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When it comes to the most recognizable names in the world of Golden Age Detective Fiction, Ellery Queen seems to be among the most divisive. Some praise the complex, puzzle-driven plots concocted by cousins Manfred Lee and Frederic Dannay writing under the Queen pseudonym (also the name of their central investigator), while others criticize those same plots as long, rambling, and impenetrable.

Like many writers’ bodies of work, the Queen novels are often broken into eras; the first of which seems to generate the most ire from modern mystery readers. These books follow a familiar template; a template consciously styled to emulate the works of American writer S.S. Van Dine whose Philo Vance novels were monstrously successful in the first part of the twentieth century. Ellery Queen of these early books is clearly modeled on Vance; pompous, verbose, and endlessly quoting obscure works in a foreign language. Alongside his salt-of-the-earth father, NYPD police detective, Inspector Richard Queen, the pair solve such baffling cases as The Roman Hat Mystery, The Dutch Powder Mystery, and The Greek Coffin Mystery, leading many readers to label this era of Queen books as “The Nationality Noun Mystery” series.

Despite the (legitimate) criticisms of these books – they are long, they are complex, and Ellery can be pretty obnoxious – I have to admit that I love them. Like fellow American writer John Dickson Carr, these early Queen novels elevate the machinations of the mystery plot above all else, and in a Sherlockian vein, Ellery is able to gleam the most important facts of a case from shoe laces, coffee cups, and the other insignificant items we take for granted in everyday life. Reading an early Queen book is just like putting together a jigsaw puzzle; invariably at the end of each book, Ellery will demonstrate beyond a shadow of a doubt that all those pieces which couldn’t possibly fit together do, and you’re left to stare in wide-eyed wonder at how simple it all seems.

This preamble is the best way to introduce The Egyptian Cross Mystery, my first encounter with Ellery in over a year. First published in 1932, it was the fifth Queen novel and, though it might seem to have the hallmarks of a first period book, it has quite a few surprises up its sleeve. The novel opens in West Virginia where Ellery and his father learn of the gruesome murder of a small town schoolmaster whose body was discovered crucified and decapitated on the country road. Ellery, never one to resist a mystery, begins to dig into details of the case but aside from the tantalizing lead regarding a mysterious sun-worshipping cult who has staked their claim in the area, the mystery writer turned detective comes up empty-handed. Several months later, Ellery learns of a similar murder: hundreds of miles from the sight of the first, a wealthy businessman on Long Island has met the same grisly end, the same cult having set up nearby.

The Egyptian Cross Mystery instantly feels bigger and more epic than the preceding Queen books, most of which were more-or-less set in one location for the bulk of their narrative. Here, Ellery travels back and forth between New York and West Virginia several times and, as the mystery nears its conclusion, an epic chase cross-country begins by car, train, and airplane!

It must have been thoroughly exciting stuff for audiences in 1932 and, even after all these years, these parts of the story still feel thrilling and fast-paced. Setting aside, The Egyptian Cross Mystery is at odds with the other Queen books for its lack of familiar supporting players. Ellery’s father only makes a brief appearance in the novel, his part now filled by Ellery’s former college professor whose house is conveniently located across the street from the Long Island crime scene. Consequently, Ellery is a little less inclined to show off and quote foreign texts (the professor fills this role aptly) and he feels more like a genuine character and less the blank slate he was made out to be in the earlier adventures.

No doubt the most striking difference is the level of violence present in the novel. It would be treading into spoiler territory to mention the precise body count in this book, but suffice it to say that this is by no means a cozy, bloodless affair. I must imagine that this Grand Guignol element of the plot combined with that of the mysterious nudist-practicing, sun-worshipping cult would have been pretty shocking stuff for readers in the 1930s. Writers Lee and Dannay never dwell unnecessary on the carnage or the outlandish elements of the puzzle plot and, by the time that Ellery gives his final chapter summation of the case, all of these bizarre pieces fit together.

Of course, when reading any mystery novel from the Golden Age any reader must suspend disbelief and The Egyptian Cross Mystery is no exception, but the book is all in good fun. Some reviewers have critiqued the murderer’s motive which does feel tacked on and unexplored, and the potential pool of suspects is particularly listless, so it is fortunate that we spend so little time with them as we do. The novel focuses solely on the investigation, never once pausing to consider the psychological details of the case or its characters. As the Queen series progressed, greater insight would be placed on the characters that populated those books; the intricate puzzles of the first novels slowly fading away. Someday I will have to read some more of those later books, but for the time being I must admit that I am still enjoying the first-period Queen books immensely.

