The Siamese Twin Mystery by Ellery Queen

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.

12 thoughts on “The Siamese Twin Mystery by Ellery Queen

  1. This is the consensus pick for the best of the period 1 novels. In my poll from a couple years ago it was #2 overall. I have put off rereading it due to the catastrophe that was rereading The Greek Coffin Mystery!


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  2. Whilst I like early period Queen a good bit more than some other bloggers who I respect, I agree with you that this is the best of the first period novels for the reasons you state. Glad you enjoyed it.

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  3. Thanks, Aidan. This is good to know for someone yet to sample any EQ. I really ought to have by now, but when I find an author who consistently delivers what I want, I tend to mine their oeuvre for all its worth before moving on. As I have been doing with Carr and my beloved Halter. But yes, EQ represents a glaring hole in my GAD reading and this appears to be a good place to start given the increasing number of mixed reviews I’ve come across for The Greek Coffin Mystery.

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    1. I really enjoyed this one and found it a much tighter work than the previous entries in the series. I don’t think you would go wrong starting here and from the sounds of it other bloggers all seem to hold it in high regard (even if some others place another title above this). I would say that while I haven’t had the smoothest experience with EQ so far, in nearly every book I have found things I have enjoyed and admired including TGCM. Hope you enjoy if you choose to start here!


  4. I really need to reread early period EQ, as he was among the first GAD writers I explored in depth, but The Siamese Twin Mystery is, if not the best, certainly one the more original and memorable novels of the international series. From the introduction of the dying message to the encroaching forest fire, which I still remember after all these years. So not surprised at all The Siamese Twin Mystery has slowly emerged as a new fan favorite during the Great Reevaluation of the genre’s internet age, but kind of said to see EQ’s (on a whole) has come out of the reevaluation rather battered and beaten. Very different from Carr where the argument is whether a novel is a shimmering gemstone or merely a nugget of gold.

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    1. I would certainly be interested to read your thoughts on these if you ever do revisit them. As you say the forest fire is really memorable and it is used so well here – I doubt I will be forgetting about it any time soon.
      I am curious why EQ seems to be suffering in this period of internet criticism. Do you think it is that the books were perhaps overrated before because of their availability (in a period where Golden Age material was less frequently reprinted), the authors’ longevity or stature within the mystery community? Is it that tastes have changed in some fundamental way and readers are less patient with stories paced in this way? Or do you think there might be some other cause or explanation?


      1. Likely a combination of availability, changing tastes and EQ’s pre-internet reputation as a hyper logical mystery writer, which doesn’t always stand up to scrutiny (see The American Gun Mystery or The Door Between). I also suspect EQ’s own brand of surrealism is not as popular today as it was back in the day, which is often warped and weird. Unlike the fantastic, dreamlike surrealism that Carr and Rice occasionally dabbled in. That being said, I still like EQ. 🙂

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  5. I think the reason for the reduced popularity is that Ellery Queen is an extremely unlikeable character in the early novels. I love the puzzles but cannot reread these mysteries because of the pretentious, snarky detective. Contrast that with the humerous Fell or Merrivale. (Poirot is also unbearable but that impact is lessened by the use of other first-person narrators and the other characters)

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