Roberta West has a problem. A while ago, she fell for the lothario “Count” Armando, a man currently wed to the chanteuse Glory Guild. He proposed that Glory needed to be killed for their future happiness, but, as he would be the prime suspect, he would arrange a cast-iron alibi for himself while Roberta did the deed. She refused and had nothing more to do with him…
… until a few nights previously, when he appeared on her doorstep and proceeded to spend the next two hours in her company for no particular reason. No reason, that is, until Roberta discovers that Glory has been murdered – and she has given Armando a perfect alibi.
This is the story that Ellery Queen is told on his return to New York and he, and his Scottish chum, Harry Burke, are determined to prove Armando’s guilt. But is he guilty? And if so, who was the woman he coerced into committing the crime this time?
Back to Ellery, and yes, I’ve jumped out of sequence again to partake in the Past Offences 1967 Book Challenge. This is the first book in a long time (apparently – there are better informed people out there) that the classic Ellery Queen duo of Dannay & Lee wrote together – the first since, I think, The Finishing Stroke, nine years previous. And it’s a return to the style, in part, of the earlier books, with a genuine puzzle plot instead of the “human drama with a twist” prevalent in the Wrightsville books.
Well, I think that’s what they’re going for here, at least.
There are a couple of immediate things that strike me, though. First off, in the Wrightsville books, Dannay & Lee seemed to be able to write people as if they were actually human beings – well, some characters at least. Here, everyone seemed to be a little off. Not exactly caricatures, but not really feeling like real people. One central character has a very good reason for this, but even so, only Harry Burke seems like a halfway-real character to me, and most of Armando’s lady loves vanish into the ether as soon as they appear. But that’s fine – the early Queen books had some terrible characterisation in them, but carried the day with twisty-turny plots.
Second though… the plot isn’t actually that clever. The dying message – Glory manages to write “f a c e” before she dies – is ridiculous, in the fact that she thought it would help, that Ellery even deduces the first level of its meaning and then the jump to what it actually means…
And I spotted the murderer early. Never helps. Partly, it must be said, because at least two books that I’ve read in the last year – new, bestselling crime novels – use a variation on the same very basic idea. To be fair, this book uses the trick is a sensible way, unlike the nonsensical use in the modern books, so plaudits for that, but it still stood out to me. Other reviewers, such as Sergio over at Tipping My Fedora, praise the revelation, and I expect that if I hadn’t guessed it, it’s have caught me too.
And it’s never a good sign when you spot two of the main clues that point towards the killer and dismiss them as sloppy writing rather than as clues. Because Ellery (who takes months to solve this, literally) really should have considered this but as he didn’t, I figured they weren’t the clues that I was expecting. Because they’re pretty obvious.
And my copy’s got an ugly cover. I mean, what the hell is that supposed to be? Does Armando have a papier-mâché face or something? Must have missed that.
So what do other people think? Well, Santosh, one of my frequent commenters posted that “Though the basic plot is very clever, the clue left by the dying victim is utterly ridiculous. No dying person would leave such an unreliable clue!” I’d debate the very clever bit, but completely agree on the clue. You could make a case that someone who is dying and is also obsessed with puzzles might write something like that, but that’d be pushing it.
John Dickson Carr (yes, him) wrote: “I maintain, and will hold this under torture that this is the best Ellery Queen (in) a quarter of a century… the most ingenious form of a twist or double cross that he has devised”. Well, a quarter of a century puts us back to 1942, so fair enough on the first bit, but the most ingenious? I’d probably point to The Siamese Twin Mystery for that, imho.
I wonder… what would I have thought about it if I hadn’t spotted the killer? Would the puzzle have been enough for me to sing the praises of this one to the rafters? I honestly don’t know. A puzzle that fools me will (almost) always overcome shoddy characters, but this one didn’t fool me at all. Recommended, provided you let me know if you were fooled…