The Siamese Twin Mystery (1933) by Ellery Queen

The Siamese Twin Mystery by Ellery Queen

9 Stars (9/10 stars)

“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. Continue reading “The Siamese Twin Mystery (1933) by Ellery Queen”

Drury Lane’s Last Case (1933) by Ellery Queen

Drury Lane's Last Case by Ellery Queen

5 Stars (5/10 stars)

“Fact of the matter is, Lane, we’re in something crazy, I’m not getting any money out of it, it’s the nuttiest yarn you ever heard, and I’ve got to do something about it.”

Since leaving the police force to set up shop as a private detective with his daughter Patience, Inspector Thumm has encountered some strange propositions. This one has to be the oddest, however. A man with a blue and green beard hires him to guard an envelope, which he promises contains “a secret worth millions.” What seems like easy money proves to be anything but. As one crime follows another, Patience, the Inspector, and their friend Drury Lane are drawn into a literary scandal that will change their lives forever. Continue reading “Drury Lane’s Last Case (1933) by Ellery Queen”

The American Gun Mystery (1933) by Ellery Queen

The American Gun Mystery by Ellery Queen

5 Stars (5/10 stars)

“Did the old chap have a fainting spell?”

“The old chap,” said Ellery grimly, “had a bullet spell, that’s what he had. He was murdered, Major—drilled through the heart.”

Buck Horne isn’t just a movie cowboy; he’s the real thing. He can bust any bronco, rope any steer, and hit any target with his trusty pistols. Lately, he’s been riding a very different kind of range: Broadway. Buck is hoping that appearing with Wild Bill Grant’s rodeo at the Colosseum will revive his screen career. Instead, it ends his life.

Twenty thousand spectators watch in horror as Buck is felled by a gunshot, his body trampled by dozens of horses. One of those twenty thousand people is Buck’s killer—but one of them is legendary detective Ellery Queen. Continue reading “The American Gun Mystery (1933) by Ellery Queen”

The Puzzle of the Silver Persian (1934) by Stuart Palmer

The Puzzle of the Silver Persian by Stuart Palmer

6 stars (6/10 stars)

“You seem to know everything.”

Miss Withers smiled grimly. “I don’t—but I intend to.”

This journey across the Atlantic was meant to be the start of Rosemary Fraser’s independent life. The nineteen-year-old has grand plans for her trip around the world, but nothing is turning out the way she hoped. On the very first night of the voyage, she meets an attractive man who convinces her to tryst with him in a storage locker, only to be humiliated when a fellow passenger locks them in. Her partner leaves Rosemary to bear the shame alone.

Rosemary has become the laughingstock of the ship. And if her parents find out what happened, all of her dreams are over. So when Rosemary vanishes from the deck one foggy night, the other passengers assume she committed suicide—all except Hildegarde Withers. She suspects there is a killer on board, but will she be able to convince Scotland Yard? Continue reading “The Puzzle of the Silver Persian (1934) by Stuart Palmer”

The Tragedy of Z (1933) by Ellery Queen

The Tragedy of Z by Ellery Queen

7 Stars (7/10 stars)

“A murder’s no place for a young girl.”

Patience Thumm is back from her grand tour of Europe and eager to jump into the family business—which happens to be murder. Her father, the former Inspector Thumm, has left the New York City Police Department to become a private investigator. The Thumms are hired to look into the shady activities of Senator Joel Fawcett. Their misgivings are justified when Fawcett is found murdered, clutching a broken toy box in his dead hand.

A case this challenging calls for a master detective. Thumm calls upon his old friend Drury Lane, who is lured out of retirement to investigate the murder. In Patience, Lane recognizes a budding detective whose skills might equal, or even surpass, his own. And despite her father’s misgivings, Patience is determined to prove that a woman’s place is at a crime scene. Continue reading “The Tragedy of Z (1933) by Ellery Queen”

The Cases of Susan Dare by Mignon G Eberhart (1934)

The Cases of Susan Dare by Mignon G Eberhart

6 stars (6/10 stars)

So this was murder. This was murder, and it happened to people one knew, and it did indescribable and horrible things to them. Frightened them first, perhaps. Fear of murder itself came first—simple, primitive fear of the unleashing of the beast. And then on its heels came more civilized fear, and that was fear of the law, and a scramble for safety.”

