The first step on my attempt to read and review the entire Ellery Queen back catalogue, and also provide the letter S in the Alphabet of Crime Fiction – it’s The Spanish Cape Mystery from 1935. It’s the ninth book in the series and the last with a title of the form The “NATIONALITY” “OBJECT” Mystery, although the next book, Halfway House does mention in the foreword that it could have been The Swedish Match Mystery.
The setting is a North Atlantic headland known as, surprise, the Spanish Cape, whereon John Marco, a serial philanderer and possible blackmailer is plying his trade. A local thug, the giant one-eyed Captain Kidd is hired by persons unknown to kidnap him, but manages to grab two other people by mistake. The mistake is apparently corrected when Marco is found on a terrace, having been bashed on the head and then strangled. What is less clear is why the victim is found propped in a chair, completely naked apart from a cape draped over his shoulders… Never mind though, as guess who has chosen this spot for a holiday – lucky old Ellery.
Nine books in, and Ellery is already a warmer character than in his debut. Here we see him without his usual supporting cast, but he has no problems ingratiating himself with both the local police and with the Godfrey household and their guests, of whom the late Marco was one. It’s another book with a “Challenge to the Reader” break near the end where the reader is encouraged to muse over the facts and try and put two and two together.
I mentioned in the review of The Roman Hat Mystery that nothing much happened between murder and resolution apart from much interviewing – not that it was a problem. More is going on dramatically in this one and again, my attention was gripped throughout. It’s the sign of a great detective book that after each chapter, you put the book down for a bit of a think, and that certainly happened here.
There are a few niggles – Ellery shows almost psychic powers to anticipate a 2:30 in the morning phone call, and there are a couple of convenient “Basil Exposition” –style conversations that Ellery conveniently stumbles upon, and, more importantly, the murderer is extremely guessable. Similarly it seems that no-one is particularly concerned for the missing kidnap victim throughout the book, despite his sister and his favourite niece being important characters in the book.
As I said though, these are niggles, nothing more. This is a fun, gripping read and one that has encouraged me to focus my bibliography – I had said that I wasn’t going to necessarily read the books in order, but with the stylistic changes between the first and ninth books, I think it would be more interesting to go back to the start and do them chronologically.
Oh, and by the way, the phrase “making love” meant something else in the 1930s. Otherwise the film made of two characters “making love in Central Park” puts an entirely different picture in one’s head. And I presume that when the naked body is found and the first thing Inspector Moley utters is “Nuts!”, that phrase wasn’t being used in its popular British euphemism either!
There is a film of this book, by the way. Anyone know how easy it is to track down?