#917: Mining Mount TBR – The Tragedy of X (1932) by Ellery Queen [a.p.a. by Barnaby Ross]

The writing duo of Frederic Dannay and Manfred B. Lee, a.k.a. Ellery Queen, a.k.a. Barnaby Ross are huge names who arguably deserve more than simply being thrown in as one of the long-languishing members of my TBR pile. But my struggles with Queen are well-documented, and at least I’ll read this now, hein?

The Tragedy of X (1932) was the first of four novels by Dannay and Lee under their Barnaby Ross nom de plume, all of which feature the retired Shakespearean actor Drury Lane — giving up the stage on account of hearing loss — who has, au naturel, become something of an amateur sleuth in his dotage.

“From obeying the jerk of the master’s strings, I now have the impulse to pull the strings myself, in a greater authorship than created drama. Everything fits so nicely; even my unfortunate affliction” — a lean finger touched his ear — “has contrived to sharpen my powers of concentration. I have only to close my eyes and I am in a world without sound and therefore without physical disturbance.…”

Having written to the police concerning an investigation, and offering them a “really brilliant analysis of the Cramer case, pointing out what was under our noses all the time,” Lane finds himself consulted by District Attorney Bruno and Inspector Thumm, who are hoping that “you might be able to duplicate the feat” in the murder of businessman Harley Longstreet. Lane, and the reader, is then told the story of Longstreet’s death: poisoned on a tram in front of at least a dozen witnesses, in a manner that makes the precise time easy to pin down but the perpetrator — and their enjoyably baroque method of poisoning — something more of a puzzle.

“Oh, goody.”

Look, I have to be honest: I got very little pleasure out of this book, and I’ll get even less pleasure out of writing about how much I didn’t enjoy it because all I get told is that I’m not giving Queen a fair chance or that I don’t understand the genre. The fact is, I find Queen — early Queen, fine, because I’m yet to embark on too much of their Third or Fourth or Eighth or Whatever Period stuff — pedantic and fussy and boring in a way that simultaneously repulses and attracts me, like some horrible injury you cannot look away from. Partly it’s the hopeless, purposeless repetition — all the suspects of the Longstreet menage are interviewed once at the scene, and then brought into the station the next day for another round of the same questions only for, unsurprisingly, just as little progress to be made as a result — and partly it’s the obsession on trifles to the point where they really do seem to be describing every speck of dirt in a molehill by way of convincing you that a mountain might be made from it.

A second murder occurs, leading to one of the most frustrating sections of literature I’ve encountered in quite some time, and then — eventually — a third. Come the summary of events by Lane, one of the key features in unpicking that third murder involves a ticket book not being where it should, and where Christie and Carr would pass over this in a line or two, Dannay and Lee seemingly cannot get enough of this book, dragging out the minor aspects of the point over and over, explaining in minute detail interpretations that you can be reasonably assured anyone who has made it this far is intelligent enough to understand. They’re not alone in this, the final section of The Death of Laurence Vining (1928) by Alan Thomas springs to mind as a recent example from another source, but Queen’s commitment to doing this book after book with conceit after conceit staggers me. It’s a good clue — it’s a very good clue — but the inability of the Queen boys to just flourish it and move on exemplifies everything I dislike about their writing.

Do I, however, dislike everything about how they write? No, of course not. The opening, in which Bruno and Thumm visit Lane at his home The Hamlet and encounter the weird, caught-between-two-eras setup of “unbelievable medieval turrets, stone ramparts, crenelated battlements, a queerly ancient church-spire” is suitably fun, with gatekeeper offering a “calisthenic welcome” before “trudg[ing] cheerfully before them into the sixteenth century”. Equally, the Shakespearean allusion made to the servants (shades of The Wintringham Mystery (1927) by Anthony Berkeley there) is fun and odd enough to enjoy, and only adds to the slight air of unreality about the place, which helps this feel less like a string of rejected B-, C-, and D-plots from their already successful series strung together to fulfil a contractual obligation. And it helps the nude sunbathing in which Lane partakes feel less out of left-field than it otherwise might.

“Oh, god.”

