understand. “More like an eagle’s eyrie than a roost for human beings,” the house at the summit of Arrow Mountain is built around the laboratory where Dr. Xavier performs medical experiments relating to conjoined twins. At first, it seems like only a small group is present: Dr. Xavier, his charismatic wife, his brother Mark, assistant Dr. Holmes, and their houseguest Ann Forrest. Over the course of the evening, however, Ellery and the Inspector come to suspect that these dark corridors may be hiding secrets. An undercurrent of tension is running through the party, and the Inspector glimpses a strange figure in the shadows. “It didn’t look like anything human,” he insists, “I’d bet my life!”
It’s not long before Dr. Xavier is found murdered in his study, one sooty hand clenching the torn half of a playing card. With the house cut off from police by a ring of fire, Ellery and Inspector Queen have no choice but to find the killer themselves. The crime initially appears to be almost disappointingly straightforward, but as each piece of evidence is interpreted and reinterpreted, the case only becomes more complex. All of the irritants that have, at one point or another, affected previous investigations—slow pacing, too many suspects, belabored examinations of evidence, overly artificial solutions—have been ironed out here. (The only false note is a truly boneheaded move by the Inspector that seems designed solely to prolong the investigation.)
As if the Queens near their best are not enough, the fire is coming closer with every minute that passes, creating terrific suspense. The heat, smoke, and soot are almost palpable as tempers fray and food runs short. At times, Ellery is forced to abandon the case altogether, as detectives and suspects alike must join forces to beat back the encroaching flames.
They stifled in the evening heat. From the terrace, to which they had repaired by common consent after a dinner of tinned salmon and silence, the whole of the visible sky was peculiarly red, a rubaceous backdrop framing the mountainous scene and made dull and illusory by the clouds of smoke which soared from the invisible burning world below. It was a little difficult to breathe…Specks of orange light whirled into the sky from below on the wings of the updraft of wind, and their clothes were grimy with cinders.
It seems almost pointless to spend so much time trying to identify a killer when both the innocent and the guilty are about to meet a fiery end. Though Ellery himself is well aware of the irony, he cannot put the case out of his mind.
Pieces of the puzzle returned to annoy him. They persisted in invading his brain-cells and storming his consciousness. At the same time he chuckled mirthlessly to himself at the instability and inconsistency of the human mind, which stubbornly wrestled with problems of comparative unimportance while the big things were ignored or at best evaded. What did one murderer more or less matter to a man facing his own extinction? It was illogical, infantile. He should be occupied with making his own private peace with his private gods; instead he worried about trivialities.
In fact, Ellery is all over the place in this one, probably due to the life-or-death situation in which he finds himself. While his mannerisms are more down to earth than usual, his approach to solving the mystery is a mess. At one point, Ellery checks the bedroom doors of every suspect, on the theory that anyone with a locked door must have something to hide. “What could she have to fear?” he asks himself. I don’t know…the murderer? Just a thought. He stages elaborate scenes to establish the most basic facts and makes a number of premature declarations. It is obvious that Ellery is using the murder investigation as a means of distracting himself from his own impending doom, and equally obvious that these anxieties are affecting his ability to solve the case.
Ellery is not the only one whose behavior is affected by the fire. Everyone is on edge, making it difficult to distinguish a guilty suspect from one who is merely nervous. And as the situation grows even more dire, it’s impossible to predict what the killer might do.
The Siamese Twin Mystery is not a typical Ellery Queen mystery, but it is one of the best. The fire raises the tension of an isolated-country-house setting to the highest possible level. There is a pleasing simplicity to the solution, with plenty of twists along the way. And the characters, including Ellery, behave in a recognizably human fashion, without having to contort themselves into unnatural actions to fit the demands of the plot. The Siamese Twin Mystery masterfully combines suspense with a challenging puzzle, for an unforgettable reading experience.
If you are new to Ellery Queen, do not start with this book. Nope, Nada. It’s just eh, meh and everything else. Not recommended for an intro to the series read.
The Siamese Twin Mystery is a powerful book. It’s a puzzle, pieced together by Ellery, complete with “dying message” clues, but it’s also a suspenseful and harrowing thriller, made even more effective by the constantly increasing danger posed by the forest fire.
I fell into most of the traps that Queen lays for the reader and the solution was definitely a surprise to me.
This one is an absolute classic. Get down to your second hand bookshop and try and find a copy. The best of the lot so far.
The Siamese Twin Mystery is available as an audiobook, an ebook from the Mysterious Press, and a paperback or hardcover from American Mystery Classics.