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 Tragedy of Y by Ellery Queen (1932)

The Tragedy of Y by Ellery Queen

9 Stars (91/0 stars)

That’s what comes of investigating a crime in which all the suspects are daffy. Reason! Motive! Logic!” He threw up his hands. “Bah!” he said.

For decades, the antics of the “mad Hatters” have delighted New Yorkers and tormented the father of the family, York Hatter. It’s sad, but not surprising, that York has finally taken his own life. In the aftermath of his death, however, conditions have not improved at the Hatter mansion, where everyone must follow the will of the wealthy and mentally unstable Emily. Any of her children or employees might wish to free themselves from Emily’s dictatorial ways. Yet when the murder attempts begin, they are aimed at an unexpected target. Actor turned detective Drury Lane must determine whether one of the Hatters is truly mad before the entire family is wiped out.

The Tragedy of Y by Ellery Queen The Tragedy of Y finally brings all of Ellery Queen’s gifts together into one brilliant work. The crimes are striking, the characters are distinctive, and the solution is breathtaking. While still a bit too long, the pacing is also much tighter, with many of the tedious scenes of searches and interviews that dragged down previous books streamlined or eliminated altogether. Queen no longer feels the need to pretend that thirty different suspects are all equally likely to have committed the crime; instead, Lane focuses his attention on only a few locations and suspects, with excellent results.

The Hatter family first comes to the attention of Inspector Thumm and District Attorney Bruno through the disappearance of York Hatter. Once a promising chemist, York found himself increasingly dismayed by his wife Emily’s harsh, erratic ways, which have damaged their adult children.

One of them was always in the news. If it was not blond Conrad attempting to wreck a speakeasy in his constant cups, it was brilliant Barbara leading a new poetry cotillion, or holding levee under the lavish endearments of the literary critics. Or it was Jill, youngest of the three Hatter children; beautiful, perverse, sniffing sensation with avid nostrils. Once there had been the faint rumor of an excursion into the land of opium; occasionally the tale of a carousing week-end in the Adirondacks; always, with bimonthly monotony, there was the announcement of her “engagement” to some son of wealth … never, it was significant, to a son of family.

York’s disappearance is seemingly resolved when a body surfaces in New York Harbor. Its pocket contains a suicide note signed by York Hatter. In the months that follow his death, however, the Hatters are cursed by a series of sinister events. The crimes all seem to be meant for Louisa Campion, the beloved daughter of Emily Hatter’s first marriage. Louisa is deaf, blind, and mute, but her other senses are highly developed. She is able to provide more clues than the killer might have expected, which only puts Louisa, her half-siblings, and Conrad’s wife and two young sons in even greater peril.

The character of Drury Lane is toned down a great deal here, compared to his introduction in The Tragedy of X. He comes off as quite a credible detective, rather than the ego monster of the previous book (though the narrator still can’t help reminding us that the sixty-year-old Lane doesn’t look a day over forty). There is a strange dynamic forming between the three sleuths. In the first book, Inspector Thumm and DA Bruno are starstruck by the famous actor, only to find themselves helpless as he steamrolls over them. Now, Lane seems to make Inspector Thumm and DA Bruno uncomfortable with his very presence, yet Thumm, at least, is more than willing to clap back. When Lane compliments him for a good idea, Thumm responds sarcastically, “I get ’em sometimes—mostly when you’re not around. You take something out of me.” Lane’s deafness is barely mentioned here, though once again he tries to impersonate a person whose voice he has never heard—good luck with that. However, his deafness does allow him to be sensitive to Louisa’s situation. He is able to win her trust even as it never occurs to the others that she might be able to communicate.

