Wednesday, February 29, 2012

The French Powder Mystery

French's Department Store on Fifth Avenue is the place for modern living and exhibits fancy furniture every day in a special show window at noon, which became an event on the street. One day when the demonstrator pushes a button to unfold a bed from the wall, a corpse slides from the sheets! Inspector Queen and his son Ellery arrive at the scene and eventually conclude that the murderer must be an employee or otherwise affiliated person of the store and so Ellery sets out to narrow down the only possible culprit.

A higly recommended classic both in terms of Queen-ish workmanship and orthodox detective fiction in general. The setting of a well-attended department store and the public display of the corpse certainly is different from the more or less typical country house mystery and I guess it was one of Queen's distinctive features in the GAD. I would have never thought this could work out for me so well. Again Ellery deduces a lot from rather inconspicious aspects and the plot logically unfolds at a steady pace.

Out of the Queens I'v read so far, this one is almost on par with The Greek Coffin Mystery in terms of complex plotting and logical deductions, but they differ significantly in one certain way: While Greek does feature a lot of deductions over the course of the novel with Ellery stating his thoughts throughout, it does so because there are multiple false solutions which are used to arrive at the only true version the crime was committed. In French however, Ellery simply states part of the deductions which lead to the definite solution at early stages of the novel.

While in contrast to others, who seem to think this makes the novel lose steam later on, I actually think it made the reading itself more entertaining, but I do have to admit that the Challenge To The Reader turned out a bit easier due to this. There are several points mentioned earlier in the novel that are only fully attended to during the denouement and these are exactly the clues you still have to think about and use for your own deductions or otherwise you won't get to the solution, even including all of Ellery's statements prior to the Challenge. It's a bit of a mixed bag, but I was fine with it and I don't really see why it should ruin the novel for anyone else either.

I also read about readers criticizing that the way Ellery narrowed the culprit down to the employees, business partners and family members was not totally logical in their view and whether there really could not be any other possible murderer. However I don't see why there should be a problem with Ellery's deduction even if the setting isn't a perfect closed circle, e.g. due to a natural phenomenon like typhoons, landslides or floodings. Nobody else could have the required knowledge and means to commit the crime that way and nobody else would have a reason to shove the corpse into that bed...

Next up: The Egyptian Cross Mystery or I will wait for The Dutch Shoe Mystery and read both chronologically. Or another novel by one of those Japanese Queen-fanboys... Several Arisugawas waiting to be read are staring at me, but I still don't own anything by Norizuki Rintarou expect his debut novel 密閉教室, which does not even feature his Queen-ish detective figure. And I'm beginning to run out of Maya Yutaka material...


  1. I absolutely loved French Powder and rank it among the better of the Nationality novels. It just had everything, the display of the body, the setting of a department store, even a healthy dose of Inspector Queen's daily problems. But the piece de resistance is of course seeing how Queen slowly builds a logical prison around the murderer.

    密閉教室 is OK, but really different from Norizuki's other works. I'm still sorta out of books, though かまいたちの夜2 should be on its way now. Granted, that isn't a book, but close enough.

  2. Yes, the logical prison is indeed the most awesome and distinct feature of these early orthodox novels. Even if that aspect is referenced elsewhere when reading about Queen's style, you can't comprehend the full meaning of it until you read the originals yourself.

    I feel like I have too many Japanese books by now... which might be why I suddenly focused on western classics, since you can't really go wrong with them when you are indecisive. I could catch up on some Carr as well, but then again I'm beginning to understand why you once said you seem to be unable to get all fanboyish with Carr's work like you are with Queen's ;) Might be a good occasion to check that out for me though.

  3. The French Powder Mystery formally introduced me to Ellery Queen and his associates, which gives this story, for me, a tinge of nostalgia.

    I agree with Ho-Ling that this is one of the better entries in their first period series, for much the same reasons, but also for the neat narrative gimmick that didn't reveal the killers name until the final sentence of the book. I'm not quite sure how original this gimmick was at the time, but it might very well have originated with this book.

    As the resident John Dickson Carr/Carter Dickson fan boy, I would like to know if I can be of any assistance when it comes to selecting one of his books or to brainwash, convert and initiate you into his cult. Hey, at least we're honest about it. ;)

    Someone who has read a lot of Japanese detective stories might be interested in what he has to offer in He Who Whispers, which involves vampirism and an seemingly impossible murder on top of a watched tower in French. However, you could also try one of the books from any of the other neglected masters of the genre who are now, sadly, forgotten.

    Who reads nowadays Theodore Roscoe's unremembered Murder on the Way, a bloody tour-de-force and an unapologetic flight of fancy, or John Sladek's ingenious Black Aura - in which impossible things happen at the house of spiritualistic medium. The clue for the levitation-murder is an absolute kicker and one of my favorites in the genre.

    But there's also Christianna Brand's Green for Danger (often cited as one of the best whodunits of the post-WWII era) and Death of Jezebel (a rare and complex locked room mystery), Pat McGerr's clever take on the inverted mystery and David Alexander tackling the Queenian Dying Message in Murder Points a Finger.

    So many great mysteries that deserve to be (re-)explored.

