When a washed up Hollywood cowboy-turned-circus rodeo actor is shot dead in the midst of his performance at a New York sports-palace, in front of thousands of onlookers, it seems obvious that someone would have seen the perpetrator of the crime―or at the very least, recovered the gun. But when the ensuing investigation fails to turn up any evidence, even after the newsreels made in the moment are reviewed, the net of suspicion widens across the troupe of performers and the circus staff. Who among them is cunning enough to have constructed such a baffling murder scene?
Unluckily for the murderer, genius sleuth Ellery Queen is among the thousands that witnessed the crime, and he won’t be satisfied until he cuts through the confusion to discover the truth of the execution. By the time he uncovers all the necessary clues and delivers his patented “Challenge to the Reader,” Queen (and his most careful readers) will be able to expose both the killer and the hiding place of the weapon―the titular American Gun that fired the fatal bullet.
To my enormous frustration the past few months have presented some challenges that have caused me to take an unexpected break from blogging. Nothing bad, mind you, but just the sort of stuff that keeps me from finding time to read. The good news is I think that I have got those issues sorted out now, more or less, and I am anticipating being able to get back to blogging.
Given that, what better way could there be to relaunch the blog than with another installment in my long-running series in which I read the Ellery Queen stories in order. For those who have not been following these posts I think it is worth pointing out that this “monthly” series began back in November 2017 and I am only now getting to book six.
Clearly it hasn’t been going too well.
I think it would be fair to say that my experiences so far with this series of books have been somewhat mixed. I have liked some parts of the books and can see the elements of the character and the approach to mystery construction that have appeal and yet I found elements of the execution in most of the stories frustrating.
Lest you think I am preparing you for another bout of negativity let me start out by reassuring you that in many ways I think this is the most entertaining of the six EQ stories I have read to date. While I had some issues with the way one aspect of the mystery is wrapped up, the book is lively, colorful and poses some interesting questions for the reader to solve.
So, what’s it all about?
The American Gun Mystery begins with the Queen family attending a rodeo being held in a New York arena for the sake of their young housekeeper Djuna who is apparently loves cowboy films. Among the performers is Buck Horne, a movie star who had been a star in the silent era but who shot his last picture some eight years earlier. The evening is something of a comeback performance for him and there is talk that if it proves successful it may lead to his return to the silver screen.
Things seem to be going well when Buck leads dozens of horsemen in a gallop around the arena but he suddenly falls to the ground and is trampled by the horses following him. When the body is investigated the body is badly mutilated but it is clear that the cause of death is a gunshot to the chest. When Inspector Queen and his men search the arena, the performers and all 20,000 spectators they are unable to find the murder weapon.
While this makes for an exciting opening for the story I must confess that I was a little concerned when I realized that it seemed likely we were headed for a repeat of the Ellery spends forever searching for an object problem that dragged down The Roman Hat Mystery. Happily this does not repeat the mistakes of that story, in part because it is so much clearer why the murder weapon is such a point of interest but mostly because the authors decide not to describe every step of the search.
There are similar moves towards economy in storytelling and plot construction throughout the story to strike out any lengthy sequences in which Ellery fails to move forward. This results in a narrative that feels much slicker and more focused than its predecessors, allowing our attention to be focused on the situation and the characters involved.
The circumstances of the murder are somewhat complex logistically, particularly given there are at least forty three moving parts to track inside the arena, and yet I had no difficulty grasping and visualizing the key aspects of the crime itself. The authors were always good at relaying detail but here they manage to summarize action very effectively, helped by Ellery being at the scene at the point at which the murder takes place. We have already had the venue and the action of the show described in some detail and so when the time comes for the murder it is pretty easy to follow what happened.
In terms of the characterizations of the victim and suspects, I had no significant complaints. Each are portrayed quite colorfully and while they sometimes seem a little larger than life, I found them fairly entertaining and distinctive. The only real problem is that the authors do not really take the time to develop a clear set of suspects with motives, reflecting that there is not much opportunity for misdirection for readers. Once the reader gets on the right train of thought (and I think something we learn early in the investigation is likely to stand out to many seasoned detective fiction fans) there is really little here to divert readers from those suspicions.
Ellery is in pretty good form though and I did appreciate that we get to spend a little more time here with Inspector Queen than we did in the previous installment in the series. The relationship between the two detectives is not particularly dramatic or fiery and yet I find it immensely pleasurable to follow the two as they needle and push each other towards a solution.
So, let’s talk about that solution because it is really only here that I have a significant issue with the story. The problem is that an aspect of the solution, the location of the murder weapon, requires an enormous suspension of disbelief. I can’t quite complain that the answer isn’t clued properly because I think the authors make a point of telling us something relating to the solution but I could not possibly have extrapolated from A to B because B is such a ridiculous idea. Throw in that it seems comically unlikely to work and you have a recipe for dissatisfaction.
There are some other issues too – a few clues lead too strongly to the solution without any real effort to misdirect the reader. And then there is Ellery’s assertion that he knows the guilty party and then does nothing to prevent a further murder. That one, I must say, does not cast him in a particularly strong light even when we are given his justification for that near the end.
Still. while a few elements of the resolution leave a bit of a bad taste in my mouth, I have to say I did enjoy the process of getting to that point. The story is one of the most colorful and lively of these early Queen tales and I am hoping that its relative tightness and evocative action bodes well for my experiences with subsequent installments.
Vintage Mysteries Challenge: During a performance of any sort (When)