There is also a pleasing reliance on the tropes of the genre — I’ll be honest, I do love a good Meet Me In This Mysterious Place At This Mysterious Time And I’ll Blow The Lid On The Whole Thing Without Getting Murdered In The Meantime, and this is a good one — and each of the murders does well to utilise a different mode of transport (surely a better hook for a title…) and present interesting problems that must be addressed. There’s also some interesting language — “You’re lying in your teeth”, say, rather than “through” — and a fun game of Hunt the Weapon as doubts begin to crash in around the most likely suspects. There’s something almost Berkeley-esque in the willingness of Queen to examine things in the depth they do, but the flip side of that is that, like with Berkeley, sometimes what results is tepid at best.

But, well, ignoramus that I am, I can find very little amidst these glimmers to justify the book’s inclusion on the Haycraft-Queen Cornerstones list, since it too often relies on rounds of interviews or on Lane not telling the police who he suspects so that they can be kept under observation — absolutely unconscionable, by the way, making him culpable for at least one death. And the way that middle section piles up guilt is interesting and (tediously) thorough, but it crumbles so, so, so easily after far too long, and Lane’s justification for allowing it to play out as it does is the sort of lazy writing you’d lambast some third- or fourth-stringer for invoking, so why Queen/Ross are allowed to get away with it is beyond me.

I’d suggest, for the curious drawn to this that the best way to read it is probably to encounter each murder — they’re not too far into each of the Acts the book is divided into, another nice touch — and then skip to Lane’s explanation at the end. Little in between matters, you’ll save yourself a lot of time, and you’ll still get the experience of the ticket book deduction and so be able to see what this nearly 400-page novel is like when encountered fully. I’m told that Lane’s second case The Tragedy of Y (1932) is better — well, yes, how could it not be?

“Oh.”

And so, another duff for me and Ellery Queen — a situation made ever tougher by the fact that, when I told the EQ fans in my life that the next novel I was due to read from their usual nom de plume was The Devil to Pay (1937), they pulled faces indicative of a weak effort that would do little to convince anyone of the pair’s merits. And, look, I enjoyed Halfway House (1936) and The Door Between (1937), so I know that there is something here for me…it’s clearly just not in the same quantities as whatever the rest of you seem to get from these books. So where do I head now? Calamity Town (1942)? Ten Days’ Wonder (1948)? Wife or Death (1963)?

Incidentally, if you feel the need to experience this for yourself, the Pocket Books edition shown above, a scan of my physical copy, comes highly recommended. It’s one of the nicest physical old books I’ve held for some time, and was one of the more enjoyable aspects of this whole experience.

~

See also

Ben @ The Green Capsule: I worry that I unduly criticize these books because the writing isn’t bad by any means.  Well, that is to say “if you examine the writing of any given page, all things seem in order.”  And yet, I need something – whether a impossible hook, or just a glimpse of a soul – to pull me along.  I have yet to encounter it with the Queens. That isn’t to say that nothing happens in the story.  Soon after the bus investigation dies down, a second murder occurs and we’re back in it – this time with an entire ferry’s worth of witnesses to interview and trash to inspect!  And so the book plods on and on in that one never dying dimension.  At this point, I was begging that there wouldn’t be a third murder.  There is.

Laura @ Dead Yesterday: The Tragedy of X is distinguished by some clever and wonderfully atmospheric murders, which take advantage of the wide array of commuter transportation available to killers in the tri-state area. In between murders, however, the pace slows to a crawl as Lane alternates endless monologues with bouts of nude sunbathing.

24 thoughts on “#917: Mining Mount TBR – The Tragedy of X (1932) by Ellery Queen [a.p.a. by Barnaby Ross]

  1. Hilariously funny review, JJ. And, at the same time, it very clearly conveys what exactly it is that does not resonate with you.

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    • Oh, lawks, I wasn’t trying to be funny, I assure you. Mainly I was anticipating being told how wrong I was and so wanted to get my points across clearly. But I’m glad someone got some enjoyment out of this book, even if it was at one remove 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Sorry the two cousins fail to do it for you. Again. The style and heavy elaboration of their early Van Dine inspired books really don’t seem to work for you. May explain why they are so little read today. In my teens, when I first read them, blew many mind. It was Carr and Queen as the top of the tree for me for years after that. Shame that is not universally true 😆 As mentioned before, SIAMESE TWIN is the early Queen I would lead with, so hope you read that at least. And yes, TRAGEDY OF Y is a much stronger book with a celebrated finish that I think still holds up. After this I’d skip to CAT OF MANY TAILS – after that, if still no go, through in the hat chum!!

