The American Gun Mystery by Ellery Queen

The American Gun Mystery
Ellery Queen
Originally Published 1933
Ellery Queen #6
Preceded by The Egyptian Cross Mystery
Followed by The Siamese Twin Mystery

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)

The Egyptian Cross Mystery by Ellery Queen

EgyptianCross
The Egyptian Cross Mystery
Ellery Queen
Originally Published 1932
Ellery Queen #5
Preceded by The Greek Coffin Mystery
Followed by The American Gun Mystery

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…

The Greek Coffin Mystery by Ellery Queen

Coffin
The Greek Coffin Mystery
Ellery Queen
Originally Published 1932
Preceded by The Dutch Shoe Mystery
Followed by The Egyptian Cross Mystery

The Greek Coffin Mystery is the fourth stop in what is turning out to be a somewhat arduous quest to read all of the Ellery Queen novels in order of publication. It is safe to say that I have had mixed experiences with these novels, appreciating some of the clever, logical plotting in The French Powder Mystery while feeling frustrated by the lengthy explanations and interviews of The Roman Hat Mystery or The Dutch Shoe Mystery.

One complaint that I have made against all three of those books relates to their length. Dannay and Lee’s narratives seem to progress at a crawl as Ellery has to explain each stage of his logical reasoning in minute, precise detail. The Greek Coffin Mystery is considerably longer than its immediate predecessor, the respective audio version clocking in at a full four hours longer. Somehow though, in spite of that longer runtime, I was relieved to discover that The Greek Coffin Mystery is a pacier, more dynamic read.

The story begins with the death of Georg Khalkis, an art dealer, from heart failure. Following his funeral the family return to his home to open up a strongbox that contains his will, only to discover that the document is missing. Members of the family attest to the fact that the will was there before the funeral procession began while others can confirm that no one entered or left the house during the funeral. Where could the will have gone to?

Ellery is brought in, listens to the different accounts being given by the Police about their thorough search and uses reasoning to expose a hiding place for the document that they have not thought of. When it is checked however a body is discovered and the focus of the book changes to the identification of that mysterious body and discovering who killed him and why.

The mini-mystery of the will is quite a fun way to reintroduce us to Ellery and his logical deductive method which is necessary because this particular plot sees that method challenged more than in any of the three previous works. One of the defining characteristics of this novel is that Ellery will use that method to reach an incorrect result that, we are told in the introduction, will humiliate him for years to come and be responsible for him never sharing his reasoning while a case is in progress again.

This results in a narrative that stops and starts again, giving it an unusual pace. Listening to it as an audiobook, I had little conception of just how close I was to the end of the novel as there were times it clearly felt that an ending was in sight before the investigation ramps up again. Still, while you might think that would cause frustration, I felt that the general trajectory of the case was interesting enough to justify that approach, particularly once we reach the true ending which I failed to see coming.

There are, of course, still plenty of examples of narrative stretch where a character conveniently doesn’t think to tell Ellery something until chapters after their initial interview has taken place. Some may consider this a realistic touch as the relevance of a few of the pieces of information would have been questionable at the time they would have been shared but I think the point is that it feels information is withheld to send Queen down a path of deductive reasoning that the information will close off. Given the overall length of this investigation I think a little judicious trimming of some of these false leads would have been welcome.

The idea of presenting this as a prequel is intriguing but ultimately does not result in any significant new side to Ellery or Richard Queen’s personalities emerging. Perhaps Ellery is a little more abrasive and obnoxious here than in his previous outings but I think that reflects the frustrations of this case rather than any real shift in his character.

The authors assemble a pretty sizeable supporting cast of characters, some of whom are only relevant to one phase of the story, with a few notable standout figures. One of these is a wealthy industrialist who has the ear of the President and my wife commented on the lengthy descriptions of his opulent home and lifestyle. I chalk this down as a reflection of the times in which it is written – just a few years after the Wall Street Crash, that sort of material must have come as a pleasant bit of fantasy for readers. The character himself is easily one of the most successful ones developed in the books to this point.

I am not going to go in any further detail about the book for fear of spoiling something as I do think this is a book best enjoyed with relatively little knowledge of its twists and developments. I would suggest that, if you do so, you seek out the printed copy rather than the audiobook because of the novel’s pacing.

The Greek Coffin Mystery is certainly a more interesting read than its immediate predecessor and I think the case is both the most complex and tricky of the first four. While I guessed at some developments correctly, I didn’t come close to the final answer as to what had happened and I felt things were tied together very tidily. On the other hand, in terms of sheer enjoyment I still would say that The French Powder Mystery is my favorite of the Queens I have read so far. That story had the same sense of constant movement but to a clearer, static objective and I think had a stronger, punchier ending and a greater sense of thematic focus.

Next up will be The Egyptian Cross Mystery. It does strike me that I seem to be liking only the even number mysteries in this series but hopefully that will turn out to be the book that breaks that rule.

