I’m sure everybody reading this is has already heard of the highly regarded blogger JJ of The Invisible Event, so I won’t bother introducing him. And I think most of you will agree that his opinions can be a bit……err……controversial at times. As anybody who has ever read his site will doubtless know, he famously doesn’t like Ellery Queen very much.
About two and a half years ago, shortly after declaring his intention to read the entire EQ oeuvre in order, he posted his thoughts on the second Queen novel The French Powder Mystery (1930).
No, read it. Seriously do.
Suffice to say, he loathed this intensely and unsurprisingly, the EQ-in-order project went sideways soon. Now, I respectfully but totally disagree with him about this book in particular and this author in general.
So, thanks to him for kindly allowing me to
show how wrong he is offer an alternative perspective and all that. I’m going to raise few points JJ made in his review and counter them. No spoilers, but it will help if you’ve read this.
Too many characters named in the overlong preface
It’s undeniable that naming over 30 characters in the cast seems too much but it should be noted that in their attempt to be rigorous, the authors made sure to mention every person who appears in the story in the foreword. Most of the named people are actually either detectives investigating the case or ‘outsiders’ who barely appear at all and whose only function is to provide evidence. The number of suspects is only 10 to 15, which clearly isn’t unreasonable for a work of detective fiction.
The foreword in itself is not needed, I agree, but I think it’s a wonderful 1930s touch and serves to heighten the mystery surrounding the elusive J.J. Mcc as well as give the readers an idea of what is to come.
The book ‘doesn’t want to tell its story’
I can’t disagree more with this. JJ lashes out on how dull everything is and how everybody is rushed in in the first few chapters, but all the scenes are significant. There is very little padding. The plot develops in some way or form with every interview, description or search. Even the discussion in the first chapter is important as it introduces some elements which would go on to play a vital role in what follows. Cometh the end, you will realize that everything that preceded had a clear purpose.
The opening provides nothing of any impetus or excitement for the reader
Again, I utterly disagree. I found the first part to be excellent. It beautifully captures the confusion that results when a dead body is found in an unexpected place. The dramatis personae are quickly brought in, and the reader is made privy of the basic facts of the case without much delay.
I’ve never been a fan of mysteries in which chapter after chapter is spent on ‘character development’ as nine times out of ten, the only purpose they serve is stretching the tale. Introducing all the characters early is always welcome, as it also takes care of the fundamental rule of mentioning the murderer in the early part of the story.
Too much talking
The narrative is certainly strongly investigation-focussed and full of dialogue but what’s wrong with it? As Christian of Mysteries, Short and Sweet said in the comments section of JJ’s review, talking is the part of a mystery where the misdirection is applied best. Some of Christie’s best clues, for instance, are hidden in blocks of conversation.
I don’t think the talking is dull at all as it consistently unearths new facts and allows the narrative to move steadily towards a thrilling conclusion. Nor do I believe there is as much repetition as JJ seems to think there is.
And lastly, I’ll raise a point which JJ somehow ignored. It concerns what this novel is most famous for: –
You see, this finishes with one of the most dramatic denouements ever. The murderer’s name is not revealed until the last two words of the thirty-page explanation. The tension conjured towards the end works very effectively and kept me on the edge of my seat when I first read it.
Ellery’s reasoning is far from ironclad, I’ll admit, but the way logical arguments are constructed out of information already provided is a sight to behold and I especially enjoyed the way all the clues came together to apprehend the guilty party.
So that’s that. I wouldn’t quite call it a classic, but I definitely liked it far more than JJ and you now have two wildly differing views of the same novel in front of you. (That’s hardly unusual, though). Which leaves me to wonder that if you, dear reader, have read this, whose opinions do you agree with more?
Finally, I’d like to bring to your attention this EQ poll by Ken, a long-time commenter of the ‘blogosphere’. It’s open till the end of November and may the best book win!