#399: Little Fictions – The Impossibilities of Ellery Queen: ‘The Adventure of the Dauphin’s Doll’, a.k.a. ‘With the Compliments of Comus’ (1948)

Calendar of Crime

After the disappointment of last week’s ‘The Adventure of the Dead Cat’ (1946) not actually being an impossible crime story, I return this week to Calendar of Crime (1952) by Ellery Queen for the final story in the collection, Christmastime impossible theft ‘The Adventure of the Dauphin’s Doll’ (1948).  Let’s hope we fare a little better this time around, eh?

What’s It About?

December 23rd, and the Queen household is preparing for Christmas: Inspector Richard Queen making his idiosyncratic stuffing, Ellery wrapping presents, and their secretary Nikki Porter there because apparently she doesn’t have a home of her own.  Such festive merriment is interrupted by the lawyer John S. Bondling, who informs them that not only is the doll collection (“Dollection. She coined the word.”) that was the lifelong project of the recently-deceased Miss Ypson to be displayed in a busy department store the following day in accordance with her will, but also that the master thief Comus has contacted Bondling and promised to steal the eponymous doll and the valuable diamond it holds.

Comus, it turns out, is already a known quantity to the forces of law and order:

“Might be anybody.  Began his criminal career about five years ago.  He’s in the grand tradition of Lupin — a saucy, highly intelligent rascal who’s made stealing an art.  He seems to take special delight in stealing valuable things under virtually impossible conditions.”

So, well, the Queens are enlisted and unbreachable security established: carried by the Queens in an armoured car to the store, the Dauphin’s Doll is checked by a trusted source and confirmed genuine.   The counters on which the dollection is displayed are separated from the crowds by a six foot gap and a wall of glass panels, the redoubtable Sergent Velie togged up as Santa Clause and sat in the middle, in plain view, with the pièce de résistance at his feet.  Despite a few apparent attempts by people in the crowd to gain entry or distract the watching policemen, the day ends with minimal drama and the doll safe.  Until it is examined, that is, and revealed to have been substituted for a fake…

What’s Good About It?

There are one or two nice turns of phrase — such as Miss Ypson feeling “duty-bound to return to the Brooklyn museum from which it had unaccountably vanished” a doll which her clearly up-to-no-good father gave her as a young woman — and a beautiful moment of editorial insight that redacts Sergeant Velie’s answer to a question put to him late on, but this is very much a story whose diamonds must be mined out of the coalface of loquacity, redundancy, and frustration surrounding them.

Sorry, guys, I really did not like this one, either.

What’s Bad About It?

Oh, man, how long have you got?  This story — coming some 19 years after Ellery Queen author and sleuth first emerged on the scene — is crammed full of the dry prolixity that betokens the early period writing of those first few novels.  It is horrible. Give me editorial control and I’ll cut about half of it out and it’ll still be too long, but at least less interminable.  As it is, we get a treatise on Christmas stories, then a promise that the story properly begins with something unrelated, and then about four pages later the story actually begins.  Come back The French Powder Mystery (1930) all is…well, not forgiven, but at least sort of…actually, y’know what, stay where you are, The French Powder Mystery.

The first section — after the “this is what Christmas stories are about” bullshit — concerns the collection of dolls Miss Ypson accrues as a young girl because her father is untrustworthy and runs off with someone after her mother dies but only after shortening his name from its original Greek form andzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz.  Perhaps it’s supposed to provide verisimilitude, but it pointlessly has no bearing on anything that follows.  Then Bondling turns up and tells the Queens and Nikki about the dolls, the upcoming display, and the threat made by Comus, and along the way there’s far too much of this sort of thing:

“There’s a specific villain in this piece, Mr. Bondling, and you know who he is.”

“I do,” said the lawyer hollowly, “and then again I don’t.  I mean, it’s Comus.”

Comus!” the Inspector screamed.

“Comus?” said Ellery slowly.

“Comus?” said Nikki. “Who dat?”

“Comus,” nodded Mr. Bondling.

You get the impression those cross-talk music hall routines were all the rage at this time, too, with four people at times have three conversations and Velie reduced to a comedic aspect that is set to provide the thoroughly unconvincing central aspect of the very thin plot (see below).

It’s difficult to shake the feeling that Dannay and Lee simply weren’t comfortable writing impossible crime stories.  Much like The King is Dead (1952) — the only other true impossibility of theirs I’ve read — the scheme here is painfully transparent from the off, and it undermines the apparent brilliance of Ellery that it takes him any time at all to figure out what’s happened.  Honestly, had this featured any other name on it — hey, the cult of celebrity again — we would dismiss it as a minor wannabe failing to live up to standards that the impossible crime subgenre had long since shown itself to be significantly above.

