“Mr. Ellery Queen, watching the world rush by in a glaring Long Island sunlight, mused that life was like a Spanish wench: full of surprises, none of them delicate and all of them stimulating. Since he was a monastic who led a riotous mental existence, he liked life that way; and since he was also a detective—an appellation he cordially detested—he got life that way.”
An excellent short-story collection highlighting some of Ellery Queen’s most unusual cases. These stories are all from Queen’s first period, with a strong emphasis on detection and elaborate solutions. The shorter length plays to the authors’ strengths, allowing for airtight plotting against a striking backdrop, without time for the doldrums that sometimes afflict their full-length novels during this period.
The Adventure of the African Traveler (7/10)
Ellery gives a group of university students a crack at one of his own cases, the hotel murder of a salesman recently returned from South Africa. It’s great fun to see the different ways Ellery and the students interpret the same pieces of evidence. In fact, the students do suprisingly well, with some of their conclusions seeming more credible than Ellery’s. What I don’t love is the weird flirtation between Ellery and the sole female student, Miss Ickthorpe, though her insouciant attitude does add some fun to the story. (When Ellery orders her to dress more formally before heading over to the crime scene, she flippantly replies, “Isn’t a sport dress au fait at murders?”) Aside from this, the setup with Ellery’s class is very appealing; I would have liked to see more stories involving his students.
The Adventure of the Hanging Acrobat (8/10)
Murder strikes a vaudeville troupe, as the body of femme fatale acrobat Myra is found hanging backstage. Her husband Hugo is the only one who appears saddened by her death; as one of their colleagues puts it, “That sassy little tramp got what was comin’ to her, I tell y’!” Thanks to Myra’s extramarital dalliances, there has been more drama behind the scenes than onstage. Ellery is more intrigued by the unusual murder method. With other weapons to hand, why would the killer choose hanging? Of course, the show must go on, leading to a marvelously tense performance in which each suspect’s vaudeville act provides clues to the identity of the killer. Nice solution with plenty of gritty backstage atmosphere.
The Adventure of the One-Penny Black (5/10)
The world of stamp dealers is usually a quiet one. Recently, however, the violent robbery of a rare stamp is followed by a series of strange thefts. Someone is stealing copies of the same book, Europe in Chaos, from all over the city. Unlike the stamp, the book is far from rare—who could possibly want so many copies, and why? Ellery finds the case intriguing, but this was my least favorite story in the collection. It spins its wheels for a long time without ending up anywhere very surprising. (And points off for the painful “German” dialect.)
The Adventure of the Bearded Lady (9/10)
An artist killed at his easel leaves a cryptic dying message, daubing a beard onto the face of the female figure he is painting. As nonsensical as this seems, it’s not the oddest thing going on in the Long Island mansion of the Shaw family. Ellery learns that siblings John and Agatha expected to receive a sizable inheritance upon the death of their stepmother three months earlier. Instead, they have been disinherited. When one of the new heirs turns up dead, Ellery is left with a small but spiteful group of suspects. Everything about this, from the dying message to the identity of the killer, is goofy and extremely enjoyable. There is no purer detective-story setup than the dysfunctional rich family in their country house, and the Queens play it up to the hilt.
The Adventure of the Three Lame Men (7/10)
A kept woman’s corpse is found in her “Park Avenue love-nest,” killed in a kidnapping gone wrong. Her wealthy lover is being held for ransom. The only clues to the crimes are the footprints of three men, all of them with lame right feet. This one has a real pre-Code Hollywood energy, with chorus girls, gangsters, bankers, and socialites all mingling together in a penthouse apartment full of gleaming chrome furniture. Simple solution but great style.
The Adventure of the Invisible Lover (8/10)
Roger Bowen is one of the most popular citizens of Corsica, New York. Normally he lives at Scott’s boarding house, but Roger’s current address is the county jail, where he is under arrest for murdering his rival in a love triangle. When Ellery sees Iris Scott, the object of Roger’s affection, he understands why a man might kill for her…but he soon suspects that what actually happened is far more complicated than that. A clever mystery with a touch of small-town soap opera and a chilling graveyard sequence.
The Adventure of the Teakwood Case (6/10)
A murder mystery involving a pair of brothers and two identical teakwood cigarette cases. This is fine but relies too strongly on the effect of naming the killer in the last line. As a result, the entire solution rests on a single brief moment that is unlikely to be remembered by the reader, rendering the final line far less impressive than it should be.
The Adventure of the Two-Headed Dog (8/10)
Ellery stops at a roadside inn that is rumored to be haunted. Intrigued by these ghost stories, he instead discovers an earthly, and rather sad, explanation for the strange events. This would be nearly perfect if Ellery weren’t such a jerk about Greek mythology. Early Ellery Queen has a reputation for being pretentious that isn’t entirely born out in the novels, but in this story he is rude from start to finish.
The Adventure of the Glass-Domed Clock (7/10)
In his final moments after being attacked in his shop, Martin Orr seems to have sought out items that would send a message about his killer. In one hand, he clutches an amethyst. The other rests upon a glass-domed clock. Ellery suspects the victim was trying to implicate one of the friends he played poker with earlier that evening, but which one? Ellery’s efforts to interpret the message are a master class in deduction, with plenty to enjoy for both aficionados and skeptics of dying messages.
The Adventure of the Seven Black Cats (9/10)
A visit to a pet store brings Ellery a unique puzzle: why would an elderly lady who claims to dislike cats keep buying identical black cats, week after week? Timid Miss Curleigh lives under the thumb of her tyrannical invalid sister. She only leaves their apartment once a week, to buy a cat. The sisters’ stunted lives, bound together more by fear than by love, have overtones of gothic tragedy even before murder enters the picture. The detection takes a few shortcuts, but the atmosphere and horrifying solution make this story stand out.
The Adventure of the Mad Tea-Party (10/10)
Ellery takes a journey through the looking glass when his host disappears during a weekend party with an Alice in Wonderland theme. The only clues are utterly mad: mysterious objects that begin arriving through the mail, a “Cheshire Cat” clock that seems to appear and disappear at random. Absolutely splendid mystery, with plenty of dark and stormy atmosphere (interestingly set in a newly-built mansion that manages to be just as creepy as an old one). Despite the whimsical premise, it’s a grim tale with multiple layers of performance and artifice. Everything that happens feels a little unreal, and not without reason. The “fun” of the Alice in Wonderland party is just as carefully plotted as the crime itself and the method Ellery uses to expose the killer. Perhaps the quintessential Ellery Queen story, an absolute classic of detection.
“The Adventure of the Mad Tea Party” really is a perfect little tale, not only as a puzzle but for the insight it offers us about Ellery’s character.
If you’re a fan of detective stories with a capital D, then either you’ve read this book already, or you should, and posthaste.
[…] these chronicles from the early days of Ellery’s sleuthing career are not high-spirited “adventures” of the kind that Arthur Conan Doyle wrote. Instead, they are well-crafted puzzles that far exceed in ingenuity the simple plots that Doyle typically generated. Ellery may not be a great detective in the Holmes mold, in other words, but he is a master of truly great detection.
The Adventures of Ellery Queen is available as an ebook from the Mysterious Press as well as in audiobook format.