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Mystery author #28 Ellery Queen

No mystery reading challenge would be complete without a review of the books of Frederic Dannay and Manfred B. Lee, better known as Ellery Queen. This formidable writing team is among the USA's most influential crime writers of the 20th century. Their eponymous detective and mystery writer is one of the "thinking machine" types who often solve mysteries by pure logic and deduction. I will be reviewing three Ellery Queen books here, but have unfortunately not been able to get my hands on any books about their other series detective, Drury Lane.

As always, I will review the writing style in the author review.

Series detective: Ellery Queen, assisted by his father, Richard Queen of the NYPD
Type of investigator: Amateur

Title: The American Gun Mystery (alt. title Death at the Rodeo)
No. in series: 6
Year of publication: 1933
Type of mystery: Murder, whodunnit, howdunnit
Setting & time: New York city, USA, 1930s

Story: The Queens attend a rodeo show and, along with hundreds of other spectators, witness the murder of a performer. In spite of a very thorough search of both people and place, the murder weapon can not be found. When the show re-opens after the murder, another murder is committed, using exactly the same method. But this time Ellery has spotted something the police didn't.

Review: This is quite an entertaining book that gives a plausible look behind the curtains of a cowboy circus, and into some of the technical aspects of criminology, especially that of guns (which does not seem to have changed much since the time of writing). However, while it is admittedly hard to spot the murderer in the case, the mystery as such is weak, as it hinges on a very implausible piece of trickery that, while not impossible, is of such a nature as to make it very hard for the average reader to spot and therefore puts the reader on an uneven footing with the sleuth.

Rating: An entertaining but ultimately weak mystery that cheats the reader of a fair chance to solve the crime. 2 stars.

Title: The Siamese Twin Mystery
No. in series: 7
Year of publication: 1933
Type of mystery: Murder, whodunnit
Setting & time: North-east USA, 1930s

Story: The Queens, on their way home after a holiday in Canada, decide to take a scenic route over a mountain and get shut in by a forest fire. Escaping up a track, they find their way to the top of the mountain, where they discover a house. Their arrival there is at first greeted with suspicion, but when their situation becomes clear, they are invited to stay there until they can continue on their way home. But during the night their host, a respected doctor, is murdered, and thus begins a complicated puzzle plot where the Queens (Richard having been deputised by the local sheriff over the phone) use the father's experience and the son's thinking powers to solve the mystery.

Review: This is a good puzzle mystery where the case is solved several times, only for the carefully built-up piles of evidence to crumble repeatedly as tensions mount, both because of the murderer – who is extremely ruthless – and the approaching forest fire that threatens the lives of everyone in the house. The characters are interesting and the psychological study of a group of people with danger threatening both from outside and inside the group is very plausible. An astute and experienced reader can spot the killer before the sleuths do, but it would be quite easy to not discover the killer's identity.

Rating: Quite a good puzzle plot. 3+ stars.

Title: Cat of Many Tails
No. in series: 19
Year of publication: 1949
Type of mystery: Serial murders, thriller, whodunnit
Setting & time: New York City, USA, 1940s

Story: Ellery, badly affected by a failure that caused a tragic death, has retired from crime-solving, but when the mayor of New York personally asks him to work on the case of the Cat, a serial strangler, he reluctantly accepts the commission. The victims appear to have been chosen at random, but Ellery soon spots something they had in common, but is unable to attach much meaning to it, until a chance fact dropped by the medical examiner leads him to a likely suspect. But the only proof is circumstantial and they want solid proof before they move in, as psychological profiling has indicated that the killer is extremely clever, so a trap is set. But will the killer walk into it?

Review: This is in many ways a fine mystery/thriller with an intriguing puzzle plot, but while in the previous book I read it was quite difficult (although not impossible) to discover the killer, I had this one pegged before the halfway point and therefore found the subsequent red herrings, while entertaining as such, quite tedious.

Rating: An interesting psychological mystery. 3 stars.

Author/series review review: I had read and heard so much about Ellery Queen that I was quite looking forward to reading some of "his" books. Unfortunately I started with the weakest of the three I had on hand, and it prejudiced me so much against Queen that it was several months before I picked up another. That time I got something more like what I had been expecting, but still it was not exceptional, and neither was the third. But they are quite readable mysteries, even if Ellery (the character, as opposed to the author) can be a little annoying at times and everyone around him irritatingly obtuse (including, occasionally, his father). But this is forgivable – I certainly don't let my dislike of Hercule Poirot stop me from reading Christie – because the stories are entertaining and the plotting satisfyingly intricate.

The three books vary in quality, both in the writing and plotting. Two have quite intricate puzzle plots with psychological thriller elements. The third, while also having a puzzle plot, is simpler and cheats the reader of an opportunity to solve the mystery alongside the sleuth (the how rather than the who or why of it) by using a rather unlikely solution. Characterisations are usually rounded in the characters that matter and there is a stress on psychology, especially in Cat… where it is the key to the puzzle. The writing style swings from being somewhat stilted to being a mixture of straightforward writing mixed with language that is quite literary (the extended metaphor of the beginning paragraph of The Siamese Twin Mystery is a good example, even if it is somewhat stretched). This can not entirely be attributed to the double authorship, as apparently one of the team did most of the plotting while the other did most of the writing.

While on the whole I was rather disappointed with this giant of American mystery literature, I will in no way avoid "his" books should I come across more of them.


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