Who killed Emily Hatter, matriarch of New York’s notorious “Mad Hatter” family, as she lay abed in her Washington Square mansion? That’s the big question before Inspector Thumm and District Attorney Bruno, and before Drury Lane, a legendary Shakespearean actor to whom those officials often turn for feats of genius criminology. But Lane and his humble associates devote most of their investigative time to a series of smaller questions: Why did the killer use a mandolin, of all things, to strike the old woman? What is the significance of the rotten pear in the fruit bowl on the victim’s bedside table, or of the spilled box of talcum powder on the floor next to her bed, or of the poison-filled syringe found in her tangled-up sheets? What does the placement of doors, closets, and other architectural features in and around the murder room reveal about the events that happened inside its four walls? (There’s a locked-room problem here for Lane to solve, and a carefully drawn plan of the Hatter living quarters that lets readers follow him in solving it.) How does an earlier attempt to poison Louisa, Emily’s deaf-dumb-and-blind daughter, relate to this most recent crime? Does the still-earlier apparent suicide of York Hatter, Emily’s henpecked consort, bear on her murder in some way?
Among the glories of a classic detective story are the many subsidiary mysteries that issue from its central “Who done it?” puzzle. In the right author’s hand (and few if any authors could handle such material as deftly as Queen did), those mysteries give rise to chain upon chain of deductive reasoning, and to an almost magical sense that behind brute physical facts and arcane circumstantial evidence lie dense patterns of esoteric meaning. No one writes novels in that vein anymore, possibly because readers no longer have much patience for sustained chatter about topics that are so ostensibly trivial. And that’s a shame: No other literary mode captures so well the drama—the choice to make Drury Lane a man of the stage was not at all arbitrary—that pure reason can generate.
In this case, reason generates something more (or perhaps something less) than an intellectually satisfying solution. For Lane’s ratiocination leads to a dark, disorienting conclusion that’s apt to shock readers today as deeply as it must have shocked the readers of 1932.
[ADDENDUM: The cousins Frederic Dannay and Manfred B. Lee, who used the pen name Ellery Queen to write stories about a detective who bore that same name, went through a period of such high productivity in the early 1930s that they created a second pen name, Barnaby Ross, to use for a quartet of novels about a second sleuth, Drury Lane. During that period, according to Queenian lore, Dannay and Lee staged a series of public appearances in which one cousin posed as Queen and the other as Ross. They went so far as to wear domino masks at those events, presumably to help retain the illusion of separate authorship. By about 1940, however, publicity had triumphed over secrecy: The identity of Barnaby Ross was exposed, and that name vanished from new releases of the four Drury Lane novels, its place usurped by the now-mighty Ellery Queen brand.]