Vintage Mysteries Challenge: It made a “best of” list (Why)
Sergio lists this in 9 of the Best by Ellery Queen

The Dutch Shoe Mystery by Ellery Queen

Dutch
The Dutch Shoe Mystery
Ellery Queen
Originally Published 1931
Ellery Queen #3
Preceded by The French Powder Mystery
Followed by The Greek Coffin Mystery

After getting off to a rough start with The Roman Hat Mystery, I felt that I had turned the corner with the second Ellery Queen novel The French Powder Mystery. I had read good things about the third book in the series, including from some people who generally don’t care about the early Nationalities phase of the cousins’ writing. On top of that, this book was significantly shorter than the two efforts that preceded it. Surely this would be the book where Dannay and Lee would knock it out of the park and deliver the classic read I know they are capable of… Right?

Well, let’s start with the positives. The initial premise of the book is, in my opinion, the strongest of the first three novels. Ellery is attending a meeting at the Dutch Hospital and, at its conclusion, he is invited to watch an operation being carried out on a wealthy philanthropist who funds some of the hospital’s research.

When the time comes for the surgeon to operate however they discover that she has been garroted and at first it seems that the killer is none other than the surgeon himself. There are a few other possibilities however including – and here my pulse was truly quickening – a mobster who was under anaesthesia at the time.

The other element of the novel that particularly marks it out is that this story features a second murder at the midpoint of the novel. This is a particularly welcome development as it addresses one of the principle weaknesses of the first two books – that the second halves of those books drag, becoming chapter after chapter of interviews. By introducing a second corpse, Ellery not only has something to do but he also must now question whether he is investigating the actions of one murderer or a first murderer and a second copycat murderer.

So, why aren’t I feeling more enthused about this? Perhaps it’s an expectations game. Maybe I just thought that The French Powder Mystery was so certain to be terrible that I was pleasantly surprised whereas I came to this one feeling hopeful that I was on course for a thrilling read that I felt let down. I certainly think that is a part of it.

The more significant problem for me was that I didn’t find the mystery particularly mysterious, at least in comparison with the previous two stories. There are some clues that Ellery takes a long time to piece together (or at least to tell us that he has pieced together) whose significance seemed quite obvious to me and, once worked out, the identity of a key figure is pretty simple to piece together. So where the previous books kept my attention in their final section as Ellery explains it all in minute, excruciating detail, here I just wanted him to get on with it.

There are other issues of pacing. While the introduction of a second murder certainly gives the story a lift, the individual chapters often pass with very little progress being made. In fact, there is quite a large section of the book where Ellery just seems to wallow in his inability to piece the case together in spite of the apparent simplicity of the crime. While I think the first two books are far too long, there is at least the sense of constant progress, however incremental. Here however we are waiting for Ellery to make a mental connection between evidence he already has and it is tedious.

I also think the book suffers from not having any particularly standout, colorful characters. I wasn’t rooting for anyone, either to be found innocent or guilty, and with Ellery conducting the investigation on his own, I found myself missing the banter between Ellery and his father.

So, were there any bright spots? Well, I appreciated that Djuna is finally given something to do and sets up some future development, though I still find the core concept of that character problematic (he is a Romany orphan that Ellery’s father adopts and makes into a sort of housekeeper).

Also, while the individual pacing of the chapters is a problem, I do think that the second murder adds a welcome complexity to the investigation even if it has the unfortunate side effect of narrowing an already quite limited field of suspects.

But sadly I think that’s about it. While the previous two books were a grind at times, I was at least interested in following them through to the end and finding out exactly how the crimes were committed. The Dutch Shoe Mystery tested my patience and I was found wanting.

I will, of course, no doubt find myself reaching for the next book at some point soon. I’ve already paid for it and while Queen can be tedious, I can see the bright spots and the potential. But I will be much more careful about letting those expectations rise again.

Vintage Mysteries Challenge: Set in a hospital/nursing home (Where)

The French Powder Mystery by Ellery Queen

French
The French Powder Mystery
Ellery Queen
Originally Published 1930
Ellery Queen #2
Preceded by The Roman Hat Mystery
Followed by The Dutch Shoe Mystery

My experiences with the first Ellery Queen novel, The Roman Hat Mystery, were disappointing and I had told myself that I would take a break before tackling another one from this series any time soon so why on Earth was I listening to this just three weeks later?

The answer is that I was decorating my dining room and needed something to occupy my mind while I was watching the paint dry. Very happily I can report that I found this an altogether more entertaining experience.

I did find it curious though that two books that largely adhere to the same style and formula produced quite different responses in me. After much thought, I do think that I can identify a few aspects of this book that I felt contributed to my extra enjoyment.

Firstly, the early part of the book has Ellery work under the pressures of time and secrecy to survey and pick apart a crime scene before Police Commissioner Welles arrives to inspect it. This section is every bit as thorough as the searching the apartment sequence from the first book but whereas that begat pages of frustration, here there are several significant clues found and we get to follow and engage with Ellery’s process much more as he is no longer in the background but taking the lead in this investigation.

Second, while the book is not an impossible crime it is at least a logistically difficult one. While the first novel took place in a relatively crowded public space, here the authors place the murder in a location that is hard to gain access to and allow the various spaces and objects Ellery interacts with to dictate the progress of the investigation rather than the interviews. This suits the way in which Ellery makes his deductions in this early phase of his career and the regular discoveries of evidence (as opposed to the absence of evidence in the first novel) help keep this case from feeling as static as its predecessor.

