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.