Broadway is in its heyday, and the cultural power of the gangster figure has reached a high point as well. So naturally, when the Roman Theatre on West 47th Street puts on a shoot-’em-up potboiler called “Gunplay,” the play draws a full house night after night. One evening, just before Act II, a cry goes out from the audience, and a new spectacle greets theatergoers after the house lights go up: A man lies dead in his seat, the victim not of gunplay but of poison. The corpse belongs to Monte Field, a crooked lawyer who had a lucrative sideline as an extortionist. He was wearing formal evening attire, but his tophat has gone missing. In one of his pockets, meanwhile, is a flask filled with bootleg liquor. Did someone spike that booze with the toxin that stopped his cold blackmailer’s heart?
Those are just two of the clues that Inspector Richard Queen and his son, Ellery, must puzzle out as another drama unfolds—the drama of detection. This case takes place at a moment when the Golden Age detective story, too, is at the crest of its popularity, and all of the appurtenances of that form are here, including a diagram of the crime scene and a climactic “Challenge to the Reader,” in which the author announces that he has now presented every fact that one might need to solve the mystery.
Improvising like Jazz Age musicians, the Queens explore clue upon clue, and one possible solution after another—theme and variation, theme and variation—until every element of the crime falls into place. That sense of play lends a remarkable freshness to this period piece. Far less fresh is the motive behind the killing of Monte Field, a motive that reflects the musty prejudices of a distant time. Another curiosity of this first Ellery Queen novel is that Ellery occupies a secondary role from start to finish. When his father takes center-stage during the classic summing-up scene, Ellery’s absence seems no less remarkable than the victim’s absent headgear.