FIVE BOOKS TO READ BEFORE THEY’RE SPOILED FOR YOU – Ellery Queen Edition

I’m following up my prize-winning post on Agatha Christie books one should read before they are spoiled with something along the same lines for several reasons. First, it’s Sunday and I’m fighting a cold, so while I have nothing better to do but suck down zinc lozenges and write, I’m not feeling particularly creative. Secondly, my mystery reading during those formative years consisted mainly of a triumvirate of classic writers: Christie, Carr . . . and Ellery Queen. Which brings me to Reason Number Three: I’m performing this service for two friends of mine. You know JJ of The Invisible Event and Ben from The Green Capsule, don’t you? Bloggers fair, both of them! Well, independently of each other, both men made a vow to track down, read and cover the Queen’s entire oeuvre. Alas, things are not progressing as well as could be hoped: Ben has found himself bogged down in the first two investigations, and from the gagging sounds emanating from his corner of London, JJ seems to be having an even worse time after the first three novels.

This may have something to do with Queen’s style, which, perhaps more than any other mystery writer, changed frequently and dramatically throughout his career. This has to do with the author himself – or themselves, as most of you probably know. Queen was the nom de plume for a pair of cousins, Frederick Dannay and Manfred B. Lee. They began writing mysteries simply to win a contest, and to find their source of inspiration one need look no further than the (at the time) popular works of S.S. Van Dine.

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Van Dine wrote a dozen mysteries that all shared a number of features: the titles were comprised of a word or name (Greene, Scarab, Dragon, Casino) followed by “Murder Case;” the detective was a brilliant but supercilious ass named Philo Vance, and the stories were told strictly from the point of view of the investigators, with little to no frivolous extras like characterization or drama. Instead, Van Dine loaded his novels with scholarly trivia, often placed in lengthy footnotes, that were meant to give the genre that he disdained a lift but tended toward the pretentious and slowed things down considerably. The novels were intellectual exercises, pure and simple. And as their publication continued, they got more and more sterile and boring until Van Dine basically gave up and died at fifty of drink.

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Scholars tend to divide Queen’s output into distinct periods, and in Period One we find, at least on the surface, that Queen was attempting to become heir apparent to Van Dine. His first period also includes a dozen mysteries, nine of them featuring a brilliant but supercilious ass named Ellery Queen. The titles of the Queen adventures feature a nationality (French, Egyptian, Chinese, Spanish), an object (Hat, Shoe, Cross) and the word “Mystery.” And the authors began their series by focusing strictly on the investigation, which nowadays can translate into a very dry reading experience.

I have some thoughts on this, however. I think that, for a while at least, the Queens found themselves trapped in the creation they had wrought. Once they realized that they wanted to write for real rather than as a lark, things started to change, most importantly the personality of their hero sleuth. A real attempt was made to humanize the fictional Ellery, first by making him fail miserably and then by creating stories that tapped into his humanity as well as his intellect.

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The other thing that I believe loosened the boys up as writers was their simultaneous creation, under the nom de plume of Barnaby Ross, of a very different kind of sleuth. Meet Drury Lane, a Shakespearian actor, who decides to quit the stage after he goes deaf in order to help the police with their inquiries. In a series of four novels published between 1932 and 1933, we see Queen-as-Ross experiment a lot with atmosphere and style, and this sense of experimentation starts to carry over to the First Period Queens around Book Five, The Egyptian Cross Mystery.

In 1936, facing heavy pressure to merge their puzzle-based approach with the heavy popularity of women’s slick magazines, the Queens instituted a new style. Many people decry Period Two, and there are some credible reasons for it that I won’t go into here. (Read Francis Nevins’ wonderful study of the Queens, Ellery Queen: The Art of Detection, if you can.) But the atmosphere is definitely looser, more emotion-based, and Ellery is a far sight more attractive a figure.

