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Category Archives: Puzzle

QUENTIN PATRICK. The Grindle Nightmare (1935).

This book nearly defies categorization, and for many readers it will defy all possibility of enjoyment. Is it a mystery yarn set in a rural village? Is it a clue-filled puzzle that revolves around a complex array of alibis? Is it a work of social realism that provides a gimlet-eyed view of Depression-era class relations? Is it a horror tale that traffics in images of inhuman (or, perhaps, all too human) depravity? It’s all of these things, and yet it’s not quite any one of them. What stands out amid the many threads that Patrick weaves into this unholy tapestry is a striking pattern of violence, sadism, and misanthropy. Consider a few threads in particular: the practice of vivisection for medical research, multiple instances of outright cruelty to animals, a killer with a penchant for dragging victims (in at least one case, while they’re still alive) at the rear of a car, discussions of human congenital deficiency that echo then-still-popular eugenic theories, a rendition of rural society that seems borrowed from the bleakest naturalistic tract by Emile Zola or Theodore Dreiser, and depictions of sexual dysfunction that come straight out of a treatise by Krafft-Ebing. GrindleNightmare.jpg In sum, this fifth published effort by the Patrick-Quentin-Stagge consortium may be the least cozy novel produced by an author of otherwise mainstream detective fiction in the first half of the 20th century. (According to Curt Evans, a redoubtable authority on this “author,” Grindle issued from the pen of Richard Wilson Webb, with an assist from Mary Louise Aswell.) The slick, urbane style that the author applied to all of “his” work is very much on display, and Patrick even includes a telling reference to Agatha Christie. But the setting and mood of the tale owe far more to the likes of H.P. Lovecraft than to the creator of St. Mary Mead.

The village of Grindle, located in an unspecified part of New England, exists both as a tiny world unto itself and as an embodiment of the grand tradition in which authors like Lovecraft—along with precursors like Nathanael Hawthorne—envision a lush New World venue as a site of battle against ancient forces of evil. The novel’s opening scene provides an ominous glimpse of the land and people of Grindle: “There were little knots of villagers at every corner; in the woods we could hear the barking of dogs and there was an occasional gleam from a flashlight. … [Later] I could still hear shouts ringing across the valley. There was a restless, hopeless quality about them which gave me the impression that our neighbors had gone out to look for something which they knew they would not find—something of which they completely despaired.” The writer of those lines is Dr. Douglas Swanson, a young medical researcher who narrates the tale. He and another doctor, Antonio Conti, share a house in Grindle, and they commute to their laboratory at Rhodes University, which lies about 20 miles away. Although Swanson and Conti serve as emissaries from the realm of scientific modernity, their use of dead animals for research purposes adds a morbid note that resonates through the novel both practically and thematically.

As it turns out, the villagers in the introductory scene were searching for Polly Baines, a girl from a poor farm family. She and her cat have disappeared, and the prospects for finding them alive look none too good. Not long afterward, the slain corpse of Polly’s father is discovered in a pond; he had been left there to drown, with his hands manacled in a pair of animal traps. Aside from the down-on-their-luck Baineses, the key figures in this drama represent the affluent (or at least shabby-genteel) stratum of local society. At the center of that society is Seymour Alstone, a mining magnate who exerts tyrannical control over the village in general and over his feckless son, Franklin, and his mild-mannered grandson, Gerald, in particular. Other figures include a medical student named Peter Foote; the Goschens, a family of hearty sporting types; Colonel Edgar Tailford-Jones and his adulterous wife, Roberta; and Valerie Middleton, a young woman whose father committed suicide back in 1929, after undergoing a financial setback for which old man Alstone was partly responsible. GrindleMap.jpg Around these characters, Patrick builds a dense plot that encompasses a nocturnal assignation on an abandoned road, a ghostly face that looms in a window and disrupts a dinner party, an act of arson that destroys a barn and almost immolates the horses inside it, bloodstains on the wooden planks of a covered bridge, a snowstorm that hides crucial evidence, and much else.

