#239: Construction, Clarity, Conformity, and the Contortions of Ellery Queen in The French Powder Mystery (1930)

French Powder Mystery

Contrary to what the books may tell us, the father of Ellery Queen, detective, is not Inspector Richard Queen but instead Philo Vance, the dilettante amateur wise-arse detective created by S.S. van Dine.  I’m not claiming this is an original observation — far from it — but reading the second novel to feature the Queens and the first in which Ellery actually solves the case (he has a very small hand in their debut, The Roman Hat Mystery) it’s interesting to realise just how heavily Dannay and Lee were leaning on van Dine at this point of their careers.

See, the name “Ellery Queen”, whether associated with the character or the authors — and boy is it ever going to be fun having to repeatedly clarify which one I’m talking about — is such a byword for the ne plus ultra in GAD that it’s weird seeing them clearly cabbaging from such an obvious source to get themselves going.  Plenty of people have done it over the years, and continue to, but I’m wondering if the heavy reliance this places on so many of the pre-existing tropes and conventions and ideas without really bringing anything new to the table is why  I struggled with it so much.

Because struggle I did.  To put it mildly, I struggled.

I found it such a dull trudge that, had  not read and enjoyed other Queens prior to this, the experience of dragging myself through this coupled with the turgid talkiness and frank cheating of The Roman Hat Mystery would eighty-six my Ellery Queen in Order undertaking right here.  You will upbraid me for this, I’m sure, and tell me that I’m missing the point or whatever, but it’s honestly got me so exhausted and so completely jaded about the type of thing I read that I’m unlikely to pick up The Dutch Chose Mystery any time soon (and, while I’m sure many of you may rush to assure me that it’s even better than this, the simple fact is I’d question whether it could be much worse).

I read this kind of stuff because I enjoy it — there’s no necessarily ‘busy’ time of year at work for me, it’s always busy, and my reading is something that I step away into because it’s so very far removed from what I do day-to-day.  The contortions of catchy plots and convoluted, overlapping incidents is manna from heaven to my seething brain, and the more reversals and cleverness you can cram into the pages of a book the happier it typically makes me; I’ve come to realise that puzzle plots are my kind of thing, and being led around in a merry old dance is simply part of the fun of being outwitted and outplayed by someone who really knows their stuff.  Dannay and Lee are famed for this, we should be a perfect fit.

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Let the games begin!

But somehow The French Powder Mystery gets it so, so wrong.  From the 38 characters named at the start to the hugely overlong and self-indulgent J.J. McQ preface, it starts off as a book that simply does not want to tell its story — even the opening chapter drops us straight into a conversation concerning a variety of cases and interactions that have no bearing on what follows, plus an additional gripe about politicking in the police department that is probably good for verisimilitude but the kiss of death for the opening of a book that provides nothing of any impetus or excitement for the reader.  Then a body is discovered, in a moderately exciting way, and the police called.

And.  Then.  Everyone.  Talks.  And talks.  And talks.  And most bits of talking end with someone murmuring in an undertone, saying something to another character that we’re not made privy to.  Then more people talk.  Then a character is called from upstairs to come in and talk.  Some more murmurs.  And a bit of standing a talking.  Then looking at a body and talking.  Then talking on a phone.  And some more standing and talking.  And this should be setting up a variety of interesting relationships and potential red herrings and — one hopes — clues, but, fuck, it is so dull, and so entirely without structure or purpose, there’s nothing in the first third that couldn’t be put across by most authors in about five pages.

And I can’t work out why it’s so bad, but it is.  The majority of this kind of novel involves a lot of interviews and conflicting statements, you think I’d be used to it by now, but this is something special.  And I’ve read plenty of terrible books in my time, so I don’t know why this one has affected me in particular, though there’s doubtless a sort of expectation comedown about it: I’ve seen Dannay and Lee be blistering and so sharp and canny and wonderfully spry as they nip in and out of view ahead of their readers, always with a glimmer of an idea flashed then hidden, then shown from another angle so it looks different, later revealed to be the key to the whole thing.  I’ve seen them at pretty much the peak of the form, and it never really occurred to me that it might have taken them a couple of apprentice books to get there.