In 1942, the Queens entered their Period Three phase, which completes a transformation from purely puzzle-based tales to novels that cover deeper mysteries than those found in simple detective stories. Again, I won’t go into all of this right here. Suffice it to say, some fans think Period Three covers the Queens’ masterpieces while others find themselves somewhat annoyed by what they perceive as lackadaisical puzzle-plotting. I’ll leave it to Ben and JJ to discover their own preferences for themselves. Still, coming up with five (and only five, remember) titles to be read before they are spoiled is a bit challenging here because, given this substantial variance amongst the Periods, the reasons not to have a novel spoiled differ from year to year.

In addition, like Christie and Carr, Queen was fond of certain gambits that he liked to use over and over, and he has a few titles that contain shocking surprise endings. I wanted to try and cover some of these (being careful, as before, to relegating any analysis of these aspects to the third part of each entry – and being as vague as possible even there.)

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Two things happened that I want to mention in passing. First, I ended up including no novels from Period Two. If I could have a sixth place, I would definitely add The Door Between (1937) because I think it does something at the end that is quite unique for Queen (and isn’t found in a lot of mysteries.) Yet I didn’t find it a gripping enough read to include it here, especially considering the problems JJ and Ben have been coming up against.

The other thing I want to mention is that Queen was the – er, King of the Dying Message, and quite a few of his novels center around this type of clue. Now, I happen to like dying messages very much, but I know how much they annoy people as clues: you have to set up a reason why a victim wouldn’t simply look someone in the eye and say, “X killed me!” And then you have to set up a reason why the victim would couch his message in terms that tend to obfuscate rather than reveal, else where would the mystery be? This creates such an artificial situation that even fans of this most artificial genre can find the things cloying. Taking this into account, I did not include any of the novels that depend upon the dying message to take the mystery home. This includes novels I really like (The Siamese Twin Mystery, Face to Face).

Okay, here we go. Once again, I’m listing the books chronologically because that’s the easiest way. Please remember that if you choose to read part three, you face the possibility of coming up against vague spoilers.

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  1. The Greek Coffin Mystery (1932)

What it’s about: The fourth in the international series from Period One concerns the death of a Greek art scholar and the disappearance of his will. Ellery is consulted, and he makes quick work of the problem: the only place that seemingly hasn’t been searched is the dead man’s coffin. But when the body is exhumed, instead of a will, the police find . . . two bodies, one of them definitely murdered! It’s the first in the series to focus its action on a domestic setting rather than a business (one of the distinct pluses of the first three novels). This places the book more firmly in Van Dine territory, so it’s a relief that Greek Coffin is better by a mile than its predecessors.

Why you should read it: The characters are still pasteboard, but it feels like one of the purposes of this novel is to begin transforming Ellery into a better person or, at least, a less insufferable one. He starts out his usual smug self, exercising a series of remarkable deductions over a tea service and exposing a killer. Except – he’s wrong! Thus begins a series of misadventures that cut Ellery to the core, causing him to vow for the rest of his career to keep his ideas to himself until he is sure. Yet, like Anthony Berkeley’s The Poisoned Chocolates Case, it is fascinating to observe a sleuth at work, grinding out in logical fashion one false solution after another.

Why you should read it fast: The final, correct, solution is fabulous. I read this one soon after reading Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express. Both endings made me jump from my chair and cry out. The problem is, I thought this was what all mysteries should do. You want to get to this one before the ending is ruined for you.

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  1. The Tragedy of Y (1932)

What it’s about: The second mystery featuring Drury Lane reminds us of Van Dine only in its setting: a posh mansion in the fashionable part of New York. Queen provides us with a gallery of grotesques in one of the most dysfunctional families ever created. Seriously, these people are twisted and unpleasant! Maybe that’s the reason the patriarch, scientist York Hatter, has committed suicide at the start. After a number of attempts to kill other family members result in a second horrible death, the D.A. calls in his friend Drury Lane to trap a killer.

Why you should read it: As I stated above, the Queens started loosening up under the guise of Barnaby Ross. The first in the series, The Tragedy of X, still focuses too heavily on the investigative aspects of the case, although it does contain Queen’s first example of the dying message, complete with a Dr. Fell-like lecture on why dying people like to leave them! The Tragedy of Y contains much more atmosphere, reminiscent of early Carr, and while the characters truly are grotesques rather than people, they are an interesting lot.

