Saturday, August 20, 2011

Book Review: The Spanish Cape Mystery

The Spanish Cape Mystery by Ellery Queen (1935)

Summary: Once again Ellery Queen (the authors) twist the plot, settings and characters in order to place Ellery Queen (the detective) at the right spot, at the right time to become semi-officially involved in solving a mystery. The authors have to go to great lengths to provide a setting that is isolated enough to rule out the possibility of random murderer and yet not so isolated that police, the press and various modern facilities are not on hand. The people encountered are either stereotypes or unbelievable as actual human beings (or both.)

For much of the book Ellery Queen (the character) makes speeches or offers explanations whose primary purpose appears to be to muddy rather than clarify the situation. For all the authors' attempts to make this a brain puzzler if one simply ignores Queen's verbal obfuscations the identity of the murderer is obvious.

[Note the first: Ellery Queen, the authors, do not strictly play fair with the reader. It is that lack of fair play that delays the reader from immediately recognizing the actual culprit.]

[Note the second: In addition to the usual racist and misogynist language and behaviour one comes upon in these early Ellery Queen novels this book includes scenes of psychical, emotional and verbal spousal abuse as well as fat-shaming and "lookism" that is extreme even for Queen novels of this period.]

In short: Since this is not one of the better-written of the early Queens, not a good brain-teaser, doesn't play fair with the reader and is full of language and behaviour that is disturbing this reader does not recommend the book to anyone who isn't a Queen afficiando/completist and/or a student of popular culture/mysteries of the 1930s.

Additional Trigger Warning: Chapter Twelve includes a disturbing description of a man verbally and physically assaulting his wife. Although Queen and the other men covertly observing this initially do not intervene because they are able to learn information that will assist them in solving the murder mystery they do nothing, after they have gained that information, to assist the woman and do nothing, even after the husband has left the scene, to render aid to her. The last we see of her she is sitting physically bruised and emotionally battered and the reader is left with no illusions that male observers feel more sympathy for the cuckolded husband than the battered woman.

Beyond here there be spoilers

Ellery Queen and his friend Judge Macklin arrive at the cottage Macklin has arranged to rent only to find a young woman who has been kidnapped from her home on the nearby Spanish Cape. On getting in touch with her family Queen learns that a murder has also taken place on the Cape.

Perhaps it was indeed a kinder, simpler time, but it strains the imagination of this reader that the local police inspector would so quickly and unreservedly include the visiting Ellery Queen (with his host the retired Judge Macklin) in the investigation. Queen and Macklin just happen to turn up to rescue the kidnapped daughter of a wall street tycoon. The daughter just happened to have been tied up and left in the deserted beach house that Macklin says he has rented from its actual owner. An owner who has notified no one local of the rental and who is safely out of touch should anyone wish to verify the details.

In real life, one imagines, both men would be sitting down at the local police station having been (perhaps politely) asked to supply their bona fides. In the world of this book they are immediately swept up in the investigation.

Perhaps the reader supposed to deduce/suspect that the local police are already a bit out of their depth and thus will naturally jump at the opportunity to include Queen and Macklin ?

“Inspector Moley proved to be a grizzled veteran of the red-faced, hard-lipped, solidly built variety—the marks of the experienced man-hunter the world over who has come up from the ranks by the free use of fists, a knowledge of the faces and ways of professional criminals, and a certain cool native, shrewdness. Such men are often bewildered when crime strays off the path of orthodoxy.” (47) [1]

Inspector Moley often seems to be incurious and dismissive of things that make the reader go 'hmmmm.' For example, when the Inspector returns the kidnapped Rosa Godfrey to her mother, Mrs. Godfrey mentions that in addition to worries about her brother (kidnapped with Rosa but not found with her) David, the horror of learning that a houseguest's (John Marco) dead, naked body having been found she also cannot find Pitts, her housemaid. The discerning reader of detective fiction might find it suspicious that a trusted servant is missing from a house where so many crimes have been committed. Inspector Moley, however, expresses no interest at all:

“Moley shrugged. “She's probably around somewhere. I'm not goin' to worry about a maid now. . . .” (50) [1]

The tinge of “local rube” to the characterization of the Inspector is in line with the almost essentialist treatment of characters. Tallness, slenderness, attractiveness are all taken as outward signs of inner character. When characters don't fit that simple typology it is treated as noteworthy--as when we first meet the wealthy financier, Walter Godfrey,

“he looked like an under-gardener, or a cook's helper. Certainly there was nothing in his appearance to suggest power—except possibly the snakey eyes—or in his demeanor to suggest the builder and destroyer of forturnes.” (50) [1]

Inspector Moley later verbally attacks Mrs. Godfrey for not having brought to his attention the information that had been specifically shrugged off at their first meeting, “You didn't think it important!” howled Inspector Moley, dancing up and down. “Nobody thinks anything important!......For God's sake, haven't you a tongue, Mrs. Godfrey?” (127) [1]

To the modern reader the police (and Queen and Macklin) seem to be incompetent. They do not separate people before questioning them and then seem surprised that individuals do not bare their deepest darkest secrets to others. When employers interrupt servants about to give evidence with the threat “I'll fire you if you speak” neither the police nor Queen move to put them in separate rooms nor do they immediately assume the employers have something to hide.

Indeed if the police (or Queen) had simply followed what was even at the time standard police routine the murder would have been cleared up quickly enough to save a marriage and a life.

When this reader reached the end of the book zie felt a suspicion that the reason the authors had created such an contrived circumstance for a murder was to distract the reader from the fact that the main obstacle to the solving of the crimes was incompetence of those investigating them.

Rating: 1-1/2 stars

[1]Queen, E. (1979). The Spanish Cape Mystery. New York: Signet Books. 

1 comment:

  1. Since you've moved on to American mysteries, it occurs to me to ask if you know the "Wall Street mysteries" of Emma Lathen?

    Here's a review which may give you a bit of the flavor (although I don't know that I'd go quite so far as to compare them with Jane Austen, much as I enjoyed the style).

    And remembering them is making me nostalgic for a time when a Wall Street banker could be a credible hero. Back when Wall Street, if it didn't exactly have a heart, at least seemed to have a brain.


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