Unintentionally, perhaps, Queen in this novel produces an almost perfect compendium of Queenian themes and tropes: a plot based on manipulation of one person by another, with the manipulated party functioning as a kind of human murder weapon; an Alice-in-Wonderland atmosphere, reinforced by a homicidal scheme that plays darkly upon the pattern of a nursery rhyme; a sequence of different solutions, each one working a new and increasingly complex variation on how to interpret a small set of clues; and a angst-ridden denouement in which Ellery (the star detective who shares a name with his pseudonymous creator) at last provides a complete resolution. Even the backdrop of this antic idyll—a stately Manhattan mansion, inhabited by an imperious matriarch and her more or less deranged dependents—comes borrowed from one of the author’s earlier classics (The Tragedy of Y).
Cornelia Potts, the mean old woman in this tale, lives in a Riverside Drive estate built with money from her vast shoe-making fortune. Six children by two husbands live under her roof, and she hardly knows what to do with them, especially after her eldest son, Thurlow, challenges younger son Robert to a duel. Ellery, on hand to oversee that dubious affair, manages to substitute blank cartridges for real ammunition in the dueling pistols. But when the two brothers stand back-to-back, walk twenty paces, turn, and fire, it is a live bullet that strikes Robert. Another substitution—but who perpetrated it? More deaths follow, one of them inspired by the old rhyme cited in the book’s title, and life at the Potts homestead gets curiouser and curiouser.
Flaws in storytelling mar the book somewhat. It’s dubious, for example, that a man of Ellery’s acumen would hand over a presumably blank-filled gun to a duelist without double-checking that no one had tampered with it. And the compendium-like nature of the story gives it a hodge-podge quality; at times, the whole thing borders on self-parody. All the same, for a mind-churning display of criminal obfuscation and bravura detection, this puzzler has few equals—within the body of Queen’s work or without.