Somehow the whole thing works. Once the novel enters its final phase, a satisfying work of classic detection comes miraculously into view. For those not entirely put off by the carnival of madness and mayhem that unfolds in the first three-quarters of the tale, the last fourth of the book presents a bravura chamber piece in which confusion and chaos give way to enlightenment and order. While the clock ticks toward an hour of reckoning—Deputy Bracegirdle, the local lawman, plans to make a decisive arrest—Patrick engineers several feats of canny misdirection and several moments of startling revelation. (Until the very end, a sense of mystery hangs over a pair of fundamental quandaries: Who counts as a suspect, and who qualifies as a detective?) Then, in one fell swoop, the pall over Grindle lifts. The truth, when it arrives in full, has the cleansing power of a bright dawn that follows a grotesquely long night. Even in the grim vale that Grindle residents call home, scattered rays of reason and sanity and even love shine through.

 
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Posted by on May 8, 2019 in American, Golden Age, Novel, Puzzle

 

DEREK SMITH. Whistle Up the Devil (1953).

In the setup of this double-barreled locked-room mystery, Smith offers a scenario that wins no points for originality. Everything about the tale’s two murders, and about the investigation of both crimes, might well have come from a book written in 1923 or 1933. Oft-used tropes pile up fast: A brilliant amateur detective named Algy Lawrence is summoned to Querrin House, near the village of Bristley, to prevent some elusive agent—a ghost, or maybe the devil—from killing Roger Querrin, the master of that domain. A supposed curse, traceable to a querulous ancestor, hangs over a particular room at the house, and Querrin plans to tempt fate by ensconcing himself there one night. Inside the room, a dagger hangs over a fireplace mantel. (Paging Dr. Chekov!)

True to form, the room and its immediate surroundings appear to be purpose-built for hosting an impossible crime problem: Its only points of entry are a single door with a newly keyed lock and a set of French windows that can be firmly bolted from inside. Surrounding the room and a passage that leads to it are beds of fresh soil that would show the footprints of any intruder. On the appointed evening, Lawrence and Peter Querrin, Roger’s brother, stand watch at the entrance to the passage. Sergeant Hardinge, from the local constabulary, watches from outside and has a full view of the French windows. Around midnight, a cry rings out, and Lawrence rushes toward the room and uses his gun to shoot open the door. Inside, he and his fellow watchmen find that Roger Querrin has died from a knife wound.

WhistleUpDevil.jpg Just as Lawrence begins to make sense of that killing, a second murder occurs in circumstances that seem to defy explanation. Simon Turner, an old family retainer who nurses a grudge against the Querrins, was caught prowling around the house and has been cooling his heels at the police station in Bristley. Somehow an agent of death manages to strangle him, even though all routes to his cell were under guard during the period when the killing could have taken place.

The solutions that Lawrence offers for these howdunit puzzles aren’t exactly elegant, but they are the best thing about the book. Both of them are plausible (or as plausible as such solutions can be), fairly clued, and wondrously intricate. The whodunit element is impressive, too, and it unfolds as a remarkably elaborate feat of misdirection. (The sequence in which Lawrence adduces answers to both the “who” and the “how” conundrums takes up roughly one-fifth of the novel.) Smith, who explicitly avows his debt to John Dickson Carr, delivers a plot that stands a cut or two above the average Carr tale in this vein. His handling of certain basics of storytelling, however, falls well below the Carr standard. He peoples his stock situations with stock characters who communicate mainly by exchanging stock phrases. The women of the piece, moreover, fall short of being even one-dimensional. They exist mainly to serve Smith’s own prurient interests, and his treatment of them dates the novel badly.

Near the end of Whistle Up the Devil, one ray of original insight glimmers in the dark-paneled library where Lawrence delivers his summation of the case. Smith, via Lawrence, posits the crime-solving equivalent of Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle: Merely by acting as an observer, an investigator may affect—with dire consequences—the outcome of what he is observing. When Lawrence agreed to stand watch outside the room in which Roger Querrin would ultimately die, he assumed that he could maintain his status as an aloof outsider. In fact, as Lawrence ruefully notes, he became complicit in the violent deed that he aimed to forestall. A sense of the tragic therefore sets this tale apart from most prewar novels of its type. Despite its generally frothy tone, the book at that brief moment echoes other works (certain Ellery Queen titles from the same era come to mind) that reflect a mood of postwar atomic dread.

