The Egyptian Cross Mystery (1932) by Ellery Queen

The Egyptian Cross Mystery by Ellery Queen

4 Stars (4/10 stars)

“No one said anything for a long time, and the chill wind of tragedy crept into the room. It was hard to believe, looking out into the sunny gardens, that the master of all this peace and beauty and luxury lay, a stiff headless corpse, in the County Morgue.”

Ellery Queen’s Christmas plans are unusual even for him—the famous sleuth is spending the holidays in Arroyo, West Virginia, where schoolteacher Andrew Van has been crucified and beheaded, his body nailed to a signpost and posed in a T shape. Unable to make any headway on the murder, Ellery slinks home in defeat.

Only a few months later, however, a second shocking crime takes place, this one much closer to home. Wealthy businessman Thomas Brad has been found dead on the grounds of his Long Island estate. Brad’s corpse is crucified, beheaded, and posed just like Van’s. Ellery is certain the crimes are connected, but what could these two men have in common? The answer could lie in the nudist colony that has just moved in across the bay…

The Egyptian Cross Mystery by Ellery QueenI began this book with high hopes, after the stunning achievement of The Tragedy of YUnfortunately, The Egyptian Cross Mystery surrounds a fairly good murder mystery with three hundred pages of pointless and mostly uninteresting distractions. The story begins in a lively manner, but Ellery’s early and single-minded focus on one particular suspect quickly plunges it into the doldrums, pushing every other character off the page.

Even Ellery’s father, Inspector Queen, wants nothing to do with this one. That means that instead of working with his familiar cast of New York City detectives and prosecutors, Ellery must win over skeptical law enforcement officials in other jurisdictions. His college professor Dr. Yardley serves as his Watson, though a far from uncritical one. For instance, when Ellery dramatically announces that the corpses are being beheaded and crucified to form the T shape of a tau, or Egyptian cross, it is Yardley who spoils his fun by gently pointing out that they are not at all the same thing. “I’ve heard so much about your pyrotechnical ability as a detective that the reality—sorry if I’m sacrilegious—lets me down,” he grumbles. “When do you commence, Queen?” It’s the same question the reader may be asking.

Ellery’s theory about the Egyptian cross could be important because, aside from the unusual murder method, the deaths of Andrew Van and Thomas Brad seem to have only one thing in common: ancient Egypt. An eccentric man who goes by the name Harakht and dresses in Egyptian robes was traveling through West Virginia at the time Van was killed. By the time of Brad’s murder, Harakht is settled down on an island near Brad’s estate, worshiping the Egyptian sun god Ra with a group of like-minded souls. He, his partner Paul Romaine, and their followers have ditched the flowing robes in favor of wearing nothing at all, to the outrage of their new neighbors (“They were seen capering around Oyster Island absolutely nude, like human goats, and well—we’re a decent community”).

The Egyptian Cross Mystery by Ellery QueenAside from the nudists, other suspects include Thomas Brad’s wife and stepdaughter, their secretive chauffeur, a mysterious English couple who live next door, and Brad’s secretary, whose sister has joined up with the nudist colony. Brad’s business partner Stephen Megara is supposed to be off cruising on his yacht, but nobody seems to know exactly where. And I think I have now spent about as much time discussing these characters as the authors do. Almost immediately, Ellery becomes fixated on one suspect, allowing his obsession to drive the entire investigation.

While this does cut down on lengthy suspect interviews, it only provides more opportunities for lovingly detailed searches of Brad’s estate. The searches do generate a few good clues, including a nice chain of deductions drawn from a seemingly abandoned game of checkers. Ellery also shows some self-awareness by alluding to the disastrous search from The Roman Hat Mystery, for which I still have not forgiven him. For every worthwhile clue, however, we get a full chapter of grown men crawling around on the carpet measuring the marks left by furniture legs.

What makes this all the more frustrating is that the book begins very well and, every so often, will suddenly start to perk up again. At last, I would think,  it’s finally getting good, only to be disappointed again and again. Even the nudist colony fizzles out, much like the Fourth of July fireworks over Long Island Sound.

They were silent as they watched a long finger of brilliant light zoom into the dark sky and burst in a flash of dropping velvet colors. The single shell seemed to be a signal; instantly the entire coast of Long Island erupted, and for a space they sat and observed the celebration of the North Shore. Faintly, in the sky above the distant New York shore across the Sound, they made out answering flares, like tiny fireflies.

