Thursday, May 17, 2012

The Tragedy of Y

York Hatter had been missing for some time and is eventually found after apparently having jumped from a ferry and poisoning himself before that to commit suicide. Afterwards follow two attempts to poison his deaf, blind and mute step-daughter Louisa Campion. In the second case, her mother Emily Hatter, who is sleeping in the same room, is knocked down with York's old mandolin and dies from shock. The rest of the case isn't any less abnormal than the Hatter family itself and to make sense of the happenings, Inspector Thumm needs the help of Drury Lane.

While this novel seems to be among the Top 5 Queens of Japanese readers (along with X, Dutch, Greek and Egyptian), western readers seem to be rather discordant. The reason for that might be the setting and its characters. I have to admit the bizarre setting of an overall mad family that apparently suffers from a certain STD (terms like "infection" or even "invidious germ" clearly indicate syphilis at that time) and a police force and detective larger than life might not be everyone's piece of cake, but personally I can live with the latter since the novel is a kind of grotesque parody of the genre anyway and the Hatter family is also depicted in very rich prose. The poetess Barbara, choleric waster Conrad or the unreserved hedonist Jill are certain to bring the Hatter mansion to life and keep the dialogues moving and "deaf-blind-and-dumb" Louisa, like the twins in The Siamese Twin Mystery, is among Queen's more unique portrayals. Louisa actually plays a larger role having witnessed her mother's death but only being able to smell and touch and therefore makes for untypical clues and trails. This might also irritate some readers, but I found it rather engaging in turn.

I don't know how much this book actually borrowed from Van Dine's The Greene Murder Case since I still have to read that one, but the outline appears to be essentially the same (rich but unhealthy family, absent father, dominant mother etc.). However this is nothing unusual as one of the genre's most prominent factors is exactly this kind of borrowing or referencing and adjusting of content preceding authors invented and especially looking at neo-orthodox works I think this is not a bad thing at all and it entirely depends on what you make of it.

And the cousins' approach works out splendidly. They already excel in creating a fabulous mansion murder setting that makes you feel like you are actually in that house yourself talking to the characters and investigating with Lane and Thumm. But this is not even the best point of the novel. The developments and the seemingly irrational factors of the crimes actually make sense in the end in a mostly (at least nothing like the essential clue in Siamese) very logical way and Lane's lengthy explanations in the Behind The Scenes section pay off wonderfully. Concerning the degree of logic, some parts even rely on purely mathematical matters, but you don't have to be as elaborate in your deductions as Lane to pinpoint the murderer. The clues are actually staring right into your face but the whole case is so peculiar you might fail to notice them and there are several red herrings as well. Furthermore Lane remains silent about the solution until the very last scene/chapter of the book, even though he seems to have understood most aspects rather early in the plot, so the reader isn't always sure about why Lane acts in certain ways or sets off to investigate certain things at a particular time. Some readers seem to find this unrealistic, but I actually somehow understood his (re)actions near the end of the book after reading the solution. Would he help anyone by telling the police? Wasn't that pitiable family better off that way eventually...?

Highly recommended overall as long as you don't mind your classical detective fiction to be a little larger than life. The combination of bizarre setting and logical solution really make this one a classic and my second favorite Queen I've read so far, right next to The Greek Coffin Mystery. Next Queen would be Egyptian or the Adventure collections, but there isn't any time for any author or any new entries on this blog in the near future... (which is a rather arbitrary time specification, mind you)


  1. Really enjoyed this review - this has always ben my favourite of the Barnaby Ross books (and GREEK COFFIN is my other favourite of the early Queen books too). I am sure the debt to Van Dine is there but I also think it had a big influence on Agatha Christie and her book CROOKED HOUSE.

  2. Thanks for the comment and for the indirect recommendation (?) of a Christie novel I bought some time ago but still have to read ;)