Which brings us to…

How’s the Impossibility?

Unsurprisingly, not very good at all.  The entire prospect of the impossible theft hinges on a piece of misdirection so hideously obvious that there was no way Dannay and Lee were going to actually answer the problem that way.  And so the only remaining option is for it to be staggeringly deft or agonisingly obvious.  Alas, the situation is so damn unfixable that only the obvious option remains — the moment that theft happens must surely scream at everyone who hasn’t been lulled into some hebetude by the dullness of what precedes it…but, hey, maybe that’s why the story is so prolix: so you rush to the end and overlook the key moment or detail.

It is, unfortunately, another far too narrow situation which therefore only lends one solution.  I’ve talked about narrowness in impossible crimes before — aptly enough, it was that post which inspired this month of looking at Queen purely through their short impossibilities — and ‘The Adventure of the Dauhpin’s Doll’ would be another perfect example.  The doll is out of reach, there are trained men watching it non-stop, on the chance anyone glances away we have Ellery Queen doggedly eyeing it through any distractions or moments of drama, Velie perched on his throne completely beyond even the most optimistic grasp of everyone and anyone else…you might think this sounds baffling, but the problem is that it shuts off every possible opportunity for anything clever.  The more of the setup I read, and especially given two events at and earlier stage in the story, the more I knew what was coming.

Worst of all, there is absolutely no need for this “master criminal mocks the detectives” schtick.  The theft of the doll and the diamond does not need to be committed in this way, especially as it’s the latest job of this supposed criminal genius.  The theft could have been achieved in a far simpler, much less detectable manner…and, sure, that’s not very Lupinesque, but for such a criminal genius Comus really does come across like a complete pillock.

Anything Else?

Gotta be honest, this month of Ellery Queen impossible crime stories is proving less enjoyable than I’d hoped.

~

My repeated failures to meet the Queens in a place where we both come away happy means that I’m becoming increasingly uncomfortable picking up their stuff and being let down; so on my Just the Facts Golden Age Bingo card this most assuredly places me Out of your comfort zone.

33 thoughts on “#399: Little Fictions – The Impossibilities of Ellery Queen: ‘The Adventure of the Dauphin’s Doll’, a.k.a. ‘With the Compliments of Comus’ (1948)

    • Impossible crime does not seem to have been Dannay and Lee’s forte…

      This is actually true. Dannay and Lee have a poor track record when it comes to locked room mysteries and impossible crimes:

      The American Gun Mystery (a ridiculous solution for the problem of a vanishing gun that robbed the book of a classic status in the series)
      The Chinese Orange Mystery (not strictly an impossible crime)
      The Door Between (a poorly done locked room with an infuriating explanation and another ridiculous explanation for a vanishing weapon)
      The King is Dead (a slightly more acceptable and believable answer for the problem of the impossibly vanishing murder weapon, but the book, as a whole, is one of their poorest efforts)

      They were more successful in short story form and wrote some good impossible crime shorts, like “The Lamp of God,” “Snowball in July,” “The Three Widows” and “The Dauphin’s Doll,” but I don’t think any of them will do for JJ at this point.

      • Well, hell, you could’ve told me this before I started… 😛

        The good news is that I don’t need Dannay and Lee to be great at impossibilities, because thankfully there are plenty of excellent sources of these. It would be lovely if they did excel, and maybe the remaining stories will be wonderful, but if they’re not then I’ll cope.

        Next up I’ll probably try some of their dying message stuff if they exist in short form. But first I have to fall in love with Spanish Cape and continue to confound everyone’s hopes of me ever having any credibility…

        • Getting in here quick before Brad comes sobbing.

          Queen does have quite a few dying messages in short form. You should start with “E = Murder” as it’s also an impossible story… No, scratch that, it’s crap at both. But if you want something to make you roll your eyes at every aspect… 🙂

          Perhaps “Diamonds in Paradise”, “GI Story” or “The Adventure of the Bearded Lady” might be something for you? Or you could always, you know, check my ramblings on EQ’s short works to see if anything there seems to suit you.

          As for your problem with the introduction to this story – well, that kind of introduction is abundant in EQs short fiction. It’s in most of the stories in “Adventures”, and pops up here and there in the novels as well. It’s just one of those EQ quirks. They are erudite fellows.

          • Oh, yeah, don’t worry — your posts on the EQ short stores were going to be my first port of call! I have a vague memory of ‘Bearded Lady’ but it is very vague; I can easily reread it without remembering anything key.

