The French Powder Mystery by Ellery Queen

French’s Department Store has a window display, showcasing a retractable bed. Every day at noon, it is demonstrated to the public. One day, when the bed is opened, it contains the murdered body of the wife of the store’s owner. She was killed in the middle of the night but there’s a surprising lack of blood on the scene and the room was in total darkness at the time. Presumably she was killed elsewhere, but why was she placed in such an unlikely place? And what possible motive could there be to kill her?

The French Powder Mystery is the second Ellery Queen novel, dating from 1930 and continues very much in the same vein as The Roman Hat Mystery. It is again introduced by the mysterious J J Mc who once again has managed to persuade Ellery (in his retirement) to give the details of one of his cases to be published as a novel. It again has a “Challenge To The Reader”. In a similar style to the first book, this seems much more of an ensemble novel than the latter books and while Ellery does seem to a little more active this time in the investigation (notably in the section where he goes to the murdered woman’s apartment while his father deals with some red tape), but he is still something of a cipher, character-wise. He is often in the background, even to the extent of when the murderer is unmasked, he explains it all to the assembled masses that he will do the explanations only because his father has lost his voice, implying that his father had in fact solved the case.

Also in a similar vein to The Roman Hat Mystery, not a lot actually happens between the discovery of the corpse and the denouement, apart from lots of investigating. No one seems particularly concerned about a missing character, even when her fate is established, which I found a bit odd – it reminded me of a similar out-of-sight, out-of-mind in The Spanish Cape Mystery, but in terms of relevance to the plot, there is a difference.

A pattern already seems to be forming in the structure of the mysteries. First of all, Ellery seems insistent on proving the guilt of the murderer by proving that no-one else was the murderer. It’s an awfully thorough process that reminds me of a logic problem. Secondly, in both books so far, the killer is someone who you’ve probably overlooked, despite being given reasonable page-time. Rather than give someone an ironclad alibi and then find a way round it (I’m talking about you, Dame Agatha!), there is a much fairer consideration of all the suspects.

I can’t finish this review without commenting on the climax, with the murderer revealed in the last sentence of the book. It’s a wonderful construction, possibly only surpassed by Colin Dexter’s The Riddle of the Third Mile, where it’s the victim who is revealed in a similar way. Come to think of it, there’s a Reginald Hill book (I won’t say which one) where the killer is named in the FIRST sentence, but you probably won’t realise it until the end.
That’s a nice trick as well.

I digress – this is in many ways the standard early Ellery Queen book – highly recommended.

A quick mention should also be made of the stereotypes in the book – Ellery Queen is always a little on the iffy side, but I can see not only the black community being offended by the shopgirl who is referred to as “The Negress” for at least a chapter until her name is given, but also all the security guards seem to “Oirish”. The decision to write their dialogue incorporating the accents probably precludes an unedited reprint for this one. If you do read this book, try and bear in mind the time that it was written…

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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.
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10 Responses to The French Powder Mystery by Ellery Queen

  1. Pingback: An Ellery Queen Bibliography, or, A Challenge To This Reader | In Search of the Classic Mystery Novel

  2. Thanks for that – great reminder of a book which i remember liking quite a lot when I first read it but part from the opening and the extended denoument I find it hard to remember much else, though by the sound of things this isn’t just to the fact that it was about 25 years ago …

    It’s interesting that you mention some of the archaic use of language – I’m just reading a Dorothy Sayers and must admit that I am having to keep reminding myself just how long ago it was written …

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  4. Patrick says:

    I have yet to read this one… I’ve been hoping to get around to it for a while, but something else always pops up…
    I too find the whole accent-dialogue question interesting. You often have to keep in mind that it was written when it was written… At the same time, it’s rarely a reflection of the author’s personal beliefs, it was just a stereotype of the time. Sometimes, stock characters are called for, and this was a way to just get the plot moving forward. I don’t want a detailed biography of Sgt. Peters, complete with his recent sex life and his troubled childhood, when his only function in the story is to remark to Insp. Smith “Blimey, what’s that behind the couch?”

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