So I finished the -68 novel, called House of Brass. It’s not terribly good, and after reading it I was all set for a blog entry on how I was bored with the whole Queen concept and wasn’t sure if it was worth the trouble of reading the last ones I had. However, it’s hard to resist them, when they’ve got such cute tables of contents and lists of characters (not always the latter though). For example, in the House of Brass the table of contents is 14 chapters long, and the chapters are named:
7. And Where Again?
8. And Why Again?
9. What and Where?
11. Who’s Who?
12. When, Where, Who Why
13. Who and Why?
14. Who, How and Why Finally
This is quite glorious of course – sadly, as I mentioned, the book didn’t live up to it. Inspector Queen is here retired, newly married and just back from his honeymoon when his bride, Jessie, receives a mysterious letter, inviting her to said House of Brass and undersigned Hendrik Brass. She’s led a humdrum life as a nurse and wouldn’t mind a stab at adventure, so convinces Richard that they should go. Once arrived they discover a most eccentric house, host, ditto servant and, predictably, a motley group of guests, all having received the same type of invitation. The host claims to be fabulously wealthy and for various reasons wishes to make said guests his heirs. After drawing up the will, he’s murdered – but where’s the moolah? Search commences, for money and murderer.
My objections to the book are for starters that it’s very much un petit trop, with an overly crazy group of characters, not to mention location. At the same time, there probably were in the -60s (perhaps still are?) many such pockets of weirder than weird places. The author himself refers to it as a “Sleepy Hollow” sort of place, and the House and Host fit right in. Maybe I shouldn’t necessarily fault it. More important is my second major objection: that our Inspector, who in previous novels has seemed quite razor-sharp, only needing his son for perhaps the final imaginative push, here seems to be bumbling about rather, worrying about his impending senility or something.
So after finishing this disappointment I was really ready to just pack it in, but instead read The Finishing Strokes, and was immediately quite cheered. This novel is ten years younger than HoB, and ticklingly enough set mostly in 1929 – right after Ellery Queen, a young man, has published his first novel, The Roman Hat Mystery. Good thing I’d read that, because otherwise it wouldn’t be as funny. The book even quotes a review from Saturday Review of Literature as a prelude to Book Two:
“The Roman Hat Mystery, by Ellery Queen. This ‘Problem in Deduction’ introduces two new detectives, father and son. One is a genial snuff-addict, the other a philovancish bookworm. They are agreeable enough, if somewhat too coy and too chorus-like in their repartee . . . . In spite of minor defects . . . this is a competent piece of work for those who like their detective stories straight.”
Book Two then commences by telling us that although most reviews were favourable, this more acid one cut Ellery to the bone. I think this is a clever twist and it won me over – although I was already won over in Book One. This is surprisingly insightfully and at times movingly (such as it is) written, and describes how Claire Sebastian, in 1905, is injured in a car crash and gives birth prematurely. She dies, and her husband denounces the second twin, claiming the monster killed her. This is background for the rest. And to be honest I don’t know if I loved the rest, but it was fair. Ellery goes to a Christmas house party at young John Sebastian’s (the first twin!), a party that is spoiled by murder and mysterious gift boxes with ominous clues. I suppose, in retrospect, that I could have figured out the clues myself, especially since there were pictures, but I didn’t. I read it with the slight sense of huffiness that comes from feeling stupid. But on the whole I liked several aspects – the dialogue and descriptions of the interactions between the guests were at times very enjoyable for one thing. Apparently people were outrageously flirty in the -20s… Considering.