  4. So far I've read The Hollow Man, The Judas Window and He Who Whispers and in fact the latter is the one I've enjoyed most in terms of connecting an impossible crime and its trick with an interesting narrative. The Judas Window features one of (if not the) most satisfying locked room murder I've encountered so far, but I couldn't really enjoy the courtroom narrative. And all in all none of these novels could really turn me into a Carr-fan, while in the case of Queen I was hooked from the first experience onwards.

    I gathered these other Carr-novels so far:
    The Plague Court Murders, The White Priory Murders, She Died A Lady, Nine - And Death Makes Ten, The Reader Is Warned, He Wouldn't Kill Patience, The Crooked Hinge, Till Death Do Us Part, The Burning Court

    I know these include a lot of fan favorites and right now I can't decide between The Plague Court Murders and She Died A Lady. The latter seems to be liked for similar reasons as He Who Whispers, but the former seems to be what inspired Yokomizo Seishi to write novels himself and the setting of a seance was not only reused by him and Nikaidou Reito, but also Paul Halter, whom I still have to check out. So The Plague Court Murders might be a good choice, but the locked room trick itself seems to be rather disliked or at least it seems to be taken with a grain of salt by those who still like the novel anyway...

    I have Christianna Brand's Suddenly At His Residence, but her other impossible crime stories are rather hard to find for an affordable price. Same goes for John Sladek's Invisible Green which I wanted to read before Black Aura since it is higly praised by Japanese authors.

  5. Yes, the locked room gambit from The Judas Window is a very satisfying one, for the simple reason that it was just that, simple, and I enjoyed Merrivale playing up the role of barrister (addressing the jury with my dear fatheads), but the one snag in the plot is that the old man knew from beginning how the murderer penetrated the locked room – and still allowed his client to stand trial instead of telling his buddies at Scotland Yard what really happened.

    The Plague Court Murders is the book that turned me into one of his fans and balances, from chapter to chapter, between a mystery and a ghost story – and the excerpt referred to as the Plague-Journal can be considered as a ghost story within a detective novel (and have seen this portion of the book being compared to M.R. James). The problem in this book is a good one, concerning the stabbing of a fraudulent medium in a locked room, situated on the premise of a haunted house, with a murderer that is neatly tucked away from the reader (perhaps a bit too well hidden) but all the clues were there. It's up to the individual reader how acceptable they find the locked room trick.

    I guess you can throw the arguments in favor of He Who Whispers at She Died a Lady as well, because both books are much more maturer in tone and the characters are more well-rounded and believable than in many of the earlier ones (e.g. Fey Seton in He Who Whispers) – as well as unifying his own unique brand of detective fiction with a more serious and realistic touch to it. She Died a Lady wonderfully evokes that desolate feeling the brought with it and the underlying relationships that lead to a murder, but it also had the allurement of an impossible crime (of the no-footprints variety) and H.M. unpredictable behavior. This is, IMHO, one of the best entries in the series.

    Note that The Plague Court Murders and She Died a Lady shows-off JDC's talent to balance between sheer terror and sometimes complete farce, without reducing the impact of either! The latter has a wheelchair bound H.M.

    Yes, one or two of Christianna Brand's novels tend to be obscure, such as Death of Jezebel, but cheap editions of her other masterpiece, Green for Danger, are readily available on the secondhand book market and there's even an excellent movie adaptation – starring Alastair Sim as Inspector Cockrill. Suddenly At His Residence is one of her impossible crime novels, but the opinions on it are all over the place. Some hate it. Some love it. My opinion of the book is that it was OK, but not anywhere near as good as the novels previously mentioned here.

    I urge you to read Black Aura before tackling Invisible Green, because the latter, sad to say, nothing more than a shell of the latter – as nearly everything that made his first novel a masterpiece was missing in his second effort. The plot and characters were, in comparison more than just a few paces off, and the main protagonist, whose basically a Golden Age Detective fan boy, not even half as enjoying as he was on his first outing – when he would show the readers his daydreams of being a real-life Sherlock Holmes or Father Brown.

  6. And of course, I neglected to proofread and rewrite the post above, before eagerly hitting that publish button, and see what happens. Ugh. I suck. >__<

  7. No prob, the fact alone that you spend your time on these extensive comments more than makes up for it ;)

    I'm kind of tempted to read one of the few remaining novels of my favorite author Maya Yutaka as the 50th book babbled about here on my blog, but after that I'll definitely read Plague or Lady... unless The Dutch Shoe Mystery arrives until then.

    I just realized it has almost been a year since I read my last Carr novel and given the fact that I enjoyed reading the Queen novels so much, things might also turn out differently for my Carr experiences by now.

    1. Well, I wasn't immediately convinced of the brilliance that was John Dickson Carr, either, but only after sampling several of his novels. The Case of the Constant Suicides was the first one I knocked-off my to-be-read, but I was not yet blown away.

      This first foray into Carr's mad, mad, mad world was followed up with a handful of his books that ranged from mediocre (The Eight of Swords, The Problem of the Wire Cage and Dark of the Moon) to excellent (The Problem of the Green Capsule, She Died a Lady and The Judas Window), but He Who Whispers and The Hollow Man convinced me that he was more than just another GAD writer – and The Plague Court Murders finally converted me.

      So there's still hope to become a convert like me! ;)