Now and then someone gets beheaded and crucified, which does liven things up for a while. The murders are exceptionally bloody, and the Queens revel in the gore, with detailed descriptions of every mutilated corpse. This is not a book to read while eating. Even Ellery, who could never be accused of having a weak stomach, is troubled by the level of brutality on display.

You read the old stories, history—of Caligula, of the Vandals, of Moloch, of the Assassins, of the Inquisition. Dismemberments, impalements, flayings…blood, the pages are written in blood. You read…But mere reading doesn’t begin to give you the full, the hot and smoking horror of it. Most of us can’t grasp the monstrous versatility of madmen bent on destroying the human body…Here in the twentieth century, despite our gang wars, the Great War, the pogroms still raging in Europe, we have no clear conception of the true horror of human vandalism.

While the solution itself is not very complicated, the precise motive does rely on previously unrevealed information. The mystery is still easy to solve without that information (Ellery does so, and I certainly did), but I’ll never be a fan of outside information being casually dumped into the denouement. The excitement level goes up considerably near the end, as Ellery embarks on a desperate chase, but even this drags on and on like everything else in this book. They might as well have just printed a set of airline schedules and be done with it.

The Egyptian Cross Mystery proves there can be too much of a good thing. There are so many promising setups in this book that fade away into the monotony of yet another search, another flurry of telegrams, or one more journey. Characters and subplots get dropped until there’s almost nothing left. By the time the killer was finally revealed, the same could be said for my patience.

Second Opinions

Vintage Pop Fictions

Despite the thriller elements there’s a puzzle here as well, of course. Personally I don’t think it’s one of the better Ellery Queen puzzles. When I can guess the identity of the murderer something has gone very wrong somewhere, because I’m generally hopeless at that sort of thing.

Mysteries Ahoy!

While it may not be perfect and I have to admit that the first tenth of the book underwhelmed me, I was more entertained by this than I have been with any of its predecessors. It is a clever story that plays fair, that works to keep the reader engaged throughout the whole novel and that builds to an exciting conclusion.

In Search of the Classic Mystery Novel

The problem here is, the author has thought up a clever, but extremely guessable, plot but cannot find room to introduce any real alternative suspects. 

Availability

The Egyptian Cross Mystery is available as an ebook and audiobook from the Mysterious Press. In November 2020, it will be released in paperback and hardcover by American Mystery Classics.

 

The Bellamy Trial (1927) by Frances Noyes Hart

The Bellamy Trial by Frances Noyes Hart

7 Stars (7/10 stars)

“We’re all so everlastingly canny and competent and sophisticated these days, going mechanically through a mechanical world, sharpening up our little emotions, tuning up our little sensations— and suddenly there’s a cry of ‘Murder!’ in the streets, and we stop and look back, shuddering, over our shoulder—and across us falls the shadow of a savage with a bloodstained club, and we know that it’s good and dangerous and beautiful to be alive.”

The sleepy town of Rosemont seems an unlikely location for the crime of the century. Yet that’s exactly what is unfolding, as reporters and eager townspeople jostle for front-row seats to the trial that has enthralled the whole country. Two of the town’s leading citizens are on trial for their lives, accused of a brutal crime of passion. But will the verdict reveal the truth?

The Bellamy Trial is a landmark legal drama (essentially the first proper legal drama) that is all the more compelling for keeping strictly within the courtroom. The reader does not get to see the characters in private moments until the very end, nor does Frances Noyes Hart reveal anything more about the main players in the case than spectators in the courtroom are able to witness. The reader is as much of an outsider to the case as the onlookers in the audience.

The Bellamy Trial by Frances Noyes Hart The crime is deceptively simple. Flighty beauty Mimi Bellamy was stabbed in the heart while waiting to meet her lover, Patrick Ives. The prosecution contends that she was confronted and killed by her own husband, Stephen Bellamy, and Pat’s wife, Sue Ives. Their defense is the risky one of innocence. Given the situation, jurors might have been sympathetic to a defense of temporary insanity or the “unwritten law,” but outright innocence may prove harder to accept. Prosecutor Farr is young, energetic, and ambitious. The defense attorney, Lambert, is an older, not very distinguished civil attorney who initially seems to be completely outclassed by Farr. Over the course of the trial, however, Lambert makes a surprisingly strong case for his clients.

