There’s no denying that the early Ellery Queen books (the nine [Nationality] [Object] Mysteries, Halfway House, and the novella The Lamp of God), published between 1929 and 1936, will not be to the taste of every reader today. Ellery the character is often a smug prig, the style of writing is mannered and can be hard to plod through, and the stories can move at a slower pace than we moderns are used to. (Much the same kind of thing could be said of the four books written in this period as by Barnaby Ross, featuring alternate sleuth Drury Lane.)
On the other hand, considered as puzzles, this group of works includes some of the finest fair-play mysteries ever to challenge a reader, and it would be a shame if a serious mystery fan were to try reading the first few chapters of, say, The Roman Hat Mystery, get scared off, and never get to enjoy the delights of Greek Coffin or Siamese Twin.
So what’s a reader to do? My recommendation: start with The Adventures of Ellery Queen, a collection of short stories published in 1934. They feature the same insufferable Ellery as the contemporaneous novels and the same florid writing style… but they move right along, and most of them feature the same ingenuity of plotting, even better than in some of the above-mentioned novels.
There are eleven stories in this collection. Here’s a look at the first six.
Before I start, I am going to make one general observation that applies to all eleven stories: “A lesser writer could easily have taken the plot of this one and expanded it into a novel… and it still would have been a good, solid mystery. The two Queen collaborators were so good at coming up with puzzles that they could afford to write up this one as a short story.”
“The Adventure of the African Traveler”: Queen had a lot of fun over the decades with stories that presented the reader with one or more false solutions before you got to the true one. This is one of the earliest examples: Ellery teaches a criminology class to three hand-picked students and takes them with him on a murder investigation. Each comes up with a different explanation that he demolishes before revealing the truth.
The long arm of coincidence may get stretched a bit in this one, but it’s nice in one passage to see Queen poking fun at (instead of quietly going along with) some of the casual racism of the period.
“The Adventure of the Hanging Acrobat”: a vaudeville performer is found with a rope around her neck in her dressing room. The lady seemed to be sleeping with every male member of the troupe, but which one of them decided life would be better without her?
The real delight of this one is the way it gives the reader a taste of the world of a kind of performance now relegated to history. As for the puzzle… well, if you do anticipate the identity of the murderer, well, you won’t be the only one.
“The Adventure of the One-Penny Black”: Everyone who buys a copy of a certain book from a certain bookseller becomes the victim of a robbery – in which that book alone is stolen.
I’m not quite sure this one plays fair with the reader, although it’s hard to say without committing a spoiler. But once you’ve read it, have a look at the last line and see if you don’t agree there’s an adjective in there that hasn’t been fairly set up earlier.
“The Adventure of the Bearded Lady”: A murdered artist’s last act was to paint a beard and moustache on his portrait of a woman.
The first Queen short story to use what would become the team’s trademark device of the dying message; unfortunately, this particular message is not as ingenious as the ones they would dream up in later years. As well, the other clues to the identity of the murderer will probably be easier for a reader in the 2020s to pick up on than they were in the 1930s.
“The Adventure of the Three Lame Men”: The kidnapping of a wealthy businessman turns into murder, but not in the way you might expect.
A lot of good clues, yet it’s not unlikely you will beat Ellery to the solution.
“The Adventure of the Invisible Lover”: Ellery investigates a murder in a small New York town, committed with a gun that was unquestionably in the possession of one man and only one man during the period when it could have been committed. Yet everyone who knows him swears he’s no murderer…
By far the best story in the first half of the book, this is a clear example of a complex story that could have been stretched out into a perfectly good full-length novel. Queen gets a little pretentious toward the end of the story with some Deep Thoughts about Weighty Matters, but they don’t really get in the way, so I’ll forgive him.
To be continued…