The Tragedy of Y by Ellery QueenIt’s hard to know what to make of the book’s treatment of Louisa. Lane and a few others are kind to her, and she is actually the most observant witness in the case. She notices more, and communicates more clearly, than any of her relatives (even Thumm admits that Louisa is the only member of the family who’s all there, mentally). Yet the narrative itself seems to hold Louisa at arm’s length. Much is made of her blank, staring eyes; she is described as madly flapping her hands about even after it is known that she is speaking in sign language. Emily Hatter’s deep love for Louisa is one of her few endearing qualities, but everyone else considers it further proof of Emily’s insanity. Thumm, Bruno, and even Louisa’s own siblings refer to her as “the deaf-mute” and “the deaf, dumb, and blind woman” instead of by name. Thumm has a soft spot for Barbara Hatter, in part because she has what he considers the “correct” attitude toward Louisa: “I won’t say she loves the deaf-mute, but from all I’ve fished out of ’em Barbara pities her, tries to help her get some interest in life—what you’d expect a real woman with a heart in her to do.” Given the book’s themes, this portrayal of Louisa as something incomprehensible and less than human has ominous implications.

Questions of eugenics and breeding come up over and over in Tragedy of Y. It’s repeatedly stated that Emily should never have had children, given her disease, which is strongly hinted to be syphilis. Strangely, however, the famous “madness” of the Hatters is so subtle that only the keenest eye can detect it. Even the infamous Emily comes off as more eccentric and misunderstood than actually insane, a woman who makes men uncomfortable because she will not compromise herself to please them.

Into the mortuary trooped a silent company: a woman and three men. It was not necessary to wonder why the woman should be in advance of the men; this woman, you felt, would always take the lead, hold the reins, press the charge. She was old, old and hard as petrified wood. Her nose was a pirate’s hook; her hair white, and her eyes dipped in ice, blue, and unwinking as a buzzard’s. That chunky jaw would never waggle in surrender.

Since so much of the story depends upon the idea of inherited disease, it’s worrisome that detecting this madness is so difficult and subjective. Drury Lane makes much of the fact that the Hatters look perfectly normal and healthy—only a trained eye like his own could spot the signs of mental instability. In fact, the signs are so small as to be barely discernible to the reader. I only recall two examples of the siblings behaving abnormally in the entire book: Conrad flying into a rage during an interrogation, and Conrad and Jill becoming hysterical at the reading of their mother’s will. But since it’s common knowledge that the Hatters are mad, it’s easy enough to see tiny proofs of it if you, like Lane, are looking for them. Disturbingly easy.

That ending, though…what a shocker it must have been in 1932. Even now, when readers may not be so surprised by this particular twist, the way it plays out is astonishing. And even better, the solution really is the only one that makes sense; all the evidence points to it, with the choice of weapon serving as one particularly inspired clue. So far, I have found the first two Drury Lane novels to be harder and more mean-spirited than the Ellery Queen books; that ruthlessness is put to perfect use here, as Lane presses inexorably forward with a course of action that most detectives would shrink from.

The Tragedy of Y strikes me as the first “real” Ellery Queen book. Each of their preceding novels has some unique aspects that make it easy to understand their growing popularity, and The Greek Coffin Mystery is especially impressive, with its ingenious solutions. But this is the first time all of the necessary elements have come together to create a complete and immersive experience. It’s truly a stunning achievement, with an ending that will linger in the memory.

Second Opinions

The Green Capsule

This is one of those rare titles that just grabbed a piece of me and held on to it.Murder in RetrospectGreen for DangerFog of DoubtShe Died a LadyDeath Comes as the End, maybe even The Hollow – these are books that stick in your mind, and The Tragedy of Y goes down as one of those.

In Search of the Classic Mystery Novel

This is a vast improvement on The Tragedy of X. Drury Lane seems a more human character this time round and has reined in his quotations, to the extent that he does seem quite different to the character of Ellery Queen this time round. 

At the Scene of the Crime

So to sum things up, the story is readable overall, even if its solution is extremely predictable. It could’ve done with some polishing and it may have worked far better without Drury Lane in a starring role. A more appealing detective is called for— a more reasonable, likeable one, not an exaggeration of unlikeable mannerisms.

Availbility

The Tragedy of Y is available as an ebook from the Mysterious Press.

The Greek Coffin Mystery (1932) by Ellery Queen

The Greek Coffin Mystery by Ellery Queen

7 Stars (7/10 stars)

“The biggest thing in this unholy mess of a case has yet to happen!”