Trial sequences can easily get bogged down in minutiae, but Hart keeps things moving along at a brisk pace. Each of the witnesses and attorneys have distinct personalities, which emerge during the proceedings. Farr indulges in melodrama during his opening and closing arguments, but examines witnesses with a cold, logical focus. Lambert wears his emotions on his sleeve, approaching the witness box “at almost a prance, his broad countenance smoldering with ill-concealed excitement,” only to be plunged into gloom if the questioning does not go his way. (His face, at one point, turns the color of “deep claret,” which I’m pretty sure is a symptom of stroke.) The more information that emerges, the less clear events become. A number of possible stories take shape, but which of them, if any, forms the true picture of the crime?

This murder is fascinating to the public, and some of those following the case find that the crime has an impact on their lives even though they are not actually involved with it. The trial is viewed mostly through the eyes of two nameless young journalists, a female cub reporter and a more experienced male newspaperman who takes her under his wing. They are meant to be an endearing young couple, but the gender dynamics are not very charming. The “red-headed girl,” as she is always referred to, is dying to learn everything about the newspaper game. When her new friend thinks the little lady needs more soup and more sleep, offering to “do your notes for you to-night so well that your boss will double your salary in the morning,” the red-headed girl isn’t having it—at first.

“Thank you kindly,” she said. “My boss wrote me two special-delivery letters yesterday to say that I was doing far the best stuff that was coming up out of Redfield—far. He said that the three clippings that I sent him of your stuff showed promise—he did, honestly…. I think that soup’s terrible, and this is the first time in my life that I’ve been able to stay up as late as I pleased without anyone sending me to bed. I’m mad about it…. Have some peanuts?”

This is on day two of the trial; her condition deteriorates rapidly from there, and by about day four she’s a complete wreck. From the moment they meet, the man (Hart always refers to him as “the reporter,” and even at one point “the real reporter”) picks apart everything about her, from her hat to her choice of writing utensil. The red-headed girl eagerly soaks up his wisdom; by the end of the trial, she has entirely remade herself in the image he prefers. At times, she barely comes across as an adult, let alone a competent professional (“Something in the drooping shoulders under the efficient jacket suggested an exhausted baby in need of a crib and a bottle of hot milk and a firm and friendly tucking in”). The red-headed girl only thinks she’s learning how to be a journalist. What she’s really learning is how to be a compliant woman.

The Bellamy Trial is not just the story of one particular crime, but of American society in the 1920s. The rise of mass media provides a hungry audience for scandals like this one, turning a family tragedy into entertainment for the masses. Our reporter heroes are gleefully complicit in this process, working hard to impose a storyline onto real-life events. Ordinary people, whose only distinction comes from a minor involvement in a murder case, are elevated into celebrities, even if just for a brief time. Witnesses like Flora Biggs will get their fifteen minutes of fame, for good or ill.

Flora Biggs might have been a pretty girl ten years ago, before that fatal heaviness had crept from sleazy silk ankles to the round chin above the imitation pearls. Everything about Miss Biggs was imitation—an imitation fluff of something that was meant to be fur on the plush coat that was meant to be another kind of fur; an imitation rose of a washed-out magenta trying to hide itself in the masquerading collar; pearls the size of large bone buttons peeping out from too golden hair; an arrow of false diamonds catching the folds of the purple velvet toque that was not quite velvet; nervous fingers in suede gloves that were rather a bad grade of cotton clutching at a snakeskin bag of stenciled cloth—a poor, cheap, shoddy imitation of what the well-dressed woman will wear. And yet in those small insignificant features that should have belonged to a pretty girl, in those round china-blue eyes, staring forlornly out of reddened rims, there was something candid and touching and appealing. For out of those reddened eyes peered the good shy little girl in the starched white dress brought down to entertain the company—the good, shy little girl whose name had been Florrie Biggs. And little Florrie Biggs had been crying.

“The worst thing about a murder trial,” says the red-headed girl, “is that it practically ruins everybody’s life.” For some witnesses, their moment in the sun will come at a high cost. Their darkest secrets are splashed across the front page simply because they chanced to go on a picnic on a certain night, or lived next door to a murder victim as a child. The general public will forget these little scandals by the next morning, but those whose sins have been exposed must live with the consequences forever.