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Maybe next time…

Because, essentially, what you have here is a simple enough story about a woman being murdered, except it’s not the length of a novel.  So another 30 characters are piled on, and their various interactions are couched in the most suspicious behaviour and deliberate eluding of questions and answers possible so that the actually quite nifty central idea is swamped under the expectations and conventions of a type of novel that, it turns out, Dannay and Lee did not know how to write at this stage of their careers.  As a microcosm of GAD it’s perfect — because it has everything — but as a novel it’s a complete misfire — because it has everything.  It’s as if someone sat down to play a piano and just mashed all the keys, given that lost of notes usually makes a good song.  When your toybox is this stacked, you need to pick a few to play with, and then come back to the others another day.  It’s fine, they’ll still be there.  Breathe…

The clewing may be spot on, I can’t exactly say — I had to skip some pages here and there or I would never have gotten through it — but it treats detective fiction as this sort of indurate mass that must be attacked full-on and where the clarity of an investigation is only achieved by making you stand and listen while every pertinent fact is recited over and over, and then chipped away at again and again, and then finally put aside for the next assault.  Fun it is not, though rigorous it may well be.  We are without the unspoken implications and wild gaiety of The Greek Coffin Mystery’s approach to the same thing two years later, so it seems they do crack it fairly soon, but this is a mystery that nearly broke me rather than the other way around.

French Powder Mystery MPAaaaaah, it feels good getting this down.  Do people really pay for therapy?  Madness.  And I’m sure most of you who got this far will have done so with an increasingly-aghast look on your face and a steadily-rising righteousness at my having missed the genius at the heart of this…but, well, how dull would it be if we all agreed on everything?  The comments are yours to hold forth, and I’m going to dwell on my expected pleasant stroll around the fields of Ellery Queen having started with me tripping and then rolling down the nearest hummock.  Possibly I sprained my ankle and must sit here for a while.  And then it will take a special Shoe for me to walk out of this ditch and start enjoying myself… (see what I did there?  Let’s hope I’m right, eh?).

Crikey, I’m never going to follow in Brad’s illustrious footsteps by appearing in the Blog Bites column of EQMM now, am I…

~

If you haven’t yet voted for the Fair-Play Detective Fiction Top Ten (it’s probably going to be a top ten), then you have until Saturday; this book is in the mix, so show your support if you think I’m wrong about it…

~

I submit the cover up top for the Vintage Cover Scavenger Hunt 2017 at My Reader’s Block under the category Playing Cards.

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70 thoughts on “#239: Construction, Clarity, Conformity, and the Contortions of Ellery Queen in The French Powder Mystery (1930)

  1. Well, Anthony Boucher praised the denouement as “probably the most admirably constructed denouement in the history of the detective story.” The murderer’s name is kept concealed throughout about 30 pages of explanation till the novel’s last 2 words !

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    • Yeah, but Boucher was also wildly enthusiastic about Carr’s The Blind Barber…so it’s not like he had a 100% hit rate or anything… 😀

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  2. Poor fella! If you didn’t enjoy this, you won’t enjoy any Ellery Queen until at least 1936’s “Halfway House”. How’s that for comfort? 😉

    Nah, I can see where you’re coming from, even though I don’t really agree. It’s not at all as bad as you describe it. It’s definitely not my favourite Queen – it’s not even near my favourite early Queen. But there is some cleverness here. There is in fact possibly too much cleverness. The gimmick of not revealing the murderer until the final words of the novel, for instance, does not work, because it’s blindingly obvious from Ellery’s walkthrough of the case who the killer is, long before it’s spelled out in that final sentence.

    On the whole, I think – think! – that modern readers will have a harder time with Queen than with Carr – and moderns readers who started with Carr will have an even harder time with Queen. Because Queen is not about action, is not about ambiance, is not about horror and creepy-crawly feelings and a heavy, heavy air of discomfort. Queen is about the puzzle.

    Yes, Carr is a puzzly fella as well, but he is mainly going for the impossible variant everytime (and he does it great!) – Queen on the other hand is doing all manners of puzzles, any kind really. There’s the odd impossibility, there’s the odd least suspected person, the odd dying message, the odd perfect alibi and so on. And Queen is also very mannered, they will have a specific idea that they want to explore and take as far as is humanly possible – and sometimes turn that idea upside-down, inside-out – in their stories. They’re an acquired taste, to be sure.

