Mysteries Ahoy!

The French Powder Mystery by Ellery Queen

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My experiences with the first Ellery Queen novel, The Roman Hat Mystery, were disappointing and I had told myself that I would take a break before tackling another one from this series any time soon so why on Earth was I listening to this just three weeks later?

The answer is that I was decorating my dining room and needed something to occupy my mind while I was watching the paint dry. Very happily I can report that I found this an altogether more entertaining experience.

I did find it curious though that two books that largely adhere to the same style and formula produced quite different responses in me. After much thought, I do think that I can identify a few aspects of this book that I felt contributed to my extra enjoyment.

Firstly, the early part of the book has Ellery work under the pressures of time and secrecy to survey and pick apart a crime scene before Police Commissioner Welles arrives to inspect it. This section is every bit as thorough as the searching the apartment sequence from the first book but whereas that begat pages of frustration, here there are several significant clues found and we get to follow and engage with Ellery’s process much more as he is no longer in the background but taking the lead in this investigation.

Second, while the book is not an impossible crime it is at least a logistically difficult one. While the first novel took place in a relatively crowded public space, here the authors place the murder in a location that is hard to gain access to and allow the various spaces and objects Ellery interacts with to dictate the progress of the investigation rather than the interviews. This suits the way in which Ellery makes his deductions in this early phase of his career and the regular discoveries of evidence (as opposed to the absence of evidence in the first novel) help keep this case from feeling as static as its predecessor.

Third, in addition to the big mystery of who killed Mrs French, Dannay and Lee also add several smaller mysteries that the reader is given the information to solve. The one that sticks out most in my head relates to the meaning of a series of books found on a desk. Here the writers do a great job of pacing Ellery’s process so that the reader has the chance to beat the sleuth.

While I do think this novel improves significantly on the first, it does still have some problems. Though Ellery’s process is quite clearly shown and explained to us, there are a few times where he states a deduction as fact where there are alternative, albeit incorrect, conclusions that could have been drawn at the point at which he draws his inferences.

Second, there is a secondary character whose whereabouts and fate ought to be of great concern to Ellery and the Police yet the narrative neglects them. This feels very strange and, for me, detracted from my overall enjoyment of the conclusion.

That conclusion is, as with the first novel, both exhaustive and exhausting though it does shed a lot of light on Ellery’s thinking and process. As I noted above, there are a few things he assumes and takes as fact that I am unconvinced by but this is at least acknowledged in a comment made after the summation. And it must be noted just how effectively the authors manage to allow the conclusion to play out without naming the murderer, only giving their name in the final sentence of the novel. This is a really powerful way to end a book, keeping the reader hooked until the end.

While I may not have had the best experience with the first Ellery Queen novel, I think overall this second one is much more entertaining and leaves me much more hopeful about continuing with my quest to work through these in order. I hope that I will be similarly impressed with The Dutch Shoe Mystery.

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