The Egyptian Cross Mystery by Ellery Queen

EgyptianCrossBack in the fledgling days of this blog when I was trying to come up with regular features I made a foolish pledge that each month I would read a novel from the Ellery Queen canon. I was going to work through them in order to take in the evolution of the series. How could this possibly go wrong?

Well, I discovered fairly quickly that early Ellery can be a grind with both The Roman Hat Mystery and The Dutch Shoe Mystery striking me as frustrating reads. In spite of those disappointments I always intended to return to the project but my first few attempts to tackle The Egyptian Cross Mystery resulted in my falling asleep listening to the audiobook version. Not a great sign.

Several months passed and I decided to take another stab at it taking the high-risk strategy of listening while operating my vehicle. It turned out that this was exactly what I needed to get past the coroner’s sequence at the beginning of the book and to begin to feel engrossed in the mystery. Once that began to happen I found my interest in the scenario building as the bodies begin to pile up.

The story begins with Ellery hearing about a strange murder taking place in Arroyo, West Virginia where a school master’s decapitated and crucified body is found at a crossroads. Ellery attends the inquest and after offering some thoughts proceeds to forget about the affair until six months later an identical murder happens in a different state. Ellery believes there is obviously a connection between these two murders but it is hard to see what could link these two victims.

The first observation to make about this novel is that it is the first to break Ellery out of New York and the cosy set-up with his father and servant Djuna. While I miss Richard Queen’s sensible, earthy presence at points in the novel I think it does a lot to make Ellery seem a more likable and independent figure. He is still capable of arrogant statements designed to prove his intelligence but he accepts his mistakes far more easily here than in some of his previous adventures.

The change of scene also works nicely because it gives this story a much grander sense of scale. While Dannay and Lee would win no awards for the quality of their travel writing, the delays caused by different types of transportation play an important role in several crucial sequences towards the end of the novel as does the geographic spread of figures who play a role in this investigation. It helps gives a sense that this story takes place in something approaching our world and proves to be a strong source of tension at key points in the novel.

As I mentioned in my introduction, I struggled a little to get through the details of the first death. While I certainly thought the use of the crucifixion was intriguing, the Arroyo setting is somewhat drab and the mystery about the victim’s origins seemed to offer no unexpected moment or twist. It is only when it is combined with the second death that the story really captured my imagination and engaged me in trying to work out ways in which those two deaths could overlap.

It turns out that there are more links between the victims than the reader may initially expect and one of these is the presence of a man Ellery had previously encountered in Arroyo who believes himself to be a reincarnated Egyptian figure. In one of the book’s more lurid elements he runs a nudist camp which has been set up on an island near the home where the second death occurs. This element feels surprisingly brazen for the period and taken along with the crucifixions gives the book a far more colorful feel than any of the other Queens I have read so far but while it is clearly there to draw readers in, I didn’t feel it detracted from the mystery.

I do think it is fair to say though that the book can feel a little sprawling and unfocused in its sense of scale and scope. While I appreciate what it does for the character of Ellery in that it opens him up and makes his world feel larger, it does mean that the reader has fewer defined suspects to consider and this may lead to a little disappointment if you approach this story purely as a whodunnit.

Instead the reader’s task is to make sense of the order of events and draw inferences from them. This process of detailed, logical deduction is Ellery’s strength as a detective and I think this book is particularly successful in the way it works through information, reframing it at times to produce different inferences. The reader can absolutely follow along with Ellery as each of the key logical deductions at the end are clearly clued and seem well thought out, though I was a little unsure about the motivation behind the very final killing other than making for an exciting moment in the race towards the conclusion.

It is also noticeable that the book adopts a far more action-focused conclusion than I have found in the previous Ellery stories with the final chapters setting up a race against time for the detectives to catch their suspect. These sequences are exciting and help keep the reader engaged in the run up to the moment where Ellery reveals what happened.

It is in these final chapters that I think the book encounters its biggest problem, that of the killer’s motivation. The authors provide us with a reason of sorts but it feels rather ill-defined and lazy. Certainly I think that the reader deserves something a little more solid and thought-out, particularly when explaining their actions with their final murder.

In spite of my issues with that part of the plot I think that the novel as a whole holds together very well and provides the reader with several striking moments. Some of the plot elements may feel a little lurid and cheap but I admire and appreciate the thoroughly logical plot structure and that, rather than making the reader wait for Ellery to explain everything, the writers try to keep readers engaged through action and by periodically providing additional developments in the story.