 
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Posted by on April 24, 2019 in British, Novel, Puzzle

 

LANGE LEWIS. Murder Among Friends (1942).

By common agreement, the Golden Age of detective fiction ended when the 1940s began. From 1920 to 1939, according to this formulation, tales about feats of detection came into their own as a variety of literature with broadly shared standards of quality and with a recognized pantheon of outstanding practitioners. Arguably, however, it was in the following decade—the decade that began when the era of interwar peace ended—that the detective novel reached is pinnacle of achievement. In the early 1940s, first-time contributors and established figures in the genre started issuing minor and major masterpieces on a scale that resembled the rate of production in the munitions factories that were then kicking into high gear. For these writers, the distinction between art and entertainment, between serious fiction and playful mystification, practically disappears. Drawing on all of the resources provided by a maturing genre, they stand out for their ability to embed fair-play murder puzzles within richly conceived stories about people who lead socially realistic, emotionally complex lives. In many instances, they sound romantic or satiric themes that derive from the traditions of comedy. MurderAmongFriends.jpg But just as frequently (in novels such as Calamity Town, by Ellery Queen; Green for Danger, by Christiana Brand; and Five Little Pigs, by Agatha Christie), they strike a note of tragedy that resonates even after the typical reader forgets the clever solution that they have engineered.

For a prime example of this trend, one could hardly do better than to cite the work at hand. Murder Among Friends, the inaugural entry in a four-book series about Lieutenant Richard Tuck of the Los Angeles Police Department, is a classic of humane, literate detection. The friends in question are students, researchers, and employees at an unnamed medical school. (Stray references to the surrounding topography indicate that this institution is part of the University of Southern California.) Shortly before the action of the novel begins, a secretary named Garnet Dillon leaves her job at the school suddenly and without explanation. The young woman who takes her place, Kate Farr, serves as the novel’s co-equal protagonist—a point-of-view figure whose story runs parallel with that of Tuck’s investigation. On her first day as the new secretary, Kate witnesses the discovery of Garnet’s corpse in the school’s anatomy lab. An autopsy establishes poisoning by ingestion of digitalis as the cause of death, and the testimony of Garnet’s boss effectively rules out the possibility of suicide. But if it’s a case of murder, who had the wherewithal to administer a fatal dose? That question leads Tuck to focus his inquiry on the eponymous circle of friends, several of whom are young men who harbored (or may have harbored) amorous feelings for the victim.

With a light but certain touch, Lewis portrays the workings of the detective mind in its full glory. Tuck isn’t the most colorful sleuth—his main identifying trait is his extreme height—but he navigates his way through a thicket of clues and complications with easy-going intelligence. Step by step, he examines every viable permutation of means, motive, and opportunity. Lewis smoothly interweaves scenes that feature Tuck with scenes that revolve around the clutch of friends who, in the wake of Garnet’s murder, continue their struggle to build careers and lives. In witty, perfectly modulated prose, she fashions an immediately believable world around these characters and confers a sense of gravity on the murder case that looms over them. The global war that the United States had just entered when these events take place receives a single glancing mention. But the denouement alludes to the kind of life-and-death actions that the war will soon compel young people like Kate and her cohorts to make on a regular basis.

 
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Posted by on April 10, 2019 in American, Novel, Puzzle

 

EDMUND CRISPIN. The Case of the Gilded Fly (1944).

The “gather all of the suspects” scene that closes out many a classic detective novel holds enduring appeal, despite its repeated use. Just as appealing, albeit less common, is the opening scene in which all of the suspects gather in preparation for the violent and puzzling events to come. Crispin executes the latter effect beautifully in this novel, which introduces the reading public to Professor Gervase Fen, Professor of English Language and Literature at Oxford University. A slew of characters, traveling singly or in pairs, arrive by train in the ancient university town and bring with them an array of worries, resentments, secrets, and desires. Along with Fen, they include the chief constable of Oxford; the young journalist Nigel Blake, who serves as a sidekick to Fen (and whose name and role echo the Nigel Bathgate figure who appears in many of Ngaio Marsh’s novels about Inspector Roderick Alleyn); and group of people associated with the Oxford Repertory Theater, which will soon put on a new play titled Metromania. In a series of vignettes, Crispin profiles each character evocatively and expeditiously, and along the way he plants clear indications that every member of the theater circle has a motive to kill a particular colleague: Yseut Haskell, a self-involved actress who flaunts her sexuality offstage with greater energy than she applies to her work onstage.