The funeral is over. Wealthy art dealer Georg Khalkis has been laid to rest, and a motley group of relatives, employees, and hangers-on have adjourned to his Fifth Avenue mansion for the reading of the will. Five minutes before the funeral, the will was secure in Khalkis’ safe. Five minutes after the funeral, it has vanished. For neophyte detective Ellery Queen, the case that follows will be a baptism by fire that threatens to end his sleuthing career before it even begins.

The Greek Coffin Mystery by Ellery QueenThe stereotype of the golden age detective novel is that it represents a way of imposing order upon a morally complex post-World War I world. Violence strikes, an authority figure comes into to tidy it up, and peace is restored. Throughout the 1920s and 1930s, however, mystery authors were experimenting with a variety of radical innovations that, far from soothing readers, were intended to unsettle them further. The Greek Coffin Mystery builds upon the possibilities suggested by The Poisoned Chocolates Case by Anthony Berkeley (1929) and The Case with Nine Solutions by J. J. Connington (1928). Maybe a great detective is a fallible human being, capable of making mistakes. Maybe there are many possible solutions to a case. And perhaps all of those summing-up scenes that so logically and ruthlessly unveil the culprit might be dead wrong.

The Greek Coffin Mystery serves as a prequel to the three Ellery Queen novels that had already been published. This is a younger, brasher, even more pretentious Ellery. He’s fresh out of college and eager to establish himself as a brilliant detective whose powers eclipse even those of his own father, Inspector Richard Queen. Up to now, I’ve never shared the opinion that the young Ellery was an annoying character, but now I finally understand those claims. He is portrayed this way on purpose—Ellery is too full of youthful hubris and needs to be learn humility in order to be a real detective—but that doesn’t make it enjoyable to read. (Also, just how young does that make their child servant Djuna in this one? Djuna is always an uncomfortable character; making him even younger does not help.)

Just when Ellery seems completely unbearable, he undergoes some traumatic growing pains, including a humiliating dressing-down from his father, as he learns that crime-solving isn’t as easy as it looks. Unfortunately, it teaches him the wrong lesson—not to change his methods, but simply to stop talking about them.

If this affair has taught me one thing above all others, it’s taught me this—and if ever you catch me breaking this pledge put a bullet through my conk: Never again will I advance a solution of any case in which I may be interested until I have tenoned into the whole every single element of the crime, explained every particle of a loose end…When I think what a fool I’ve made of myself—what a swollen, unmitigated, egotistical jackass of a fool…

The suspects do not receive this level of characterization. For a bachelor, Georg Khalkis maintains a sizable household. His sister and her husband Gilbert Sloane (who also works at the Khalkis art gallery), along with her son Alan Cheney, live with Khalkis. So does his “idiot” cousin Demmy; he is the only cooperative witness in the bunch, so the Queens should really be kinder to him. Most prominently, Khalkis’ live-in secretary Joan Brett maintains a flirtatious relationship with Alan Cheney and an argumentative one with housekeeper Mrs. Simms and her cat, Tootsie. Joan is supposed to be smart and feisty, but is really just a pain.

Let me see, now. I’m twenty-two—past the marrying age, you see, Inspector—I have a strawberry on my right hip, I’ve a perfectly frightful passion for Ernest Hemingway, I think your politics are stuffy, and I just adore your undergrounds. Cela suffit?

Though her manners do improve a little over time, it honestly seems that all Joan ever does is snap at people or slap them in the face. She continually chides Ellery and the Inspector for interrupting her ramblings. Like, I’m sorry the police are asking you questions about this murder instead of letting you endlessly monologue about the housekeeper’s cat.

The start of the story is a little rough. Khalkis was a wealthy man, but it stretches the bounds of plausibility that the entire homicide squad would descend upon his home to strip-search other prominent citizens to find a missing will. Once the murder is discovered, however, the Queens really go to town with it. Unlike previous Queen adventures, which might trap the reader in an apartment for a hundred pages while a painstaking search is detailed, The Greek Coffin Mystery gathers its evidence more efficiently. The sinister graveyard scene is a highlight, made even more eerie by the honking horns and traffic noises floating over the walls of the churchyard.

It is at such moments that life becomes an ugly thing, pushed aside by the dreadful urgency of death, and time itself stands still.

