York Hatter, patriach of the distinctly odd Hatter family, kills himself by poisoning himself and jumping off a ferry. When his body is found, his face and fingerprints have been nibbled off by the passing fish but his body is positively identified. Weeks later, there are two attempts to poison his deaf, blind and mute (dumb sounds so old-fashioned and wrong) step-daughter, the second of which ends with his widow having her face smashed in with an antique mandolin, killing her. Given that the whole family seem to be mad as, well, Hatters, can the thespian detective Drury Lane get to the bottom of the mystery? And why does the cover of the book seem to be convinced that we should be suspecting York Hatter of being responsible?
This is a vast improvement on The Tragedy of X. Drury Lane seems a more human character this time round and has reined in his quotations, to the extent that he does seem quite different to the character of Ellery Queen this time round. The police still seem to be complete dunderheads but at least this time round, Inspector Thumm doesn’t overlook blatantly obvious issues. The plot, although it hinges on an extremely unlikely occurrence, is nowhere near as contrived as the revenge plot of the previous book. There’s even an explanation of the general battiness of the family, although it would seem that in 1932 we can’t mention syphilis by name.
As for the murderer? Well, it’s a good twist, but it is telegraphed well before the big reveal. There are echoes of a later Agatha Christie book and another part of the ending resembles an earlier book by… you know, I think if I even mention the author, it would lead the informed reader to put two and two together. I may have even said too much. Some of the explanations though are extraordinarily clever, in particular the reason why the murderer was carrying a mandolin. Queen still finds it necessary to spell out exactly why the murders could not have happened in any other way, rather than just how they did happen and, as sometimes happens, gets bogged down in trivia when you want them to just get to the conclusion – we get about four pages banging on about the height of the murderer here where a paragraph would have done.
To be honest, the only drawback I can find with this is that the cover of my copy (first edition paperback) has a nonsensical blurb trying to finger the apparently dead York Hatter as the murderer. While I think it’s safe to say that this isn’t the case – I certainly wouldn’t rate the book if that was the solution – this is only proposed as a theory on page 185 out of 240. Thankfully it’s dismissed pretty quickly in the narrative, but it does make reading the book a slightly unfocussed affair as you’re constantly waiting for this development.
So – a vast improvement over X, and I understand why Y is the Barnaby Ross story that consistently gets the plaudits. Recommended.
This is part of A Challenge To This Reader, my Ellery Queen bibliography.
For an alternative viewpoint, have a look at what Patrick has to say about it At The Scene Of The Crime.