The Dutch Shoe Mystery – Ellery Queen (1931)

TheDutchShoeMystery4It’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 .

TheDutchShoeMystery2With 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>

TheDutchShoeMystery3I 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…

TheDutchShoeHump

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…


TheDutchShoeMysteryI 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?

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24 thoughts on “The Dutch Shoe Mystery – Ellery Queen (1931)”

  1. I really think this one would have made a great short story. Bits of the solution are brilliant, almost worthy of Chesterton in turning what the reader understands upside down – but, as you say, there’s precious little *content*. Queen doesn’t go in for Carr’s complex plotting or imaginative twists here; Carr would have several people scheming and at cross-purposes; the murderer often takes advantage of the victim or another character’s scheme to commit his crime, or the impossibility is the result of one scheme colliding with another. None of that here; X commits the crime, and everyone else is really just there to make up the numbers. French Powder (which you don’t like!) at least has the police discovering something new in each chapter, and the questioning is broken up by the detailed search of the apartment.

    I think the catchphrase was an Edwardian / Jazz Age habit, although not quite to those extremes! Lord Peter Wimsey does it; so does Reggie Fortune – “O my aunt!” They were still doing it in the ’60s; Patrick Troughton’s Doctor Who said “Oh, my giddy aunt!” a lot. He was meant to be an Edwardian adventurer from outside space and time, though.

    And thanks for the shout-out!

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    1. The trick in the solution is pretty good – I almost feel like I didn’t give it enough attention. But you’re right, Carr would have added at least three more layers on top of that, and then interwoven those layers such that when the solution is explained, you see every thing tie together perfectly.

      Carr did have a few books that I feel dragged when it came to the investigation – The White Priory Murders and The Ten Teacups being the examples that come to mind. But look at the difference with those stories! In both, Carr drops an absolute mind bomb of an impossibility – so provocative that you’re left grasping for an answer for the rest of the story. You can endure a bit of rote inspection with that in your belly. And, of course, both of those books deliver big time in their solutions. You can fault the core of The Ten Teacups solution a bit, but then it’s wrapped in five other twisted layers of misdirection that you didn’t even know were there.

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      1. Whereas there’s a secret relationship here – and Ellery knows about it because he gets a telegram. I don’t think it’s fairly clued, or that the reader would be able to “deduce” it!

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      1. …amidst a lot of other paragraphs making it sound dry and lacking in content. Dude, my EQ patience is already worn pretty thin, it’ll take more than one piece of misdirection to lure me back to the fold…!

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  2. Well, If I were you I’d just read CAT OF MANY TAILS and THERE WAS AN OLD WOMAN which are marvelous and the heck with reading Queen in order. What’s the point of torturing yourself? 🙂 I’ve been dipping into Ellery Queen’s books a little at a time (and not in any particular order) and just a few days ago read CALAMITY TOWN, the first of the Wrightsville books. What an absolute disappointment. This is a terrible book with a very nice beginning in which nothing much happens though much is promised. The book is actually so bad that I suspected someone else had written it. However, I ordered DOUBLE DOUBLE and THE MURDERER IS A FOX which are supposed to be better?? I hope. Avoid THE SPANISH CAPE MYSTERY which, to my mind, is another dud. P.S. But then I was never a fan of the Siamese twin book so maybe my opinion is suspect. 🙂

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    1. It’s very tempting to take you up on your advice. I’m really curious to experience later era books like Cat of Many Tales, There Was an Old Woman, and The Murderer is a Fox. If anything, I’m interested to see just how dramatically the writing style changed.

      I am surprised that you didn’t enjoy Calamity Town. I haven’t read it, but it does seem to have a pretty good reputation.

      In the near-term I’ll probably continue on with reading in order just because I’ve made it to The Greek Coffin Mystery and I’m curious to see what it’s all about.

