At one level, this little masterpiece resembles a padded-out short story. Its central problem is highly contrived and very simple: Judah Bendigo, under guard and sealed in a locked room, shoots a gun that is empty of bullets, and at that precise moment his brother Kane suffers a gunshot wound in a completely separate locked and guarded room. Ballistic tests show that the bullet that struck Kane came from the gun found in Judah’s room. Other characters are few, and clues are fewer still. The solution to this tidy puzzle, once the master sleuth Ellery Queen arrives at it, proves to be lean and elegant.
Yet, at another level, the tale isn’t padded out. It’s intriguingly rounded out—rounded out with big characters and big themes. Kane Bendigo, a munitions magnate of enormous power and wealth, combines the spiritual corruption of Joseph Conrad’s Kurtz (he has retreated to an uncharted island in the Atlantic, and that island has become a dystopia of his own making); the capitalist megalomania of his modern namesake, Charles Foster Kane (from the film Citizen Kane); and the tragic aura of his Biblical namesake, Adam’s son Cain. Judah Bendigo, meanwhile, figures both as an agent of vengeance on a Biblical scale and as the embodiment of liberal humanism in its mid-century fight against fascism. Lurking in the background, moreover, are obscure family dynamics that yield not only to Freudian insight, but also to some hard-nosed detective work on Ellery’s part.
Queen the author balances and blends all of this material with uneven skill. His use of mythic elements, particularly the island setting, creates a mood of fantasy that sometimes works and sometimes doesn’t. Still, the entire effort shows just how far the classic mystery genre can stretch.