The Tragedy of X – Barnaby Ross (1932)

TheTragedyOfXIs 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.

TheTragedyOfX2Ok, 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.

14 thoughts on “The Tragedy of X – Barnaby Ross (1932)”

  1. I’m an Ellery Queen fan, but I too found The Tragedy of X dull as ditchwater. But be not of faint heart: the Barnaby Ross novels improve markedly from here, each being (arguably) better than the last.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Oh dear, oh dear, poor Ben! It took me years to really tackle X, and it helped to listen to it on audiobook. Y is better, and I haven’t read Z but just bought a copy. Maybe we could do a double post on that one! Meanwhile, it may be that you never find anything to like about Queen, but I swear there are marvels ahead – as well as some head-scratchers and some outright outrageous tomfoolery. Like John, I am a fan!


    1. Things change though, right? They must. I don’t accept that 40-some books were written in such an investigation-dense manner. I don’t accept that The Greek Coffin Mystery could be enshrined a classic if it was so one dimensional. I don’t accept that you and Noah would regard Queen so highly if the plotting style didn’t change. Tell me that I’m right.


  3. I agree with the comments that The Tragedy of Y and The Tragedy of Z are more readable and, arguably, better plotted than The Tragedy of X.

    Nevertheless, I remember my read of X being better than yours, because the book had been presented to me by other readers at the time as practically an unsolvable puzzle. So imagine how much my ego swelled when noticing the significance of a murderer who struck aboard public transportation. I was being a proper armchair detective cracking a difficult case!

    By the way, I read exactly the same edition as you did and believe the thinness of the paper was a result of wartime regulations or simple scarcity. If I recall correctly, you’ll find a message in front of the book about how books can be weapons in the war of ideas and that in a free country you’re allowed to read whatever you like. But that message might also have been part of another line of paperbacks from the same period.

    Anyhow, you should be warned about Drury Lane’s Last Case. I recall Drury Lane takes a backseat in favor of Patience Thumm, who has been hilariously described as Ellery-in-Drag, and the plot is as unusual as it is complex, but the Queens were too clever for their own good here as they failed to fully explain everything that happened. It didn’t exactly help that the surprise solution could be spotted from a mile away. You can say it could be seen as far back as the ending of Y.

    So, yeah, give Y and Z a shot and hopefully you’ll find them to be better reads than X.


  4. Gotta say, Im really not a fan of characters arbitrarily going off into long speeches or quotes of famous origin. Not that it alone is enough to put me off a book, but when you’re aware that it’s something that has no bearing on what’s going on and it’s just the — wink, wink — type of zany, conformity-challenging gal/guy s/he is…yeah, no, I’m good thanks.

    Thankfully you’ve included plenty of other detail here to put me off reading this as well, otherwise I might appear fickle. Jeepers, I’m sure this undertaking will come good at some point…maybe we should try alternate books or something…


  5. “…the eye traveled the full length of that clean hardy body.”

    Thanks for this, that’ll make me smile all day.
    Drury Lane sounds like Philo Vance squared – reason enough to avoid this one, even without your highly entertaining account of investigative drudgery. But I do hope things improve for the next one (in which Inspector Thumm is invited to The Hamlet to inspect some etchings).

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Thegreencapsule, don’t feel silly at all for what you said about needing some humanity in your books. I said that same thing in a previous comment in a post not too long ago (I think I posted it on your ‘Death On The Nile’ post). I don’t like a mystery with just police investigation that goes on and on. I need something other than the mystery to hook me into the story. I love a good complicated mystery but there needs to be more to keep me into the book. I liken a mystery to a ice cream sundae. You have a simple bowl of ice cream and that is delicious but I need other toppings to give it that extra something to it. These are the treats — the gems that are tucked away in a mystery. So based on my sundae analogy, we need sprinkles, hot fudge, cherry, whipped cream, crumbled Oreo cookies, whatever you like! Those toppings are the romance, the humor or comic relief, the creeping atmosphere, etc. It’s as you said, the fuel that feeds the flame or again like my sundae analogy, the treats that makes you enjoy the mystery all the more — it pulls you all the way to the end. A by the rote police procedure with nothing that gives insight into humanity or the human condition will end up dry and stiff and that won’t make me read to the end. Though I read “The Roman Hat Mystery” many, many years ago, I do recall it being a drag many a times. Maybe that opinion will change today but I doubt it.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. GreenCapsule,

    I’m a major Ellery fan and have been since I was 13. But I admit the early novels, the ones with “Mystery” in the title, are pretty old-fashioned in storytelling ways. I love [i]The Siamese Twin Mystery[/i] for its unusual setting and variation on the old “characters and murderer trapped by a snowstorm” trope, though. But jump ahead to [i]Cat of Many Tails[/i], which is a rich early version of today’s serial killer stories (really!!!), or [i]There Was an Old Woman[/i] (Ellery in Wonderland!), or [i]The King Is Dead[/i], which features one of the great impossible disappearances in fiction.

    Ellery becomes much more human after about 1936 — he even has a romance of sorts in [i]The Four of Hearts[/i], which includes some elements of screwball comedy too. Ellery also begins to make mistakes, which gives us the classic Ellery format of “the false solution, then the true.” Do try more of the books. You’re missing a big keystone in Golden Age Detection if you don’t.

    Liked by 1 person

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