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      1. As far as CALAMITY TOWN, the characterization is tepid. The set-up goes on forever. The setting is good though, so that’s a plus. But just when you think it’s about time for something to happen (it is a mystery, after all) nothing happens. The plot eventually reveals itself to be so simple-minded that a child could figure out who did what to whom. Queen himself acts like a nitwit for most of this book for reasons that I can’t figure out. But maybe that’s just me being picky. All I can say is that I completely lost interest and didn’t bother doing anything more than skipping throughout the last third of the story. When I think how I longed for this book to be good, it really rankles.

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  3. When I first read Dutch Shoe, it was a copy of that “challenge to the reader” Signet edition. The other Signet Queen reprints of that period all had those “model and an oversized prop” covers. I wonder if they experimented with both formats and found the ladies sold more copies than the intellectual-puzzle approach?

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    1. I have about 5 of those “model and an oversized prop” covers, and I’m not really that enthusiastic about reading them. For a while my only copy of The Greek Coffin Murder was one of those Signet editions, but luckily I snatched up an early Pocket Book edition as part of a bulk buy.

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      1. Someone at Signet wanted the readers to think an Ellery Queen book was going to be one sexy romp, thus guaranteeing the disappointment of readers who actually wanted one, while turning off anyone who wanted, you know, a mystery, but hadn’t read Queen before.

        You mention that you had thought Queen’s writing underwent a transformation between Dutch Shoe and Greek Coffin. If you don’t want to know when it actually changes, don’t read the next paragraph (and feel free to edit or delete this comment)…

        The style and general approach to plotting are the same throughout Period One (the Nationality Object Mysteries) and starts to change with the first Period Two novel, the appropriately titled Halfway House. The book after that one, The Door Between, is where things really start to change.

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      2. I’ve been aware of the phases of Ellery Queen. I still figured there must be some shift in the writing around the time of The Greek Coffin Mystery because it is so highly lauded and the three preceding books are fairly boring.

        Brad from Ah Sweet Mystery has a good write up on the phases of Ellery Queen here:
        https://ahsweetmysteryblog.wordpress.com/2015/11/03/the-queens-of-crime-comparing-eq-to-ac/

        Noah Stewart has a write up here that discusses Queen actually having five phases:
        https://noah-stewart.com/2015/11/24/the-tuesday-night-bloggers-my-five-mostleast-favourite-ellery-queen-novels/

        There’s some fun discussion in the comments of this post, including a great comment where Noah highlights the transitions between each period:
        https://thegreencapsuleblog.wordpress.com/2017/05/06/to-be-read-ellery-queen-edition/

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      3. I can say this much without spoiling Greek Coffin for you: it does do some things that the first three Queens don’t. Altering the writing style isn’t one of them, though.

        Have you read Nevins’ Ellery Queen: the Art of Detection? He was the first to divide Queen’s work into periods. He has four of them: Roman Hat through Spanish Cape, Halfway House through Dragon’s Teeth, Calamity Town through Finishing Stroke, and Player on the Other Side through Fine and Private Place.

        He does discuss the solutions to a couple of the books, but with fair warning. Royal Bloodline, the original version of the book from 1974, also spoils The Roman Hat Mystery, although I guess you’re safe there! Both editions are on Amazon.com for non-ridiculous prices.

        Julian Symons’ book Great Detectives has a tongue-in-cheek piece maintaining that the Ellery of the first period was a different person from the one of the later books — the guy who solved the Nationality Object Mysteries really did retire to Italy, just as J.J. McC. told us, and his cousin, a less priggish sort, took over the detecting!

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      4. I suppose I’m looking more for a different plotting style than a different writing style. We may be saying the same thing, so let me clarify.

        Take any given page, or even any given chapter, of the first three Queen books, and I’d read it and say that it is well written and I like the overall style.

        The problem is that we now have to string 250 of these pages (or 30 of these chapters) in a row, and nothing much happens in them. The opening scenes with the reveal of the murders are always fairly strong; the denouncements at the end are decent, although weaker than what I’m typically used to; it’s the 200 pages in between where not much occurs besides interviews and summaries.

        I have high hopes for The Greek Coffin Mystery because the fact that there are three false solutions suggests that we might get an accusation every 70 pages or so. That would significantly improve the pacing of a Queen novel.