    Oh yes, they will vary themselves in the matter of story-telling as well. As 1936 rolls along, they will be using a lighter touch for a while, focussing less on the puzzle aspects. Then later on, they will introduce psychological elements and so on.

    As an aside, why is everyone so bothered about “talking, talking, talking” in a detective novel? I see this criticism is one of the main ones against Marsh as well. That “talking” bit is the bit I enjoy the most in novels. I’m not particularly interested in descriptions of places and people. They’re only important as far as it is necessary to set up (and solve) a puzzle. It’s in the talking where the misdirection can be applied best, I feel.

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    • It was a bit of a surprise to me how that pushing of everything to its furthest limit just was not my kind of thing here — they do a similar thing with the deductions of Greek Coffin, say, and it’s wonderful (or at least I remember it being so…!), but this was so moribund and so leaden by comparison while they tried to shoehorn in their cleverness. Maybe I just don’t like being nudged and told “See? See how clever that is?”.

      Except it’s not even that — as much as they do push around a few new pieces, it’s not even all that clever. It’s far cleverer to keep one guessing within a small cast, to have two options on the table and no-one able to decide between them on account of how the misdirection swings back and forth. Here there are 17 options on the table and, frankly, I don’t fancy anyone’s chances in that situation. Many will disagree, but that’s how I read it and that’s the impression I’m taking away. It is to be hoped that Dutch Shoe finds us closer to an accommodation…

      As for all the talking, my main gripe is that there are so many ways to relay information and clues, and simply having someone sit down and go “Well, here’s the thing…” and spill all while you hunt for inconsistencies is far and away the easiest. Compare Christie’s Evil Under the Sun, say, with Murder on the Orient Express — the first has all sorts of activities witnessed and relayed and overheard and seen, whereas the second is mainly a lot of interviews, and arguably a less interesting read on account of that. And over-reliance on “Sit there and tell me everything” when with a little effort we can have more in the way of subtly-conveyed clues just seems like the shortest route…and often the dullest, if overdone to the extent I feel it is here.

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    • As you said, Christian, talking is the best place to apply misdirection. It’s a great device that readers can easily overlook, a lot more than physical clues or something out of place in a room. Agatha Christie did this quite successfully in many of her mysteries. It’s the talking that reveals character. Descriptions of people can do this but not quite fully as a conversation.

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    • I recall liking Tragedy of X and had a very good reason for doing so. Somewhere, don’t remember where exactly, I had read the plot was next to impossible to solve, but had no difficulty in noticing the significance of all the murders being committed on public transport. The book made feel like a proper armchair detective.

      A warning for everyone who has not read the book: don’t bother too much with the dying message. It hinges on a now arcane piece of knowledge. Just concentrate on the other clues.

      However, I can understand why some prefer The Tragedy of Y (the clue of the blunt instrument!) and The Tragedy of Z (the final scene in the execution chamber!). Great stuff!

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  3. Yes, not read any Barnaby Ross yet but I agree on this, and the first few Queen novels generally. I remember the book as OK, may a little too enamored of its own cleverness and maybe a little too dense, but essentially OK.

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    • I think that had more people agreed with you, I’d have gone in with lesser expectations and enjoyed it a bit more. What’s weird is how completely beloved it seems to be; fine, we all have different opinions, but I’m awae that I seem to be almost the lone dissenting voice!

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      • Expectations always need to be tempered, as far as I can see. Just take a book, or anything for that matter, as it comes and on its own terms. If we’re forever trying to measure stuff up or down to what others have encouraged us to believe, then disappointment is going to be a frequent companion.
        Dutch Shoes is next, right? I think it is better, but not exponentially so and you ought not to take my word on that at any rate! Just read it as the next EQ in line and try not to take nay preconceptions in with you – maybe you;ll like it or maybe you won’t but don’t lumber yourself with baggage from the get go.

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        • I promise that I do try to take on books as blank as possible, but — dammit — with al these entertain’ folks all sharin’ their opinions online it becomes mighty hard to ignore ’em…

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          • Quite. If one were to follow my advice to the letter, we might as well all shut up shop right now and just do what we do in isolation. It’s just a matter of getting a balance that works. Simple. Hmm…

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          • The only sensible thing seems to be read whatever we wnat online, then acquire the skill of self-hypnosis to forget it before we read a particular book. Sure, we’d then have to go and read it all again afterwards, but if anyone has a better idea — which, frankly, I doubt — I’d like to hear it…

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  4. Yeah . . . . . what Christian said.

