Is it possible to fall in love with a book? No, not the novel contained within, but the physical object itself. I have two copies of The Tragedy of X, and if I were to go purely by cover, I’d have read my Avon copy (the publishing year of which I haven’t been able to figure out). This time though, I was lured beyond the cover by the pure beauty of the corpus itself. My Pocket Book edition is the seventh printing (from October of 1942), and it is a beauty to behold. The pages are the very definition of paper thin – the writing, and in some cases the imprint of the printing itself, is clearly visible through each page. The feeling is incomparable to any other book I possess – the most desperate analogy that I can conjure is that of silk. In that sense, this has been a pure joy to hold, and I’ve savored the mere turn of each page.
Ah, but as to what those pages hold…
I’ve been on my Ellery Queen journey for several months now (I believe that I started back in April), and I’ve managed to grind out a meager two books. And what a grind it’s been. Well, I blame myself. I chose to take the author on headfirst in order of publishing. Rather than being blessed with John Dickson Carr’s excellent It Walks By Night followed by the mediocre yet adequate The Lost Gallows, I’ve languished in a purgatory of investigation with The Roman Hat Mystery followed by The French Powder Mystery (which at least had a strong last 20 pages).
I’ve not been alone in my sorrow. JJ, from The Invisible Event, made the same foolish choice as I, and we’ve both been buffeted by “the Dutch Shoe hump”. Oh, I’ve tried to crest its lofty peak, to the supposedly greener pastures of the “classic” The Greek Coffin Mystery. I made it through the pathetically phoned-in and obligatory JJ McC forward before putting the book down and picking up…I think… The Gilded Man.
And so now I’m somewhat cheating. Attacking Ellery Queen in order has been daunting, but I’ve always reserved an out – the four titles published from 1932-34 under the name of Barnaby Ross (a pseudonym harkening back to the forward from the first Queen novel, The Roman Hat Mystery). The Drury Lane books were released under the guise of an entirely different author, and so I’ve always seen these as fair game to attack as a separate entity. So, see ya JJ – you declared you were working them in along with the rest of the Queen titles. Sucks to be you.
Oh, what hell I’ve wrought. While I’ve selected my copy of The Tragedy of X for its physical attributes, I’ve of course learned that it’s what’s inside that counts. And perhaps I exaggerate if I say that it is punishment, but the depths of investigation unleashed in the first novel featuring detective Drury Lane is…exactly what I suffered through in the first two Ellery Queen novels.
We start with an extremely interesting murder. A party heading out of Manhattan for the weekend boards a crowded bus. A man in the group gropes in his pocket for his glasses and quickly jerks his hand out as if stung. Confusion washes over his face as he examines his blood-stained palm, before he collapses moments later. In his pocket, detectives find an unusual murder weapon – a ball of cork strewn with nicotine laced needles.
Ok, sounds good; I’m in. Then comes the investigation. If you’ve read the first two Queen novels, you know what to expect. The bus is locked down by the police and each and every occupant is subjected to a detailed interview and examination. Next the contents of the vehicle is gone over in excruciating detail. The floor is swept and the contents are examined and described to the reader.
I’m 65 pages in and I have 270 to go. I’ve sat through interview after interview of a street car full of people and an inspection of every piece of evidence found at the crime scene – down to the level of every last piece of litter. How can this possibly go on for 270 more pages?
Oh, it does. That’s the death march of these Queen books in my experience so far. Interview after interview. Summary after summary. It just never ends.
I worry that I unduly criticize these books because the writing isn’t bad by any means. Well, that is to say “if you examine the writing of any given page, all things seem in order.” And yet, I need something – whether a impossible hook, or just a glimpse of a soul – to pull me along. I have yet to encounter it with the Queens.
That isn’t to say that nothing happens in the story. Soon after the bus investigation dies down, a second murder occurs and we’re back in it – this time with an entire ferry’s worth of witnesses to interview and trash to inspect! And so the book plods on and on in that one never dying dimension. At this point, I was begging that there wouldn’t be a third murder. There is.
I feel slightly silly writing this paragraph, but here goes. I need some humanity in my books. A sparkle of romance (I know, I laugh at myself writing this), some humor (I groan because I hate that Carter Dickson slapstick), some creeping atmosphere. Anything. Anything beyond this rote police investigation. Or…cut the book a bit short. Make it 180 pages instead of 337! That would be tolerable. The Queens appear to be respectable writers, able to draw my interest. But that interest dies without some fuel to feed the flame.
Of course, I can’t review a Barnaby Ross novel without comparing Drury Lane to the detective Ellery Queen. While I may have had my complaints about the first two Queen books, the detective was never one of them. He seemed likable enough – certainly not the cocky snob that I read about in other reviews. Supposedly Queen turns a page after The Greek Coffin Mystery and ceases to be annoying, which puzzles me, as I never really noticed that characteristic in the detective in the first place.
Drury Lane on the other hand…ooh, he drives me crazy with his arrogance. The Queens have created a strange beast of a character who lives in some fantasy castle called The Hamlet, complete with moats, hidden elevators, and endless gnome-like servants. Lane seems to be positioned as an amateur detective that the police gape at in wonder, and yet he comes across as an absolute ass. He quotes Shakespeare at length and refers to his doting servants as “ugly imps” and worse. Lane’s air of superiority makes John Dickson Carr’s Patrick Butler come across as a humble saint, and I contend that Carr was setting up Butler as an anti-hero that we’d love to see beat down. Not so with Lane – this is a man at which we are expected to marvel at.
Well, even if he is an annoying character, at least we’re blessed with quite possibly the strangest passage in any GAD book:
“Mr Drury Lane lay, almost nude, on a bearskin, arms shading his eyes from the sun high overhead. Inspector Thumm stopped short and Quacey grinned himself away. The Inspector could not conceal his stupefaction at the bronzed vigor, the firm youthfulness and muscularity, of Drury Lane’s figure. His lean sprawling body, hairless except for a faint golden down, brown, hard, and smooth, was that of a man in the prime of life. The shock of white hair on his head was a startling incongruity when the eye traveled the full length of that clean hardy body.”
Suffice to say, the pince nez leapt from my nose as I stifled a cough. And, bear in mind, this passage comes one page before we learn that Lane is 60 years old. I’m not quite sure what the authors were going for with this passage, but I can’t say that I didn’t chuckle.
Well, I suppose what matters the most with this type of mystery is how it all turns out at the end. In this case, it’s a double-barrel blast of logic. Now, the idea of a puzzle solved with logic sounds quite attractive to me, but I didn’t understand the excess to which it could be carried out. This isn’t the unraveling of misdirection that I’m used to enjoying in my Fell/Merrivale novels. This is pure raw logic bordering on an algebra lesson.
“Given facts A, B, and C, we can deduce D. But, since we know that B isn’t true, we must subdivide by F thereby imply G. Add G to A and C, and, gentleman, we are only left with one possible conclusion – H.”
That’s pretty much how the final 30 pages tumble out. My eyes were glazing over and it suddenly seemed so uninteresting. Yes, I can certainly follow the logic, and things made sense, but there was no reward in it. No exclamation of “how did I miss that?!?” Instead it was more of a “oh, ok.” If there is one redeeming factor, it is the final clue. I doubt any reader finishes the final page without a small smile on their face and a gleam in their eye.
Well, as I say, better luck next time. The Tragedy of Y is next in the Drury Lane series, and it is rather well regarded. I’m going to take my punches and look forward do the next one undaunted.