For the space of a heart-beat they were puppets in a tableau—unmoving, moveless, stricken dumb, pure terror gleaming in their distended eyes.

The results of this excursion are horrifying. In terms of forensic detail, this has to be the most disgusting mystery of its era; I can’t think of any other GAD novel with such graphic descriptions of a decomposing corpse.

The Greek Coffin Mystery by Ellery QueenThis level of detail is one of the joys of the book, however. This is a mystery in which absolutely nothing can be taken for granted. Every single fact of the case is fair game for a twist. Most detective stories are based on the existence of a few immutable facts which everyone agrees upon. The crime is solved by holding clues and alibis up against these established facts and determining which ones fit or do not fit. Here, every single clue must be examined in isolation, every characteristic of the suspects and victims must be painstakingly vetted.

As Ellery learns the hard way, a solution can be perfectly logical and beautifully explain every scrap of evidence, but all it takes is one inconvenient fact to destroy the entire theory. He soon begins to realize that detection is not a game, but a profound responsibility. Maybe there’s no such thing as a correct solution, only one that has not yet been disproven. Perhaps for this reason, the finale is more action-packed than usual, to make the culprit’s guilt absolutely clear.

The Greek Coffin Mystery offers an almost unprecedented sense of anarchy; after the first false solution, it really seems that anything could happen next. (The Poisoned Chocolates Case is much better at handling multiple solutions, but it’s also obvious right away what the structure is going to be. Here, it’s never certain which direction the plot is heading.) Though there were a number of things that irked me while reading, by the end, nearly all of them had been revealed as intentional clues. The puzzle is superlative, as one wonderfully complex solution after another is rolled out, with each false solution changing the entire landscape of the mystery. All that’s missing is the human element. While it’s nice to see development for Ellery, the other characters are barely distinguishable from one another. In a story about the high stakes of getting it wrong, it’s hard to worry too much about the fates of people who are nothing more than chess pieces for Ellery to move around his board.

Second Opinions

Countdown John’s Christie Journal

In many ways the whole thing is nonsense – I don’t believe a real murderer would act as they do in this book – but if it is nonsense, it is glorious nonsense: a fabulously crafted example of the pure puzzle taken to extremes. Having learned in reading The Dutch Shoe Mystery to accept Queen on their own terms, I found this to be a brilliant read.

The Grandest Game in the World

Yes, I acknowledge that it’s densely plotted and logical – but there’s damn all in the way of characterization, atmosphere, or humor. The multiple solutions are ingenious – but Anthony Berkeley’s Poisoned Chocolates Case offers eight solutions (twice as many as Greek Coffin) – and it’s clever in a way that Queen’s laborious, elephantine effort isn’t.

The Green Capsule

The Greek Coffin Mystery was definitely an improvement from the earlier Queen efforts in terms of the flow of the story and maintaining my interest.  It was overly long and somewhat unrelenting, but there was enough going on to keep me semi-engaged.  I still can’t say that I thought about the mystery while I wasn’t actively reading it, other than lamenting the notion that I could be spending the time with a book from another author.

In Search of the Classic Mystery Novel

All in all, an excellent mystery, but I think The French Powder Mystery is a little better for being a bit less convoluted.

Mysteries Ahoy!

The Greek Coffin Mystery is certainly a more interesting read than its immediate predecessor and I think the case is both the most complex and tricky of the first four. While I guessed at some developments correctly, I didn’t come close to the final answer as to what had happened and I felt things were tied together very tidily.

Availability

The Greek Coffin Mystery is available as an ebook from the Mysterious Press. Many used copies are also available.

The Tragedy of X (1932) by Ellery Queen

The Tragedy of X by Ellery Queen

5 Stars (5/10 stars)

Crime—the crime of violence induced by mastering emotion—is the highest refinement of the human drama. Murder is its own peculiar climax.”

This should be the happiest day of Harley Longstreet’s life. The handsome, successful stockbroker has just announced his engagement to actress Cherry Browne and invited a whole cocktail party’s worth of friends to continue the celebration at his home. Everyone hops on a streetcar, crowded on this rainy evening.