    How’s that for a witty retort?

    Look, the cousins were young, and they wanted to read a contest. So they mimicked what they knew to be the hottest guy on the market – and you see where it got ’em. I find Van Dine pretty unreadable; even the best, like The Greene Murder Case or The Bishop Murder Case, are dense slogs. The dialogue is unnatural, and Philo Vance is always running off on an academic tangent that lands us nowhere, don’t ya know?

    The Queens seemed like a breath of relief after that, but the early ones are tough going in the prose department. I do think Dutch Shoe is better, but you’re still going to have to face a hospital full of cardboard characters. The Greek and Siamese adventures are a world apart, the first because it succeeds at a cleverness French Powder could only shoot for, and the second because the forest fire adds a human element to Queen for perhaps the first time.

    The rest of the international adventures are a grab bag, and Christian might be spot on in saying the first period is not for you. Hey, nobody’s going to be down on you for this, JJ! Lots of this stuff is clever but dull, and we all have our limits. I’m saddled with some unreadable dreck by this guy named Penny that some shmuck told me was brilliant! What are ya gonna do?

    Tell you what? You tackle the next Queen, and I’ll try to slog through Policeman’s Evidence. It’s like we’ll go Dutch? (Oh look, see what I did there?!?)

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    • Who told you Louise Penny was brilliant? I find her unreadable. Oh, wait, you said “guy”. Dammit, why do I always seem to be on the wrong side of history?!

      It’s true that Greek and Siamese are far, far better, but I can’t believe Dannay and Lee just fluked their way up to that level of excellence — surely it’s gotta be in evidence on the works leading up to that and some of the other international titles show flashes of superbness to keep them afloat (Egyptian Cross is one, I seem to remember, that springs to life about halfway through with a blistering period of amazingness before somnolently staggering out the rest of its course — I’ll take that after this!).

      I’ll get to Dutch Shoe, I will. I’m not giving up after two lousy experiences; if Galdys Mitchell gets six or seven books then Ellery Queen gets at least three! Perhaps now I’ll find more to enjoy going in with lowered expectations, who knows?

      I anticipate your continuing to hate every author I love and so thoroughly roasting Penny at some point in the future 😀

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  5. So you’re telling me that I have some excellent reading on the horizon?!?!

    I’m about 1/3rd of the way through The Roman Hat Mystery and I’ll admit that it’s an avalanche of characters and dialogue. Quite different from the Carr work I’m used to. Still, it’s been enjoyable enough so far; we’ll see if the ending makes it worth it.

    Out of curiosity, aside from Greek Coffin, which other Queens have you enjoyed?

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    • Well, diff’rent storkes and diff’rent folks and all that, be aware that I’m usually in the minortiy in this sort of situation.

      I’m not even concerned about the lack of similarity to Carr, I just found this so freakin’ dull and flat and slow and awful. Must be getting old…

      My memory for Queens is patchy, but I seem to remember enjoying Siamese Twin, Halfway House, and Calamity Town…possibly. Don’t quote me on that. It was more than a few years ago and my memories are rather hazy — hence the stumbling shambles of an undetaking you see before you!

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  6. Interesting comments, JJ. I’ve enjoyed reading them, despite your obvious annoyance!

    For better or worse, I liked French Powder and found it far superior to Roman Theater; for that one, my reaction was much like yours for this one–not only to mention, it’s also unfair!

    The characters are all cardboard, and the writing is rather dull, but there was enough intellectual crackle in the puzzle to keep me reading on. On this point, I agree with Brad and Christian; Christian is absolutely right to criticize these early Queens as too clever for their own good. As highly praised as the final-words gimmick is, I found it just that–a gimmick, obviously calling attention to itself, and being rather silly in the long run.

    With that said, much of the detection in this one is brilliant, I hasten to add. While this is an early Queen, and therefore not totally satisfying as detective-story or as novel, it has so many aspects that become central to later Queens–there is a particular connection, as Mike Grost pointed out, to several of the tales in The Adventures of Ellery Queen, which, though a short story collection, is my favorite of the early Queen books (even more so than Greek Coffin!).