Why you should read it fast: First, Queen was very fond of a certain gambit that he used over and over again. As his career progressed, this gambit took on powerful spiritual overtones. Here it is in its simplest – and to my mind – most effective and chilling form. In addition, there is an aspect to this novel that only a few mystery authors have attempted. Honestly, I don’t think this is the best example, but it does provide a shock, and I think you should read this before that shock is exposed.

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  1. There Was an Old Woman (1943)

What it’s about: Another grotesque family here, almost the comical equivalent of the Hatters in the last novel. The Potts family made its fortune in shoes; hence, the giant shoe in the front yard, warning visitors of the nasty old matriarch living in the house who henpecks her husband and runs her six children’s lives as ruthlessly as she runs her business. Three kids are “normal,” while the other three are eccentric as hell. Guess which ones Mother Potts favors? Ellery is called in to prevent a silly argument from ending in tragedy and ends up watching the family get decimated, one by one, before his eyes. Can he stop the madness?

Why you should read it: The Third Period, which began in 1942, is marked by a strong sense of naturalism that was inspired in part by Thornton Wilder’s 1938 play Our Town. You see this in the series of Queen adventures set in the New England village of Wrightsville, and you see it in the hard-hitting urban tales that follow. This novel is having nothing to do with that! Rather, it’s the Queen’s closest homage to screwball comedy, something you might expect from fellow author Kelley Roos. It’s fun to see Ellery as exasperated by the zaniness the proceedings as he is troubled by their fatal consequences. You may or may not see the trick coming, but it’s a jolly ride along the way.

Why you should read it fast: Not only does this one employs a common Queen trope in high style, but (SPOILER ALERT) the solution unfolds in a scene that the author evidently enjoyed creating because it shows up again and again with little variation. This is the first and best use of that scene. (END SPOILER)

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  1. The Murderer Is a Fox (1945)

What it’s about: Wrightsville is a New England town that Ellery discovered when he needed a place to get away and write. But in mysteries, things are never so simple. Wrightsville citizen Davy Fox is haunted by the fear that he will murder the wife he loves. Is this a PTSD-inspired delusion brought about by his recent experiences in the war? Or does Davy have reason to fear he has inherited a streak of madness – his father currently resides in prison after having been convicted of the murder of his beloved wife, Davy’s mother. The village turns to Ellery, who has helped them before, to solve this mystery from the past before it ruins more lives.

Why you should read it: I’m on the side of those who deeply admire Queen’s novelistic ambition in Period Three, even when it doesn’t always work. It certainly works here. The first Wrightsville novel, Calamity Town (1942) is a lovely novel with murder in it; some fans of pure mystery complain that an author as renowned for his adherence to puzzle plots should play so fast and loose with his clueing. It’s all a matter of taste. Fox, one of the very few “murder in retrospect” stories in the Queen canon, is a stronger puzzle and an equally powerful novel about post-War village life and its effect on the younger generation. The introduction of Wrightsville also brought about a fascinating exploration by the author into the psychic toll that being an amateur sleuth takes on a person. This issue would haunt Ellery for the rest of his career.

Why you should read it fast: For everything I just described about it and for the ending. When it comes, its delivery may be traditional in structure, but it throws a dramatic punch that only the most emotionally distant of readers will be unable to feel.

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  1. Cat of Many Tails (1949)

What it’s about: Fresh off his third Wrightsville mystery, Ten Days Wonder (1948), Ellery is so devastated by the result that he retreats back to Manhattan, determined to never again meddle in affairs of crime. But in the midst of a terrible heat wave, a mysterious strangler is terrorizing the city. The crimes of the Cat touch off a wave of panic, even racial unrest as the victims cross the color line, until Inspector Queen begs his son to come out of retirement and unmask the killer. But first Ellery has to figure out the pattern to the crimes.

Why you should read it: No, it’s not the first example of a mystery featuring a serial killer, but it feels like the first modern one. Queen’s rendition of the city as both a literal and a figurative powderkeg is riveting. We get as incisive a portrait of a city on the verge of social chaos as we get, in a different way, from Christie’s post-war villages. The cast is huge, as befitting a Manhattan crime wave, and some characters work better than others; it’s the workings of the mob that the author conveys with real passion. Plus, this novel holds an important place in the biography of its hero. Wrightsville has put Ellery through the emotional meat grinder, and it begins to look like the case of the Cat will either lead to Queen’s redemption or his destruction. Another example of a book that is both a powerful mystery and a fine novel!