Only minutes later, Longstreet is dead, but how could he have been poisoned on a busy streetcar? Such an unusual crime demands a unique detective. Drury Lane was a famous actor until he lost his hearing. Now he hopes to perform on a very different kind of stage. The Longstreet murder is his first case—and it may be his last.

Despite a strong opening, The Tragedy of X cannot always sustain that promise across its gargantuan length. Ellery Queen (who originally published this novel under the pseudonym of Barnaby Ross) always knows how to stage a striking murder. The tensions of the cocktail party, the mad dash through the rain as the victim and suspects cram themselves into the streetcar, and the early stages of the investigation in the streetcar barn—all have a brisk, jangling energy. This energy reappears from time to time throughout the book, only to be quashed whenever Drury Lane enters the scene.

The Tragedy of X by Ellery QueenThe novel’s prologue introduces Lane in a gloriously over-the-top manner, as Inspector Thumm and District Attorney Bruno make a pilgrimage to his country home, The Hamlet. Having heard that the retired actor wishes to change careers, they naturally decide that handing over this high-profile case to an inexperienced amateur detective is the right course of action. The sight of Lane at The Hamlet nearly changes their minds, however. Not just an estate, The Hamlet is a full-blown Elizabethan village staffed entirely by elderly grotesques (including Lane’s loyal, much-abused assistant Quacey, short for Quasimodo). “Massive, massive, old…Everything was old and flavored and redolent of Elizabethan England. Leather and oak, oak and stone.”

It makes sense that Lane would need a side hustle to finance his personal theme park, and he makes an impassioned case for himself as an investigator.

I think I can bring to this pursuit a rather unique equipment. I have murdered on the stage countless times; emotionally I have suffered the agony of plotting, the torture of conscience. I have been, among others perhaps less noble, Macbeth, and I have been Hamlet. And like a child viewing a simple wonder for the first time, I have just realized that the world is full of Macbeths and Hamlets.

At this point, the narrative flashes back to the murder as Thumm and Bruno explain what has happened with the case to date. So far so good. Once the story returns to the present, however, and Drury Lane takes his place in the spotlight, the pace slows to a crawl. There are a few eccentric touches, like Lane using theatrical makeup to disguise himself as other parties involved with the case, but these are more confusing than entertaining.

The Tragedy of X by Ellery QueenThere are a number of excellent suspects in Longstreet’s murder, starting with his new fiancée Cherry Browne, who believed she was the main beneficiary of his will. The other guests at the engagement party include John DeWitt, Longstreet’s business partner. The two colleagues often clashed due to Longstreet’s slapdash habits—he never came to work before noon or left after three. DeWitt’s wife Fern was quite fond of Longstreet, who in turn had his eye on her stepdaughter Jeanne, much to the displeasure of her jealous fiancé Kit Lord. Even without this colorful group, a passenger on the streetcar might have spotted Longstreet and taken a little impromptu revenge. In the early years of the Depression, more than one person might be tempted to murder their stockbroker. The only difficulty is the murder weapon, a cork full of poisoned needles. Anyone might have slipped it into the victim’s pocket, but who would be carrying such an awkward and dangerous item in the first place?

A second crime narrows the focus to a single suspect for quite some time. As a result, the rest of the suspects only receive that first, cursory interview in the streetcar barn before being discarded, some never to be picked up again. Only Fern DeWitt makes a real impression. She’s decked out in leopard-skin from head to toe, but it’s not always clear whether Fern is predator or prey.

At various points, Lane admits that he could reveal the killer’s identity, but “We play on! My instinctive sense of the dramatic prevents me from spoiling a perfect climax for you.” What it does not prevent him from doing is constantly chiding Thumm and Bruno for their subpar detection, rebukes they tolerate with surprising patience.

The producer shapes Hamlet, whittles it, changes its proportions, redesigns it to fit Mr. Barrymore, instead of measuring Mr. Barrymore against the original specifications of the piece as fixed in their true proportions by Shakespeare. You, Inspector Thumm and District Attorney Bruno, commit the identical error when you shape the crime, whittle it, change its proportions, redesign it to fit [the suspect], instead of measuring [the suspect] against the fixed specifications of the crime.

