Ellery Queen, Golden Age

The Dutch Shoe Mystery by Ellery Queen

DutchAfter getting off to a rough start with The Roman Hat Mystery, I felt that I had turned the corner with the second Ellery Queen novel The French Powder Mystery. I had read good things about the third book in the series, including from some people who generally don’t care about the early Nationalities phase of the cousins’ writing. On top of that, this book was significantly shorter than the two efforts that preceded it. Surely this would be the book where Dannay and Lee would knock it out of the park and deliver the classic read I know they are capable of… Right?

Well, let’s start with the positives. The initial premise of the book is, in my opinion, the strongest of the first three novels. Ellery is attending a meeting at the Dutch Hospital and, at its conclusion, he is invited to watch an operation being carried out on a wealthy philanthropist who funds some of the hospital’s research.

When the time comes for the surgeon to operate however they discover that she has been garroted and at first it seems that the killer is none other than the surgeon himself. There are a few other possibilities however including – and here my pulse was truly quickening – a mobster who was under anaesthesia at the time.

The other element of the novel that particularly marks it out is that this story features a second murder at the midpoint of the novel. This is a particularly welcome development as it addresses one of the principle weaknesses of the first two books – that the second halves of those books drag, becoming chapter after chapter of interviews. By introducing a second corpse, Ellery not only has something to do but he also must now question whether he is investigating the actions of one murderer or a first murderer and a second copycat murderer.

So, why aren’t I feeling more enthused about this? Perhaps it’s an expectations game. Maybe I just thought that The French Powder Mystery was so certain to be terrible that I was pleasantly surprised whereas I came to this one feeling hopeful that I was on course for a thrilling read that I felt let down. I certainly think that is a part of it.

The more significant problem for me was that I didn’t find the mystery particularly mysterious, at least in comparison with the previous two stories. There are some clues that Ellery takes a long time to piece together (or at least to tell us that he has pieced together) whose significance seemed quite obvious to me and, once worked out, the identity of a key figure is pretty simple to piece together. So where the previous books kept my attention in their final section as Ellery explains it all in minute, excruciating detail, here I just wanted him to get on with it.

There are other issues of pacing. While the introduction of a second murder certainly gives the story a lift, the individual chapters often pass with very little progress being made. In fact, there is quite a large section of the book where Ellery just seems to wallow in his inability to piece the case together in spite of the apparent simplicity of the crime. While I think the first two books are far too long, there is at least the sense of constant progress, however incremental. Here however we are waiting for Ellery to make a mental connection between evidence he already has and it is tedious.

I also think the book suffers from not having any particularly standout, colorful characters. I wasn’t rooting for anyone, either to be found innocent or guilty, and with Ellery conducting the investigation on his own, I found myself missing the banter between Ellery and his father.

So, were there any bright spots? Well, I appreciated that Djuna is finally given something to do and sets up some future development, though I still find the core concept of that character problematic (he is a Romany orphan that Ellery’s father adopts and makes into a sort of housekeeper).

Also, while the individual pacing of the chapters is a problem, I do think that the second murder adds a welcome complexity to the investigation even if it has the unfortunate side effect of narrowing an already quite limited field of suspects.

But sadly I think that’s about it. 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.

I will, of course, no doubt find myself reaching for the next book at some point soon. I’ve already paid for it and while Queen can be tedious, I can see the bright spots and the potential. But I will be much more careful about letting those expectations rise again.

Vintage Mysteries Challenge: Set in a hospital/nursing home (Where)

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Ellery Queen, Golden Age

The French Powder Mystery by Ellery Queen

FrenchMy 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.

Ellery Queen, Golden Age

The Roman Hat Mystery by Ellery Queen

RomanOne of the aims of this blogging project of mine was to broaden my reading horizons and to educate myself on the history of the genre. While I count myself pretty familiar with the works of Christie and Sayers, I had never read anything by Ellery Queen – one of the more significant figures from the Golden Age of Detective Fiction.

When I made the choice to begin with The Roman Hat Mystery, Queen’s first novel, I had little knowledge of what lay in store for me. Perhaps if I had read the less than glowing posts from JJ and The Green Capsule about the book, I might have been a little better prepared for seemed at times to be an epic test of my endurance.

Monte Fields, a lawyer, is discovered dead in his seat at the Roman Theatre during the second act of a show called Gunplay. Strangely, for a hit show, the seats on either side of him were empty and no one was observed coming up to him during the performance. Our detectives, Police Inspector Richard Queen and his son Ellery, immediately focus on the absence of the victim’s top hat – a discovery that will launch a very detailed and repetitive series of searches to try to find it and determine its significance to the murder.

While it is a little strange to hear the characters hone in so quickly on the question of the headwear as if it was the only significant oddity in a case that possesses several, I did find the questions of how and why the hat had disappeared to be intriguing. To my disappointment the answers, particularly with regards to how the hat was removed, proved far less interesting than the scenario seemed to promise.

Part of the problem is the way the authors walk us through nearly every step of the investigation, listing off the various places considered and examined along the way. These sections of the book feel exhausting and offer little interest or sense of discovery, slowing the novel down considerably.

When not considering the question of the hat, Richard and Ellery Queen spend considerable periods interviewing the various witnesses. Although ‘witnesses’ may be a little inaccurate, given that no one seems to have seen anything take place. These sections were a little more enjoyable for me, though once again the pacing is slow and the conversations are at times a little repetitive.

The two detectives are not particularly striking in terms of their personalities, though I did appreciate their father and son dynamic and enjoyed their warm sense of affection for one another. Both characters seem to be primarily characterized by their indulgences – Ellery for rare books and Richard for taking snuff – rather than their emotions or and peculiarities in their personalities. Both are quite normal, though Richard was for me easily the more sympathetic character.

Before I go on to sum up my overall feelings about the book, I do want to directly address two points I have seen made in other reviews of this novel. Firstly, that the novel does not play fair with the reader and, secondly, the story advances some outdated racial views.

Let me tackle the second point first. The Roman Hat Mystery certainly does have moments that feature or hint at outdated racial ideas. When one of those ideas is mentioned in the plot it is clear that we are not meant to be sharing in or celebrating those views. Modern readers may struggle with these aspects of the novel.

The issue of whether the novel plays fair is much harder to judge. Certainly I can understand some readers feeling frustrated that there was some information given near the end of the novel that was not clearly provided prior to the Challenge to the Reader. I do not believe that any information is imparted after that Challenge that we need to figure out what happened in general terms and while it is a little frustrating in a puzzle mystery to have some developments not shared with the reader, I did not feel cheated by that.

Overall, I found the novel to be quite uneven and poorly paced with lengthy blocks of dialogue and a dull array of suspects. While there are some strong and entertaining parts of the story, I did feel that all-in-all this was a miss for me. Still, I liked the concept of the story and I still plan on digging through the Ellery Queen novels in order.

On the back of this however I think it may be wise to spread them out a little.