A very different mystery for Ellery Queen this time. In the equivalent of the British “Country House”-style murder, Ellery and his dad are trapped in a house with a bunch of rather odd characters on top of a mountain while a forest fire blazes around the base. Obviously someone, Dr Xavier, the head of the house, is murdered but for the first time for Ellery Queen there is a finite set of suspects – so can Dannay and Lee (aka Ellery Queen the author) pull off a piece of literary legerdemain without resorting to the tried and tested “person that you’ve overlooked” trick that has been almost a constant in the first six books. Or, can they still use this trick with a cast of only twelve characters?
When people cite the best of the early Queen novels, the two that are commonly mentioned are The Greek Coffin Mystery and The Chinese Orange Mystery*. Well, I think people who ignore The Siamese Twin Mystery are missing out one of the finest mystery novels of the time.
First off, the verbosity of the writing style, which hit a critical level for The American Gun Mystery, has been pulled back to an enjoyable level. Likewise, Ellery has been toned down a bit and seems a much more likeable character. That’s rather important here, as none of the major characters seem remotely sympathetic here, so we need someone (i.e. Ellery and his father) to empathise with.
Secondly, the explanations are generally less technical than before. When the book presents a floor plan and points out there were four doors into the scene of the crime, I was worried we were going to get one of Ellery’s multi-page explanations that really needs a flipchart and some slides. To be fair, there is a discussion on the difference between how a left and right handed person would tear a playing card in half, but it’s quite short…
As the things that have bugged me about the recent novels have receded into the background, this book reminded me of why I love Ellery Queen novels in general. It took me an age to get through The American Gun Mystery, but I polished off this one in about a day. I’m not going into detail on the plot, as it twists and turns all over the place, but it does include one piece of trickery that I don’t recall seeing anywhere else. It’s such a simple idea, but does an amazing job at misdirection.
A couple of points to finish with. One, Ellery seems to have forgotten his edict about giving a solution that he’s not 100% about, as he gets through a few here before getting it right and second, given how sniffy Ellery is about dying messages, why on earth did the writers keep using the bloody things?
Anyway, very minor gripes. This one is an absolute classic. Get down to your second hand bookshop and try and find a copy. The best of the lot so far.
* Oh, I should say that Sergio over at Tipping My Fedora is the exception to the rule. That’s why you should read his blog as well.