The Tragedy of X is distinguished by some clever and wonderfully atmospheric murders, which take advantage of the wide array of commuter transportation available to killers in the tri-state area. In between murders, however, the pace slows to a crawl as Lane alternates endless monologues with bouts of nude sunbathing.

Yes, nude sunbathing. Throughout the novel, we have received ominous allusions to the sixty-year-old Lane’s handsome, youthful appearance, and eventually this theme reaches its natural conclusion, the full Drury.

Mr. Drury Lane lay, almost nude, on a bearskin, arms shading his eyes from the sun high overhead.

Inspector Thumm stopped short and Quacey grinned himself away. The Inspector could not conceal his stupefaction at the bronzed vigor, the firm youthfulness and muscularity, of Drury Lane’s figure. His lean, sprawling body, hairless except for a faint golden down, brown, hard and smooth, was that of a man in the prime of life. The shock of white hair on his head was a startling incongruity when the eye traveled the full length of the clean hardy body.

Lane invites Inspector Thumm to “discard your swathings and join me on the bearskin,” an offer he mercifully declines.

The real tragedy of X is that it contains a number of compelling elements, only to squander them on an inconsistent and overlong narrative. The Tragedy of X includes individual sequences that are exceptionally vivid and engaging, and the solution involves some nice deductions. However, it’s not a coincidence that the best moments do not include Drury Lane. Most of the time, it seems clear that Lane is intended as a parody of the eccentric, egotistical great detective, driving Thumm and Bruno crazy with his antics. Other times, however, the authors appear to be playing it fairly straight. It’s never obvious how seriously Lane should be taken. Either way, it hardly seems worthwhile to find out.

Second Opinions

The Green Capsule

I worry that I unduly criticize these books because the writing isn’t bad by any means.  Well, that is to say “if you examine the writing of any given page, all things seem in order.”  And yet, I need something – whether a impossible hook, or just a glimpse of a soul – to pull me along.  I have yet to encounter it with the Queens.

In Search of the Classic Mystery Novel

And then we come to the overall plan – there are a couple of other deaths to keep the plot jogging along – but it’s mindblowingly stupid and overcomplicated. Add to that a middle section of the book concerned with proving (or disproving) the innocence of the obvious suspect where, again, the critical piece of evidence is obvious and, to be honest, this is a bit of a letdown. Still worth a look, but you have to suspend your disbelief at times.

Availability

The Tragedy of X is available in ebook and audiobook formats from the Mysterious Press.

The Dutch Shoe Mystery (1931) by Ellery Queen

The Dutch Shoe Mystery by Ellery Queen

5 Stars (5/10 stars)

“For every hundred open-and-shut cases there’s one that requires a mind trained in a dozen universities, including the university of crime.”

Ellery Queen has a secret: the great detective is actually terribly squeamish. He’s happy to receive a private tour of Dutch Memorial Hospital, until he learns that it includes observing an operation. And this is no ordinary surgery. The patient is Abigail Doorn, the founder of the hospital, whose unexpected fall earlier that day has left her in a diabetic coma with a ruptured gallbladder. As the unconscious Abigail is wheeled into surgery, doctors make a shocking discovery. Abigail is dead, strangled before she even hit the operating table.

Ellery and his father, Inspector Richard Queen, discover that Abigail Doorn’s talent for making money was equaled only by her knack for making enemies. Any one of them could have killed her. As Ellery ruefully observes, “Mrs. Doorn was strangled while she was unconscious and waiting to be operated on; somebody seems to have impersonated the operating surgeon; nobody can identify the impostor; and we’re generally up a tree. It’s been a bad morning.”

The Dutch Shoe Mystery by Ellery QueenWith The Dutch Shoe Mystery, Ellery Queen takes one step forward and two steps back. From a technical standpoint, Dutch Shoe is an improvement on its two predecessors. The narrative is more streamlined, the suspect list is manageable, and the investigation is competent—there are no big clangers like the one that nearly derails the solution of The Roman Hat Mystery. While this third book lacks some of the frustrations of the other two, however, it’s also missing the joie de vivre that made it worthwhile to look past those issues. The Dutch Shoe Mystery is solid and workmanlike, but not much fun.

