Saturday, August 13, 2011
Book Review: The French Powder Mystery
The French Powder Mystery by Ellery Queen (1930)
As I read this book I found myself asking several questions:
Why did The French Powder Mystery open not with the crime or the lead-up to the crime but rather with both Queens and a number of police officers complaining about the officiousness and meddlesomeness of the new police commissioner; why were Ellery's "brilliant insights" so mundane; why were Ellery's mundane insights repeated frequently and at length; why were the "regular police" so painfully inadequate at even the most routine aspects of their job; and finally why was Ellery, a complete outsider to the police, allowed such privileged access to crime scenes and witnesses often without any official oversight at all?
By the time I finished this book I had arrived at the following answers:
Why did The French Powder Mystery open not with the crime or the lead-up to the crime but rather with both Queen’s and a number of police officers complaining about the officiousness and meddlesomeness of the new police commissioner?
By situating the police commissioner as at least troublesome and perhaps an actual antagonist to the regular police force it makes it reasonable to the reader (and to the police in the story) that Ellery withholds clues from the police commissioner and from any other member of the police force who might pass on information to the commissioner. In fact Ellery actually removes evidence from one possible crime scene and in another case sends evidence to an analyst with specific instructions not to let the commissioner know about the result of his tests.
Why were Ellery's "brilliant insights" so mundane?
I am torn in my answer to this question. In part, this “mundaneness” may be due to the fact that the authors wanted to have their literary cake and eat it too -- that is, they wanted the case to look difficult enough to justify calling in Inspector Queen and his son as well as the intervention of the police commissioner. The authors also want the clues to be obvious enough, or at least understandable enough, that the reader immediately sides with Ellery rather than with his doubters.
Why were Ellery's mundane insights repeated frequently and at length
Perhaps the authors thought some members of the audience wouldn’t get them the first time. Perhaps the authors thought that some of the members of the audience were reading the book in a fragmented way and therefore needed to be frequently reminded about what just happened. Perhaps the authors thought (or the authors thought that the audience thought) that that was the way “really educated” people talked--certainly S. S. Van Dine’s Philo Vance also falls prey to the same tendency to speak repetitively and at great length. Perhaps the authors were getting paid by the word or the page. Or perhaps without the repetition it would have been clear that the authors had chosen to write a novel length short story.
Why were the "regular police" so painfully inadequate at even the most routine aspects of their job?
Authorial laziness? Ellery's brilliance is established by his ability to outperform those around him. The more inadequate those around him are the more brilliant Ellery will appear to be. One might also suspect that the authors were themselves rather unaware of routine police procedures and may even have depended on other authors (all of whom also tended to show the police as inadequate) for their information as to how the police functioned. The inability of the police also makes Inspector Queen’s dependence on his son look less like unacceptable.
Why was Ellery, a complete outsider to the police, allowed such privileged access to crime scenes and witnesses often without any official oversight at all?
The only “in universe” explanation I can think of is nepotism. The “our world” answer is that it is the authors response to the problem faced by every writer who has as their detective someone who is not a member of the police force. Some authors, notably Conan Doyle, have their detectives either hired by people who are involved as victims, witnesses or suspects or asked to consult by the police themselves. Others, such as Rex Stout and Dashiell Hammett, had their detectives work, professionally, as private investigators. Every author needs to find a reason to have their detective on the scene of the crime. Ellery Queen, the writers, choose to have Ellery Queen, their detective, given as much access to the crime and witnesses as would a police officer without being limited by the rule of law as to what he could do and say.
The fact that all of these questions arose in my mind while reading this book, as indeed did the answers I have suggested, indicates the weakness of this particular mystery. So far neither the first nor the second Ellery Queen novels have done much to demonstrate to me why this particular fictional detective was so popular although both do highlight the nature of the audience the books appealed to at the time they were first published.
Rating: 1-1/2 stars