    Hey, but, then again, though I parodied them (https://yetanothermysteryblog.wordpress.com/2016/03/31/the-staple-murder-case/) like some of the Van Dines (albeit more for the atmosphere than for the puzzle plot), particularly Greene, Bishop, and Kidnap, so what do I know? 🙂

    Salzmank

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    • Well, I shall persevere and see where that gets me — like Brad with Paul Halter, I don’t want anyone saying I didn’t try, and I should on paper love what they’re doing. Maybe I’ll get there eventually…

      I’ve only read one van Dine — Kennel — and really quite enjoyed it; I must go back and have another look at him. Pne, possibly Greene, was mentioned in the comments here a while ago and sounds great, so I’m eternally hoping for the time to check out that and all the other books I intned to sample before senility takes me 🙂

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      • Kennel, Greene, and Bishop – that’s all you need.

        And it’s so funny because I’m reading my last Louise Penny novel ever! I’ve read them all – long story, having to do with getting a Kindle. But I’m so tired of her shite! I was gonna blog about it and I thought I would just come off as mean-spirited. So finishing this one off and then ignoring the new one coming out (God, that woman is prolific!) and all that follow. Adieu, Three Pines. Adieu, spiritual Brigadoon claptrap! Sayonara to another mystery writer who doesn’t come through in terms of the mystery. Oh . . . getting mean here! I’m shutting up now . . . at least until I tackle Rupert P.!

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        • Brad, I’ve only read one Penny book, years ago–I think it was The Rule Against Murder, or some such title–and didn’t like it all that much but found the (novel, I thought) impossible crime somewhat clever. On the other hand, the book didn’t tempt me to pick up anything else of hers, so I guess that says something right there…

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          • They’re meant to be read in order because the continuing storyline of the regular characters is what keeps this series going, imho. Inspector Gamache’s battle against police corruption, Clara Morrow’s rise as an artist as her husband’s reputation crumbles, the Gamache/Beauvoir bromance, all the food everyone eats – these are the pleasures of a Louise Penny book. The mysteries get more opaque with each new book; often it feels like the author just gave up and came up with an ending. Her crime plotting leaves much to be desired . . .

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        • You say “meanness”, I say “constructive criticism”. That Ms. Penny is unlikely to read or heed it makes it no less constructive…

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          • She is a brilliant self-promoter, which I fear any modern author, particularly one who rights niche fiction, needs to be. She is a presence on Facebook and maintains an active website. Her husband just died of dementia, and she posted about how the next book helped her through that loss. The “author as friend” sells many books. I know I sound cynical here. It’s just that a woman who writes village mysteries SHOULD be right up my alley, and she consistently disappoints in the murder mystery department. But I keep reading her because the trappings are very sweet. But enough is enough. I’m showing her the door. I can always reread Austen if I’m in the mood for bucolic shenanigans (much better written ones too!)

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          • I got to that point with Peter Robinson, too, where the wider set of characters was nice, but the mysteries I was supposedly reading the books for just spiralled sharply. A few of his — notably Dry Bones That Dream — show promise, but he’s never going to be the author I want him to be, so we parted ways. Amicably on my side, I can’t speak for his feelings on the matter.

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          • You do realize that there are whimpers of distress going on here. I came across reviews saying that L Penny was Real Whizzo and The True Quill, so I invested in one of her novels — a great big fat thing that I have yet to read. Now you’re telling me that it’s likely to induce a near-Tragedy of X state in me. Oh woes, oh woes, oh woes.

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          • John, John, oh, John . . . I don’t know what Penny you bought or if you’ll ever get to it. (The most recent Elizabeth George tome has been sitting on my Kindle for a year now . . . ) But I guarantee it will NOT feel like reading Tragedy of X. For one thing, her prose is light as air, to the point of insubstantiality! And second, if you did not get the first one, you are going to be so confused about who is who and what is going on that you will WISH you were on a night train heading to Weehauken, a lump of Viennese sugar in your pocket!

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          • The most recent Elizabeth George tome has been sitting on my Kindle for a year now . . .

