Sunday, February 15, 2015

The French Powder Mystery (1930)

My experience with Ellery Queen mysteries has not ranged so broad, but I'm sure I've read one or two I liked pretty well. This is not one of them. It's only the second collaboration between the two Brooklyn cousins who traveled under the Ellery Queen pseudonym, Frederic Dannay and Manfred Bennington Lee (also pseudonyms, but they really were cousins from Brooklyn), and it shows where their first priorities lay: constructing an intricate mystery, specifically, the "locked-room." It is essentially a novelization of a logic problem, a puzzle type for which I've never had much interest (or capability). It is filled with useless and pointless knowledge and uninteresting characters, who are uniformly if randomly "grinning," like lights on a Christmas tree, blinking on and off to indicate ... something? There is surprisingly little recognizable human behavior here—let alone police procedure, which matters when one of your main characters (the father of the amateur sleuth and our hero Ellery Queen) is a high-ranking police investigator. Dannay and Lee are plainly proud of what they have wrought here—their first effort, The Roman Hat Mystery, had been a big hit the year before. They issue a challenge to readers directly, just before the last chapter and infinitely tiresome Big Reveal, to make their guesses and/or forever hold their peace. At which point I might have been seen yawning. I did try my usual Perry Mason "n - 1" formula (the character I judge second-unlikeliest to have "dunit," admittedly not that accurate, because I am always completely lost in these things less than halfway along). But I was wrong. The culprit was a character who never meant anything to me in the least. In fact, that was true of most of the 30-odd characters (as found in a useless list at the front). Most of the rest I actively did not like, including especially Ellery Queen himself, who is a diaper-soiling version of Sherlock Holmes—a character I like, with human qualities. I've got another one of these so-called "nationality" mysteries by Queen to try (The Dutch Shoe Mystery) but I am proceeding with caution. As I say, I remember encountering both good and bad Ellery Queen books many years ago. If only I could remember the titles of the good ones, alas....

In case it's not at the library.

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