Did Queen the author tire of Queen the detective and come to despise him, much as Arthur Conan Doyle became wearily contemptuous of Sherlock Holmes? True, Frederic Dannay and Manfred Lee (the men behind the Queen pseudonym) never tried to do away with Ellery—unlike Doyle, who took the drastic, albeit reversible, step of killing his brainchild in print. But in several novels from late in their career, including this one, they subjected their sleuth to a fate arguably worse than death: They made him dangerously incompetent. In this outing, seven dead bodies pile up before Ellery, who narrowly misses becoming the eighth, sees the light and nabs the killer. Until then, he stumbles in the dark, unable to comprehend why anyone would commit murder to the tune of an old nursery rhyme, the one that goes (in the American version used here) “Rich Man, Poor Man, Beggar Man, Thief.” In answer to that question, Queen the author devises a plot of surpassing and largely satisfying complexity. All the same, he (or “he”) forgets that most detective novel readers are looking for more than a puzzle that they can’t hope to solve. In addition, they want to follow the exploits of a sleuth who can solve it.
[ADDENDUM: Several of my recent posts, including this one, stem from an effort to dredge up old notes on books that I read a decade or more ago. Although I’ve spruced up these notes somewhat, they stand as remnants from a time when approached reviewing detective fiction—and, indeed, reading detective fiction—differently from how I do now. For one thing, these older reviews are shorter. I drafted them before I created Only Detect and before I aspired to do more than jot down a brief “note to self.” For another thing, they reflect a single-minded focus on how an author sets and solves a puzzle. Today, I admire a fine corkscrew plot as much as ever, but I’m also inclined to celebrate other attributes that cause a detective novel to succeed or fail.]