The Finishing Stroke by Ellery Queen

I mentioned in the last post that I would be taking part in the Alphabet of Crime Fiction, so here’s F for (The) Finishing Stroke. Do visit the site for other people’s Fs.

As I stated in an earlier post, Ellery Queen (as an author) was a pseudonym for Fred Dannay (who plotted the books) and Manfred Lee (who wrote them). Lee began suffering from writer’s block, and this book was apparently intended to be the final collaboration between them. Structurally, the book is mostly set right at the beginning of the career of Ellery Queen (as the detective) and the finale is placed towards the end of it. There are a number of references to the first Queen mystery, The Roman Hat Mystery, and the title itself, The Finishing Stroke, gives a clear indication that this may have been the end.

The set-up is an extremely traditional murder mystery situation. It opens with the birth of twins, separated at birth. Twenty five years later, the soon-to-be rich son is hosting a party with eleven other guests that will last from Christmas Day until Twelfth Night (the number twelve proliferates this book). Only a day or two has passed when an unknown old man is found dead in the library, but, of course, the party continues. Every night the host receives a mysterious parcel with some strange gifts (an ox, a model house, a camel, etc) and strange poems that seem to threaten his life. At the same time, the host seems to be able to be in two places at once and forgets conversations that he had minutes previously. What could possibly be going on? It’s certainly not as straightforward as you might think, especially once Ellery discovers that the twin brother could not possibly be in the house (I won’t say why, it’s a bit of a spoiler).

Certainly while reading this book I was gripped. The writing style is classic later Queen, so less of the bizarre slang and exclamations that litter the earlier books, with a puzzle plot that seems to hark back to the earlier books. However the denouement is a disappointment, to say the least.

If you’re going to spot the murderer, then you need to know some very precise knowledge to decipher the clues. It’s the sort of thing that might have worked in a short story, but it feels like a let-down after getting to the end of a novel and finding that you’ve been unable to spot the murderer due to your lack of knowledge of, say, the precise order of the lanthanides on the Periodic Table. (That’s not it, by the way, again, no spoilers). Also, moreso than in a lot of other Queen books, most of the characters are only sketches or caricatures, and motives are very thin on the ground.

So, I wouldn’t call it a fairly clued mystery – the clues are there, but every single one of them is unfair. Certainly not Queen’s finest hour.

For other Queen info, check out this fine post at Tipping My Fedora. And don’t forget There Was An Old Woman, because it’s the best “classic” mystery that I’ve read in ages.

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About Puzzle Doctor

I'm a mathematician by nature and as such have always been drawn to the logical side of things. Hence my two main hobbies being classic mysteries and logical puzzling. Oh, and cats. No logic there, I'm afraid.
This entry was posted in Alphabet of Crime Fiction, Ellery Queen. Bookmark the permalink.

12 Responses to The Finishing Stroke by Ellery Queen

  1. Kerrie says:

    Thanks for this contribution to this week’s CFA! I haven’t read nearly enough Ellery Queen

  2. puzzledoctor says:

    Well, you do have to pick and choose – the early books are fanstastic puzzles but the characterisation leaves a bit to be desired. The later ones (whilst still being written by both Dannay and Lee) improve the characterisation and atmosphere whilst making the plots a little less tortuous. I gather that the books that are ghost-written are extremely variable in quality, but for some solid recommendations, check out cavershamragu’s blog, Tipping My Fedora. And add on There Was An Old Woman, because that’s my favourite.

  3. I think you are basically spot on, but all the Queen books are wel worth reading one way or another I find and there is something highly amusing a bout a book that crams in so many references to their previous works. It is certainly gratifying though that it did not in fact turn out to be the final Queen novel – if nothing else so that they could produced two much finer ‘F’ novels – FACE TO FACE and (A) FINE AND PRIVATE PLACE

  4. Yvette says:

    I recently read CAT OF NINE TAILS by Queen and really enjoyed it. Though the ending was definitely over the top and completely unbelievable, I still liked and recommended the book. Puzzle-wise, it was a hard nut to crack. (I liked how NYC was made to be another ‘character’ in the story.)

    Thanks for the review. I’ve just now discovered your blog and am liking it very much.

    • puzzledoctor says:

      I think I need to have a look at Cat of Nine Tails again, as I remember being underwhelmed by it, especially after hearing so many positive things about it. It was one of the first Queen’s that I read that wasn’t completely puzzle oriented so it may have been that I was expecting something else. Certainly it’s one of the best written of the Queen novels.

      Thanks for the kind words on the blog. I’ll have a proper look at your’s later but it’s already inspired me to have another look at Robert Crais. Cheers.

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  8. Paul Zuckerman says:

    First, I’d like to say that I’ve just discovered this webpage, and find your postings most interesting. Always glad to see someone keeping Ellery Queen alive!
    As for the book, I’d rate it higher than you did. In fact, it has always been one of favorite EQ novels. Partly, this is because it is one of the first that I read. I discovered EQ because of my love for Sherlock Holmes, when I picked up A Study in Terror. Wasn’t much of Ellery in that book, but sometime later I found Queen’s Full in the library; and the House of Brass, as a serial in one of my mother’s magazines (Cosmopolitan?) I wasn’t overly impressed by Brass, but liked the short stories; and in the summer of ’68, when I was 15, I found a series of four reprints of the radio show adaptations, starting with the Vanishing Corpse (originally published as Ellery Queen, Master Detective). I had no idea that they were not actually by Ellery Queen, but I enjoyed them anyway. But, that same store that carried those four books also had the Finishing Stroke–and I devoured it and enjoyed it immensely. I’ve since reread it a number of times, most recently this past year, as I’ve been reading the novels in chronological order (rationing them out to one or two a year, I’ve been at this since 1991!).
    I don’t disagree with you that the solution involves having to know arcane knowledge, which most people wouldn’t have any idea of. Though, it isn’t really out of left-field—several of the book’s themes shout it out in retrospect. But what really got me was the passage of time aspect of the story. Young Ellery becomes middle-aged Ellery, as we have a 25-year later coda. Even as a teenager, and more so as an adult, the mortality of the characters makes a connection with me. Also, I don’t think the characters are as only sketches, at least not more so then most of the other EQ novels. Deep characterization was never a significant aspect of the books, but they are not the caricatures of the House of Brass. Ellery even as a romantic interest. Although I wasn’t as familiar with Ellery’s past when I read the book, later on when I knew about the Roman Hat Mystery and when the character started, the book’s historical context also added depth to me. So, I continue to place The Finishing Stroke as one of my favorite EQ novels. (Hmmm, now that I think about it, since Ellery Queen goes through so many stages and styles, it’s almost like the Beatles, where I have a favorite early album and a favorite late album. Probably could do the same for each of the EQ stages!)

    • Glad to have an expert on board. I do hope you enjoy the rest of my mutterings on Ellery as and when they appear. I’ll probably give The Finishing Stroke another go when I get to it, as I’ve already forgotten a lot about it!

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