The narrative stage is set (as it were) for crime. Sure enough, a couple of days after rehearsals for the play begin, Yseut takes a bullet to her forehead while she prowls around a room at St. Christopher’s College, the fictitious Oxford institution that Fen calls home. The room isn’t sealed, but the murder bears the marks of seeming impossibility. During the critical period before and after a shot had rang out from the room, a workman saw no one enter or leave the stairwell that leads to the crime scene. GildedFly.jpg Fen, whose room at the college happens to be directly above that location, was hosting a party there, and almost immediately upon hearing the shot, he and Blake swooped downstairs to discover the slain woman. In her hand was a gun that she had ostensibly used on herself. Surely there was no time for a killer to quit the scene, let alone commit any trickery with the body. So impossible does the murder scenario appear to be that the police cling to a theory of suicide. But Fen never doubts that an unseen hand fired the deadly shot.

The mood of this début work is by turns dark and breezy. Fen allows two other murders to occur before he sees fit to divulge what he knows about the killer and the initial killing. In the meantime, he deliberates at length over whether he should let the murderer remain unrevealed and unpunished. Like many other brilliant amateur sleuths of his era, he harbors a cavalier attitude toward the sanctity of life and the rule of law. In his philosophy of detection, apparently, some deeds are worse than homicide and some values are loftier than truth. Even so, the dominant mode of the narrative is comic. Crispin writes in a jaunty tone, and midway through the book he presents an interlude that evokes the power of love to triumph over death. Reprising the technique used in his opening chapter, he offers glimpses into the private musings of each suspect. But this time, in a nod to the tradition of Shakespearean comedy, he sorts his characters into romantic pairings.

As a puzzle plotter, Crispin displays notable talent here. His solution to the murder of Yseut has just enough cleverness and just enough plausibility to satisfy an impossible-crime enthusiast, and he ably points the vector of suspicion in multiple directions. Still, the mechanics of the plot break down in ways that one might expect in an apprentice piece: Fen stays mum about a couple of pivotal clues—that is, until he discloses them in his summing-up comments. In addition, the motive for the original murder is contrived and hidden from view, and Crispin handles it in a cursory fashion. The puzzle as a whole, meanwhile, borders on being too complex. Most readers, to keep their bearings, will need the diagram and the timetable that the author helpfully provides.

Crispin, as Anthony Boucher observed in his brief notice on the novel, blends the styles and storytelling methods of John Dickson Carr and Michael Innes. From Carr, he takes a flair for bold trick plotting and a preference for bold, feisty characters. From Innes, he takes a knack for over-the-top erudition and a familiarity with arty and academic settings. From both of these precursors, he derives a Chestertonian sensibility that treats the detective novel as more akin to an Arabian Nights tale than to a police report. In that spirit, he peppers this tale with in-jokes. The Nigel Blake character alludes not only to Marsh’s work but also to another precursor with a highbrow pedigree—the poet Cecil Day Lewis, who wrote novels about the detective Nigel Strangeways under the name Nicholas Blake. And Fen at one point signals that he resides in the same fictional universe as one of Carr’s heroes. (“Heaven grant Gideon Fell never becomes privy to my lunacy,” he says.)

Written toward the end of the Second World War, The Case of the Gilded Fly takes place in October 1940, when the Battle of Britain was still raging in the skies over the English Channel. Yet, although nightly blackout procedures factor somewhat importantly in the events that surround the death of Yseut Haskell, the titanic struggle for national survival registers as little more than a sideshow. The Oxford setting hovers on a practically timeless plane, and from start to finish Crispin stays true to the escapist promise of the detective genre. While the plot of the novel is decidely complex, its underlying message is simple: There will always be an England. And there will always be murder.

 
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Posted by on February 28, 2019 in British, Novel, Puzzle

 

RAYMOND CHANDLER. The Lady in the Lake (1943).