Why you should read it fast: Because it’s really really good! Oh, and there is a movie of it that was made for TV. In a simplified manner, it follows the plot of the novel, taking care to extricate everything that makes the book special. The Cat becomes the Hydra (only for the reason that a snake seems to make a better graphic on TV). The time period is moved up to the 70’s, and Peter Lawford, as Ellery, is just wrong. He gets romantically involved with a suspect, and it hurts the viewer more than it hurts him. The rest of the cast is fine, however, and they get the ending right. It’s on YouTube, and don’t you go near it until after you have read the infinitely superior novel.

Once again, I’d love to hear from other Queen fans about the titles they think belong here. I suspect that Queen might generate more arguments than Christie did. And remember: JJ and Ben are just starting their Sojourn with the Queens, and they’re both in a fragile state. So be careful with your spoilers.

 

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34 thoughts on “FIVE BOOKS TO READ BEFORE THEY’RE SPOILED FOR YOU – Ellery Queen Edition

  1. Ignore those philistines JJ and Ben: Queen is definitely among the greats. Congrats on whittling down your list to just five . . . even though you had to miss out Calamity Town to achieve it.

    The movie of Cat is called Don’t Look Behind You. The only copy on YouTube at the moment appears to be a crapola one where the uploader has put everything in a silly frame — or did you find a better one?

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    1. I think everything is going into a silly frame on YouTube these days. And I love Calamity Town ! It’s one of my favorites, but that’s not what this list is about. In fact, you could read CT knowing the ending and still enjoy it as a great novel.

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    2. Here’s the thing: I don’t dispute Queen’s greatness — I can’t, as I don’t feel u have overview enough to comment given how much and how often their.apptiwch changes. All I can say with any confidence at this stage is that there’s no hint in the first three books that any greatness is on the cards…

      As for Greek Coffin…I’d be amazed if anyone COULD spoil it — there’s so much going on, the best I could do even if I wanted to is say something like “There are sh*tloads of solutions…er, off you go!”. It’s one of those amazing books where there’s no sudden cataclysmic reveal.or cunning ploy like Roger Ackroyd or Crooked House; the staggering thing is how much you get staggered throughout.

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      1. “Apptiwch” . . . Is that a Greek word? (How boring is Greece anyway?) I seem to recall Greek Coffin getting kind of cataclysmic right around the end there. Look, if you end up never warming to Queen, them’s the breaks. I’ll still respect you in the morning. But I predict you will appreciate a few of them; if you happen to enjoy one too, so much the better.

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      2. Yeah, the stuff my auto-correct throws out makes me realise just how terrible my typing is (and how small my phone is…or how fat my thumbs are, I guess; take your pick).

        And it’s not that Greece is boring, it’s just that I have lots of free time and — wonder of wonders — a hotel that has provided legitimately great wifi!

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  2. You can count me among those who loath Ellery Queen’s Wrightsville and Hollywood period, which is why The Murderer is a Fox remains on my TBR-pile, but I’ll take your recommendation to heart and see if I can excavate my copy.

    By the way, I also intensely disliked The Door Between, but agree with the other titles you recommended. Cat of Nine Tails is great and There Was an Old Woman is as bizarre as it’s under appreciated. One of those lovely, almost surrealistic, “Ellery in Wonderland” stories.

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  3. Thanks for the recommendations – or rather, warnings. 🙂 I’ve read all of them, bar ‘Murderer is a Fox’ and ‘Greek Coffin Mystery’ – and off the back of your review, I’ve purchased ‘Fox’. I’m leaving ‘Greek Coffin’ till the very last, so that my time with Queen ends with a bang and not a whimper. (The prospect of having to read ‘Heads You Lose’ after ‘Death of Jezebel’ and ‘Green for Danger’ still haunts me.)