            Oh, crivvens, I’ve had Elizabeth George tomes sitting on my shelf for far longer than that. There was the one I was sent for review in about 2005, at a guess. The zine concerned has long since put up the shutters, but I’m still determined to “get to it one day” . . . like the two or three other EG novels I own.

            Anyway, I’m glad for your reassurance that LP is not nearly as bad as you’d painted but in fact worse. Perhaps I should send the book to JJ to give him a break from all the EQ . . .

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      • I think that with Van Dine you have to realize that the plots aren’t going to be all that great. That satisfying click when all the pieces fall into place is very rare (in his books, for me that has only happened with Kidnap, and then for something halfway through, not even the solution.

        To be honest, I agree with Brad on Paul Halter, which is, as you say, how you feel about early Queen–I should on paper love what he’s doing, but I just can’t get past how atrocious and dull the writing is. I’m also irritated at Halter’s trick of making the same type of character the killer in every other book–acroidal or close to it.

        Anyway, I’m of the opinion that EQ’s stylistic skill, if not characterization prowess, picks up around Egyptian Cross (not so much in Greek Coffin, brilliant though the plot is) and, with the exception of Chinese Orange, continues right into Period II, where we see greater characterizations and better writing.

        So–you’ve something to look forward to!

        Salzmank

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        • I always get the solutions to Halter, Salzmank. I just wait for that particular kind of character to waltz in, and I’m correct! Totally agree with what you said.

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          • I know, right? If it’s not exactly acroidal in solution, it’s so darn’ near close that I do exactly what you said and wait for that particular character to waltz into the scene, and I know whodunit right away.
            I will say that I thought the locked-room solutions in The Fourth Door and some of the short stories good and that I liked the set-ups (though not solutions) in The Invisible Circle and The Crimson Fog. Besides that? Ehh..

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          • It is the ingenuity of the impossibilities that I particularly enjoy — nobody modern is doing it as well, and I fear that may be the case for a while. The shortcomings of plotting in things like Seven Wonders of Crime is something I see as his enthusiasm over-reaching itself, and I think sometimes he doesn’t get the credit h deserves because his plotting fassl a little short.

            The back-and-forth of The Seventh Hypothesis, for instance, is frankly amazing, and of a complexity and dexterity that most authors from the clasic era would give their eye-teeth for. But his characters suffer a bit, so he gets disdained by modern sensibilties. Ah, well….

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          • Oh, I agree.

            I greatly appreciate what Halter is trying to do–indeed, it’s something that all of us wish we were doing, no?

            While I love his intentions, I just find the executions lacking. You’re right about his not receiving the credit, me included, he may deserve for doing his utmost for our beloved genre. I will concede that some of the solutions in Seven Wonders are rather clever, even if I felt that the book as a whole did not hang together all that well (ditto with another oft-cited favorite, Demon of Dartmoor).

            I haven’t read Seventh Hypothesis–I know, what I’ve been missing, right? I will definitely give Halter more chances in the future; it is only that both plotting and writing quality have disappointed me so far. But I’m going to suppose that we can all raise our glasses and give a hearty “hear, hear!” to Halter’s intentions, certainly.

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          • Halter is very much a curate’s egg, I just choose to enjoy the good parts when I can find them! The Vampire Tree is a case in point: the main story is rather drawn out, but he impossible murder angle is absolutely wonderful…alas, it’s scattered throughout the main story and so you have to hunt ad wait for it to be resolved. But it’s genius, a wonderful variation on the “Only the victim’s footprints were present” story, and will probably get lost amidst the larger book, which is a real shame…

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        • I shall look forward to a change in fortunes for EQ; you’ll all hear about it either way, so for your own sakes I hope things improve.

          As for Halter…well, I can get why people don’t go for him, but I do so love what’s been translated so far. Not all of it, but so much of what’s there is just a delight to my withered soul. But, yeah, he’s not for everyone.

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  7. I second what Christian said. You’re probably not going to like any of the titles from Ellery Queen’s Van Dinean period, but that’s the problem with recommending their work, because they had so many different periods in their career.

    Personally, I love the international series, the short stories and the “Ellery in Wonderland” novels, but have an allergic reaction to the Hollywood and Wrightsville books. On the other hand, there are enough EQ fans who prefer these character-driven novels to the plot-oriented ones from the early years. Drury Lane also have its own fans and the character is reportedly very popular in Asia, but nobody really cares about the (ghostwritten) standalone novels that closed out their career.

