Friday, May 17, 2013

Nudaque Veritas

"In the mountains of tuth," quoth Nietszche, "you never climb in vain."
No one outside the realm of fairy tales ever scaled a mountain by standing at its foot and wishing himself over its crest. This is a hard world, and in it achievement requires effort. It has always been my feeling that to garner the fullest enjoyment from detective fiction the reader must to some degree endeavor to retrace the detective's steps. Thee more painstakingly the trail back is scrutinized, the closer the reader comes to the ultimate truth, and the deeper his enjoyment is apt to be."
"The Spanish Cape Mystery"

Note to self: writing a review every day is more taxing than would seem at first. But this is final post in this short series of Ellery Queen reviews!

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 title of the last novel in Ellery Queen's famous nationality novels, The Spanish Cape Mystery, actually refers to the location of the mystery. The Spanish Cape sticks out in the North Atlantic and on it is a house, inhabitated by the Godfreys and their guests. One night, a ruffian, who can only be described as pirate-like, threatens Rosa Godfrey and her uncle David Kummer and kidnaps the latter, mistaking him for John Marco, one of the guests of the Godfreys. Rosa is later found by Ellery and his friend judge Macklin, who are in the neighbourhood on vacation. No sign of uncle David though and it seems like Marco's 'luck' didn't last for long either, because he was found with his head bashed in on a terrace near the beach. There is just one strange thing about the murder: Marco was found completely naked.

I will always remember The Spanish Cape Mystery as the one with the way too obvious murderer. Because I am quite sure a majority of the readers will, even without a perfect deduction, be able to guess who the criminal is. This of course doesn't have to be a bad thing per se, as inverted detective stories prove, but the identity of the murderer has so much implications that you will almost necessary arrive somewhere very near the truth.

Which is a bit of a shame, because the mystery behind the naked man is, fundamentally, quite interesting. Whereas early Queens had fairly innocent looking, yet significant, material clues (objects) that formed the start of Ellery's long deductions, Siamese Twin, Chinese Orange and The Spanish Cape Mystery all feature rather obvious clues: a playing card in the dead man's hand, a victim dressed backwards and this time a victim who is not dressed at all. And here you have the conundrum of making detective fiction more fun through interaction or surprise: more obvious clues make it easier for the reader to start on the right track with his deductions, which results in a positive feeling when he actually manages to solve it himself. But as a result, the surprise element of detetive fiction becomes weaker, which is undoubtedly also an important factor when reading detective fiction. In a sense, these last few novels in Queen's nationality series are quite different from the first few Queens.

I have to admit though, using an obvious clue (even if strange or grotesque), has its merits. I have only once tried my hand at writing detective fiction, specifically a guess-the-crimimal script for the Kyoto University Mystery Club, which was actually based on the same principle, mostly. If, like Queen, you want people to solve your story (and I would consider a guess-the-criminal script no one can guess, not really succesful), than an obvious clue is definitely the way to go.

Though this time, it seems like Ellery's deductions are less perfect than usual, or at least, the deduction makes sense, but the construction of the puzzle, that is to say, the way Queen imagined the actions of the murderer seem to be a bit enigmatic. The main problem revolves around a certain action the murderer took (or to be precise, did not take), but it makes no logical sense for the murderer to have done that. Ellery deduced the actions of the murderer, but even he must have thought it weird for the murderer to have done that. Considering the care with which Queen usually constructs his puzzles and deduction, as seen in his previous novels, The Spanish Cape Mystery feels sloppy at times.

The character of Ellery has changed over the course of the books: he was hardly present in The Roman Hat Mystery, and even then he mostly complained about not being able to buy rare books because of the case,  but he slowly, but surely become more and more a human as the series progresses. The Spanish Cape Mystery has him in his most human form up until now, especially at the end when Ellery voices his thoughts about the murder. The Greek Coffin Mystery already showed a human side to the character by having him making mistakes, but this novels shows a human side by having him thinking about other people, which is quite surprising.

Were I to rank the nationality novels by Queen, then The Spanish Cape Mystery would end up somewhere near the end of the list to be honest. The main puzzle is alluring, but the execution is a bit disappointing and the things the novel does do well, has been done even better in earlier novels.

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