Monday, May 13, 2013

Crucifixion of a Dead Man

When a crime is committed by a non-habitual criminal, that is the time for the policeman to watch out. None of the rules he has learned will apply, and the information he has amassed through years of studying the underworld becomes so much dead wood.
"The Egyptian Cross Mystery"

Usually posts on consecutive days mean I wrote a lot of reviews the first day and post them one a day, but I've actually been writing every day now... Not sure whether I can make it at this tempo all the way to the end though.

Reviews of Ellery Queen's 'nationality' novels:
The Roman Hat Mystery
The French Powder Mystery
The Dutch Shoe Mystery
The Greek Coffin Mystery
The Egyptian Cross Mystery
The American Gun Mystery
The Siamese Twin Mystery
The Chinese Orange Mystery
The Spanish Cape Mystery

The Egyptian Cross Mystery (Dutch title: Het Egyptische Teken / The Egyptian Sign) starts with Ellery visiting the little village of Arroyo, where the decapitated and crucified body of school master Andrew Van was discovered on Christmas. In need of material for a new book, Ellery looks around a bit and attends the Coroner's inquest, but not much can be made out of the case, except for the fact that the letter T seems to be a repeated motif in the murder: the headless body was crucified on a T-shaped signpost on a T-shaped crossroad and a bloody T had been left on the door of the victim's house. The police do find a clue about a person who might have murdered Van, but can't seem to trace him. Fast forward six months, when Ellery receives a letter from his old professor Yardley, who wants his pupil's help with a case: wealthy rug importer Tom Brad was found decapitated and crucified to a T-shaped totem-pole.

Quite different from the previous four books: whereas Ellery was mostly operating in relatively small and closed environments within New York, The Egyptian Cross Mystery has Ellery traveling outside New York, meaning he has to perform his deduction magic without the protecting powers of his pater. Add in the fact that the murders happen in quite different areas, and we have a moving Ellery, an active Ellery, which is almost shocking. The direct build-up to the climax in particular is almost the anti-thesis to the cramped movements of Ellery in his earlier adventures. I said in the review of The Greek Coffin Mystery that it seemed like Ellery was confined to smaller and smaller spaces with every novel, well, The Egyptian Cross Mystery is the complete opposite.

The more open feeling is not only present in the geographical movements of Ellery, the case structure is also much more open. This time we have several murders spread over the Eastern part of the States: gone is the certainty that the case was an inside job and all done by the same person, as the possibilities seem endless. With the previous novels, it was always quite clear that someone inside the main location must have commited the murder, but this time we aren't really dealing with such a closed environment; heck, in spirit the hunt for the mysterious man feels a bit like Queen's own Cat of Many Tails, which also featured a similar open case structure. This is a very different Queen.

Which is also apparent in the modus operandi of the criminal. Decapitated and crucified victims? The previous four novels had fairly clean deaths: strangulations and poison and such, so the jump to decapitations is quite big. Visually, as far as you can call a novel that, this is a very dark, if not darkest Queen. But there is of course a reason for the decapitations, which does form one of the weaker points of the novel. It might have been more surprising and shocking back in the time (or not, I don't know for sure), but even the most unexperienced reader of detective fiction would know what the crucial question is when dealing with the major trope of this novel. And Ellery... doesn't ask the question. Writer Queen evades the question, tries to cloud the reader's thoughts with hardly convincing theories and metaphores about Egyptian crosses and sungods and so, but the reader will think about the question, which will bring him very far in the solution to the problem.

The novel does greatly improve on the usually weak middle part of the Queen stories. Like The Greek Coffin Mystery, Egyptian Cross's structure with several distinct parts and climaxes is much more entertaining to read than the relatively slow and boring investigation parts of The Roman Hat Mystery, The French Powder Mystery and The Dutch Shoe Mystery. It is not as deduction-heavy as Greek Coffin though, with only one really important deduction chain around the middle of the novel that drives the plot forwards.

It's maybe because I am a fan of Yokomizo Seishi and Kindaichi Shounen no Jikenbo, but The Egyptian Cross Mystery has always felt most close to my own image of the Japanese detective novel (even though the genre is very varied there, and it is not really possible to pose the Japanese detective novel). From bloody murder to the so-called mitate murders (a trope close to, but wider than the nursery rhyme murder trope), the novel seems to have featured some tropes that seem quite popular in Japan (disclaimer: at a certain time, among certain readers of the genre).

Were I to rank the book, I think The Egyptian Cross Mystery would end up somewhere around the middle point. It's a bit different from the other early Queen novels, which turns out mostly good, but the lesser emphasis on absolute reasoning knocks it down my list.

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