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. 


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.


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! 


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.


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. 


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”

The Nanny (1964) by Evelyn Piper

The Nanny by Evelyn Piper

5 Stars (5/10 stars)

“Tell me, will she spank you, Joey?”

“She’ll kill me,” Joey said simply.

Nanny has been such a blessing to the Fane household, especially after six-year-old Joey’s baby brother died mysteriously under his care. Now, after two years of treatment in a school for disturbed children, Joey is finally coming home. For some reason he’s taken against Nanny. Unfortunate, since his mother relies on her so much.

Nanny always knows the right thing to do, however. She’s determined to stay, and no mere child is going to stop her. But she may have underestimated her opponent… Continue reading “The Nanny (1964) by Evelyn Piper”

The Swimming Pool (1952) by Mary Roberts Rinehart

The Swimming Pool by Mary Roberts Rinehart

4 Stars (4/10 stars)

“What are you afraid of?” I demanded. “Don’t pretend to me, Jude. You’re scared to death. You’ve done something, haven’t you? Something wrong. Maybe something terrible. What is it?”

In the golden days of 1929, beautiful Judith Maynard held court over her admirers beside the swimming pool. Twenty years later, everything has changed for the Maynard family. Their father went broke and committed suicide, and siblings Lois and Paul are barely hanging on their decrepit country estate. Only Judith has remained the same, still lovely, still the center of attention.

Then Judith, too, begins to change. She abruptly divorces her rich, older husband. The darling of cafe society retreats to the isolated family house of her youth, shunning her friends and nailing her bedroom windows shut. Judith is terribly frightened of something, or someone. The swimming pool, once the site of girlhood triumphs, has become a special source of dread. When a dead body appears in the pool, mystery writer Lois must find out just what her sister was so afraid of. What she’s not prepared for is how far back into the past these sins will reach. Continue reading “The Swimming Pool (1952) by Mary Roberts Rinehart”

The Puzzle of the Pepper Tree (1933) by Stuart Palmer

The Puzzle of the Pepper Tree by Stuart Palmer

7 Stars (7/10 stars)

“Young man, I have had the good or bad fortune to have been in contact with several notorious and unsavory cases of homicide during the past two years. Perhaps the poor fellow over there looks like just another case of heart failure to you, but I’m getting so I can detect the very smell of murder.”

A lean forefinger wagged in O’Rourke’s face, and Miss Withers pronounced solemnly, “I can smell murder now!”

The man in brown never intended to take the seaplane to Catalina, but after missing the steamer, he has no choice. Anyway, the flight is only twenty minutes. Even a nervous flyer can handle that.

Suddenly, turbulence throws the man into a panic. “I’m dying,” he cries. “I don’t want to die!” Everyone thinks it’s a case of nerves, but by the time the Dragonfly lands, it carries eight living passengers and one corpse. The man in brown “hadn’t wanted to die, but he was dead.” Continue reading “The Puzzle of the Pepper Tree (1933) by Stuart Palmer”

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”