    So I would advice to drop your plan to read them in order and sample something from every period. You might appreciate the early ones more after you have read some of their middle-to late period.

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    • Sampling might be a good way to get an overview, and doubtless help steer around a few duds, but I’m really more interested in them from a development and contribution angle — they’re so influential, when did it start, and how? That’s part of a larger question that is fascinating me about the genre and I hope yo get round to discussing in about five years from now.

      So, y’know, watch this space; everything is connected!

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  8. I’ve read two Queen novels, Greek Coffin and Cat Of Many Tails. Coffin seems to be very heralded but I had a false start a year or so before I finished it. Brilliant solutions, yes, captivating writing, I didn’t think so. Of course throwing it in between two Carrs probably didn’t help.

    I know though, that folks love Ellery so I picked up a lot (literally) from eBay and have just started The Siamese Twin Mystery. I’m not far in but it is very enjoyable so far.

    The exciting part is that I’ll be going through them for the first time with you (and The Green Capsule) and I think it will be fun, whether good or bad, to see them defended or castigated. Well, of the ones I have.

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    • Coffin was my first ever Queen, and I’ll agree that the writing isn’t exactly sublime, but the way it kept loading revelation after revelation on you was what really captured my eye. Alas, at that time I didn’t have quite the access to books that I do now, so it was a long time before I was able to follow it up with anything (and I have a feeling the second was The Four of Hearts, which I did not love).

      Part of me wonders whether I’d have got more out of Queen by being able to read more soon after TGCM…but, well, we’ll never know. Still, it and Agatha Christie are the two things that set me on the path I now find myself, steering me away from modern crime thrillers and towards a more puzzle-oriented classical detection library. If only for this reason I feel I need to give them a good shot. It’ll be interesting to see where our readings all overlap and what we make of books we have clear memories of…here’s hoping that happens at some point!

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  9. Oh no, it looks like you’ve had a worse experience re-reading ‘French Powder Mystery’. 😦 I daresay it doesn’t bode well for the rest of the marathon. If I recall correctly, ‘Dutch Shoe’ and ‘Egyptian Cross’ were weaker than ‘French Powder’, though ‘Dutch Shoe’ should still be enjoyable. In fact, of all the Queen titles I’ve read I only thought ‘There was an Old Woman’ and possibly ‘Face to Face’ superseded ‘French Powder’… (Then again I’ve not read ‘Greek Coffin’ or ‘Siamese Twins’.)

    P.S. Brad – if the plan is for you to read ‘Policeman’s Evidence’ as JJ tackles ‘Dutch Shoe’, I think you have the better deal. 😛

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    • P.P.S. Yet Another Mystery Blog – ‘Seventh Hypothesis’ is definitely worth reading. One of my top picks for 2015. 😀 Definitely in a different league from ‘Crimson Fog’ and ‘Seven Wonders’. In fact, in a different league from virtually everything else Halter wrote. ‘Death Invites You’ is also very good.

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    • I’ve been thinking about this, because people seem to be united in the similarity of the remaining nationality mysteries, and I think it’s rather like my experience with Pink Floyd.

      See, my first Pink Floyd album was…wait for it…Animals (you weren’t expecting that, were you?) and I freakin’ loved it, and listened to it for about three or four years (not on loop) before I bought anything else by them (I was young, there was young man stuff to be doing). But Animals is not typical of the majority of Floyd’s output, so when I got my second PF album (which was…wait for it…Atom Heart Mother — yup, I tend to forgo convention) I really didn’t get on with it.

      I love it now, because I went on to discover more of their albums (I think Saucerful was third, then Dark Side, then Wish You Were Here…got there eventually) they all started to make sense as an overview of a career, the different shades and intentions and purposes. The same could wellbe true of Queen: Greek Coffin is Animals and the others, which I remember less distinctly, haven’t given me enough of a full picture of what else they did. When that comes in time, perhaps I’ll find a lot more to enjoy.

      Let’s see what happens, eh?

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      • That’s quite the analogy, JJ. I suppose that makes Agatha Christie The Beatles and Carr would be The Moody Blues. (Endless Night is Christie’s White Album…)

        We have a new game to play.

