Back 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…