It’s been six months since I set out on a mission to approach the Ellery Queen books in order…. and it’s been six months since I read one. My initial experiences with The Roman Hat Mystery and The French Powder Mystery were a true let down. Although both books started somewhat strong, they descended into the monotony of one-dimensional investigation.
We all love a little investigation though, don’t we? Well, not when it’s the only thing you get over the course of a 250 page novel. Page after page of interviews followed by more interviews, then a review of the facts, then more interviews, then more reviews of the facts. Without a touch of comedy, atmosphere, or really anything else, it gets to be a little much.
It was with apprehension that I approached The Dutch Shoe Mystery. I was 80% sure that it was going to be more of the same of what I’d experienced with the first two Queen books. But there was a silver lining. If I could get over the The Dutch Shoe hump, the greener grasses of the much lauded The Greek Coffin Mystery, The Chinese Orange Mystery, and The Siamese Twin Mystery beckoned. So, with the holiday season starting and a little extra reading time to burn, I figured now was the time to rip the bandaid.
The Dutch Shoe Mystery focuses on a murder at the Dutch Memorial Hospital in New York City. Abigail Dorn, millionaire and patron of the hospital, is scheduled to undergo surgery for a ruptured gall bladder after a nasty fall down the stairs. An audience of medical personnel gather in the gallery of the operating theatre to watch the esteemed Dr Janney perform the operation. Ellery Queen is among the onlookers, having been at the hospital doing some research for another case.
Prepped for surgery, Abigail Dorn is wheeled out from the anesthesia room on a stretcher. As the doctors pull back her gown to operate, they make a startling discovery – she’s dead, strangled with a length of picture wire embedded into the flesh of her neck .
With Queen on hand, the investigation kicks off immediately, and we soon make some interesting discoveries. Aided by a floor plan of the hospital, we’re able to get a sense of the victim’s whereabouts at the time of the murder – an anteroom outside of the operating theatre. A nurse who was prepping Mrs Dorn reports that Dr Janney, in complete surgical gear and mask, limped into the room and stood over the victim for several minutes before leaving. Of course, we know this couldn’t have happened – Dr Janney was speaking with Ellery Queen at the time. It appears that someone impersonated the doctor, carried out the murder, and then simply strolled out of the room in full view of several witnesses.
Ok, that’s an interesting enough start – they always are. The Roman Hat Mystery had me on the edge of my seat with it’s poisoning in a crowded theatre. The French Powder Mystery drew gasps with a corpse stuffed inside the fold-out bed of a mall display. To that degree, The Dutch Powder Mystery appears a bit tame compared to its kin.
All three books proceed in a similar fashion though. Interviews, summaries, interviews, complaining about how difficult the case is, more interviews. I finished reading this yesterday and I’m grasping to think of what actually happened in the middle 200 pages because it all just blurs together.
Well, there is a second murder, which brought some interest back to the story. Of course for Ellery Queen, another murder is the perfect excuse for more interviews, which naturally need to be summarized.
Now, if the authors provided a really clever hook to draw us into the story, I might be able to remain a bit more engaged. The core mystery is so open ended though in the case of The Dutch Shoe Mystery. In the words of one of the characters “Everybody had a chance to pull the trick and a lot of ‘em had motive.” Add to that the fact that The Roman Hat Mystery and The French Powder Mystery didn’t really have any clever solution at their core. <slight spoiler for those two books follows> While both books present an interesting puzzle of “how could the killer have pulled this murder off undetected when the scene of the crime was so thoroughly watched?”, the answer ultimately ends up being “oh, the killer just strolled in, did their business, and were lucky enough that they didn’t get caught in the act.” <end spoilers>
I read The Dutch Shoe Mystery over the course of four days, and I’m confident to say that I spent exactly zero minutes and zero seconds contemplating the mystery while the book wasn’t in my hands. I occasionally found my eye wandering towards that big stack of books I have yet to read, questioning why I was spending my holiday break on this story when I have so many promising titles from authors like Clayton Rawson, Christianna Brand, Agatha Christie, Paul Halter…
I must say though, there is a gem hidden in The Dutch Shoe Mystery and it took me by surprise. For the first time, an Ellery Queen book features a clever bit of misdirection. An elegant little twist at the end, reminiscent of something you might find in a John Dickson Carr book.
