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.
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.