The Cases of Susan Dare collects the adventures of a young author who writes “murders…lovely, grisly ones with sensible solutions,” but doesn’t see why her fictional sleuths should have all the fun. Aside from her series detective, Nurse Sarah Keate, Mignon G. Eberhart’s work usually focuses more on romantic suspense than crime-solving, so it’s a nice change of pace to see both elements combined in these stories. Continue reading “The Cases of Susan Dare by Mignon G Eberhart (1934)”

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… Continue reading “The Egyptian Cross Mystery (1932) by Ellery Queen”

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 G String Murders (1941) by Gypsy Rose Lee

The G-String Murders by Gypsy Rose Lee

8 Stars (8/10 stars)

“Finding dead bodies scattered all over a burlesque theater isn’t the sort of thing you’re likely to forget. Not quickly, anyway. ”

Gypsy Rose Lee never expected to make her Broadway debut bumping and grinding in a burlesque joint for forty dollars a week. It could be worse, though. The Old Opera House still retains some of its threadbare glamour, and the boss always bails the girls out right away whenever there’s a raid.

But it’s a funny thing about that raid. There are rumors that it was an inside job, that someone at the theater tipped off the cops. Either way, Gypsy can’t forget the feeling of fingers closing around her throat in the dark that night as she ran from police. When one of the strippers is found dead, strangled by her own g-string, the shabby but familiar atmosphere of the Old Opera House takes on a menacing air. Love triangles, blackmail, and long-hidden secrets are all laid bare. The show must go on, but, unless Gypsy can find the killer, so will the murders.

Gypsy Rose Lee at the Typewriter
The author at work

You know this isn’t Agatha Christie when the book opens with a group of strippers taking up a collection to buy a new ladies’ toilet. The G-String Murders is a wonderfully cynical, madcap comic mystery that provides a peek behind the scenes of a vanished world of burlesque. Gypsy Rose Lee was famous as an “intellectual stripper,” though there has always been speculation that her two mystery novels were ghostwritten. There’s no doubt, however, that Lee provided the inside information that makes this book such a treat. Gypsy’s deadpan take on the sometimes seedy, sometimes surreal, and sometimes terribly dull lifestyle of a burlesque artist in pre-World War II Manhattan is unique in the annals of mystery fiction. It is an inside job, and that’s what makes it so much fun.

The charm of the book is that it’s a workplace comedy that just happens to take place in a very unusual industry—basically The Office in a g-string. The characters may be strippers, showgirls, and baggy-pants comedians, but they still spend their time squabbling over shared workspace, organizing office parties, and worrying that a new hire is getting special privileges.

Gypsy even has a budding workplace romance with comedian Biff Brannigan. “If Biff had been in any other business and I had been anything but a strip teaser, we would be going steady, or he might have been my beau. In burlesque, romances seem to be different; we eat night lunch together.” But the endless war between Lolita La Verne and Dolly Baxter, who are both in love with the same worthless actor, provides daily evidence of how messy a relationship with a coworker can become. In such a jaded atmosphere, love doesn’t stand a chance.

To make matters worse, the Princess Nirvena comes out of nowhere to snatch the best spots on the bill. Her Royal Highness looks awfully familiar to Gypsy. “Didn’t I know you in Toledo?” she asks.

She stared at me as though I were some biped prehistoric marine mammal.

“I haff nevair been in—how you say—Too Ledo. Always I haff danced for royalty. Then the revolution and poof! It is gone. Now the Princess Nirvena throws pearls to swine.” That was her exit line. Before we could answer she was gone. Nothing but a heavy scent of perfume to remind us that she had ever been there.

