The Gauntlet is thrown for The French Powder Mystery (1930) — A rebuttal to JJ

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: – 

The Denouement 

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! 

25 thoughts on “The Gauntlet is thrown for The French Powder Mystery (1930) — A rebuttal to JJ

  1. The murderer being named at the end of thirty pages of faulty logic is something notable always struck me as odd. Christianna Brand did it far more succinctly — mind you, who isn’t more succinct than early period EQ? — and thus to more devastating effect in keeping the method under wraps until the last few words of Suddenly at is Residence (does anyone really get to the final line of TFPM and not know who we’ve been working towards, like it actually surprises people even after all that drawn out build-up?). Doing something new is fine, but even by your own admission above it’s not exactly watertight…so they take aaaages to spell out something that’s already obvious in a manner that’s flawed?

    Well, yeah, that’s these first few Ellery Queen books in a nutshell 😛

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    1. I agree with you that the withholding of the criminal’s name here doesn’t really work. As you say, anyone who’s paid a little attention will know exactly who Ellery is referring to.

      But I was surprised that I had so much clever stuff to say about EQ in the comment to your earlier review. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

    2. Yes, Brand did it far more succinctly and far less accurately in my opinion! Honestly, I’ve never understood the craziness over her. But that’s a post for another day…….

      However, there is a major difference between ‘not watertight’ and ‘totally flawed’. And if this is flawed, it’s certainly less flawed than many other books I’ve read including some by an author you love. 😜

      True, the murderer becomes evident slightly before the reveal, but I still think it’s a cool and clever finish.

      By the way, I saw your tweet the other day about reading Siamese Twin. How is that going if I may ask? Because if you end up hating that one too, I’ll have to write six such posts!

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      1. Yeah, like you I’m not the biggest fan of Brand, as has been borne out in my reviews of her to date, but there are somethings she does superbly. Her characters are typically wonderful, though sometimes at the expense of the plot they’e supposed to be in…

        Siamese Twin is going fine; halfway through at present. I’m aware that Queen fans tend to be in raptures over it, so we’ll see how it plays out.

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    3. The ending sequence where the suspects get whittled down one by one was a definite rush, but yes, by the time the culprit’s name is said, they are the only one left. And it isn’t a particularly great reveal – more of a “oh, ok, that person” mixed with “that logic feels awfully flimsy.”

      My issue though isn’t the ending – it was hands down the best part. It is that the 300 pages that came before it are boring. None of the arguments above influence that. Of course, that’s my subjective opinion and I’m not going to convince anyone to change their mind as to whether it was interesting.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. The early books are often accused of being boring but they never struck me as such. I thought all the interviews, investigations, searches etc. kept the plot moving.

        On the other hand, I read the acclaimed Murder of My Aunt by Richard Hull last year and Good Heavens, did I find it dull. More than 80% of the book is the narrator procrastinating to no particular end! It felt so….static.

        It’s a bit weird, isn’t it? But with early EQ, I do get the feeling of progress.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Well, the problem is GAD itself you know. We are fans of a flawed art. High level GAD is hard to pull off. You need a good puzzle, surprise, good clues, convincing deduction, and you have to wrap them skillfully into a halfway decent novel. That’s a tall order and it’s rarely attained. Even the best selling author in history only got it all right a few times. Most mysteries fall down in one way or another. It’s not surprising different people accept or reject different flaws.

          Liked by 1 person

  2. Only two reviews in and you’re picking a blog fight – good going! I wasn’t that big a fan of Hat or Powder (though I probably did appreciate them more than JJ) but it wasn’t until Shoe that I got what Queen were about – or maybe more accurately what they aren’t about.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Hi Neal
    Thanks for the link!
    This was my first EQ, and made me a fan — 40 years ago. I loaned it to several people back in the 80s and all really liked it. It is mostly a stunt, but what a stunt! I confess though I fear rereading it. My reread of Greek Coffin was disastrous.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I too started reading EQ when I was a teenager and largely enjoyed them. It seems as if the early period books are more likely to appeal to younger minds. What didn’t you like about ‘Greek Coffin’ during your reread?

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      1. I think I no longer have patience for 40 pages explaining why the arrangement of the salt and pepper shakers prove the murderer must have blue eyes. (That is not a real example!) And so many of the inferences were so tenuous. In short, it *made me think like JJ*, and that scared the bejeebus out of me! Really disappointing since Greek was one of my top EQ books when I was younger.

        That said I recently read the only early novel I had missed earlier, Halfway House, and it had some lovely extended reasoning from a simple fact. HH is a book I would recommend to those who find early Queen just too, too much. It won’t be in the final four I predict, but I now like it much more than Greek Coffin.

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  4. It is not one of the best ones but it is alright. There are two other problems that neither of you mentioned. First Ellery knew the killer earlier but let his father interview about half a dozen of suspects. That makes no sense. It is just a attempt at misdirection. The other problem is in spoiler territory. Let me just say that the killer could have merely worn gloves and avoided all this concern about fingerprints.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Ha, yes, Ellery acted rather stupidly by withholding the murderer’s identity but you could argue that he did it for a specific purpose.

      And I think it is given that it was necessary for the killer to remove gloves to perform a certain action…

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