    In response to JJ lamenting ‘Curtain’ being spoilt for him, I remember ‘Tragedy of Y’ being spoilt from me by a review that simply mentioned ‘a certain novel by XXYYZZ’ – and the comparison was sufficient to point me to the solution. 😦 Though I think I still enjoyed it more than ‘Cat of Many Tails’. For some reason that didn’t sit too well with me.

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    1. It’s those comparisons – they’ll get you every time! And we all do them, in order to make connections and show off our knowledge. We’re a menace, I tell you! 🙂

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  4. Nice choices here, Brad. And I’m glad you make some reference to the way these books changed over time. You can’t say it about every fictional sleuth, but EQ really does evolve/change as the stories go on, in my opinion.

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    1. Years before I got my hands on my first Queen and just as I got I to mysteries I was following and dreaming of reading all of the works from the 1981 top 14 locked rooms list. Queen had 2 titles on there, can you blame me for thinking at the start that Queen was a locked room author! I think that 1981 list is slowly being dismantled by the modern blogging community.

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  5. I started reading Queen systematically in my teens, back in the early 1980s (ahem), in an Italian edition that segmented Francis M Nevins’ biography, ROYAL BLOODLINE, and used it as introductions for a complete set of the the short stories. I find that his opinions still hold true for me in many ways. I would be tempted to try and have one title for each period and an extra one from the 1930s. But that would leave out too much good stuff … So, like you, Nevins Jr put TRAGEDY OF Y and KHALKIS as the great masterpieces of 1932 and I’m not going to disagree. I would be tempted to add SIAMESE TWIN MYSTERY as I just love that book, as much for its puzzle and its overall dramatic scenario; I agree completely about CAT so that is 4 for me. To make it 5 I would add TEN DAY’S WONDER. I did my top 9 many years ago, when I began blogging, and included these 5 – you can read about the rest here: https://bloodymurder.wordpress.com/2011/02/06/9-of-the-best-by-ellery-queen/

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    1. If this had been a “best of” list instead of a “don’t spoil these” list, you would definitely have seen The Siamese Twin Mystery, Calamity Town,and Face to Face on the list. I thought the first two titles make such a difference in who the character of Ellery Queen is and in the emotional impact he could create (which is missing in the first four or five novels). Plus, I love those playing card dying messages! I know the dying message in the last one is ridiculous and the finale is used for the THIRD time in a Queen novel. But it’s my favorite use of that scene and so sad.

      I admire Ten Days Wonder, but it never read as smoothly to me as the other Wrightsville novels. Still, there’s such an interesting progression from, say, Tragedy of Y to this to Player on the Other Side that charts out Dannay’s philosophical bent.

      I enjoyed your top nine article (although I’m afraid I can’t agree about the last one). It’s great hanging with another Queen fan! 🙂

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      1. I enjoyed your top nine article (although I’m afraid I can’t agree about the last one).

        I’m glad you said that, because my eyebrows likewise rose a tad when I saw the novel on Sergio’s list. I read it recently (more accurately, reread it after an interval of decades, so in effect it was new to me) and was not entirely whelmed by it: https://www.goodreads.com/review/show/2044486885?book_show_action=false&from_review_page=1

        I too am constantly tempted by the notion of engaging in a Queeniad, like JJ and Ben — starting from the beginning and working on through — although in my case it’d be all rereads (except for the paperback originals by other hands, of which I’ve read only one or two). But then other things get in the way before I’ve even dug out The Roman Hat Mystery, so . . .

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  6. Rather than wade in on the relative merits of various Queen novels, which I’ve done a lot of elsewhere, I’ll just applaud Brad for taking on the problem of which mysteries are most easily spoiled. To me, if you can express the central concept of a mystery in a word or phrase or a terse sentence, that renders it ripe for spoiling. It’s weird how people can’t resist doing it!
    I’m quite careful with spoiler warnings in my blog, I hope, but I admit I’m guilty of observing that “X mystery by A has essentially the same solution as Y mystery by B”. I’ve settled on a way of doing it that allows people to figure out what I’m talking about — “The Tragedy of Y” has essentially the same solution as a 1949 mystery by Agatha Christie. Anyone who has access to stopyourekillingme.com can easily figure out what I’m talking about. Giving the author and the publication date but not the title lets the well-read know what I have in mind but they’ll have to look something up to confirm the exact title.

