By Ellery Queen
First published: US, Little, Brown, 1949; UK, Gollancz, 1949
Ellery Queen’s subtle attack on his longest and most complicated case to date developed out of a baffling series of murders in New York City. Victim followed victim with no apparent connection except that each was found strangled by a cord of India silk. The city’s tension mounted to mob hysteria. First in a cartoonist’s drawing, then in the feverish minds of the citizens, especially in that of Ellery himself, stalked the CAT, adding a new tail with each murder, brandishing also a huge question mark – who would be the next victim?
Clues were non-existent. Ellery had to employ all his canny skill and play every hunch before he could find even a hopeful direction in which to move. Then he opened the throttle, using the police, the mayor, the psychiatrists, even the enamored heirs of two of the CAT’s victims, to speed into a climax as astounding as it is incontrovertible.
A supposed masterpiece, but very flawed.
The plot is not entirely original – it’s a combination of Christie’s ABC Murders, Philip MacDonald’s Murder Gone Mad, and a couple of Anthony Berkeley novels SPOILER in which a character is identified as the murderer halfway through, then turns out to be protecting another person.
Was I alone, by the way, in suspecting the real culprit? As soon as a certain person was suspected of being the Cat, my nasty suspicious mind began to wonder whether they weren’t. Queen was known for his double solution gambit and it’s almost axiomatic that a character who is supposed to be the murderer isn’t. SPOILER Only Dr. and Mrs. Cazalis had access to the filing cabinet and the cords. Dr. C.’s sending his wife away to Florida, and his attack on Céleste when he knew the police were watching him, suggest he was getting his wife out of the scene, and deliberately offering himself up as a suspect.
The first half of the book was good, particularly the descriptions of an increasingly panic-stricken New York culminating in the riots at the town hall. (Queen seems to be concerned with mob violence, both here and in Calamity Town and The Glass Village.)
Other parts are I also thought that the writing was rather bad in parts. The chapter where the police followed the main suspect was tedious; too much detail about which street he was going up and when. The last three pages were absolutely dreadful – Ellery carries on like an egomaniac adolescent and Dr Seligmann offers the moral of the book. Simultaneously pretentious and banal.
Times Literary Supplement (4th November 1949):
“Ellery Queen” has his less successful moments—mannered, obscure, or even in doubtful taste. This latest story, however, in which Ellery joins in the attempts to track down a mysterious and apparently indiscriminate strangler, who is gradually creating mass panic in New York, is one of the most exciting he has ever written, and presents besides some perceptive character studies.