Saturday, May 11, 2013

Tale of Two Shoes

There are only two detectives for whom 1 have felt, in my own capacity as hunter-of-men, any deeply underlying sympathy... transcending  racial idiosyncrasies and overleaping barriers of space and time... These two, strangely enough, present the weird contrast of unreality, of fantasm and fact. One has achieved luminous fame between the boards of books; the other as kin to a veritable policeman... I refer, of course, to those imperishables—Mr. Sherlock Holmes of Baker Street, London, and Mr. Ellery Queen of West 87th Street, New York City"
"The Dutch Shoe Mystery"

Not really sure what to think when reviews of English-language novels have about as much hits as reviews on Japanese novels. Anyway, this is the second post in this EQ series, but about the third Queen novel. Because I already did The French Powder Mystery.

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 Dutch Shoe Mystery (Dutch title: Patiënt overleden Operatie geslaagd / Patient dead, operation succes) brings us to the Dutch Memorial Hospital, built thanks to the financial support of one Abigail Doorn (Mrs.), who is about to have an operation. Her protege, Dr. Janney, is to perform the risky operation, but the doctor discovers there is no reason to operate on Mrs. Doorn after she's been wheeled into the surgical amphitheater: the reason the patient does not move, is not because she is comatose (as she should have been), but more because she is already quite dead. Who strangled the poor woman during her standby time in the room next door? Janney is suspect number one, because several people state they saw him entering the room before the operation, but Ellery, who happened to be on the scene, is not sure. Especially not after the discovery of a pair of shoes.

The third novel in the series and in a sense a logical evolution of the previous two novels. For example, the setting. Like the theater of The Roman Hat Mystery and the department store of The French Powder Mystery, most of the action of The Dutch Shoe Mystery is placed in a relatively wide, yet unmistakenly closed environment. Here the book seems to be different from the previous two novels though: the actual discovery of the body is made in the amphitheater and adjoining rooms, an closed environment, inside the larger closed environment of the hospital. It brings a sense of a smaller scale to the mystery, which is also apparent if one compares the theater and the department store to the Dutch Memorial Hospital. In the narrative, it might be refered to as a fairly well running hospital, but we only see the main actors running around in the hospital and it almost feels claustrophobic, if one is to compare it to what happened in the Roman Theater, with the large scale body searches and all.

The idea of the murder being discovered just as they want to start the operation is very memorable. Death during an operation, like in Green for Danger or Team Batista no Eikou, is a risk that is inherent to a heavy surgical operation. The death might be an accident, or murder, but it is a bit easier to accept such a death. Here the reader, together with everybody else, is confronted with death right before the effort to save someone's life starts! The blow feels bigger somehow and leaves a stronger impression.

What I like about these early Queen novels is also how quickly people tend to die. As an impatient person, I want my victims to get murdered fast, and that is something the Queen novels do well. It only takes a couple pages before the reader is taken on an investigation rollercoaster, which is exceptionally strong in the first half of The Dutch Shoe Mystery. Most of this is set in the hospital, but events and revelations follow each other in a great tempo, making this a joy to read. The middle part / second half of the novel is weaker in comparison, with fewer events that actually drive the plot forwards.

Once again, an object forms the focal point of Ellery's deductions and this time it's the state of the pair of shoes the murderer had worn. This fixation allows Ellery to make one of the greater deductions in his career, as it is almost unbelievable the writer manages to deduce just from a pair of shoes! Logicwise, this is definitely one of the high-points in the series, though it is hampered by the fact that an important event late in the novel makes it very easy to deduce who the murderer is, weakening the importance of the shoe-deduction chain. Oh, and I've heard people complain about how it is practically impossible to deduce the motive for the murders, which is absolutely true, but I have never seen it as a problem in the Queen novels. By the time Ellery has done building his logical prison around the suspect, we know that it was physically (and often also knowledge-wise) only possible for one person to have commited the murder. A motive is not even needed at this point (you can see that I am neither a policeman nor a laywer). A motive with these kind of stories, which rely on highly logical elimination deductive methods, is just an extra, in my opinion.

The 'new' thing of The Dutch Shoe Mystery, compared to the previous two novels, is probably the detailed map of the Dutch Memorial Hospital and the focus on movement and time of the actors. The first part of the novel has long descriptions of Ellery's movements through the hospital, descriptions of where the rooms are located and exact times when certain events happened. The chart of the hospital is definitely a vital part of the novel and this strong visual aspect is something you don't even really see in later Queen novels (at least not at the same level). It does fit the closed environment setting of these novels and it adds to the whole neat and clean image of the hospital.

Definitely a fun Queen novel, but this third novel is admittedly not as strong in my opinion as the second (The French Powder Mystery) or the fourth in the series (The Greek Coffin Mystery). In fact, now I think about it, if I'd rank the first nine Queen novels, this would definitely rank in the lower half, but that is more because of the overall quality of those novels, than a critique on this novel.

5 comments :

  1. Really? I actually liked this one the best of those three consecutive books. Still have the other "national mysteries" to finish.

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    1. I doubt there's anything that could Greek in my mind, but I enjoyed French better because of its faster pacing, the stranger setting of the murder scene and the (somewhat) shocking reveal of the murderer. Dutch is certainly not bad, but it's a bit... tame, I guess.

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    2. Maybe I am just biased because I solved it. However both French and Greek had characters do things that were not necessary and had information in a unrealistic way. In French this was not using gloves for the former and Ellery waiting until the suspects were interviewed for the latter. In Greek it is the moving of the body to the coffin and Scotland Yard not telling the cops that a certain person was working with them. You know who that was. It would never happen that way in real life. The police would be told.It is a fake means to keep someone a suspect in the book.

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  2. The point about French requires a explanation. Ellery Was certain who the murderer was at a certain point in the story. However he waited until all of the these suspects had been interviewed by his father to say he knew who did it. That was done just to make the reader think he guessed from the interviews that one of them did it. In fact it was none of them. So it does somewhat violate fair play.

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    1. It's been a while since I last read the books, so I can't really comment on the details of how the information flows in the books.

      Though about possible bias because you solved the book; that's actually quite interesting. I'd need to think a bit about that. There's nothing like a standard to easily compare books with of course, but suppose there are two stories of identical complexicity/fun/etc., but one I manage to solve and the other I don't, would my thoughts on the books differ (in terms of 'being a good detective novel')?

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