        I haven’t read the Nevins book yet – it sounds like an interesting read once my mission is complete!

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      5. Yes, I think we are saying the same thing – what Greek Coffin does differently from the first three, it does in terms of plotting. Which I think is all I’ll say about it till you’ve read it!

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  4. If I had started reading Carr from Bencolin at the tender age of 13 instead of The Mad Hatter Mystery, I wonder if I would have gotten any further. Heck, if I had attempted Christie in order, would I have stopped halfway through The Murder on the Links? Nick is right about the style, so don’t read the next Queen – which is a classic, damn it, – and expect the tone to be different.

    Suffering Paul Halter! as my great-grandfather used to say. You naysayers are getting on my nerves. I’m a mere fifty pages away from posting my review of The Problem of the Wire Cage, and the experience hasn’t been a total picnic, if you must know! But I’ll concede that Dutch Shoe is a snoozer. Get to the good stuff, Ben. There’s plenty of it!

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    1. Hmm, comparing the first four Queen/Christie/Carr would make for a very interesting discussion. I obviously can’t comment on Christie, but I believe you have the expertise for such a post, Brad…

      I have contemplated the strength of the first four Carr’s, so let me give you my take.
      Starting with It Walks By Night, I think I would have definitely been interested in more. The impossible crime really drew me into the book, and although there was an initial frustration with the solution, after some reflection I came to cherish it.
      The Lost Gallows would have been the big obstacle. I personally enjoy Carr’s plotting and prose, so it wasn’t a trudge for me, but I was never really drawn into the mystery. The tipping point for me going further would have been whether or not I knew that Carr was a highly revered author and classics lay ahead.
      Castle Skull is a really strange book, and I clued into a red herring that made me think that I had it solved. The ending left me completely stunned, and I think I would continue onward. However, I still wouldn’t have experienced a “classic” moment, so I could be wondering what the big deal was.
      The Corpse in the Waxworks would have been a bit difficult. I feel like not much happens in the first half of the book, but then it really takes off and includes one of my favorite clues for the murderer.

      Having read those four books, I don’t think I’d be running out to buy the next set of Carr books and evangelizing his name A reader probably doesn’t really encounter a “brilliant” Carr book until the first set of Merrivale titles in 1934. The Bowstring Murders and Hag’s Nook (both 1933), are certainly excellent reads (which I have in fact lent out on recommendation) but I think the real classic run starts the following year.

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      1. My take on the first four Carrs would be something like this:

        “It Walks by Night” – interesting start. Lots of atmosphere. Hmmm… an impersonation. Yeah, right. And now there’s more atmosphere. Hey, I hardly understand the solution. And MORE atmosphere. Dud.

        “The Lost Gallows” – hm. I don’t understand the murder. I don’t understand the geography of the place, and that goes for both the building itself and the surrounding area. Come on, Carr, let off with the atmosphere and the florid prose and try to describe the important bits a little better. Holy crap, that’s a pretty bad explanation for the invisible driver, but wow, the murderer was a (good) surprise! A little bit better than its predecessor on the whole.

        “Castle Skull” – interesting start again. Good setting. Interesting characters, but again we have the florid prose. People don’t speak that way! And surely they don’t act that way either? Hm, a hidden passage? Meh. Wow, that solution really was produced out of a hat. Better than its predecessors, but simply because it had none of the really irritating bits of those two books.

        “Murder in the Waxworks” – good set-up and an exciting setting. The masquerade club is a bit run of the mill, but still kind of exciting. The investigation when not in the masquerade club is a bit dreary though. What? Where did you find that murderer, Carr? Come on – that’s almost as bad as the cousin who’s been in Argentina the whole book. A step down again.

        🙂

        To be fair, Carr wasn’t really good until possibly The White Priory Murders or definitely The Unicorn Murders. Everything before then has some kind of flaw that drags the book down from the top shelf. (You could argue that these two novels have flaws as well, but to me they’re not big enough to stop the books from being great.)

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