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        • Are you saying that The Moody Blues are better than The Beatles?

          More seriously though, I regard The Moody Blues as a semi-obscure 3-hit band, although I’ve never really listened to their catalog. Does that fit your analogy though? A lesser known forgotten band who really has some excellent deep cuts? Or is my generational gap showing?

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          • The name “Moody Blues” connotes the Grand Guignol tone of early Carr. I loved their sound and the deep emotionalism of their songs but, like Carr, they have become relatively obscure.

            Christie is like the Beatles: easy to listen to and arguably the most popular rock band of all time. I don’t know if they sold as many records as Christie has sold books but . . .

            I guess my analogies are all over the place! 🙂

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      • I agree that “Animals” is not the typical PF album, and that’s why I’ve never understood the praise that it gets. For me it’s a big dip between the two great albums, “Wish You Were Here” and “The Wall”. It’s sort of the “Ten Days Wonder” between “The Murderer is a Fox” and “Cat of Many Tails”, as it were. 🙂

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  10. My relationship with Queen is not so much ‘love/hate’ as ‘adored/bored.’ I generally really enjoyed the late Queen novels, but The French Powder Mystery was such a slog, as you noted, that I’ve never gone on to The Roman Hat Mystery, which I bought at the same time. I realise that Dannay and Lee hold a massively important place in the GA canon, and are of huge importance for the mystery short story with their magazine, but give me Christie or Carr any day.
    At the moment I’m listening to ‘The Player on the Other Side’ on car journeys, and I don’t think you could detect that Theodore Sturgeon was the actual writer of this one. I have no idea who the killer is yet, which is good, as I have guessed the culprit in a number of EQ novels- and generally I’m very dense at finding the murderer. (Save for one unnamed ‘classic’ GA novel by Georgette Heyer where I correctly guessed the murderer in the first paragraph!)

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  11. You’re obviously completely wrong, and I’ll never visit this blog again!

    This was the last nationality one I read (because I never read things in order), and I quite liked it, from the setting at the department store, to the new focus on Ellery (instead of the police in Roman Hat). Roman Hat was a bit weird, in the sense that the narrative was mostly focused on Inspector Queen and his men, but it was Ellery who popped at the last moment as the great detective. French still has a bit of that police-novel feel to it, with its emphasis on physical investigation and interrogation, but I absolutely love the end. I wouldn’t call waiting until the very end to name the murderer gimmicky either, as it’s so closely connected to the Queen Method: it is a pure whodunnit, and the way to get to the murderer is to cross off each and every suspect until you’re left with one name. There’s no further explanation needed at that point, so it works here. It wouldn’t work at all with other writers like Carr or Christie, no, but that’s because they write quite different types of mystery stories (I thought the use of the leave-the-name-out-until-the-end much more gimmicky in a much later Queen).

    I usually use “Queen” to refer to the writer-duo as “one entity” (unless I need to differentiate between Dannay or Lee), and “Ellery” as the character of the novels by the way.

    It’s funny to see how Carr is mentioned in comparison to Queen in the comments: unlike most people here, I *really* *really* prefer the writing of Queen over Carr. Sometimes people mention how they think Queen can write clever, but how they can’t really become enthusiastic about the books: I have that with Carr.

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    • Well, I shall persist; who knows, maybe the Queen Method will rub off on me…I hope to have more enthusiasm for their work, and they’re students of the gene in a way that should appeal to me, so we live in hope.

      It does fascinate me the things people look for in prose style, and how the same book can excite wildly varying reactions among people who would ordinarily agree on many (even most) other things. I love Carr’s writing and will forigve him a dull plot for the way it’s communicated, but this left me rather too cold for comfort all round. The prose of Queen has never been a love of mine, and now if it turns out the puzzles aren’t for me either I wonder how far I’ll get…!

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  12. Said JJ. “I’ll be honest, Christian: it sounds here like you’re saying Carr only knew how to write one type of book. Clearly I’ve misunderstood… 😀”

    My point was rather that it’s a common misconception about both Carr and the Beach Boys that they only know one thing. 🙂 When they branch out to new areas, they’re quite excellent in those areas as well!

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  13. Pingback: The French Powder Mystery – Ellery Queen (1930) – The Green Capsule

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