So let’s get straight into this. As you’re probably aware of, Ellery Queen is rather famous for changing his/their style of writing quite often. For this reason, their oeuvre is often divided into three or four periods which vastly differ from each other. Francis M. Nevins, I believe, was the first to come up with such a division.
The first period (1929-1935) is known for its fiercely complex puzzles, complete lack of characterization, dedication to fair-play and of course, the famous challenges to the reader. It is oft-maligned for being purely an intellectual exercise but I don’t mind this, for detective stories should focus on the puzzle.
I’ve always loved this period, perhaps even more so than the later ones. So for my first post, I shall rank the books belonging to this period in the order of my preference. By the way, I’m excluding Halfway House(1936) from the list as it is historically considered to be period two.
9) The Spanish Cape Mystery (1935)
The last one of the lot, this sees Ellery going to a holiday and befittingly for a great detective, immediately tumbling upon a murder of a philander, found naked apart from the titular cape wrapped around his body. It isn’t a complete waste, but it just feels a bit loose after the pleasingly convoluted plots that preceded it. The transparency is a real problem too, and I think most readers will solve it easily.
8) The Roman Hat Mystery (1929)
The debut of Ellery Queen, and worth reading for that bit alone. It’s a bit of a duff though. It starts off nicely with the Queens investigating the murder of a notorious blackmailer, found dead in a crowded theatre with his hat missing, but soon gets bogged down by a boring middle full of interviews. The solution has a nice misdirection, though there are some fair-play issues as well.
7) The Dutch Shoe Mystery (1931)
Ellery goes to hospital to meet his old friend and of course, stumbles upon the dead body of a well-known businesswoman strangled by someone impersonating the doctor who was about to operate on her. I liked this the first time but not so much while re-reading. Like Roman Hat, it suffers from a weaker middle section though the plot keeps moving. The solution, however, is top-notch and anybody who spots the killer deserves a pat on the back.
6) The Chinese Orange Mystery(1934)
An unknown man is found dead in a stamp-collector’s office with everything – from the victim’s clothes to the furniture in the room – turned backwards. Very famous for its hook, it’s fun and those who bemoan the earlier titles for being dull will probably enjoy it, but I consider it to be a bit overrated. The solution for the backwardness relies on a very dated concept and the denouement would certainly have benefited from a few maps.
5) The Egyptian Cross Mystery (1932)
Crucifixions, beheadings, religious lunatics and more! The first case to be set outside New York City as Ellery runs all over America to solve a series of brutal murders. I found this one to be very entertaining. There are some minor caveats such as fate of a missing character but overall, this is a strong one. The reasoning that leads to the murderer is clever too and while the solution is a variation of an old trick, it’s still cunning.
4) The American Gun Mystery (1933)
Surprised? I feel this one is unfairly vilified. The Queens go to rodeo and obviously, a murder soon transpires but the weapon is nowhere to be found. I found this to be a very compelling read. The characters are lively, the plot develops neatly, and the solution is both surprising and fairly clued. The solution of the impossible disappearance of the gun is often scoffed at, but I really don’t mind it.
3) The French Powder Mystery (1930)
The French’s department store opens with the dead body of the owner’s wife displayed in a demonstration window for the entire New York to see, and the Queens soon arrive to conduct an exhaustive investigation. Anybody interested in complex plotting will surely enjoy this one. Not much happens between the murder and the reveal, but it still keeps the reader engaged. Also contains one of the most thrilling denouements in the history of the genre in which the murderer’s name is kept hidden until the last two words of the book.
2) The Siamese Twin Mystery (1933)
The Queens seek shelter in a house as forest fire engulfs all around them. Murder and mayhem follow. Those who decry dying messages might have problems with some aspects of the story, but there’s a lot more to it than that. I won’t spoil the plot anymore; this is a classic plain & simple and it contains one of the finest tricks I’ve ever read.
1) The Greek Coffin Mystery (1932)
Simply speaking, this is one of the greatest, if not the greatest pure-puzzle plot ever written. Starts off with a neat missing-will mini-story and soon evolves into something far more complex as a dead man is found instead of a will. Contains three clever false solutions, many smartly concealed clues including an excellent psychological one, wonderful misdirection and a genuinely surprising killer. I first read it when I was thirteen, and it blew my mind. A must-read.
So there you have it. If you haven’t read this series, hopefully you’ll feel encouraged to use this list as a starting point. And if you’ve read some of these and given up on the author, hopefully this will make you reconsider your decision. Depending on how this is received (if more than three people like it), I might do another such list on the later periods, though I’ll have to re-read some of them.