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.
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.
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.
Aaaaaah, 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.