Originally published in 1933
Ellery Queen #7
Preceded by The American Gun Mystery
Followed by The Chinese Orange Mystery
When Ellery Queen and his father encounter a raging forest fire during a mountain drive, the only direction to go is up ― up a winding dirt road that leads to an isolated hillside manor, inhabited by a secretive surgeon and his diverse cast of guests. Trapped by the fire, the Queens settle into the uneasy atmosphere of their surroundings. Things become even more tense the following morning when the doctor is discovered dead, apparently shot down while playing solitaire the night before.
The only clue is a torn six of spades. The suspects include a society beauty, a suspicious valet, and a pair of conjoined twins. When another murder follows, the killer inside the house becomes as threatening as the mortal flames outside its walls. Faced with a complex set of alibis, motives, and evidence, Ellery Queen must rely on his powers of deduction and logic to uncover the murderer’s identity ― but can he solve this whodunnit before the fire devours its subjects?
Those who have followed this blog for a while may remember that I do not have the best history with Ellery Queen. After making a rash pledge to read the series in order (and at a monthly pace, no less) some years ago, I have struggled with several installments in the series. A recurring theme in the comments has been though that I should persevere (or just jump ahead) because better things await. Well, I have reached those better things. The Siamese Twin Mystery is easily the best of the books I have read to date.
The novel begins with Ellery and his father driving through a range of mountains when they notice smoke in the distance. Realizing that there is an enormous forest fire that is blocking their way they search desperately for safety and discover a mansion atop a hill where they stop hoping for shelter. The reception they receive is frosty at first but eventually they are admitted and meet their host, a famed surgeon, his wife and guests. They note though that they are being kept from wandering freely while Ellery’s father is terrified by what seems to be a strange crab creature he thought he observed in a corridor upstairs. It all creates an atmosphere of foreboding.
The next morning they arrive for breakfast but before long they note that their host has not joined them. His body is soon found dead and clutched in his hand is half a playing card. Could it be a dying message from the victim pointing to his killer?
I typically like to start with the murder but in this instance I really want to discuss the ways the authors use the threat of the forest fire throughout the novel.
It initially appears as an immediate threat in an action sequence of sorts, not only placing our heroes in peril but then giving them a perfectly credible reason for staying in what is a clearly uncomfortable situation. They have been lucky to find any refuge at all and there simply is nowhere else to stay. The depiction of their desperation and of the relationship between father and son when under tremendous pressure is superb and really helps establish who they each are as characters.
Once the pair are out of immediate danger however we are unable to forget that the danger still looms and is, in fact, approaching. Throughout the novel we are given updates about the police’s efforts to fight the blaze and I don’t think this is too much of a spoiler to reveal that the outlook isn’t promising. This creates a really interesting situation that I think illustrates who Ellery is as a character. Even as the situation will become very bleak and it appears that they may all perish, Ellery cannot focus on anything but solving that puzzle. It is more important to him to know that he is right than to worry about his safety.
Finally the fire also serves as an impenetrable barrier to create a thoroughly closed circle. The barrier has been thoroughly tested by the emergency services battling the blaze so we can be confident that there can be no way out. Our murderer must be somewhere in what is an ever-decreasing area of safety. As setups go, this is great stuff…
While the opening to the novel creates an effective atmosphere of dread and anticipation, the authors do not make us wait too long before we get to that first body. The crime scene is not particularly complicated but, as with several of the previous volumes, there is one detail that seems unusual – the torn card that the victim clutches in his hand. As you might expect there is much forensic discussion about this card of the type that I have often found tiresome in previous volumes. To my surprise though here I felt it really worked.
Ellery is usually at his most unbearable when he launches into a lecture in logic but in this instance I feel that he is actually justified in doing so. When he starts talking about the chain of deductions he can make from that playing card, he is not simply thinking out loud and demonstrating how smart he is but he is speaking to persuade and change the course of the investigation. The result is something that is both very clever and yet, at the same time, really simple once it has been explained and I love that the authors don’t simply have him explain verbally but actually incorporate an element of practical demonstration. I found it thoroughly engrossing and while I am no fan of dying messages, I can say that I enjoyed the way that element is used here.
The only disappointment for me was that some of the members of the household feel rather vaguely sketched, particularly the servants. I think this is intentional, designed to place a greater emphasis on the most colorful figures in the household, but it does feel a little odd that they do not really factor at all into the investigation given their presence.
Other than that, I found The Siamese Twin Mystery to be a really satisfying read that became quite thrilling in its final section where the investigation and the threat of the fire come together to produce a truly memorable conclusion. It is by far my favorite of the ‘Phase One’ books I have read to date. On the basis of this I doubt it will take me two years to get on to the next one!
The Verdict: Easily the best of the Queen novels I have read to date. The threat of the wildfire is really effective and the puzzle is clever and plays fair.