Prosecutor Farr notes in his opening statement that this crime is a peculiarly modern one. Only the upheaval of World War I made it possible for a poor, ambitious girl like Mimi to marry Stephen Bellamy, at that time the most promising man in town. Only the vagaries of the 1920s stock market could have destroyed the fortune of Susan Ives’ wealthy father, while turning her formerly ne’er-do-well husband Pat into a rich stockbroker. And only postwar restlessness and the increasing popularity of the automobile has turned small towns like Rosemont into suburbs where transient populations combine into a volatile social mixture. Nothing makes that more clear than the Bellamy/Ives trial, which brings together a wide range of people from all walks of life.

My hopes for The Bellamy Trial were not high after suffering through Frances Noyes Hart’s Hide in the Dark. However, The Bellamy Trial is a vastly better book. It could be shorter, and the depiction of the female reporter is often irksome. Still, there is a freshness and intrigue to this story, as a seemingly simple case grows more and more complicated before our eyes. Hart has a deft touch with the courtroom scenes, demonstrating that justice and the legal system can be very different things.

Second Opinions

Only Detect

Two features rescue the trial proceedings from the perils of stultifying legalism. First, Hart writes in a remarkably fresh style, with none of the held-over Victorian fustiness that afflicts a lot of 1920s prose. The tale, in fact, reads like a top-drawer screenplay from Hollywood’s golden age…Second, she employs a clever framing device: Over the course of eight days, we view the trial through the eyes of two nameless denizens of the press box—an ingenuous “girl with red hair” and a hardboiled “reporter”—and over that period we see a romance develop between them as well. Their interactions strike the judicious balance between sentiment and cynicism on which every courtroom drama depends.

Crossexamining Crime

As I said by the middle of the book I was getting into things but unfortunately the final third was a bit of a slog, being somewhat long winded and the ending itself, although surprising, a bit deflating. Personally I think the book could have lost 80 pages to great effect. So I am not sure it is one I can strongly recommend, though as a character study and as a record of murder trials in the 1920s it has value.

Hank Phillippi Ryan, “On the Hall-Mills Murders, (A) Crime of the Century,” Crimereads

Examines The Bellamy Trial in the context of the infamous murder case that inspired it.

Availability

The Bellamy Trial is available in paperback, hardcover, and ebook formats from American Mystery Classics. It was one of the Haycraft-Queen Cornerstone titles.

 

The Mad Hatter Mystery (1933) by John Dickson Carr

The Mad Hatter Mystery by John Dickson Carr 1933

6 stars (6/10 stars)

“I’ve got to separate the nonsense and the happenings of pure chance from the really ugly side of the business. Chance started it, and murder finished it; that’s what I think.”

London is paralyzed by an unprecedented crime wave—someone is stealing hats from the heads of prominent men and replacing them in ridiculous locations. Reporter Philip Driscoll has seized on the story of the “Mad Hatter” with special glee. His uncle, newspaper magnate Sir William Bitton, has already lost several hats, but that isn’t why he’s consulting Chief Inspector Hadley and Dr. Gideon Fell. Sir William has lost something far more valuable, the manuscript of a previously unknown Edgar Allan Poe story.

Before Fell can begin his investigation, however, the Mad Hatter strikes again. This time the prank has turned fatal. Driscoll is found dead at the Tower of London, his body sprawled at Traitor’s Gate with the bolt from a medieval crossbow protruding from his chest. In a final, macabre touch, the casually dressed corpse is wearing his uncle’s missing top hat. Continue reading “The Mad Hatter Mystery (1933) by John Dickson Carr”

A Puzzle for Fools (1936) by Patrick Quentin

A Puzzle for Fools by Patrick Quentin 1936

7 Stars (7/10 stars)

“There seems no motive, but then you don’t need motives in a place like this.”

Broadway producer Peter Duluth fell into a bottle after the death of his wife. It’s a long climb back out, and his recovery is not helped by the sinister whispers he hears at night—his own voice, warning of murder. He discovers that many of his fellow patients at the Lenz Sanitarium are similarly troubled. Have they simply lost their minds, or is someone trying to drive them insane? When a suspicious death does take place, Peter is the only one who can solve the mystery, even at the risk of his own sanity.

Continue reading “A Puzzle for Fools (1936) by Patrick Quentin”