Sat 21 Apr 2012
ELLERY QUEEN – The French Powder Mystery. Frederick A. Stokes, hardcover, July 1930. Pocket #71, paperback; 1st printing, August 1940; #45012, 18th printing, August 1964. (All shown.) Several other paperback editions.
I’m sure I’ve told this story before – this blog has been going for over five years now, and it has to have come up at one time or another – but back when I first discovered Ellery Queen – I’m talking well over 50 years ago now – and was devouring them like candy after Halloween, I deliberately held one of them back.
My thinking at the time was along the lines of “If I read this last one, then I’ll have read them all, and how sad that would be, not to have any more of them to look forward to.” The book was, of course, The French Powder Mystery, and it is time, I thought to myself last Tuesday, to finally sit down and read it.
And I’m glad I did. There is the possibility that I might have enjoyed it more when I was in my teens, but enjoy it now, I most certainly did.
Compared with books written today, a lot of readers will not feel the same way. It’s not a book that has a lot of action. It has none in fact, once you exclude a failed raid on a dope house that’s totally abandoned by the time they get there.
If it’s characterization you’re looking for, this early EQ novel doesn’t have a stack of that either, unless you count Ellery twirling his pince-nez glasses while deep in thought, or Inspector Queen’s reaching for his box of snuff when he feels exasperated with either the unruly nature of the case or the multitude of suspects, which is often.
It is a book that begins almost immediately with a murder, followed by 280 pages of small print completely filled with questions, answers, strange discoveries, room searches, alibis, motives, unexplained clues, secret codes and more, including several of Ellery’s discourses on deduction along the way.
There is barely room or time to take a breath. It is delightful, and (I admit) not the kind of book that is popular any more, nor will it become popular again, in my humble opinion. Readers aren’t as willing to sit and think and pay attention to details as they once they did, and boy howdy, do they ever have to in this one.
A bare outline of the plot is in order. The book begins with a body being discovered in a wall-bed that is unfolded for display in a department store window at precisely 12:15 pm. The woman is the wife of the store’s owner, who is in a high-powered business conference upstairs at the time. Missing at the same time is the man’s stepdaughter, who turns out to have several other secrets of her own, making her the chief suspect.
But there are many, many other suspects as well: store personnel, business associates, other family members and former family members. The list of characters at the beginning of the book comes in handy. And as usual in these early Ellery Queen novels, there is a page in which the author challenges the reader. “You have the facts,” you are told. “Who did it, how and why?”
I am happy, no make that extremely pleased (without bragging) to say that, yes, I knew who did it. Not all of the details, mind you. It takes Ellery Queen the novelist the last 40 pages to go into all of them, in intricate, glorious detail.
It’s an ingenious plot, even if (I confess) a little too complicated for its own good. But I was with Ellery Queen the detective each step of the way, every small fact or clue (except maybe one) brought into the open, discussed and discarded or even better, made part of the unraveling.
Check this one off as finally finished. As I said earlier, I enjoyed myself, I did.
And now I can start over.