The search for a perfume executive’s missing wife takes Philip Marlowe away from his normal stomping ground in either seedy Hollywood or corrupt Bay City (Chandler’s stand-in for the corrupt Santa Monica of his time). The change of scene, though only temporary, does him good. As his Chrysler ascends the mountain roads that lead him north of Los Angeles and toward the lake cabin where the missing women was last seen, Marlowe feels his spirit lift as well. At one point, he stops at a rundown outpost and says, “It felt like paradise.” LadyLake.jpg This moment of unaccustomed exuberance doesn’t last: At the lake, he happens upon a dead body, and that discovery leads him inexorably back to the big, bad city. But the literally breath-taking effect of his alpine idyll lingers. Despite its improbable, cantilevered plot, the story seems subdued—relaxed, even. Similes and other narrative contrivances fly with less abandon here than in previous Marlowe tales, and both the detective and his creator display a greater-than-usual mastery of situation as they move from one burnt-out soul to another, and from one violent encounter to the next. A well-done puzzle and a sprinkling of references to the world war that is unfolding in the background heighten the book’s appeal.

[ADDENDUM: Jacques Barzun and Wendell Hertig Taylor identified this work as “Chandler’s masterpiece” and selected it for their “Fifty Classics of Crime 1900–1950series. They also labeled it an instance of “true detection” and argued that “Marlowe makes a greater use of physical clues and ratiocination in this exploit than in any other.” That lofty assessment aligns with my memory of The Lady in the Lake. (It’s a somewhat dim memory, to be sure: I read the book and jotted this brief review several years ago.) So I was intrigued to note that one Chandler enthusiast—Stephen Mertz, writing in The Mystery Fancier back in 1979—panned the novel in fairly blunt terms. “[F]or the most part the verve and spark of Chandler’s best work are sadly lacking,” Mertz wrote. He added: “The plotting, never Chandler’s strong point, is slipshod. … The solution itself makes not an iota of sense, raising far more questions than it answers.”

Perhaps these clashing views are not, ultimately, in contradiction. What Mertz disliked about the tale seems to match what Barzun and Taylor liked about it—namely, its use of structural elements that depart from the standard approach to plotting hardboiled private-eye stories. Michael Grost notes that The Lady in the Lake, “find[s] Chandler in Golden Age, puzzle plot territory, unraveling an intricately conceived, ingenious crime” that recalls the criminal schemes found in the work of Freeman Wills Crofts. (In his landmark essayThe Simple Art of Murder,Chandler called Crofts “the soundest builder of them all when he doesn’t get too fancy.”) Grost, after criticizing the way that Chandler managed the book’s puzzle plot, suggests that the author “showed a good deal of entertaining ingenuity in the attempt” and praises him for “working a vein different from much of his regular style.”]

 
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Posted by on January 31, 2019 in American, Hard-Boiled, Novel, Puzzle

 

JOHN DICKSON CARR. Hag’s Nook (1933).

Echoes from The Hound of the Baskervilles resound throughout the early part of this early work in the Carr canon. A gruesome curse attaches to an ancient fortune, and both the curse and the fortune are inextricably tied to a moody patch of not-so-merry Old England. In Hound, it’s a mythical fog-shrouded expanse known as the Grimpen Mire, located in the Dartmoor region of Devonshire. In this tale, it’s a death-haunted slab of earth called the Hag’s Nook, located in the Fens region of Lincolnshire. A prison figures atmospherically and practically in the events that occur in both of those precincts. Each novel opens with the arrival of a young male heir who has been living in North America—Henry Baskerville comes from Canada, Martin Starberth comes from the United States—and his transatlantic origin highlights a contrast between the bright vistas of the New World and the dark legacies of the Old World. To claim his patrimony, each heir must reckon with an obligation that derives from the misdeeds of a twisted ancestor. Looming over each novel, moreover, is the specter of a recent unexplained death: The uncle of Henry Baskerville and the father of Martin Starberth had both expired in circumstances that appeared to arise in some way from those ancestral misdeeds. HagsNook.jpg Only the intervention of a genius sleuth, as it turns out, can dispel the cruel force that binds the innocent young to a heritage of villainy. Sherlock Holmes, of course, takes on the problem that hounds the Baskervilles, whereas the Starberth clan relies on the services of Dr. Gideon Fell.