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. It leaves me hopeful that this project may be back on course and that better things may be in store…

21 thoughts on “The Egyptian Cross Mystery by Ellery Queen

  1. Thanks for the review. 😊 Of the Queen novels I’ve read, I recall not liking this very much, and finding the pacing of the mystery somewhat tedious. Then again, I hear that some of the Nationality novels are even weaker, which makes me less-than-enthusiastic to try out ‘American Gun’ or ‘Spanish Cape’. 🤔

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    1. I know I am in the minority on this one. This is the first time Ellery didn’t frustrate me to distraction in his step by step explanations and that surely has to count for something! 😉

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      1. No, you’re absolutely not in the minority. Unless you think the world consists of you, JJ, Ben and JFW.

        I think most people feel this is among the better Period One novels. It’s not perfect, particularly in the motivation for murder, which you already pointed out. But it’s an exciting ride towards the conclusion – perhaps the chase goes on a bit too long, but hey. I think you’ve pointed out its many strengths very well in your review.

        I think I’d rate “Egyptian” maybe somewhere between third and fifth of the First Period books. That’s pretty high.

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      2. I am very happy to hear that I am not alone. It seemed every review I was seeing when I looked around were on the negative side of the scale. Clearly I just didn’t look far enough!

        I would agree that there is possibly a stop too many on the chase but it didn’t bother me too much. The conclusion is exciting and while there are limited choices of suspect, the authors do a good job of misdirection imo.

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      3. No, you are not alone ! I am with you. I found this clever and intriguing and enjoyed reading it. Yes, it has its flaws but It is better than its predecessors Also I noted a marked improvement in the writing.

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      4. I noticed that too. The authors seem to have noticed some of the elements that made Greek Coffin work and relied more heavily on them here.

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    2. I’m still reeling from Christian’s suggestion that my opinion isn’t given suitable consideration to count as a majority view — I mean, reeeeally?! 😛 — but I’m with Jonathan on this one: the pacing did my head in, even if it does pick up about the 60-70% mark with some dazzling deductions that are superbly spun from information readily at the reader’s fingertips.

      And for all the action focus of the conclusion, it’s really just “Ellery then chased after the killer for three chapters” isn’t it? Give me everyone standing still in the library and gasping with shock at an unexpectedly-levelled finger of accusation any day of the week…

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      1. I hear what you are saying but Ellery does drive his car pretty fast and has to stay in a hotel with a light breakfast and limited trouser press capabilities. It doesn’t get much higher octane than that.

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  2. I had to hang up my hat on the mission of reading Queen in order – I was just dreading picking up the next book and dealing with more of the same. You’ve piqued my curiosity on this one simply by the fact that the story seems to step out of the typical confines of NYC. With that said, I’m off to period 3.

    When do you plan to work in the Barnaby Ross novels, like Tragedy of X?

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    1. Right now I am going from book to book but the plan had been to specifically tackle the books with the fictional Ellery as main character then to double back and tackle Ross. I think at this point I am eager to hit period 2 asap and will think about Ross at a later date!

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  3. Thanks for this review. Egyptian Cross isn’t the best of the Nationality-Object Mysteries, but it’s definitely in the top half. My thoughts:

    If you think the motivation for the crimes was weak… and you’re going to continue reading the Queen books in order… before long, you’re going to come across one that makes the Egyptian Cross killer’s reasons look completely believable.

    (Might be partial spoilers in the next couple of paragraphs – if you haven’t read Egyptian Cross, skip over them)

    I liked the deductive chain that led Ellery to the murderer… but it really had nothing to do with 95% of what had come before. I would have preferred to see it in a short story.

    The precise relationship between the murderer and one of the victims is one I’ve seen many times, but this was a well-handled example.

    Anyone know why the Queen team decided to name a male character “Djuna” when it’s a woman’s name? I seem to remember they got the name from the critic Djuna Barnes, but it was no secret at the time they wrote Roman Hat that she was female.

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    1. Good to hear that the uptick in quality that I perceived will be short-lived. 😉

      I don’t disagree at all with your comment about the deductive chain but I think that reflects the type of case this is with a heavy dose of misdirection that is only noticed very late in the story. Arguably the reader may have guessed at that before Ellery though so the story would probably have benefited from some pruning.

      I think in general though that is true of most of Ellery’s early investigations.The authors intend to hide needles and so spend hundreds of pages constructing thick and sometimes rather tedious haystacks.

      I do agree that this takes a well-used relationship between murderer and victim and does it well.

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      1. I guess any solution is going to involve some misdirection, but the one to Egyptian Cross seems a lot less integrated with what came before than the one to, say, Roman Hat is with the goings-on in the theatre, or French Powder with the events in the department store, or Greek Coffin with what happens in the Khalkis house. Maybe it has something to do with the way Egyptian Cross takes the characters all over the map, while the earlier ones keep them mostly in one geographical location?

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