            I suppose the introduction irked me especially as there was so little to follow it up that made it worthwhile. I don’t mind some context and scene-setting, but at least set the scene on a story with some oomph to it,

            And I now thoroughly anticipate loving ‘E = Murder’ — watch this space…

    • I remain hopeful; still at least another 5 or six impossible short stories to go , plus The Lamp of God, plus the fact that TomCat and I always disagree and so I’m bound to fall in love with The Door Between…

      But, yeah, so far it’s pretty slim pickings.

      • Long meaningless introductions that have no play in the actual story, that doesn’t remind me of anything *cough – The King is Dead – cough*. I was excited for many years to read The Lamp of God, but it actually does the very same thing as Dauphin’s Doll. You’ll see what I mean.

        • Oh, for pity’s sake! So now I’m not even going to enjoy their vanishing house? Dammit! And to think you lot complained when I didn’t make them Kings of Crime — well I’m glad I didn’t, I tell you!! GLAD!!!!

          • I read Lamp of God under the name of House of Haunts back when I was making my way through the Black Lizard Big Book of Locked Room Mysteries. Of course, I was brand new to the genre at the time and had no recognition of the Queen name. From that unbiased perspective, I can tell you that I enjoyed the story as much if not more than the rest of the tales in that collection. Of course my tastes may have changed since I’ve since consumed a much larger number of these. Still, I think you’ll probably enjoy it – just don’t expect anything jaw dropping.

      • I am happy to hear that you remain optimistic. My own EQ reading adventure ground to a halt a few months ago while I try to regroup to find some enthusiasm for The American Gun Mystery…

        • Wow, I feel like 50 years from now I’ll be famous as the GAD academic responsible for bringing about awareness of the fallacy at the heart of the Ellery Queen brand. It’s not a label I want, of course, but if it pays well I’ll take it…

  1. “As it is, we get a treatise on Christmas stories, then a promise that the story properly beings with something unrelated, and then about four pages later the story actually beings.”
    Although rendered meaningless by the typo, there is something very zenlike about this statement…

    • Ha. Nice. We shall keep it here for posterity, but I’ll go back and change it in the post itself. Thanks for bringing it to my attention.

  2. Thanks for the review… Given your track record, I would have thought that a month of reading Queen would have been taking a somewhat huge risk. Have you actually read a Queen work you liked? I usually advocate saving the best for the last, but in this case of Queen it might be better to jump straight to ‘Greek Coffin Mystery’ or ‘Siamese Twin Mystery’?

    Incidentally, while browsing Amazon, I stumbled on this self-published (I think?) locked room mystery: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Chocolate-Flavored-Murder-Detective-Adventures-ebook/dp/B07D4MGH2K/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1528802288&sr=8-1&keywords=Chocolate+Flavored+Murder

    The packaging looks suspect, but might it finally yield a title you could recommend to TomCat…? 😜 Alternatively, I should scour the first 60 or so Nancy Drew Case Files and see if an impossible crime turns up. 🤩

    • I loved Greek Coffin, and really enjoyed many of the conceits in the Adventures of.. collection; if I stick this chronological approach I’m lead to understand that Halfway House is a great one, so I’ll review at that point. Siamese Twin will, it appears, be my final on (again, always assuming I keep the chronological aspect…and get through them all).

      Thanks for bringing that self-published one to my attention, might check it out for my next AiSP — the authors certainly seems to have a good writing pedigree, so here’s hoping that carries over into her fiction!

  3. Thanks for burdening yourself with working through these impossibles. Just making my way through these reviews and they bring up a lot of interesting discussion starters about locked room mysteries in general, as bad ones are want to do.

    It seems to me that the Queen’s do two annoying things with there locked rooms.
    1 – as you said, they make the set-up too air tight, and then it’s actually impossible to come up with something new, or anything other than the obvious. The ‘to good to be true’ factor.
    2 – They actually come up with a really nice idea for a locked room, but it’s handled horribly, or at least without an awareness of what they have bubbling away there, which then seems to make them want to fill out the story with extra nonsense.

    • A ‘Too Good to be True’ factor is actually the exact problem here, excellently put. You need a wrinkle, something that sets up a situation that is intriguing rather than simply too difficult to do anything with. I remember reading The Tiger’s Head by Paul Halter and thinking “Dude, I’m really not sure about this guy claiming he was beaten half to death by a magic genie…why not just a guy in a mask?” but then you read it and the detail of it being a genie is brilliant and really makes the situation and the book. Dannay and Lee seem (on, it must be restated, slim evidence) to have a fixation on the situation being simple rather than being interesting. And it’s usually in the “interesting” part that the trick is allowed to work.

