The French Powder Mystery by Ellery Queen

The French Powder Mystery
Ellery Queen
Originally Published 1930
Ellery Queen #2
Preceded by The Roman Hat Mystery
Followed by The Dutch Shoe Mystery

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.

10 thoughts on “The French Powder Mystery by Ellery Queen

  1. Yeah, “exhaustive and exhausting” is about right — perhaps listening to these is the way to go. Dammit, I wish I’d had a happier start to these earlier Queens. I wil get back to them, I will, I will, I will…

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I was quite thrilled to see that the next book clocks in at just 9 hours making it seem almost breezy compared to the 11-14 hour runtimes of most of the other early Queen novels. I can use the time saved to fit in 1 or 2 Maigret audiobooks…

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I wasn’t exactly a fan of The French Powder Mystery – it was a bit of a trudge and the endless investigation is exhausting. I’m an overall fan of the style of the writing, but the singular focus on investigation is a bit too much after a few hundred pages. I’m a bit gun-shy when it comes to taking on The Dutch Shoe Mystery, since the first two Queen books (and first Barnaby Ross book) require quite a bit of stamina to get through.

    I will say this though – I was on the edge of my seat during the unmasking of the killer. I wouldn’t quite say that the end is excellent – I prefer a bit more meat on the bone regarding misdirection, etc – but the build up of tension in the final chapter was thrilling.

    If you want a good laugh, read JJ’s review.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. The length of these first two Queen novels is a problem. I think there were plenty of opportunities for trimming, especially in the early part of the summation chapter.

      My biggest frustration with these Queen stories is that Dannay and Lee felt the need to make sure they explained every single aspect of the deduction in exhaustive detail. It isn’t as bad here as in The Roman Hat Mystery. I do see that The Dutch Shoe Mystery is a lot shorter so my hope is that reflects some smarter editing though I fear it may just mean a slightly simpler story…

      I really enjoyed JJ’s review and while I liked TFPM a lot more than him, I do understand where he was coming from!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s