The Dutch Shoe Mystery by Ellery Queen (1931)

Obligatory introduction to any review of an Ellery Queen book: there are two Ellery Queens:

(1) Ellery Queen is the pseudonym under which the son of a New York policeman writes up the real-life cases in which he and his father are involved. He writes detective fiction under his real name.

(2) Ellery Queen is the pseudonym of cousins Frederic Dannay and Manfred Lee who wrote detective novels featuring the character Ellery Queen (1).

The convention I have seen elsewhere is that Ellery refers to the character and Queen to the authors and that is what I will use here.

I read, but did not blog about, the first two books in the series last year. I didn’t have a problem with a key element that JJ (not McC) at the Invisible Event did in his review of The Roman Hat Mystery as I felt it had been alluded to and instead enjoyed a key psychological clue that should have given a strong indication of who the killer was. When reading Puzzle Doctor’s review of The French Powder Mystery  I had been intrigued by the reference to the final line and that, alongside the hook of “The Chinese Orange Mystery” where a whole room has been turned back-to-front: furniture, pictures, even the dead man’s clothes, was enough to encourage me to get hold of some Queen. However I was less happy with that second book, mainly because the final exposition was a series of “it wasn’t X because of Y but primarily because they don’t possess secret attribute Z (which I’m not going to reveal yet)”.

“The Dutch Shoe Mystery” opens with Ellery visiting the Dutch Memorial Hospital in search of medical information. His friend Dr Minchen answers his question on rigor mortis that quickly closes his case. Now at a loose end, Ellery reluctantly accepts an invitation to witness an operation to be performed on the hospital’s benefactress, Abigail Doorn, but shortly after the patient is wheeled into the operating theatre it is found that she is already dead – strangled.

Conversations with the hospital staff soon show how and when the murder was committed but although the killer was seen by a number of people no one can identify them.

A set of clothes and a pair of shoes are among the physical evidence that the police find within the hospital and Ellery’s attention is drawn to a broken shoelace that has been repaired with adhesive tape, which has an almost immediate meaning to him but not to anyone else. He is similarly struck by the absence of a window at a second crime scene.

From these two seeming trifles Ellery is able to pin down the killer by his usual process of elimination. The solution is very neat and felt very Chestertonian although I can’t think of an exact parallel and pleased me much more than either of the first two books. The morning after reading I thought I had caught Queen out thinking “but if X had happened that would imply Y which would surely have not gone unnoticed” then realising that a small detail in a description meant that Y could not possibly have happened.

Other interesting points to note are that all thirty chapters are all a single word ending in “ation” and that an interlude is provided where only the left hand column of each page is printed on leaving “extra wide margins…for the use of the reader in jotting down his personal notes about the solution.” Apart from this looking odd – it would be better to print alternate full pages – to me the idea of writing in a book is anathema!

Reflecting on all three, I realised that I had had unrealistic expectations of what Ellery Queen was all about. The quote from Anthony Boucher is “Ellery Queen is the American detective story” and I subconsciously translated that as “Ellery Queen is the American Agatha Christie”. Hopefully I can take this onboard as I read more Ellery Queen (and other as yet to be discovered authors) and enjoy them more on their own merits and not hold them up against an unsuitable yardstick.

Vintage Mystery Challenge

Fulfils “Where – In a hospital/nursing home”.

 

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7 thoughts on “The Dutch Shoe Mystery by Ellery Queen (1931)”

  1. Man, I want to enjoy Queen without caveats, but I wonder if I’m able to enjoy anything without caveats any more. This is being reissued as part of Otto Penzler’s American Mystery Classics series soon, and I’m thinking I’ll pick up a copy in paperback since I always have more patience with books in paperback rather than on e-reader (no idea why, feel free to speculate amongst yourselves).

    And, in fact, you’ve reminded me that I should tackle The Door Between Soon, having gotten onto a better footing with the mid-period Halfway House. Hmmm, shall try and get to that in the coming weeks.

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    1. I’m hoping that I can now try better to accept the difference between GAD authors and enjoy their work for what it is rather than be disappointed with what it is not. Which is what you’ve done with Philip MacDonald based on your recent review.

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  2. Heh, Ellery Queen certainly is not the American Agatha Christie! I made a similar mistake in that assumption and was heavily disappointed. Have you read any of the other eras of Queen, or are you doing them in order? I took the same approach as JJ and read them in order until The Greek Coffin Mystery. I decided to jump ahead since I wasn’t enjoying the period one books and I’ve had much better luck with The Four of Hearts and Calamity Town. I’m actually in the middle of another Queen right now.

    The trick in The Dutch Shoe Mystery reminded me of something John Dickson Carr might have done. I’d love to offer up some examples, but that isn’t possible without two-way spoiler potential. Very nice misdirection though.

    I’m not a fan of the logic used by Ellery in the end though. Similar to The French Powder Mystery, it seemed as if the guilty party could have just said “mmm, no, it wasn’t me” and the police wouldn’t really have had much of a leg to stand on.

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    1. I’m reading the ones I’ve got in order so three more from the first nine, and then the Wrightsville Trilogy and There Was an Old Woman.

      To be fair, a lot of mysteries have solutions which we accept as true based on a sleuth’s deductions, but I think they would have a hard time proving it in court, a point specifically acknowledged in “Have His Carcase” by Dorothy L. Sayers.

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  3. Queen is definitely among the greatest of the greats for me. And I LOVE Period One. Full emphasis on detection, investigation and logical reasoning, dozens of clues slipped under the reader’s nose and wonderfully constructed puzzles, what’s not to enjoy?

    I know this is going to be a minority opinion but from what I’ve read, I much prefer Queen to say, Brand, whom I find to be seiously lacking in
    devising puzzles.

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