Ok Ellery Queen, you finally won me over. I’ve been your critic up to now, but from this day forward, some part of me will always be your fan. The Tragedy of Y did something for me that none of your books have ever accomplished – it kept me engaged from cover to cover. More importantly, this is the one that’s sticking with me for a long time to come.
I recently abandoned my attempt to read Ellery Queen in order because it was just plain boring. The four first period stories that I made it through were dry, overly long, and never really paid off in the end. The same could be said for The Tragedy of X – my one encounter with Queen writers’ alter-ego Barnaby Ross. Published in 1932 (the same year as The Greek Coffin Mystery and The Egyptian Cross Mystery), The Tragedy of X was a marathon of exhaustive police work and… weirdness. You see, the amateur detective of the series, Drury Lane, is an odd character. An actor residing in a storybook castle situated on the Hudson river, Lane exists somewhat outside of the realm of standard Golden Age reality. His gnome-like servants, his positioning as a 60 year old adonis,… I really have no clue what the authors were going for.
In fact, The Tragedy of X might be classified as “awesomely bad”. I despised it while I was trudging through it, but I look back on it through a strangely rose-tinted lens. Not that I would ever want to read it again, but I would love nothing more than to share the war story over a few pints with some fellow bloggers.
I recently found myself on an in-and-out trip to New York and figured that if I had to suffer through a flight to La Guardia and the snarled traffic of The City, I might as well suffer through another Barnaby Ross book. The Tragedy of Y was next in line. Published the same year as The Tragedy of X (1932), I assumed that I could expect more of the same. I walked in knowing that The Tragedy of Y was well regarded, showing up on several Best of Queen lists, but the same applied to The French Powder Mystery and The Greek Coffin Mystery, and neither of those did the trick for me.
The book wastes no time, with the sea-bloated corpse of York Hatter turning up in the opening pages. The millionaire had been missing for several weeks and the papers were abuzz with rumors of what may have happened to him. His oddball family is a tabloid fixture, with each member having their own peculiarities. Indeed, this is one of those classic GAD families – the kind you find in books like Agatha Christie’s Crooked House or John Dickson Carr’s Poison in Jest: a cast of venomous characters. Of course, that always makes for a fine set of suspects and an even finer killing field.
Although the circumstances surrounding York Hatter’s death are suspicious enough, it isn’t the focus of the book. Rather, it is a series of crimes that follow that form the main backbone of the mystery. It all starts with a young child being poisoned after sipping from a drink intended for another family member – Louisa Campion, a deaf, blind, mute. Another murder attempt on Louisa follows, this one resulting in the death of the family matriarch and York’s widow, Emily Hatter.
It’s an interesting puzzle – why would someone be trying to kill a person who can’t hear, see, or speak? The police are at a loss and consult Drury Lane since he proved successfully in The Tragedy of X. Of course, this opens the door to weirdness. As the police visit Lane’s castle on the Hudson, we learn that it is complete with a mock-village…that is actually inhabited by… I guess… people who have nothing better to do. Similar to the first installment in the series, the authors use this as opportunity for… I’m not sure, but it’s unusual for the time…
“Mr Drury Lane was apprised of it by telephone. He had been lying outstretched on the bare battlements of the castle, sunning his nude body, when old Quacey stumbled up the curved turret stairs, his gnome’s face purple with exertion… Lane wriggled his brown body forward and squatted on his lean haunches.”
My trip to New York was a fortunate coincidence for this read – I was situated about 30 miles north of NYC on the Hudson, which seems to be roughly where Drury Lane’s fairy tale estate was. I’m always jealous when visiting England, but I’ll say that Westchester County, NY is absolutely gorgeous verdant lusciousness.
Most of the story takes place in Manhattan though, and it is absolutely riveting. It’s strange for me to be saying this about an early-30’s Queen novel, but at several points my eyes were nailed to the page. One particularly memorable passage involves Louisa Campion being interviewed about what she “witnessed” during a murder, with the interview taking place via a combination of braille and sign language. The atmosphere was so dense that my skin crawled as Louisa mimed out what she had experienced during the crime via the sensations of touch and smell.
This isn’t the only scene that sticks with me, but they’re best to experience for yourself. There’s a thrilling bit involving a manuscript – I’m a sucker for any “story within a story” – see The Red Widow Murders or The Plague Court Murders. Another section that had me on the edge of my seat involved the reader witnessing the killer at work, yet without the identity being revealed.
I have to say, I even walked into this one with it kind of spoiled for me. This is one of those books where people just can’t help but make an analogy to another famous title. And, of course, it’s the type of analogy where you’re like “oh, I think I know what that translates to…”. Kind of like if I said “Book X reminds me of Death on the Nile”, you’d be like “well, damn man, thanks for ruining that for me.”
It wasn’t ruined though – not completely. While I wasn’t privy to the enjoyment of an aspect of the reveal, I was able to watch it unfold. Parts of that were fun – similar to me watching Agatha Christie spin her craft after figuring out the solution to A Murder is Announced (although the Queen cousins are nowhere near as deft of artists as Christie – not by a mile). In other aspects, I misinterpreted what I was reading in a sense – in particular thinking that an earlier crime had a slightly different motive. In the end, I can’t really guess how much of the experience was spoiled for me, but I can say that I’ll look back on this one fondly.
This is one of those rare titles that just grabbed a piece of me and held on to it. Murder in Retrospect, Green for Danger, Fog of Doubt, She Died a Lady, Death Comes as the End, maybe even The Hollow – these are books that stick in your mind, and The Tragedy of Y goes down as one of those. The cover of my 1945 Pocket Edition (pictured at the top) morphed from purely being a cool piece of vintage art to the type of thing you get tattooed to your arm and when asked about reply “nah, it’s too personal to talk about”. Oh, and the title of the book? Pure beauty.
It’s not perfect though. The denouement has some dry parts, verging on academic – an angle that felt hardly necessary having anticipated aspects of the solution. Several pages are devoted to arithmetic that could have been summed up in a single sentence by hands such as Carr, Christie, or Brand. There are some gorgeous touches though, with the motivation behind several clues (a murder weapon in particular) being a touch above the norm.
What will stick with me the most though is a haunting ending. A question is posed, and, to me at least (embarrassingly?), feels unanswered. It’s one of those things where you’re like “I think I get what is being implied”, but I just wasn’t positive. I’ll take it that way.
A fun aside – it’s no bit of trivia to point out that Drury Lane is deaf – the authors remind you of the fact that he relies on lip reading constantly. However, on page 145 of my Pocket edition, they slip up: “Lane heard his heavy breathing, the sounds of a scraping hand, and then a muffled exclamation.” I’ve avoided including some extra context with this quote, but I can assure you that given the circumstances, it is impossible that Lane was reading lips. Anyway, that’s my GAD nerd moment for the day.
As a request, if you choose to comment below, please avoid drawing a parallel between The Tragedy of Y and any other books that hint towards the solution. I still enjoyed this one with it partially spoiled, but let’s give others a fighting chance.