A stranger comes to visit Donald Kirk in his suite of rooms on the twenty-second floor of the Hotel Chancellor. He is asked to wait alone in an ante-room and soon after is found dead. All the furniture has been turned to face the walls, as have the pictures, and the rug has been turned upside down. The dead man’s clothes are also reversed and buttoned at the back and a pair of spears have been taken off the wall and pushed up his trousers and out of his collar. Why? What could possibly be the meaning of all this?
Having read the first 50 pages (and actually even up to the reveal) I have no idea but I’m looking forward to finding out why – after all it is this hook that persuaded me to pick up the first six Ellery Queen novels.
So was the hook worth it? Did it justify buying six books in one go?
Definitely, yes! The series gets better as it goes on and whilst I wasn’t overly impressed with Roman Hat and French Powder, I found them valuable reading as it was only having read them that I could appreciate that Queen was very different to my first love Christie, and could then enjoy Dutch Shoe and subsequent titles for what they were rather than be disappointed by what they were not.
As for this title, it shows the need for real police work to underpin the amateur’s genius: Ellery would not have been able to make his deductions without hard, physical evidence that his father’s underlings are able to provide.
And the backwardness makes sense and then there is a final little nugget that I haven’t come across before in my GAD reading.
My enjoyment of this could have been spoiled if I had remembered two things:
(1) The Locked Room Lecture in John Dickson Carr’s “The Three Coffins” says, when referring to tampering with a bolt, “Ellery Queen has shown us still another method, entailing the use of the dead man himself”.
(2) This book features at #8 on the 1981 list of 15 Best Impossible Crime Novels. Its possible presence on this list had crossed my mind as I started reading but fortunately I couldn’t be bothered to check.
When I did check on finishing the book I was greatly riled because this is most definitely not an impossible crime – any number of suspects could have committed this murder, in fact anyone in New York could have committed it were that not against the rules of GAD fiction. It is only impossible that one person could have committed the crime, which would mean that any crime involving an unbreakable alibi would be an impossible crime, which is clearly not what the majority of GAD followers would understand by an impossible crime.
How could seventeen well-known authors and reviewers make such a classification error?
Obviously once the list has got out there, you can’t correct it without giving spoilers! But by leaving it on the list it is also a spoiler! What should the GAD community do? Should we warn others away from the list? And if so, what reason do we give?
Anyway, into the detail of the solution itself I was impressed how the planned element of the murder is mixed with the improvised turning everything backwards in order to hide the victim’s clerical profession – although as I type I realise that this actually helped the murderer because otherwise the use of the spears would have stuck out much earlier as being significant: as it is they are actually hidden by the weirdness of the whole changing around of the room.
The motive is neatly slipped in on the fourth page and whilst we may feel a little sorry for Miss Diversey we must remember that she rather than tidy up the remains of her tangerine properly, she just hurls them out of the window into the courtyard below for someone else to deal with.
As a counterpoint to French Powder where the murderer’s name is only given in the final sentence, here we never find out the victim’s name and yet as Ellery has already said, that is completely unimportant in this situation. Have you ever come across any other victims who remain nameless?