The other strippers are outraged when the Princess flouts house rules requiring that net pants be worn beneath their g-strings. Her near-total nudity is an impossible act to follow. With this new offense coming right on the heels of the raid, the atmosphere in the theater becomes mutinous. What is meant to be a joyous celebration of the new toilet ends with the discovery of a corpse.

None of this is the least bit titillating, nor is it meant to be. Stripping is nothing more than a day’s work for Gypsy and her colleagues. Their impresario, H. I. Moss, genuinely believes that the Old Opera House offers “clean entertainment for the whole family,” rivalling the Ziegfeld Follies or Eugene O’Neill. Though most of his performers would not go that far, they do take a professional pride in their work that bears no relationship to its actual quality. Gypsy is quite candid in her assessments of her colleagues’ routines.

For all her big talk, Jannine was quite small. When the Columbia was the theater in New York, she was featured as ‘The Darling of the Runways.’ When you consider that the fire department made us take out the runways several years ago and that the Columbia had been torn down for over ten, it made Jannine a little old for the type of work she did. That week, for instance, she was doing “Won’t Someone Please Adopt Me and My Baby?” She wore a short baby dress and carried a huge rag doll! When she stripped the dress, the audience got a flash of diapers pinned on with an oversized safety pin. If they were insistent enough she’d strip the diapers, too, but it took a lot of coaxing. The last few years she’d been finishing with the diapers on.

All the real drama is happening backstage, however. The Old Opera House is a world of its own, a marvelous setting for old-dark-house shenanigans. The run-down building is full of nooks and crannies, including trap doors, hidden staircases, and a water pipe that runs between dressing rooms for convenient eavesdropping.

It’s not surprising that the performers prefer to stick together inside the theater, despite their bickering, given how the outside world judges them. The raid is a shocking experience for Gypsy, who is manhandled by a policewoman and humiliated by a female judge.

When she got to the charge blank I saw her write “Prost …”

“What are you putting down?” I heard myself shout.

“I’m booking you for prostitution, and don’t speak until you’re asked to.”

“Speak?” I screamed. “I’ll tear this jail down, I’ll …”

“Well, then,” she said coldly, “what are you in for?”

“I’m an actress. A strip teaser.”

“What’s the difference?” said the matron and finished, “… itution.”

This ugly experience is a stark reminder of the prejudices the performers face outside the walls of the Old Opera House, making it all the more cruel that a killer is about to rob them of this safe haven.  Given the strippers’ contentious relationship to law enforcement, it’s only natural for Gypsy to investigate the murder on her own. She can’t trust anyone—not even Biff.

For a while, the murders seem like an afterthought, with the main focus being on backstage atmosphere and relationships between the suspects. The mystery takes a long time to get going, but once it does, it goes all out, with false solutions, fake-outs, and even a few locked rooms (though these are not exploited as much as they could have been, and The G-String Murders cannot be considered a true locked-room mystery). Lee is always keen to undermine cliches. Gypsy faints after discovering a dead body, in the fashion of a true heroine, only to be greeted with disdain when she awakes. “Nice thing, a big horse like you fainting.”

The G-String Murders provides a full bill of entertainment: hilarious comedy, gruesome murders, and a devious mystery plot. What makes it so memorable, however, is the detailed and matter-of-fact look at a way of life that no longer exists. Some of the indignities of life on the lowest rungs of show business could drive a person to murder, but Gypsy and her colleagues can’t imagine living any other way.

Second Opinions

Tipping My Fedora

Can these really be reclaimed as feminist texts? You decide – this guy in his 40s found the book highly diverting and it certainly made for a bracing and welcome alternative to traditional backstage mysteries! 

Availability

The G-String Murders is available as a paperback or ebook from the Feminist Press. There are also many used copies available.

The film adaptation, Lady of Burlesque, captures much of the spirit of the book (despite some inevitable censorship), and Barbara Stanwyck gives a pitch-perfect performance as Gypsy. The film is in the public domain and widely 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.