Monday, July 16, 2012

The Adventures of Ellery Queen

As TomCat also mentions in his recent worshipping post, the more Carr you read the more you appreciate him and that's certainly what happened to me in the last months. I don't really prefer either him or Queen as an author anymore and I've gotten attuned to the duo of Merrivale and Masters, but as a detective figure I still enjoy Ellery a lot; in contrast to certain other readers it seems. Maybe I was primed by arrogant, eccentric detectives in Japanese novels already even without reading anything with Philo Vance in it. Anyway, I was kind of reluctant to pick up The Egyptian Cross Mystery due to the prevalent opinion it would have been more suitable for a short story frame, which is comparable to how I felt about The Dutch Shoe Mystery. So I decided to finally read the first of Queen's short story collections instead and here are my own two cents about the stories.

The collection starts off decently with The African Traveller in which Ellery and three students from his Applied Criminology course investigate a murder of a man in a hotel room, prompting them to spot and interpret the clues for themselves and tell him their solutions later. The structure is entertaining from the start and even though I didn't really like the way he discarded the other theories as the elimination process isn't much more logical than the other discarded theories, the solution was pretty satisfying overall.

Unfortunately, the following 3 or 4 stories were rather disappointing for me. The Hanging Acrobat feels rather silly as not only the solution is extremely obvious once a certain aspect becomes apparent, but the idea of the culprit is incredibly stupid thinking he could get away like that. It was a shame because I really anticipated something more rewarding from the question why someone should choose not to shoot, stab, gas or bludgeon his victim but hang her with an old rope, even though all the other weapons happened to be in that exact room. I've read something much more satisfying by Ayukawa Tetsuya, when Hoshikage Ryuuzou had to ask himself why the culprit chose to batter the victim to death with a sandal instead of using strangulation as a method with hanging ropes specifically designed for that purpose.

Maybe The One-Penny Black isn't a weak story after all, as the deductions were logical and all, but there wasn't anything surprising about it and in the end it was much ado about nothing with just a robbery of valuable items and without any murder. But this might just be my personal preferences speaking. The Bearded Lady features a dying message, but it's such a simple one it's boring even for a short story frame and again there's absolutely nothing surprising about the solution. What I liked was the role of the detective figure in the development of the case, as it can also be seen in a similar way in another story of this collection. The Three Lame Men was slightly better as you could at least appreciate the whole thing as something decent even if the explanation for the footprints of three lame men was rather obvious.

I was wondering why the cousins were acclaimed for their short stories by now, but fortunately The Invisible Lover was the first really rewarding story and I liked it even more than the first one. It's difficult to sum up the premise of these stories as most of them are only about 20 pages long. In this one, Ellery is asked to prove the innocence of someone whose weapon's bullet is found in the murdered victim's body in a boarding house. This was the first story with really logical deductions and an inevitable solution and encouraged me to finish this book.

The Teakwood Case is one of my favorites. It's a great multi-layered puzzler in the vein of The French Powder Mystery where Ellery deduces, learns more, delves deeper and nearer the core of the matter and finally arrives at the only possible solution, which was guessable but extremely satisfying in this case. The Two-Headed Dog again features a rather obvious solution but it's one of the most entertaining stories as it actually goes to the trouble of creating a gothic atmosphere despite the short frame it's told in.

The Glass-Domed Clock is another one of my favorites, even though for totally different reasons. It's not entirely about the logic this time, as part of the dying message consisting of the titular glass-domed clock and an amethyst requires more imagination and certain knowledge rather difficult to grasp for readers today, but the rest is almost strictly mathematical as Ellery also points out and it comes together in a wonderful manner at the end. The Seven Black Cats features a pretty ingenious solution for the mystery of an old invalid woman that hates cats but nonetheless continuously orders one of the same race and sex every week. It also crosses over into more serious matter and pays off brilliantly in the end. It might actually be the last entry in my personal Top 3 from this collection, if The Mad Tea-Party wasn't so extremely memorable. The essential clue and deduction concerning a vanishing clock are nothing complicated and it's solved rather easily once you change your perspective a little bit, but it's pretty clever nonetheless and the reason for the strange presents the guests receive is not that important for the case as such, but it surely evokes a big smirk,