    Liked by 3 people

    • They’re little-read today, but the American Mystery Classics ranges keeps pumping ’em out when it could be republishing something with a sense of humour like the ignored Craig Rice or the wonderful Kelley Roos. Reputation is a powerful thing, it seems, if enough people are taught to parrot it.

      I read Siamese Twin, hated it. Wrightsville here I come…!

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      • Rice and Roos (sic) were popular in their day but belong to a very different school of writing I would have thought. But there you go, horses for courses, swings and roundabouts, and so on … 😆 I really must pop round with a few hundred decent mysteries for you… (for once a literal comment).

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        • Oh, a very different school of writing, but one that I would expect to appeal more these days, y’know? They don’t have the reputation of Queen, but if republished — like, say, Hardly a Man is Now Alive by Herbert Brean — would delight a great many people, I have no doubt.

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            • I enjoyed Kennel when I read it yeeeeeears ago, then simply never went back to him beyond the odd short story. I see the AMC have Benson coming out in a month or so, and am looking forward to that…but I can’t yet say I’ve read enough by him — and certainly not recently enough — to have a fuilly informed opinion.

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  3. KELL SURPREEZ!

    I’m frankly puzzled that you continue to approach these chronologically, despite all the warnings by your friends, some of whom are true FANS OF QUEEN, to skip around, pick and choose, give yourself – and us – a break. Instead, you adopt this picking-at-a-scab approach and cause yourself needless suffering.

    There is nothing I disagree with here in your review: I found X to be a tedious slog. As Sergio and I have told you, Y is a wholly different kind of case . . . but that doesn’t mean you won’t find it boring, too. There are plenty of authors who do that to me as well. I wouldn’t advise The Tragedy of Z or Drury Lane’s Last Case to you, nor would I go with The Devil to Pay, although after X, that one might feel like a breeze!

    I also think that, as we grow older, our tastes change. I re-read The Greek Coffin Mystery and found it terribly slow. Now I just feel grateful for having read it as a kid and being blown away by it then. Same goes for The Siamese Twin Mystery – which I have no plans on re-reading in case the same thing happens. And I’m grateful to have read the three main Wrightsville mysteries followed by Cat of Many Tails because of the character arc it creates for Ellery, which was truly something in its time. (Re-reading The Murderer Is a Fox was tough, for the same thing happened . . . Ellery went on and on and ON about the pitcher and glass, till I became glassy-eyed.) And I’m glad I read Face to Face when I read it because that baroque dying message and tragic ending truly shocked me. I’m terrified that if I tried it now, it would fall flat.

    I think you yourself are discovering that when we reconnect with an old read or a past favorite author, things can change for us, not always for the better. (You’ve gone through that with Carter Dickson and Dashiell Hammett.) It wouldn’t hurt my feelings if you gave up on Queen. I know his reputation will survive, and this boring old X book will remain on the Haycraft list. So will The Maltese Falcon and The Glass Key, and you hated both of them, too. And Lord Dunsany’s stories??? Pfui! We ALL hated them!

    And so, as you move next to The Devil to Pay, ignore our faint cries of "Don't . . . stop . . . don't . . . stop . . . " and Sergio's perfectly good suggestions about where to go next. We love seeing you in pain . . . and the dogs are freaking adorable.

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  4. Queen and I are just a good match, I guess. All the early Queen novels that I have read I have enjoyed a great deal – I am probably the loudest champion of The Dutch Shoe Mystery maybe in the whole world. As I have written before, I think the Queen novels are the Platonic ideal of what a classic mystery novel should be with lots if suspects, lots of obscure clues, and a meta-textual element to challenging the reader themselves. Do they stand the test of time? Probably not. They lack the joyful simplicity and bravado of Christie and the theatrics and cleverness of Carr. But they have earned their place in the pantheon for me.

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    • The Dutch Shoe Mystery does have a nice piece of misdirection, worthy of Carr or Christie. Yet the book was incredibly dull, and I recall the logic used to identify the killer being extremely thin.

