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Ranking Period One Queen

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. 

Top 5 GA serial-killer mysteries

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! 

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! 

Introduction

My Name is Neil and I’ve always been a huge fan of GAD Fiction so I am starting this blog to record my feelings towards various books, authors, detectives, tropes etc. that pertain to this wonderful but sadly largely forgotten genre.

As you might have guessed by now, this blog will focus on one author in particular, an author I’ve always loved but who I feel doesn’t get enough appreciation these days — Ellery Queen.

I’ve been reading this stuff for over 15 years but didn’t discover the ‘Blogosphere’ — a brilliant collective of blogs written by eminently knowledgeable GAD enthusiasts — until an year and half ago. Upon doing so, I was surprised to find that many people whose writings I otherwise enjoyed were lukewarm towards the great Queen cousins.

This, then, will be a space where I’ll talk about why I liked their books when I first read them at the age of twelve and why I continue to enjoy them when I occasionally reread them. No, this blog won’t be exclusively Queen but it will certainly lean towards their work.

I’ve no idea how often it will be updated — I’ve already got both work and school to deal with — or if anybody will read it but hopefully I’ll enjoy myself as long as it lasts.

So yeah, wish me luck! (Assuming somebody is reading this!)

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