This is a shame because the circumstances of the murder are fascinating. Abigail’s injury requires emergency surgery, but her diabetes complicates matters. Since doctors cannot operate until her blood sugar naturally lowers itself into a safer range she is kept in an anteroom under the watch of nurse Lucille Price for several hours. (The description of how dangerous diabetes was during this period is sobering. Medical staff are actually relieved that Abigail is in a coma and will not need ether because administering anesthesia to a diabetic could so easily turn deadly.) The room in which Abigail slumbers adjoins two operating theaters, an elevator, and a supply area, not to mention the main corridor of the hospital. Murder seems impossible with doctors, nurses, and orderlies constantly bustling through the crime scene.

To add to the confusion, Nurse Price and other witnesses swear that Dr. Francis Janney, the irascible chief surgeon, spent considerable time in the anesthesia room. Though Janney was Abigail’s pet, she was threatening to cut off the research he has been conducting with Austrian émigré Moritz Kneisel. Janney claims he has an alibi witness but refuses to identify the man. As Ellery notes, Janney has a distinctive limp that would make him easy to imitate.

More importantly, however, the entire hospital staff dresses alike in their white uniforms. Add a surgeon’s cap and mask, and any killer could pass unnoticed. Indeed, the clue that most fascinates Ellery is a discarded uniform that includes a pair of white canvas shoes, one of which has a broken lace mended with adhesive tape.

The Dutch Shoe Mystery by Ellery QueenEven a patient or family member could slip in, and there are plenty of those around. The outside world viewed Abigail as “the voice of virtue. To her dependents and retainers she was the breath of evil.” Abigail’s brother Hendrik, plump and middle-aged, makes for an unlikely playboy. Nonetheless, his love of the ponies and the ladies has gotten him into trouble. All of Hendrik’s dialogue is rendered in a thick “Dutch” accent: “I play at cardts, horses. I am—what you call—a spordtsman. My luck has been badt—wery badt. So! This man—he lendts me the money.” Abigail’s daughter Hulda is in love with the family lawyer, Philip Morehouse, who destroyed documents immediately after his client’s death. Housekeeper Sarah Fuller has remained in service with the Doorns for decades despite the mutual hatred between her and Abigail. What kept these two women together for all those years?

Inspector Queen is especially intrigued by “Big Mike” Cudahy, a notorious gangster who just happens to be hospitalized at Dutch Memorial. Big Mike has the best possible alibi—he was being sliced open by surgeons at the time of the murder—but the same cannot be said for his criminal associates. The Cudahy-Doorn connection is definitely worth examining.

This should be a colorful cast of characters, but aside from the gloomy, scripture-quoting Sarah, none of these individuals make much of an impression. The Dutch Shoe Mystery lacks the spark that animated the previous two Queen novels and made the reader eager to clamber over the rough spots. Here, there are far fewer rough patches, but also much less passion. The most striking scene is the lead-up to Abigail’s surgery, which captures both the strange beauty and terrifying impersonality of a modern, scientific hospital.

The orchestra of the Amphitheater had settled down now to a hushed expectancy. Ellery thought it very like the moment in a legitimate theater just before the rise of the curtain, when the audience holds its breath and absolute quiet descends on the house…Under a triple brace of electric globes of immense size, emitting a cold, steady and brilliant light, stood an operating-table. It was denuded, pitiless in its lack of color.

This scene is all the more pleasing because it’s clear that this perfect temple of science is about to be invaded by the very human problem of murder. It is when Queen grapples with this dilemma, leaning into the unique nature of the hospital setting, that The Dutch Shoe Mystery is most compelling. However much they may wish to, these scientists cannot leave their emotions at the door of the hospital. It doesn’t matter how clean and white the operating room may be, how much glass and chrome glitters beneath the lights—bodies are fundamentally messy. Hearts and brains cannot be tidied away into little drawers.

If Queen had been willing to explore these themes more deeply, it might have breathed some life into the story. As it is, The Dutch Shoe Mystery is a neat but listless puzzle. Although a major piece of information is withheld to create a dramatic ending, the solution is easy to guess even without it. The clues all fit together nicely; it’s just hard to be invested in the outcome. The Dutch Shoe Mystery is an efficient machine that could use a little more bedside manner.

