Sometimes you go through every story in a collection and review them all. Sometimes you just want to talk about one of them. To engage in the second of these on a more thematic basis, I shall use my Tuesday posts this month to launch an occasional series of Little Fictions posts, and spend June with some of the impossible crime short stories written by Frederic Dannay and Manfred Lee under their Ellery Queen nom de plume.
Their disappearing house novella The Lamp of God, a.k.a. The House of Haunts (1935) is rather too wordy for this undertaking, so I’m starting with the first of their impossible crime stories as listed in Robert Adey’s Locked Room Murders (1992), ‘The Adventure of the Dead Cat’, a.k.a. ‘The Halloween Mystery’ (1946) published in doubtless many places but taken in this instance from the collection Ellery Queen’s Calendar of Crime (1952).
What’s It About?
Ellery’s secretary Nikki Porter — a character I’ve not encountered before, so I’ll assume she was accused of murdering her fiancé in an earlier novel and Ellery saved her skin, earning her eternal gratitude, etc — receives the following invite:
There is a secret meeting of the Charmed Circle of Black Cats in Suite 1313, Hotel Chancellor, City, Oct. 31. You must come in full costume as a Black Cat, including domino mask. Time your arrival for 9.05pm. Till the Witching Hour.
…and drags Ellery along at her plus one. They enter the completely dark room and stumble around over various obstacles — pillows, hassocks, furniture, a model skeleton — for a few minutes before someone turns the lights on (this, apparently, did not occur to genius detective Ellery Queen upon first entering the suite…). A party ensues, with everyone dressed as black cats and Ellery hating every moment. It’s only a matter of time before a Murder Game is suggested and — yup, you guessed it — the fictional victim ends up in the kitchen very really dead.
What’s Good About It?
Um…to be honest, the best part of this is Ellery’s complete dislocation from, and reluctance regarding, his presence — cursing the Druids and the Romans for their various cultural contributions that resulted in Hallowe’en to begin with, or speculating on the type of hostess who would send such an invite and throw such a party. Upon meeting said hostess he mentally dismisses her as the “kind of female who would be baffled by an egg”, and reacts to the repeated proposals of Murder Games his presence seems to inspire with a weary reflection that people are operating “apparently on the theory that a busman enjoys nothing so much as a bus”.
It’s not just the jaded air of his disinterest and dismissal, but that’s the easiest way to sum up how much of a person he feels in such a short space. Picking up on the fact that “Nikki had slapped Jerry Baxter laughingly once and British Johnny — not laughingly — twice”, or when, seeing the other party-goers lined up and ready to play the game, he “for a panicky moment…though of the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre”, it may sound bitchy and churlish in isolation, but he’s such a long way from the blithe, quippy smart-arse of the First Period novels it’s quite something to behold.
And certainly his interactions and asides are far more interesting than anything that happens in plot terms.
What’s Bad About It?
Sort of everything else, really. The five other characters barely register — as the story progressed I got more confused about who was dead and who was speaking and who was married to whom — and it’s not entirely clear why any of the other people supposedly at this party couldn’t also be under suspicion. You also have to question the intelligence of the killer, who commits a murder in a presumably unplanned way as a result of a situation that arises spontaneously purely because of the genius detective who is in attendance.
Dannay and Lee also dismiss one of their most telling deductions for no reason, building a certain amount of edifice upon it and then deciding it need not apply for the solution they offer. And when the killer is revealed — in the final line, The French Powder Mystery-style — the motive offered makes no sense and there’s no reason for Ellery to have decided it was sufficient for murder. A better motive is offered for an equally credible suspect…but, nah.
Also, pity poor Inspector Richard Queen, who is treated so back-handedly that he has to play the Dunderheaded Policeman to a staggering extent…like, failing to consider that someone can’t be simultaneously unconscious in a cupboard and standing in a different room; gleeps, fellas, you could at least have given that line to Velie…
How’s the Impossibility?
As far as I can tell, the impossible situation presents itself because, well, the lights were turned off for the game and there’s all that impedimenta strewn about so, to quote Ellery:
“How did the murderer manage to cross this room in pitch darkness without making any noise?”
Now, that’s not an impossibility, son. Were there flour all around the body with no footprints in it, or no way into the kitchen without the light coming on, fine. But when the answer to your baffling conundrum of “How on earth could this be done?” is simply “Very carefully”, you have not written an impossible crime story. There’s not even a Chinese Orange Mystery-style clause where you can sort of see why it would be considered impossible…I’m sorry to lock horns with the late, lamented Bob Adey over this, but listing it as such in his compendium is an error.
Um…no? This feels much more like a rushed attempt to complete some sort of pithy, detail-oriented writing practise than it does a story so chock full of invention that it was desperate to be told. Hopefully things will improve next week with ‘The Adventure of the Dauphin’s Doll’…
I shall in the meantime, however, seize the opportunity to tick off something else on my Just the Facts Golden Age Bingo card, with this Hallowe’en-set murder fulfilling the category During a recognized holiday (the card is in American English, I feel I should point out, hence the ‘z’).