Thursday, January 7, 2010

Always playing fair

The Dutch Shoe Mystery, by Ellery Queen (1931)

Ellery Queen the author is really two guys--Manfred B. Lee and Frederic Dannay. They used the Queen byline when they write about mystery writer Ellery Queen, who assists his homicide detective dad in solving crimes. The conceit of the novels is that we are reading fictionalized accounts of cases solved by the real "Ellery."

And the cases he solves are doozies. Lee and Dannay were masters at constructing complex but perfectly fair mysteries. All the clues are always there for us to see as clearly as Ellery does. But are we as smart as Ellery? Can we follow the deductive path laid out by the clues and then ourselves finger the killer? Not usually--Lee and Dannay pretty much always turn out to be smarter than we are.

But, gee whiz, we have fun trying.

When we first meet Ellery Queen in the 1929 novel The Roman Hat Mystery, he's a little bit of a pretentious jerk. We're constantly reminded of how smart he is by his tendency to lecture and pull obscure qoutes out of the air. This is fine by itself, but when you add in his annoying habit of calling his dad Pater and using exclamations like "By the Minotaur!" then there are moments when you really want to smack him one.

But Lee and Dannay gradually stripped Ellery of his more annoying habits and morphed him into a logical but still compassionate person-- a perfectly likeable human being who happens to be smarter than everyone else. His most admirable trait--and the real cornerstone of the series--is the affectionate and healthy relationship he has with his father.

The Dutch Shoe Mystery is the third novel in the series and Ellery is already getting more likeable (though he still comes up with a few two many "By the Minotaur"-like exclamations) and the mystery he has to solve is particularly subtle.

A woman is murdered in a hospital, just moments before she was wheeled into the operating room to have a ruptured gall bladder removed. Ellery happened to be at the hospital visiting a doctor friend, so he's on hand from the moment the woman is declared dead.

An investigation turns up several people with motive and opportunity. But some of the suspects are refusing to share information with the police. A set of hospital scrubs and a pair of shoes worn by the killer is found abandoned nearby and Ellery makes several important deductions drawn from the shoes, but it's not enough to identify the killer.

It's not until another murder is committed that Ellery is able to gain enough information to put it all together. And, as always in an Ellery novel, it's all perfectly fair to the reader. We're given all the clues as well. But can we follow the same complex chain of deductions that Ellery does? Probably not. Mandred Lee and Frederick Dannay are just plain too smart for us.

Next month, we'll visit with the social elite in Overture to Death, by Ngaio Marsh, featuring Inspector Roderick Alleyn.

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