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    1. So I have a SPOILER question for you, Noah: what do you make of the Queens inserting the identical ending into three novels (1943, 1950, 1967) with only one gender variation? Did they think their fans wouldn’t remember? Maybe fans didn’t, but maybe a bunch of them would get to this moment and say, “Uh-oh! I know what’s about to happen!”

      For that matter, why did Christie create such similar endings in two novels so close together, one in 1937 and the other in 1941? True, the permutations of the solutions are different, but surely some readers who followed Christie must have gone, “Hmm, another unbreakable alibi on holiday, eh? Well, then, he did it!!”

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  7. So what am I to do with this one Brad? Jump out of order and read these titles? Violate the spirit of my quest?

    I’m joking of course – for me this simply further cements the perception of quality of the books on this list and provides even more reason for me to stare longingly at my EQ TBR pile. Hopefully the list helps some other soul make decisions on their reading order that ultimately allows them to avoid having a classic book spoiled.

    Now about me reading the books in order – I haven’t decided if that applies to the Barnaby Ross stories. I gather from JJ’s post that he will be working the Ross books in with the Queens based on the true publishing history. As I stated up front, I’m tempted to treat the Ross works as a separate category, approachable at any time. Of course, I will read the four Ross books in order, but I could start them now or save them for way down the line.

    Advantages/Disadvantages to the approaches (not that you care, but I’m going to geek out anyway, because, you know, this is the stuff that really matters).
    -Taking JJ’s approach would allow me to best appreciate how Queen grew as authors. This isn’t really that important to me. I more care that I approach the story arcs in order.
    -Reading the Ross books immediately would allow me to get to The Tragedy of Y sooner, avoiding any risk of spoilers.
    -Saving the Ross books for later means that I can go back to the puzzle-oriented works further down the line, rather than blowing through them all at once.

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    1. I offer no advice to you about this! I know how suffering feels! 🙂

      Each Ross book is kinda different, if that helps. So spreading them around couldn’t hoit!

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  8. I know you alluded to some titles in an earlier message – but if you had to give a top ten ranking for Queen’s novels, which would make it? I’ve heard very mixed reviews of ‘Calamity Town’.

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    1. Calamity Town earns those mixed reviews, I think, because it is so completely different from the puzzle-centered Queen of before. There is a mystery that gets solved, but it is not particularly difficult to solve, nor does it share the reliance on clues of, say, The French Powder Mystery

      The problem with asking anyone for a “top ten” Queen list is that you have to deal with their preference for period, John. I happen to love Period Three and the Wrightsville mysteries, while others found the loosening of classic tropes and all that psycho-babble too weird or disappointing. I also love one or two of the books that the Queens didn’t write together, like The Fourth Side of the Triangle, although I wouldn’t place it in a top spot. Here’s my list, in chronological order, not preference:

      1. The Greek Coffin Mystery
      2. The Tragedy of Y
      3. The Siamese Twin Mystery
      4. Calamity Town
      5. There Was an Old Woman
      6. The Murderer Is a Fox
      7. Ten Days Wonder
      8. Cat of Many Tails
      9. Double, Double
      10. Face to Face

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      1. Thanks Brad. 🙂 Is this list in order of merit? Personally, I would have put ‘Old Woman’ above ‘Tragedy of Y’. My struggle with Queen is that I like them for their puzzles, and so I wonder if I would enjoy ‘Calamity Town’…

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    2. John–

      My apologies for butting in when you asked Brad (I seem to do this a lot–my apologies), but I think you may like Calamity Town even for the puzzle.

      Now, to be sure, it’s not their best puzzle–though I find it one of their best novels–and, in fact, it’s a variation on an old dodge. But I happen to find the cluing clever, and the plot (as opposed to puzzle-plot) set-up is ingenious. The book has a remarkable sense of tragedy, and the characterization is excellent; even if you’re just looking for the puzzle, I think you’ll find something to admire, even if the identity of the culprit is not all that difficult to guess.

      Hope that helps and makes a little sense!

      Karl

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