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.
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.
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?
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.
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.