It’s fitting that Carr, who later wrote one of the first major biographies of Arthur Conan Doyle, chose to borrow from the work of that illustrious predecessor when he mustered the ingredients of this début outing for Fell. All in all, the case makes for a worthy introduction to the great doctor and his world. Fell emerges in fully realized form, complete with his box cape and his slouch hat and the two canes that he uses to maneuver his vast bulk to and from the crime scene. On hand to assist him and to admire him is Tad Rampole, one of the juvenile-lead types who populate novels from the first phase of Carr’s career. Any difference between Rampole and (say) Jeff Marle, who accompanies Henri Bencolin on his adventures, is negligible. Like Carr himself during this period, these characters are impressionable Americans in Europe—innocents abroad who stand ready to witness events that will strike awe in their tender hearts.

Fell has invited Rampole to visit him at his cottage, which happens to be in Starberth country, and the main action in the piece begins on the night of the young man’s arrival. Late that evening, Martin Starberth must undertake an hour-long vigil in a rat- and ghost-infested chamber inside Chatterham Prison, a now-empty pile that rises above the Hag’s Nook. This obligation comes down from Anthony Starberth, the first governor of the prison and the first of several Starberth men to die mysteriously in the vicinity of that chamber. Fell and Rampole observe the vigil from the Fell residence, and when a light from the chamber flickers out at an untimely moment, they rush to the prison and discover that Martin has met with a violent end. Fell, seeing through the supernatural aura that hovers over the scene, determines that a human agent caused the heir’s death. Although suspects are thin on the marshy ground that surrounds the Hag’s Nook, there is plenty of investigative fodder to keep Fell and Rampole and the local police busy.

In a gripping discussion of the clue-rich site where Martin spent his last hour of life, Fell interjects a bit of literary criticism that signals the nature and scope of Carr’s ambition. The Gothic romance, with its panoply of carefully laid death traps and other grotesque improbabilities, lags “far behind the detective stories,” Fell contends. Tales of detection, he says, “may reach an improbable conclusion, but they get there on the strength of good, sound, improbable evidence that’s in plain sight.” Measured by that standard, this book succeeds: All of the clues that Fell cites to explain how he spotted the murderer and how he dissected the intricacies of the murder scheme are visible—albeit not always plainly so—within the text of the narrative. At the same time, Carr’s commitment to the fair-play ethos entails no sacrifice of his ability to deliver thrills and chills on a Gothic scale.

Carr falters somewhat in how he handles the solution and the revelation thereof. A long and occasionally jumbled denouement takes up the final one-fifth of what is otherwise an impressively crisp tale, and although the pattern of misdirection that hides the killer’s identity is clever enough, it lacks the spare elegance that distinguishes the author’s best work. GideonFell.jpg The book, moreover, closes with an extended written confession by the culprit that has the lamentable effect of stealing Fell’s thunder. (Even so, the confession stands out for the artful way that it reveals the mind of a deeply repellent figure. Carr was hardly known as a master of subtle characterization or psychological insight, but here he shows off his talents in that vein.)

Despite that flaw, which is eminently fixable, Hag’s Nook would have served as the basis of a splendid film during the 1930s heyday of silver-screen gothic horror, or indeed at any time. More so than most authors from the Golden Age of detection, Carr penned works that brim with screenplay-ready elements, and those elements are on display here—from the eerie and visually captivating location to the tight circle of easy-to-cast characters (imagine Charles Laughton in the role of Gideon Fell) to the sharp dialogue and the cliffhanger scene endings that move the plot swiftly along. Why have there been no film versions of Fell’s (or Sir Henry Merrivale’s) exploits? To be sure, there are a handful of movies (including The Man With a Cloak and Dangerous Crossing) based on tales from the periphery of Carr’s large corpus. But the absence of any cinematic or televisual treatment of his core work remains not just a mystery but also a crime.

 
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Posted by on January 24, 2019 in British, Golden Age, Novel, Puzzle

 

ELLERY QUEEN. The French Powder Mystery (1930).

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. FrenchPowder.jpg 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.]

 
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Posted by on January 2, 2019 in American, Golden Age, Puzzle