The Egyptian Cross Mystery was out-of-print for many years and I am very glad that it – and several other early Queen titles – were recently reissued by Penzler Publishers as part of their American Mystery Classics series. Though The Egyptian Cross Mystery is not my favorite of the Ellery Queen novels, it was a fun read; one which, when I had the chance to dig into it, I did not want to put down.

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  • Nick Cardillo

I love The Hound of the Baskervilles. It is one of my all-time favorite mystery novels and vies with Arthur Conan Doyle’s other masterpiece of intrigue and suspense The Sign of the Four as my favorite Sherlock Holmes novel. The legacy of the demon hound that stalks the wilds of Dartmoor has remained strong in the 120 years since the novel’s initial publication; a heritage that is only strengthened by a host of film and television adaptations, plays, Sherlockian pastiches, jigsaw puzzles, and prog rock concept albums! All of these and more are included in the new book written by Vince Stadon – a man who may love The Hound even more than me – called Hounded: My Lifelong Obsession with Sherlock Holmes and The Hound of the Baskervilles.

Stadon’s book is part memoir, part travel log, part social history, and part film criticism. It’s a densely-packed book that does everything it says on the cover. Over the course of several months while sequestered in COVID lockdown, Stadon embarked on a mission to fully immerse himself in the world of Sherlock Holmes and The Hound (reverently capitalized like that throughout), watching as many of the filmed adaptations as he could, re-enacting bits of the book (some efforts more successful than others), and eventually journeying to Dartmoor in order to retrace the steps (and paw prints) of the Beast of the Baskervilles and the intrepid detectives who hunted it down. Hounded is an incredibly readable jaunt, Stadon approaching his material with tongue planted firmly in cheek. In his introduction he observes that there has never been a book written about Sherlock Holmes quite like his. And he’s probably right.

The humor on display is really the selling point of this book; the sheer number of jokes and references per page boggles the mind. Stadon’s throw-everything-at-the-wall-and-see-what-sticks approach to joke writing of course means that not everything will land with every reader. Some of the humor is a little broad for my taste, yet there were some moments that made me laugh out loud while reading. The same goes for the capsule reviews of Hound movies and TV; though our opinions differ – controversially I have a soft-spot for Matt Frewer’s Sherlock Holmes and Martin Shaw’s presence in, well, anything doesn’t generate for me the same ire that it does for Stadon – I found that our opinions were largely shared about Holmes as well as Hammer Horror, Doctor Who, Dracula, and James Bond; all topics that at one point or another Stadon introduces into the body of his book or in the many footnotes scattered throughout.

Hounded is an irreverent but ultimately passionate account of one fan’s love of one of the greatest stories ever told; the enthusiasm that Stadon brings to the subject made all the more compelling and personal by the bits of biography and anecdotes he shares throughout. The specter of COVID-19 looms large throughout the book, and one cannot help but find that the rational, orderly world of Sherlock Holmes was the ideal diversion during such a tumultuous time. I recommend the book whole-heartedly to a Sherlockian in need of good fun, and if Vince Stadon ever decides to tackle all the versions of Dracula (something heavily implied come the conclusion of his Hound binge) then I will happily sink my teeth into that as well (if only to see how many other puns he can come up with)!

Hounded: My Lifelong Obsession with Sherlock Holmes and The Hound of the Baskervilles is now available in hardcover and softcover from MX Publishing and is available everywhere September 15. I received a free copy in exchange for an honest review.


Click here to back my upcoming book The Improbable Casebook of Sherlock Holmes on Kickstarter today!

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  • Nick Cardillo

Updated: Aug 27, 2021

Today, I am thrilled to share the news that the Kickstarter for my new book, The Improbable Casebook of Sherlock Holmes has gone live! Follow the link below to support the project today!

Where does the improbable end and the impossible begin?

Nick Cardillo (author of The Feats of Sherlock Holmes) presents seven improbable adventures of the World’s Greatest Detective collected for the first time in one place. These tales of mystery and suspense will test the minds of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson like never before as they confront an array of monsters, madmen, impossible crimes, and the wildest aberrations of nature beyond their wildest nightmares.

Also included are two never-before-published short stories which chronicle some of the darkest chapters of Holmes and Watson’s career. In “The Adventure of the Deadly Inheritance,” a frightened man seeks Holmes’ help after his brother suddenly disappeared performing an arcane family ritual, and in “In the Footsteps of Madness,” Holmes and Watson descend into the sewers of London to confront a bloodthirsty killer who may be more than just human.

The Improbable Casebook of Sherlock Holmes is the long-awaited second collection from an exciting new voice in the world of Sherlockian pastiche.

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