The Tragedy of Y – Barnaby Ross (1932)

TheTragedyOfY2Ok 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.

TheTragedyOfYIt’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.

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12 thoughts on “The Tragedy of Y – Barnaby Ross (1932)”

  1. I’m very fond of this one for a number of reasons — partly because, as you note, it’s a very well-handled instance of the “poisoned family” motif. EQ goes back to this in There Was An Old Woman but with different effect. It must have been interesting to live in a time when syphilis was an incurable disease …
    And I share your pleasure in “the motivation behind … the murder weapon”.

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  2. Well, huzzah and hooray! At last you’ve entered the fold! Y is definitely an improvement over X. I think Noah would agree that it’s possibly the most Van Dine-ian novel the Queens wrote. Let me know when you’re ready to read The Tragedy of Z: it, and Drury Lane’s Last Case, are the only Queen’s I’ve never read. We can do it together!

    Aidan, I think nudism was a fad in the 1930’s, but that’s not what’s happening here. The authors are going gangbusters to create an eccentric detective. Honestly, it’s way over the top in X and Y, and it doesn’t do much for me.

    And Ben, you are in for a treat with There Was an Old Woman, which I like lots more than this one. If Y is their Van Dine novel, then TWaOW is their screwball comedy of a novel. Although, given how much you like Carr’s Grand Guignol stuff, you might be bored with TWaOW. Honestly, I can no longer predict how you will react to Queen’s work at all. I’m crossing my fingers on the Wrightsville novels (which you HAVE to read in order, man! Otherwise, you get into spoiler country!)

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    1. I promise I’ll read the Wrightsville novels in order. I’ve been looking forward to them since the beginning.

      As for finally loving a Queen novel – I expected it the whole time and I’m thankful it finally happened. It seemed incomprehensible that such a well regarded author could be so plain. I’ll let you know when I’m ready for the next Drury Lane.

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  3. Glad to see you’ve finally found a Queen novel you can wholeheartedly recommend.

    I’ll be waiting over here to see what Nick Fuller thinks of your assessment of that murder weapon dénouement. I still remember his rants over this subject on the GA mailling list. 🙂

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  4. Could I say that I sympathise with you having read this novel partially spoilt… For that was my experience, having read a review that was meant to be spoiler-free. If I recall correctly, the reviewer mentioned another author, whom I’d read – and that was sufficiently heavy a hint. 😞

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  5. What? You found an EQ you actually like! Carr or Christie are usually the ones who spring a surprise of this magnitude on me, but glad you liked it. I read this one all all the way back in the mid-2000s, but still remember the atmospheric scene you mentioned with Louisa and the fantastic clue of the blunt instrument.

    You liking this one probably means you’ll prefer the darker, weirder titles over the international series. So you’ll probably be able to appreciate There Were Was An Old Woman and the other Ellery in Wonderland titles.

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  6. It’s always a delicate balancing act when you mention similarities between one work and another! In writing posts on my blog, I’ve decided just to forego any such references, even vague ones to “a certain well-known book published a few years later”. No point in showing how well-read I am in the mystery field if I’m spoiling the fun for others! (And I also keep my fingers crossed that… to use fictitious names here… if someone leaves a comment on my review of A LITTLE MATTER OF MURDER by Cecily Grimthorpe, they don’t say “the ending was just like WHO DRILLED THAT DAME by Spike Steel” when I haven’t read Mr. Steel’s book yet.)

    I loved the “motivation behind… the murder weapon,” as you describe it.

    Very nice catch of the authors referring to Lane being able to hear something when that wasn’t actually possible.

    And I look forward to your thoughts on There Was an Old Woman! As well as having an ingenious chain of reasoning leading to the solution, it’s one of the most enjoyable Queens ever on the plain old “good read” level.

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  7. Huh. Well, who knew? Okay, everyone knew, since this is widely regarded as an excellent book, but it’s nice to have that borne out by experience.

    Out of interest — asking for a friend, as they say, since I’m committed to my modulus in-order reading approach (for the time being) — would it be necessary to read X before this one?

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