- By Ellery Queen
- First published: US: Stokes, 1930; UK: Gollancz, 1930
French’s is the most popular department store in New York. At noon every day, crowds gather round the shop-window displaying modernist furniture and wares – including the only wall-bed in the country. The demonstratrix pushes an ivory button, the bed shoots out of the wall – and out falls the body of a woman, shot through the heart. It is Mrs. French, the owner’s wife…
The French Powder Mystery was the first Ellery Queen novel I read (1998), and it’s one of the triumphs of Period I Queen: a densely clued and plotted pure detective story. In other words, this is an impressive work in its genre, but some readers may think the colossal amounts of information clog their arteries. The clues are so thick you could stand a spoon up in them. For those who love this approach, this is jam, but others may find the investigation jams the reading.
Critics often claim early Queen is a disciple of S.S. Van Dine, the Twenties master of the American whodunit, but French Powder seems like an American tribute to the Realist school. Queen – like the two Freemen, Austin and Wills Crofts – focuses on physical detection and deductions, rather than on who or why. (Ellery’s detective kit seems to have been inspired by Dr. Thorndyke’s bag.) The criminal scheme (using a commercial business for trafficking, unbeknownst to the owners) derives from Crofts’s Box Office Murders, and anticipates Sayers’s Murder Must Advertise.
It is a very physical investigation. There are two detailed searches of the window-room and a private apartment, and another search of women’s rooms. These turn up a plethora of material clues: lipsticks and cigarettes, hats and keys, books and bookends. Queen is interested in the functioning of the store: the displays, truck deliveries, nightwatchmen making rounds. The deductions from the window crime scene – ROT13: gung gur pevzr jnf pbzzvggrq ryfrjurer, naq gung gur zheqrere unq fbzrguvat gb qb orsber abba – are impressively reasoned. Suspects are not asked for their movements until towards the end of the investigation, and questions of motive and personality barely arise.
Ellery’s approach is to reconstruct the physical elements of the crime, build up a “yardstick” (profile) of the murderer, then eliminate the suspects like a detectival game of Guess Who?. The denouement is a thing of beauty; Queen moves through the 30-odd characters, measuring them against the yardstick, and dismissing them, until only one name remains on the list. Who the culprit is, is only revealed in the last line. From memory, that revelation astonished me.
The mysterious author of one of 1929’s best-selling murder stories, “The Roman Hat Mystery,” now comes forward with a spell-binding tale of crime, intrigue, and extraordinary deduction.
At crowded noon, in front of Fifth Avenue’s most fashionable department store, while hundreds of sidewalk onlookers watch a demonstration of modernistic furniture in the window, the demonstrator touches a button regulating a concealed wall-bed – the bed swings out of the wall – and from its dark recesses tumbles the distorted, crumpled corpse of a beautiful woman…
Ellery Queen moves vitally and refreshingly through his own story – a slender, cynical young man with a genius for piercing the veil of commonplaces and arriving at fool-proof conclusions. Old Inspector Queen, his father, again takes you through the complicated processes of a police investigation, although it is Ellery who is responsible for the solution of the most stimulating and baffling detective story in months.
And we promise you a dénouement as surprising and yet so inevitable that you will understand why the London Times has nominated Ellery Queen as “the logical successor to Sherlock Holmes.”
Wm. Lyon Phelps: “The French Powder Mystery” is a brilliant, thrilling, ingenious story of murder and its detection and Ellery Queen belongs with Sherlock Holmes, Arsène Lupin, Philo Vance and other master-minds.