The rest of the solution is rubbish though. The logical conclusions that Ellery Queen uses to identify the guilty party are tenuous at best. Rather than a solid evidence based conclusion, we’re left with leap of faith deductions along the lines of “if a person buys milk, we know they have a child.”
As you may suspect by now, this isn’t a book that I’ll be recommending. It does sport a nice Carr-ian twist, but that isn’t enough to make up for a flat story.
No matter – my mission is accomplished!!! I’ve scaled the heights of The Dutch Shoe hump and I’m on to a nirvana of glorious titles like The Greek Coffin Mystery, The Siamese Twin Mystery, The Chinese Orange Mystery, The Tragedy of Y…
Well, I’m probably overselling it to myself there. The American Gun Mystery, The Spanish Cape Mystery, and several other books that follow The Greek Coffin Mystery don’t have the best reputations. But The Greek Coffin Mystery…. that’s a classic… right?
I’ve been betting on the hope that it is. After all, the title graces quite a few Top 10 lists and many regard it as the best Ellery Queen novel. My dreams took a blow this morning when I read a review of The Greek Coffin Mystery over at Nick Fuller’s The Grandest Game in the World (if you aren’t reading his blog, you’re missing out on some of the best GAD writing at the moment). The review shattered the hopeful illusion that I had that Queen’s writing underwent a miraculous transformation following The Dutch Shoe Mystery. Could The Greek Coffin Mystery just be more of the same, dressed up with a few false solutions? One particular comment from Fuller sent a shiver down my spine: “It’s logic, logic, and more logic, like the Sudoku from hell.”
Have you ever seen one of those horror movies where the heroine thinks the masked killer is dead, only to have him predictably sit up and pull the axe out of his back? That look of horror on the heroine’s face is approximately the feeling that washed over me when I read Fuller’s sentence. Suddenly, I was back in the halls of Dutch Memorial Hospital…
I quickly filled out my collection of Ellery Queen via bulk purchases on eBay, picking up 15-30 books at a time. This strategy resulted in a few duplicates of several titles. In the case of The Dutch Shoe Mystery, I have four editions. This accidental excess wasn’t completely wasted – I ended up consuming from three different copies over the course of my reading.
- My 1952 Pocket Book edition with the group of doctors against a yellow background was my main reading copy. I absolutely love the style of art – I’d place this somewhere in my Top 10 Covers list if I were to build one. The art on a book cover can set the tone for a reading experience, and so this copy was my immediate choice.
- The 1942 Pocket Book edition with the skeleton doctor was a necessary backup when a sleeping toddler barred access to my main reading copy. I’m glad I got a chance to read from it, as it’s one of those war-era editions where the pages are incredibly thin and the paper is wonderfully soft.
- My Otto Penzler copy accompanied me on a brief trip when I was worried that the more treasured books may get messed up in my overnight bag. The printing and choice of font was poor, but it was a sturdy copy.
- The one book that I didn’t read from was my 1968 Signet Book edition. It’s notable for featuring a challenge to the reader on the cover.
One final topic – the use of strange oaths in golden age detective fiction. The most famous example that I can think of is Dr Fell’s “Archons of Athens” exclamation. I noticed while reading The Dutch Shoe Mystery that Ellery has a deep bag of seemingly obscure oaths to throw out, such as “Shades of Aesculapius”. Did people really talk like that? I would think that anyone hearing anything like that would respond with “uh, what did you just say?”
I’m curious if anyone has any insight on this type of oath. Is it a flourish that authors added in order to make the detective appear to be well read? Or, is this really the type of thing that someone would have blurted out in the 1930s?