The Tragedy of X by Barnaby Ross aka Ellery Queen

For a very brief period, the duo of Lee and Dannay wrote as both Ellery Queen and as Barnaby Ross. The Ross pseudonym didn’t last very long – four books were written from 1932 to 1934 featuring Drury Lane as the sleuth, but for whatever reason, the line did not last and Lane was retired.

In The Tragedy of X, a businessman is on a tram car with a party of friends when he reaches into his pocket, only to grab a nasty weapon – a cork with poison coated needles – and he promptly dies on the floor. It is clear that his pocket was empty when he got on the car, so how did the weapon get in there?

Lane is called upon by Inspector Thumm and the retired Shakespearean actor and studier of human nature is on the case. So how does this one stand up to the Ellery Queen novels of the time?

Well, to be honest, there’s not a vast amount of difference, apart from the character of Lane, but even then… Drury Lane spouts quotations at the drop of a hat, he keeps stuff from the police and when he explains what’s going on, he not only proves who the killer is, he also proves exactly why every other possibility couldn’t have been the case. There really isn’t a world of difference between the Queen novels of the time, but that’s hardly a bad
thing, stylistically at least.

However… I’m a bit disappointed with this one. There’s a critical part of the solution that is blindingly obvious which pinpoints for Lane the criminal almost immediately which is completely overlooked by the police characters. In fact, it’s so obvious that the reader may assume that it isn’t important to the solution of the crime – i.e. that the authors overlooked it themselves – but in fact it makes Thumm and company look like absolute morons for not considering it. One part that is overlooked is how anyone, including the victim, did not notice the weapon being put in the victim’s pocket.

And then we come to the overall plan – there are a couple of other deaths to keep the plot jogging along – but it’s mindblowingly stupid and overcomplicated. Add to that a middle section of the book concerned with proving (or disproving) the innocence of the obvious suspect where, again, the critical piece of evidence is obvious and, to be honest, this is a bit of a letdown. Still worth a look, but you have to suspend your disbelief at times.

This review is part of the Alphabet of Crime Fiction, the letter X. Do check out the other choices. It’s also part of my Ellery Queen bibliography, A Challenge To This Reader.

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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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11 Responses to The Tragedy of X by Barnaby Ross aka Ellery Queen

  1. I remember liking this book a lot when I first read, especially the ambience in the trolley car for the main murder, and still can recall the identity of the murderer, which may be why I’ve not re-read it in about 30 years – which by the sounds of it may mean that my memory is playing tricks one me or that I was a lot more impressionable as a young teenager encountering Queen’s work only for the second or third time. I still think (subject to my obviously failing faculties of recollection) that TRAGEDY OF Y and DRURY LANE’S LAST CASE case hold up though and had an important influence on a couple of major Agatha Christie novels from the 40s … Are you planning on reading all of these as part of your mammoth Queen-athon? I hope you get round to the short stories as they’re wonderful, especially in the 30s and 40s.

  2. puzzledoctor says:

    Tragedy of Y is next on the list – I’m feeling lazy when it comes to the XYZ of the Alphabet. Also, it gives me longer to find my copy of the Chinese Orange Mystery. In terms of this one, it bugs me that the necessary sleight of hand to pull off the first murder is never addressed even by Lane and as for what is a massive coincidence later on in the book… I’ll say no more for want of spoilers.

    Short stories are on the list too – I’m making brief notes for The Adventures Of… as I go.

  3. Patrick says:

    I enjoyed The Tragedy of X, but couldn’t stand the Drury Lane character. I found him a psycho in the making; an unsuccessful experiment in which the Great Detective’s eccentricities are stretched out to the max. The overall result is a fellow I wanted to punch out. His obsession with Shakespeare is just too much. I don’t like The Hamlet, his servants, or the fact that although he’s deaf, he can perfectly reproduce someone’s voice and pretend to be them. How does he do that???

    The thing I really liked about “The Tragedy of X” was its version of the locked room lecture, in which characters discuss why anyone would want to leave a dying message. It’s nice to see EQ explain the plot device they were fond of using.

    I reviewed “The Tragedy of Y” (http://at-scene-of-crime.blogspot.com/2011/06/mad-hatter-strikes-again.html), which is even more obvious than X. Drury Lane is more psychotic than ever, the police are total morons, but its saving grace is the surrealistic, mad relationship between the characters… Also, the interpretation for one or two pieces of complete lunacy from the killer is rather interesting, but not particularly surprising. I’ll be interested to hear what you think of it.

    • puzzledoctor says:

      Y is the next on my list, so I’ll check out your review after I’ve read it.

      I should have added the two other facts about Lane.

      a) his reticence in revealing the killer results in TWO extra murders

      and

      b) he’s got a bloody stupid name. It’s like calling an American actor-sleuth Hollywood Boulevard or something equally stupid.

      • In terms of what you both point out about Lane’s character, it is probably worth stating that b), it is a bloody stupid name, but I think was meant to me even then; and with regards to a), the Queen cousins were doing that on purpose as becomes clearer as the tetralogy progresses …

  4. Patrick says:

    With those words of yours, I’m starting to think that a comment I made about Lane may not be all that inaccurate… I’d have to read the last two books to test my theory…

  5. TomCat says:

    This book has always been billed as one of their most complexly constructed detective novels, and, in a way it really is, but I remember how pleased I was at myself with the relative ease I solved most of the problems presented in the book – with the glaring exception of the dying message. The solution to that clue might’ve been solvable when the book was first published, but now it requires specific expert knowledge on the history of a certain something.

    The Drury Lane stories are an acquired taste and to enjoy them you have to accept them as dark fantasies, without actually venturing pass the borders separating the two genres, and you either like Drury Lane or you despise him – not much middle ground to trod there.

    A few years ago, I read all four of them back-to-back and Tragedy of Y struck me back then as an homage to S.S. van Dine (and one book in particular), which might also explain why so many people are struggling with these stories. However, for the Drury Lane haters out there, the final two books, Tragedy of Z and Drury Lane’s Last Case, shoves the protagonist to the background and focuses on Inspector Thumm’s daughter, Patience. People who thoroughly disliked the first two might enjoy the last two.

    • puzzledoctor says:

      In terms of the dying message, I just assumed that the man’s hand had been holding something which, when removed, had distorted the fingers. Which makes more sense and still points to the murderer.

      I’m not a fan of the Ellery Queen penchant for cryptic dying messages but at least the whole book didn’t hang on it. See The Finishing Stroke for a very annoying read where the entire book hinges on a series of cryptic messages that, unless you are a certain type of person, you will never decipher…

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

  7. Pingback: The Tragedy of Y by Barnaby Ross aka Ellery Queen | In Search of the Classic Mystery Novel

  8. curtis evans says:

    Agree, this one is overrated. I didn’t find it nearly so complex as it’s made out to be. There are many English mysteries with plots as clever as this one, without some of the implausible contrivances.

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