As a straight-up intellectual puzzler, this sophomore effort by Queen is highly satisfying. Start with the discovery of the body, which occurs in front of a crowd of passers-by who have stopped to view an exhibition of modern furniture in a display window at French’s, a Fifth Avenue department store. A demonstrator presses a button to open an automated bed, and out topples the corpse of Winifred French, wife of the store’s owner. Why, asks Ellery Queen, the foppish but brilliant son of Inspector Richard Queen, would a murderer leave his or her victim in such unlikely place? Proceed now to the investigation that follows, an elaborate sequence of crime reconstruction, alibi deconstruction, and over-the-top theory construction in which Ellery talks and talks, and then thinks, and then twirls his pince-nez, and then talks some more. The talking and the pince-nez twirling date the novel badly, and will annoy many readers today, yet behind all of the stagy chatter is a driving sense of logical momentum that feels fresh and energetic. Lastly, join Ellery for a gather-everyone-together scene in which he lays out (literally) a broad array of vintage clues—from monogrammed keys and lipstick cases to playing cards and custom-made cigarettes, from a missing razor blade to a pair of onyx bookends—and stacks them (figuratively) into a perfect edifice of reason. All the same, while Queen (the author) orchestrates physical and circumstantial data with a masterly hand, he is laughably maladroit in his treatment of human material. He pulls off a neat trick by withholding the culprit’s name until the final two words of the book, but he never gets around to making readers care about why Mrs. French lived or died.
[ADDENDUM: Despite the negative note on which I ended this review, The French Powder Mystery occupies a warm spot in my critical heart. It’s the first Queen novel that I read, and perhaps the first classic detective novel not written by Agatha Christie that I encountered. And it blew my tender teenage mind. (To be sure, my young mind was nimble and capacious enough to get blown several times during my initial explorations of the genre.) The very contrivances that I now frown upon or smile at—the pasteboard characters, the arch theatricality of the crime scene, the obsessive dissection of a few physical clues, the gimmick ending—were crucial in enlarging my perspective on what a mystery tale could be.]