7 or 8 out of 11 stories range from solid to awesome and the rest is not entirely bad as in gruesome and unbearable, so as long as you can endure the few weaker ones this is a highly recommended collection and I think the cousins were really good at plotting within a short page count as the cases are all perfectly fitted for this frame. I'm inclined to try out more in this fashion.


  1. Once they found their stride in the short story format, they were (often) better at it than penning full-length novels. Good plotters often excel in short stories because there are very little side distractions and can just focus on the plot. It's therefore a shame that short fiction only makes up a small amount of their output.

    Great review!

    1. I have to admit I used to think I wasn't that fond of short stories, but Maya Yutaka, Ayukawa Tetsuya and the Queen cousins definitely convinced me. It really depends on plotting skills. Good full-length novels are not filled with distractions or at least these fillings have a reason to exist, so in any case and frame, as a writer you have to think about whether what you came up with is fitted for a short story or the full thing and how you can pull it off.

  2. Like TomCat said, this a great review. But, man, you beat me to it...

    The strange coincidence: I was reading this exact collection for a review on my blog. But now I feel I ought to delay that review, especially since you had very similar thoughts on the first four stories.

    I might just start up DeAndrea's "Killed on the Rocks" and return to this collection at a later time. No harm in delaying, when these stories were originally serialized. And if the last batch of stories increase in quality, then they are definitely worth waiting for!

    1. I don't think me reviewing this book should keep you from reading/reviewing it yourself. You can't write enough about this genre, but I'm sorry if I throttled your impetus.

      I can assure you I won't be reviewing Killed on the Rocks anytime soon though. It has been on my radar for quite some time, but I still didn't order a copy and I don't think I'll do so in the remaining 2 months before I leave for Japan, which delays the whole thing until at least September next year ;)

    2. It's no problem. I'll definitely come back to this collection, especially now that you've made me intrigued by the later stories. I'll just delay my review for a while.

      That is a real delay, September of next year! I have a similar delay myself. Because of you and TomCat, I have two Resnicow books – Gold Solution and Frame – which I keep putting off reading. I'm only familiar with Nero Wolfe through a short story and the recent TV series; I think it's better to be more familiar with Resnicow's inspirations before starting his mysteries. I'll get to them eventually.

    3. To be honest, I know nothing of Nero Wolfe! ;) Shame in me, but even so I tremendously enjoyed The Gold Deadline! Sadly the solution of Resnicow's first novel is by no means as rewarding as the set-up suggests, but it's entertainting nonetheless and the following novel was just splendid in any way possible. Let's see who gets around to Gold Frame first ^^°

  3. I've always had a weakness for The Bearded Lady, because it was not only a dying message, it was even done in a classic early Queen-style: with an enigmatic and slightly grotesque murder scene!

    The latter half is the better part of the collection though, I concur. Ever seen the EQ TV show? The Mad Tea Party is the only episode in the series proper based on an actual Queen story, but it's a blast to see!

    And I hope you have enough to last you until September! My January~March consisted of mostly rereading old stuff!

    1. The set-up was always great and I enjoyed reading most of these stories, including The Bearded Lady, but whether they turned out to be awesome was dependant on the solution .

      Ah, the TV series includes The Mad Tea-Party? I'll put it on my To-Watch-List then ;)

      Actually I cannot even hope to finish everything until the end of September... I picked out Queen's The Egyptian Cross Mystery and Ten Days' Wonder, Resnicow's The Gold Frame and Arisugawa's マレー鉄道の謎 as mandatory from my huge backlog piles and I'll see which other Queens and Carrs I'll manage to squeeze in before I leave.