January 1905: A man stubbornly drives home through a blizzard. The inevitable crash seriously injures his wife who goes into premature labour. A son is born but she dies giving birth to a second. The furious man takes his first-born home, leaving the other in the care of the childless doctor and his wife, and shortly after dies from his head injury.
December 1929: Ellery Queen, minor celebrity on the back of the success of “The Roman Hat Mystery”, is invited by aforementioned first-born John Sebastian to a Christmas houseparty. Twelve guests, each born under a different sign of the zodiac, there to stay for twelve nights, after which four significant events will take place in John’s life.
The mysteries soon begin: Christmas Day sees an anonymous Santa Claus arrive to distribute the presents and that evening John receives an extra present consisting of an ox, a house, and a camel. On Boxing Day a stabbed man is discovered in the library (where else?) and that night John receives a second gift.
I had been given vague warnings about this book but a Christmas mystery with a cold case element was still too tempting. And apart from the length – a sequence of twelve presents is too many, too many days where not a lot happens – I quite enjoyed it, until I started to think a little about the solution and realised that it just didn’t really make sense – at least not if you’re going to have the first murder and that is necessary because you have to have something to keep everyone there for the twelve days under the eyes of the police.
Ellery’s back story is unnecessarily re-written. Yes, the information contained in the J. J. McC Forewords was jettisoned a long time before this, but here it clearly states that Roman Hat was Ellery’s first case and this was his second, when The Greek Coffin Mystery clearly precedes Roman Hat for a very important reason which is explained in that book.
There is a lack of deduction until the final explanation, and whilst the midpoint reveal surprised me, it did not do so for long.
As Ellery himself does during the course of the twelve days, you’d be better off reading “The Poisoned Chocolates Case” by Anthony Berkeley.