“Don’t you folks realize what you’re up against? What the devil does a little personal trouble mean when it’s a case of life or death? This is murder, Mrs. Godfrey–murder!”
Normally, there is no more peaceful spot for a beach vacation than Spanish Cape. That is why business tycoon Walter Godfrey has built his summer home there. One night, however, that peace is unexpectedly shattered by a modern-day pirate. Walter’s daughter Rosa and her uncle David Kummer are snatched from the terrace of the mansion, and Rosa must watch in horror as her uncle is dragged away to meet an unknown fate. By the time she is rescued by Ellery Queen, David Kummer has vanished without a trace.
When Ellery arrives at the Godfrey home, he discovers an even more bizarre crime: the nude corpse of houseguest John Marco sitting on the terrace. Ellery learns that nearly everyone at the house has reason to want Marco dead. When it comes to identifying the killer, however, the naked truth is much harder to find.
The Spanish Cape Mystery has a good mystery plot, but not much else. This is a book that makes piracy, nudity, blackmail, adultery, and murder seem like the dullest topics on earth. The parts that aren’t boring are offensive. Appearance is always important in Ellery Queen, but here, the authors seem disgusted by every character aside from the young and beautiful Rosa. All of the others are too old, too fat, too tall, too thin, or too disabled to suit Ellery. This wouldn’t bother me if it weren’t so pervasive. The Queens are not content to point out a character’s physical defects once or twice. Instead, they describe each suspect’s shortcomings over and over again, which only slows the story down further. The solution, while guessable, is actually quite well done. It’s just a matter of staying awake long enough to reach the end.
Ellery and his sidekick Judge Macklin quickly discover that John Marco “had not a male friend in the world.” Indeed, Marco is a highly unsympathetic victim, a gigolo known to prey on married women and innocent young girls alike. If the motive is to hide an illicit relationship, however, why would the killer leave behind Marco’s letter describing his schemes?
In search of answers, Ellery turns to Marco’s hosts and fellow guests, a nervous, ill-assorted group. Walter Godfrey potters around his mansion looking more like a gardener than a millionaire, paying no attention to his wife Stella. Rosa Godfrey has been dealing with two different, and equally persistent, suitors: John Marco and Earle Cort. Could Rosa or Earle grown tired of the love triangle? Joseph Munn made his fortune in South America, where life is cheap. He makes it clear to everyone that he won’t be made a fool of, especially by his chorus-girl wife Cecilia. The Munns are superficially handsome, but become hideous when in the grip of strong emotion, which is nearly all the time. Rounding out the group is Laura Constable, whom Rosa describes as “fat, frenetic, and forty.”
Everyone except Rosa comes in for their share of unflattering descriptions (a character who has lost an eye is frequently referred to as “Cyclops”), but Mrs. Constable gets the worst of it. Here is a typical example:
The stout woman was all jellied, hanging flesh and eyes. Her eyes bulged; her bosom bulged; she bulged all over…Beneath her satin wrapper she was trembling violently, shaking in every cell of her fat flesh.
This passage is not the first time she is mentioned, but comes more than halfway into the book. Surely the reader knows what Mrs. Constable looks like by now. In the same way, Ellery mentions Walter Godfrey’s pudgy figure and untidy clothing every time they meet, the Judge’s skinniness is referred to constantly, and so forth. Emphasis on physical appearance permeates the entire book, lending it a nasty tone.
There are really two mysteries to deal with here: Marco’s murder and the kidnapping of David Kummer. The latter is forgotten for quite a while. (Indeed, none of the Godfreys seem very concerned about the disappearance of their relative.) The murder is solved largely through spying and eavesdropping; fortuitously overheard conversations far outnumber direct questioning of suspects. Ellery never does much with the information he collects, leading to further crimes he could easily have prevented.
The strangest aspect of the book is John Marco’s nude corpse. This is at least the third novel by these authors to have an excessive focus on male nudity (this theme also arises in The Egyptian Cross Murders and The Tragedy of X). I will not reproduce the long, loving description of Marco’s lithe and muscular body, which is peculiar enough on its own, but provides an especially marked contrast with the equally detailed descriptions of the suspects’ ugliness. All of the detectives’ responses seem to be off-kilter, more focused on the desirability of the victims than on the crimes themselves. When Ellery discovers the kidnapped Rosa tied up in Judge Macklin’s beach shack, his response is horrifying: “Very beautiful young wench. I approve.” He says this as she is still lying unconscious, while rubbing the rope burns around her wrists! Marco’s dead body also elicits Ellery’s approval, as he and local cop Inspector Moley stand around the crime scene bantering about the “fetching nude.”
Ellery describes his process here as purely mathematical, unaffected by personal feelings. His investigation seems far from logical, however, with lucky breaks appearing out of thin air. Ellery also finds himself much more emotionally involved in the case than he could have anticipated, leaving him with a moral dilemma. This doesn’t really feel earned, but is certainly more interesting than the rest of the novel.
“That’s the trouble with these clever men,” muttered Ellery. “A crime being necessary, according to their lights, they determine to commit it so ingeniously that it will be insoluble. But the cleverer they are and the more complex their schemes, the more danger they run of something going wrong. The perfect crime!” He shook his head wearily. “The perfect crime is the chance killing of an unknown man in a dark alley with no witnesses. Nothing fancy. There are a hundred perfect crimes every year–committed by so-called submoronic thugs.”
The Spanish Cape Mystery surrounds a fairly good solution with a tedious and poorly handled investigation. Even the kidnapping scene that opens the book is more muddled than exciting. Even without the weirdly insistent focus on physical appearance, Spanish Cape would be a dud.
The Spanish Cape Mystery has an amazingly complex plot but it is resolved in an eminently satisfactory fashion. The process by which Ellery eliminates all possible suspects except the actual murderer, and eliminates all possible explanations for the murder method except the correct one, provide exactly the kind of enjoyment that fans of golden age detective fiction crave.
This is a good solid mystery from the early period of the Queen novels–though perhaps not quite as mystifying as others.
This is a fun, gripping read.
On the whole I thought this was a complex and interesting mystery, with a dramatic twist at the end on a suitably stormy night. The allusions to other fictional sleuths such as S. S. Van Dine’s detective, Philo Vance were great to read, however, to be honest, reading the pages and pages and pages of Queen’s journey to the truth was a little trying at points due to its detail and it did affect narrative pace a bit. I enjoyed Queen’s descriptions of people and Moley’s investigations are not burdened with repetitious interviews, though I can’t say I got attached or involved with the characters. I think Queen’s focus and valuing of logic and theorising is a style I need to get accustomed to before I can fully appreciate its value.
The Spanish Cape Mystery is available as an ebook from the Mysterious Press.
The 1935 film version, starring Donald Cook as Ellery, is available in full on YouTube