Second Opinions

The Green Capsule

As you may suspect by now, this isn’t a book that I’ll be recommending.  It does sport a nice Carr-ian twist, but that isn’t enough to make up for a flat story.

Mysteries Ahoy!

While the previous two books were a grind at times, I was at least interested in following them through to the end and finding out exactly how the crimes were committed. The Dutch Shoe Mystery tested my patience and I was found wanting.

In Search of the Classic Mystery Novel

So, another well put together exercise in logic, with added character thrown in. Just don’t think too carefully about the fact that one character clearly must know who the murderer is and I’m pretty sure a bunch of New York cops from the 1930’s could have got the info out of him before the second murder.

My Reader’s Block

I agree with Ben over at The Green Capsule that there is way too much mulling, interviewing, and reviewing the evidence going on in between murders and solution. If the point was fair play to the reader–waving evidence under our noses repeatedly–then it doesn’t come off (see previous paragraph). In actuality, this 305 page book could have been cut to maybe 250 (251, if we add in a portion to at least hint a bit better at the crucial piece of evidence). Still, it was a good plot with a nice bit of misdirection.

Crossexamining Crime

So despite that short catalogue of negatives this was actually a better Queen experience than many of the others I have had. 

Availability

The Dutch Shoe Mystery is available as an ebook and audiobook from the Mysterious Press and in hardcover and paperback from American Mystery Classics.

The French Powder Mystery (1930) by Ellery Queen

The French Powder Mystery by Ellery Queen

6 stars

“Of course the traces of the crime have been removed. The top layer, so to speak. Perhaps even the middle layer. But away down deep, underneath, we may find—who knows?”

French’s is the biggest and busiest department store in Manhattan, known for its elaborate display windows. The unveiling of the latest window always attracts eager crowds. This time, however, the spectacle is horrifying. As a model demonstrates a murphy bed, the bed folds down from the wall, revealing a corpse hidden inside. Even worse, the dead woman is the wife of Cyrus French, the store’s owner. The father and son detective duo of Richard and Ellery Queen will have to discover the most intimate secrets of the store in order to solve this very public crime. Continue reading “The French Powder Mystery (1930) by Ellery Queen”

Cat of Many Tails (1949) by Ellery Queen

Cat of Many Tails by Ellery Queen

8 Stars (8/10 stars)

“Ellery, this is killing for the sake of killing. The Cat’s enemies are the human race. Anybody on two legs will do. If you ask me, that’s what’s really cooking in New York. And unless we clamp the lid on this—this homicide, it’s going to boil over.”

Forget the dog days of August. In New York City, summer is the season of the Cat. A killer who “comes and goes like a breeze,” the Cat has brought the entire city to the edge of hysteria. There have been five victims so far, with nothing in common except their terrible ends, strangled to death with silk cords. No one is safe anywhere: not in the subway, not in the park, not even in their own beds.

Ellery Queen retired from detection after his last case went wrong, resulting in the deaths of innocent victims. Solving the Cat murders could lead to his redemption…unless failing to solve them becomes his downfall. Continue reading “Cat of Many Tails (1949) by Ellery Queen”

The Roman Hat Mystery (1929) by Ellery Queen

The Roman Hat Mystery by Ellery Queen 1929 book cover

5 Stars (5/10 stars)

“The hat is the focal point of this investigation—I cannot see any other way out of it. Solve the mystery of Field’s hat and you will find the one essential clue that will point to the murderer.”

It’s a rainy night on Broadway, but theatregoers are packing the aisles to see the hit gangster show Gunplay. Enthralled by the imaginary blood and guts on stage, no one notices an audience member’s quiet collapse. Murder has struck the Roman Theatre for real, and it’s up to Inspector Richard Queen and his son Ellery to crack the case. There are a few clues, but Ellery is most struck by the clue that isn’t there: the victim’s top hat is missing. This seemingly insignificant detail will allow the Queens to trap a killer. Continue reading “The Roman Hat Mystery (1929) by Ellery Queen”