      As I say above, they just don’t seem comfortable with the impossible crime (and if their handling of the same was among Brad’s formative experiences of such impossibilities…well, that explains that poor man’s difficulties with locked room stories). I guess the only thing is to keep going forward and seeing what comes about as a result of their repeated drawings from the well; it’s just worth m being aware that all the water may have gone before they even started drawing, and that simply a lot of mud and muck remains 🙂

      • My number one memory of this factor was in a Ed Hoch short that was so airtight I couldn’t believe he was going to solve it, I was so excited. Alas it became the most conventional of solutions with a minor cheat. Your right that the tighter it gets the more repeated tricks emerge, and the more conventional and boring the story becomes.

        • Y’ever think that maybe we read too much of this stuff and start to read a bit too much into it? Does our enthusiasm stop us just enjoying what we used to simply take at face value?

          Man, this is some deep stuff…

          • Interesting thought. Maybe its a yes and a no. Some works obviously didn’t expect as much intense scrutiny as this community provides I’m sure. But also if something is good is should stand up to interrogation!

          • Maybe? It depends I think, might just be different tastes. I mean, I read this story, solved it, and still enjoyed it. Admittedly it’s been so long that I can’t recall exactly why, but even so. My personal quality bar is really low, as long as I enjoyed it I can at least give it a tepid, “Well, it was okay I guess.” Best example I can think of right now is this anthology I’m reviewing (to be posted in 2042), where there’s nothing spectacular in the content, but it’s all well-written and all but one story at least entertained me and kept me interested. I can forgive a multitude of sins that way.

            I’m not totally sure if this is relevant but there you go. 😛

            • As I acknowledged elsewhere, I totally agree that good writing goes a long way in forgiving poor construction. My difficulty here is not that it was easy to solve, but that is was entirely bereft of any ideas and, in being so, also prolix, dull, and generally significantly beneath the acclaimed talents of the two men who wrote it.

              Hell, I’d take interesting at this point — forget good, forget anything else, just can Dannay and Lee please have written an interesting impossiblility!?

            • I want to say some things about how “interesting” Queen’s impossibilities are vs. Carr’s, but I think I should wait till you’ve read the rest of Queen’s.

              You’ve also given me an interesting idea for a post (or series) – rating Carr’s impossibilities from best to worst, leaving aside the quality of the novel or story and just focusing on the puzzle, clues and resolution. Probably want to have separate categories for locked rooms, no-footprints, impossible disappearances, and a miscellaneous category for works like Nine – And Death Makes Ten. A series like this would probably have to contain huge spoilers.

            • Wow, listing all Carr’s impossibilities would be…some task. But, sure, why not? You’ve got a spare 15 years hanging around, right?

              And, yes, a comparison between various authors and their approaches — Carr being the most obvious — is definitely on the cards once I’ve read enough to be able to talk about it intelligently. So that’s something to keep me busy for those 15 years…

  4. I guess I have a higher tolerance for Lee at his Lee-est than you do… although I admit that you could chop off the first few pages from this story and not lose a thing!

    I’d still be interested in your reactions to the more stripped-down impossible-crime stories in the QBI collection: Double Your Money and Snowball in July. They’re only what, eight pages long each or so, so there’s not a lot of excess verbiage.

    • Those reactions are forthcoming…at some point. Any I don’t get to this month, I’ll get to at some future Tuesday post undertaking, I’m sure.

  5. You might be interested to note what Francis M. Nevins says about this story in Ellery Queen: The Art of Detection:

    “In ‘The Dauphin’s Doll’… Ellery and his father and dozens of the Inspector’s men join forces to protect the doll and its 49-carat diamond crown from the legendary thief Comus, who has boasted that he’ll steal the figure while it’s on exhibition at a major department store on the day before Christmas. The crime is pulled off brilliantly but solved even more brilliantly, and Manny Lee spices the clues with all sorts of learned digressions and a sardonic evocation of the Christmas rush that presages [bit of a spoiler for another Queen work]. No collection of short whodunits could end more satisfyingly.”

    Obviously he liked it a little more than you did! Maybe part of the problem is that there really are only so many ways to pull off any kind of impossible crime, and those of us reading this 1948 story today have access not only to a lot of what had been published before in this subgenre, but another seventy years’ worth of stories to boot. So we may well have already read other stories where the same basic trick is used, and if so, we’re in a better position to solve this one than fans in the 1940s.

    This story was originally a radio play from 1943. I would guess the play stumped more listeners than the story did readers, if only because the listeners would have been swept up in the action and it would have been easier to move them past that crucial moment you write about.

    • Hey, far be it from me to disagree with someone has steeped in this sort of thing as Francis M. Nevins…but, boy, do I ever disagree with Francis M. Nevins on this.

      Still, I’ll be the bigger man and grudgingly admit that the world might just about be big enough for two people to hold contrasting opinions about a thing. It’s probably never happened before, and will doubtless never happe again, so I’ll make an exception in this one case…

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