For the first time, I am posting something that is not exclusively about Queen. Instead, I’ll briefly talk about one of my favourite subgenres and list what I consider to be the five best books belonging to it.
The title clearly gives it away – it’s the serial-killer mystery. The Golden Age produced plenty of great books which truly represent this subgenre at its best. I’ve always delighted at the way puzzle-plotting is combined with increasing horror and tension as the number of killings rise. There is usually good misdirection, too, and the murderer is revealed in a dramatic fashion more often than not.
There is one thing that I want to discuss before I get on with the list. And that is what exactly does a story need to do to qualify as a serial-killer mystery? Is having a large body count enough? Does the motive need to appear random at first? Do all the victims need to be unrelated to each other? What do you think?
Well, all the books that follow satisfy the above criteria. Of course, the ranking is only in my opinion and I’m sure there are many I haven’t read.
5) X v. Rex (1933) by Philip MacDonald
Somebody with a dark agenda is killing policemen all over London. It seems as if nobody can stop him – apart from Nicholas Revell, of course, classic example of a hero who can only exist in fiction. This is a straight thriller with little to no clueing, misdirection or retrospective illumination; in fact, it can hardly be considered a mystery at all. And yet it’s pretty enjoyable. The writing style draws you in, the characters are fascinating, and it is at times just hair-raising. MacDonald was a hugely inventive author and Murder Gone Mad (1931) is another great serial-killer book by him.
4) Death Walks in Eastrepps (1931) by Francis Beeding
This time the target is Eastrepps, a coastal town in England which attracts a lot of tourists. People from all walks of life are being slaughtered resulting in Inspector Wilkins of the Scotland Yard getting called up. Can he apprehend the murderer before it is too late? Of course, he can and does. This is an exhilarating read that is also very cleverly clued and the final reveal is legitimately surprising. I haven’t read anything else by Beeding but I keep meaning to get back to him.
3) The Murders in Praed Street (1928) by John Rhode
Welcome to Praed street, London where strangers are not just being dispatched of in unusual ways, but tokens indicating the order in which they are getting killed is being found by their bodies. It falls to the famous retired professor Dr.Priestley to crack the case. Contains a refreshingly original idea for its time, though one that has been copied to death since. The plot moves very quickly with murders happening in the blink of an eye. The clueing isn’t particularly good, but I believe that was never Rhode’s strength. I read it recently – and this is what inspired the post. Definitely the best of the handful of Rhodes I’ve read so far.
2) The ABC Murders (1936) by Agatha Christie
The great Belgian detective Hercule Poirot is receiving typewritten letters mocking him while stating when and where a murder will take place. Could it be the obvious suspect? But it’s Christie, so surely there is more to it than that. The Queen of Crime took a whack at this type of story too and she again shows us how it’s done. The murders are well spaced out so each one is given its due importance. The clueing is first-class with some lovely deductions that lead to the solution. This was my first Poirot and it made me a fan for life. So why is this at second position? Well……..
1) Cat of Many Tails (1949) by Ellery Queen
You saw it coming, didn’t you? After all, this is a EQ-themed blog. But I really believe this one is the best. It powerfully portrays the panic and confusion in New York City that ensue from a serial killer in their midst. Somebody is mercilessly strangling its citizens with silk cords and the entire city is screaming for justice. It’s up to Ellery Queen, who retired after an embarrassing failure, to redeem himself by being the saviour. The puzzle, while not as complex as some of their earlier ones, is still very good with some clever twists and turns. Arguably the magnum opus of the cousins’ oeuvre, this is easily one of the finest products of GAD.
So how much of this do you agree with? Are there other great ones which I have missed? Your comments are more than welcome, and I look forward to a stimulating discussion!