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    • Given my love of the puzzle-dense likes of Rupert Penny, early Queen and I should be a good match, too. What gets me is, I think, how humourless, po-faced, and pedantic they are. Penny is at least funny at times, and his plots largely motor along through incident rather than excess discussion (Sweet Poison perhaps the notable exception…). Queen never met an idea they couldn’t talk to death, and I’m like 11 books deep on this endeavour and I don’t think I’ve cracked a smile once.

      Ah, well. Decades from now I shall be recognised as the leading philosopher of my time, unappreciated and burned at the stake while refusing to say that the sun revolves around the work of Ellery Queen.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. “So where do I head now? Calamity Town (1942)? Ten Days’ Wonder (1948)? Wife or Death (1963)?”

    Since you like the other Period 2 novels, how about giving There Was An Old Woman a try? It was published after Calamity Town, but it could easily have been the best Period 2 Queen were it not for the publishing date. It’s also reasonably fast-paced and contains one of Ellery’s most ingenious chains of reasoning.

    As someone mentioned above, Siamese Twin Mystery would be a good pick too, but I personally find the endless, pointless fire-fighting scenes in that novel worse than any of the drawn-out investigations you dislike in Early Queen. I would recommend skimming or skipping those chapters.

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    • TWaOW goes on the list — thank-you, any guidance is appreciated.

      I read Siamese Twin a little while ago and did not care for it [sensation]. I agree about the fire-fighting and fire in general, it’s an odd device that the book would be significantly better — and, perhaps more tellingly, shorter — without. For a standalone novel in which our detective solves the mystery only for everyone to be overcome by the smoke/flames it would be devastating and magnificent, a Queeninan And Then There Were None, but as it is I found it torpid.

      “What do you keep doing this to yourself, Jim?” everyone wants to know…

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  6. Heh, I feel bad for twisting your arm to read this, but you’re now an official survivor. We should get tattoos. The book is absurdly long and I can’t fathom why. You could cut 200 pages easily, although it still wouldn’t be a great story. But there’s some bizarre stuff in there, right? The sunbathing scene has to be the most outlandish thing I’ve come across in my GAD reading.

    The Tragedy of Y is a legitimately good mystery novel. It’s unbelievable that it was written the same year as The Tragedy of X, because it doesn’t have 200 pages of pointlessly detailed investigation, and it’s actually enjoyable. Easily the best thing that Queen(s) wrote.

    If you want to look elsewhere I’d say go with Calamity Town – a well written story, although I can’t imagine you’ll be surprised by the ending. I’d approach the Wrightsville novels in order because they kind of build off of each other (not in a critical way), so don’t jump to Ten Days Wonder (which isn’t that great anyway).

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    • Perhaps in time I’ll find a lovely paperback of Tragedy of Y and buy it just because it’s such a nice physical object…and maybe, in time, I’ll become curious about its contents. At present, I’m not willing to commit to more 🙂

      I hear Wrightsville should be done in order, so maybe that’s the place to head next. Of course, I own none of them, so there’s the small matter of needing to track them own so that this experiment can limp ever onwards, but at least I know where to start.

      And I presume that tattoo won’t be of a naked Drury Lane…?

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  7. Well, isn’t this the most predictable thing in the world? In fairness, this is usually considered to be the weakest of the Burnaby Ross books so I ‘m not surprised. Y is much better, even Devil to Pay is decent but you’ll probably still hate them.

    Also, ‘Wife or Death’ isn’t written by Dannay or Lee- which probably makes it a good choice for you!!

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    • See, if it was absolutely a given that I was going to hate every Queen novel, I’d stop reading them altogether. But people whose opinions I respect in other matters — Carr, Christie, Crofts, Freeman, etc — assure me there’s something in these and, at times, I won’t deny I’ve enjoyed some of their conceits. Hell, as I say above, I enjoyed some of this until it got bogged down in drawn out and pointless legal proceedings and naked sunbathing. It’s almost like they can’t help themselves at this early stage, or maybe they made a deal with someone –0 as soon as they write something light and intriguing, they have to drag it down with ponderous repetition.

      Also, thanks for pointing out my Wife or Death joke. See? I’m funny.

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