Third, in addition to the big mystery of who killed Mrs French, Dannay and Lee also add several smaller mysteries that the reader is given the information to solve. The one that sticks out most in my head relates to the meaning of a series of books found on a desk. Here the writers do a great job of pacing Ellery’s process so that the reader has the chance to beat the sleuth.

While I do think this novel improves significantly on the first, it does still have some problems. Though Ellery’s process is quite clearly shown and explained to us, there are a few times where he states a deduction as fact where there are alternative, albeit incorrect, conclusions that could have been drawn at the point at which he draws his inferences.

Second, there is a secondary character whose whereabouts and fate ought to be of great concern to Ellery and the Police yet the narrative neglects them. This feels very strange and, for me, detracted from my overall enjoyment of the conclusion.

That conclusion is, as with the first novel, both exhaustive and exhausting though it does shed a lot of light on Ellery’s thinking and process. As I noted above, there are a few things he assumes and takes as fact that I am unconvinced by but this is at least acknowledged in a comment made after the summation. And it must be noted just how effectively the authors manage to allow the conclusion to play out without naming the murderer, only giving their name in the final sentence of the novel. This is a really powerful way to end a book, keeping the reader hooked until the end.

While I may not have had the best experience with the first Ellery Queen novel, I think overall this second one is much more entertaining and leaves me much more hopeful about continuing with my quest to work through these in order. I hope that I will be similarly impressed with The Dutch Shoe Mystery.

The Roman Hat Mystery by Ellery Queen

Roman
The Roman Hat Mystery
Ellery Queen
Originally Published 1929
Ellery Queen #1
Followed by The French Powder Mystery

One of the aims of this blogging project of mine was to broaden my reading horizons and to educate myself on the history of the genre. While I count myself pretty familiar with the works of Christie and Sayers, I had never read anything by Ellery Queen – one of the more significant figures from the Golden Age of Detective Fiction.

When I made the choice to begin with The Roman Hat Mystery, Queen’s first novel, I had little knowledge of what lay in store for me. Perhaps if I had read the less than glowing posts from JJ and The Green Capsule about the book, I might have been a little better prepared for seemed at times to be an epic test of my endurance.

Monte Fields, a lawyer, is discovered dead in his seat at the Roman Theatre during the second act of a show called Gunplay. Strangely, for a hit show, the seats on either side of him were empty and no one was observed coming up to him during the performance. Our detectives, Police Inspector Richard Queen and his son Ellery, immediately focus on the absence of the victim’s top hat – a discovery that will launch a very detailed and repetitive series of searches to try to find it and determine its significance to the murder.

While it is a little strange to hear the characters hone in so quickly on the question of the headwear as if it was the only significant oddity in a case that possesses several, I did find the questions of how and why the hat had disappeared to be intriguing. To my disappointment the answers, particularly with regards to how the hat was removed, proved far less interesting than the scenario seemed to promise.

Part of the problem is the way the authors walk us through nearly every step of the investigation, listing off the various places considered and examined along the way. These sections of the book feel exhausting and offer little interest or sense of discovery, slowing the novel down considerably.

When not considering the question of the hat, Richard and Ellery Queen spend considerable periods interviewing the various witnesses. Although ‘witnesses’ may be a little inaccurate, given that no one seems to have seen anything take place. These sections were a little more enjoyable for me, though once again the pacing is slow and the conversations are at times a little repetitive.

The two detectives are not particularly striking in terms of their personalities, though I did appreciate their father and son dynamic and enjoyed their warm sense of affection for one another. Both characters seem to be primarily characterized by their indulgences – Ellery for rare books and Richard for taking snuff – rather than their emotions or and peculiarities in their personalities. Both are quite normal, though Richard was for me easily the more sympathetic character.

Before I go on to sum up my overall feelings about the book, I do want to directly address two points I have seen made in other reviews of this novel. Firstly, that the novel does not play fair with the reader and, secondly, the story advances some outdated racial views.

Let me tackle the second point first. The Roman Hat Mystery certainly does have moments that feature or hint at outdated racial ideas. When one of those ideas is mentioned in the plot it is clear that we are not meant to be sharing in or celebrating those views. Modern readers may struggle with these aspects of the novel.

The issue of whether the novel plays fair is much harder to judge. Certainly I can understand some readers feeling frustrated that there was some information given near the end of the novel that was not clearly provided prior to the Challenge to the Reader. I do not believe that any information is imparted after that Challenge that we need to figure out what happened in general terms and while it is a little frustrating in a puzzle mystery to have some developments not shared with the reader, I did not feel cheated by that.

Overall, I found the novel to be quite uneven and poorly paced with lengthy blocks of dialogue and a dull array of suspects. While there are some strong and entertaining parts of the story, I did feel that all-in-all this was a miss for me. Still, I liked the concept of the story and I still plan on digging through the Ellery Queen novels in order.

On the back of this however I think it may be wise to spread them out a little.