Wednesday, May 15, 2013

The Queen's Tale

"Whoever used this exercised the usal care and wiped the gun clean of prints. Sometimes I think there should be a law against detective stories. Gives potentional criminals too many pointers"
"The Siamese Twin Mystery"

And now I'm nearing the end of this post series, I realize I should have allowed for a bit of more time between each post. I can only hope I'll have my Japanese books by the time I'll be finished with these 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 Siamese Twin Mystery starts with father and son Queen on their way back from a holiday. Driving through Arrow Mountain (note: Ellery was the one who chose the mountain route, the Inspector emphasizes), the two wind up in a huge forest fire and are forced to flee deeper into the mountain, eventually finding refuge at the residence of Dr. Xavier. The doctor welcomes the Queens in his home, but the detective duo sense a certain tension among the colorful inhabitants and other guests of the mountain villa. Are the people hiding something from the Queens? The fire surrounding the house is naturally a source of worry for the people trapped inside, but the fact that Dr. Xavier is murdered that same night is not reassuring either. The only clue? A six of spades torn in half in the hand of the victim.

The 'strange' one in the series, together with The Eygptian Cross Mystery. For even though almost all previous Queen novels did include closed environments where the murderer had to be (The Roman Theater, the Dutch Memorial Hospital etc.), this is the first time Ellery finds himself in a faux closed circle situation. Faux I say, because the closed circle trope does not work effectively with a series detective. The closed circle trope works best when you really have no idea who might be killed next. Everyone on Indian Island had an equal opportunity to die And Then There Were None, which made the trope work. Compare to Kindaichi Hajime, who finds himself together with a violent serial murderer in a closed circle situation every other week, but the reader knows that Hajime will not be killed, the reader knows that there is no real danger for our hero. Ellery and his father are too established for them to just die like that. Even if you consider that this time the danger comes from a natural phenomena, the forest fire, (instead of a Jason-like killer), you are quite sure they won't be found burned to death at the end of the story. The forest fire does, even if not a real threat, make the usually tame / boring middle part of the story interesting to read, as there is always something happening, be it with the fire or the case itself.

The dying message is also of interest here; The Tragedy of X features one too, but of the early Queen dying messages, I like The Siamese Twin Mystery's one better, even though, or rather because the meaning, and usage of the dying message trope is very different in this novel. I think it is quite difficult to have a long story to be mostly about a dying message (as opposed to just one smaller element in the big picture), but it works here; the plot structure is really built surrounding the torn card in the victim's hand and that is quite a feat.

In Queen critisicm, The Siamese Twin Mystery is often refered to as an important novel. Like Kasai Kiyoshi notes in Tantei Shousetsu to 20 Seiki Seishin, the novel is a prime example of how the so-called Later Period Queen problems work. To quote myself from The Greek Coffin Mystery review:

If you accept the probability of a false solution, that is, the possibility that the real murderer can plant false clues that lead to the wrong person, then you're dealing with an unsolvable problem. Suppose Solution 1 (featuring murderer 1) is false, because clue A was planted, by murderer 2 (thus, solution 2, substantiated by clue B). What guarantee can you have that clue B, and therefore solution 2, isn't a plant by murderer 3? And in turn a murderer 4? This is a meta problem, and the writer can 'forcefully' end this by just ending his novel, but 'in-universe', the detective can never be absolutely sure his final solution is actually the correct one.

This is also true for The Siamese Twin Mystery which features several solutions. And here is the problem with the novel: how can you be sure that the solution posed by Ellery at the end of the novel is actually the truth? In fact, Ellery and his father are manipulated to arrive at false deductions throughout the novel. They notice their mistakes because of evidence found later in the story, so how can you be confident that the final solution is indeed correct, and won't be proven false by evidence discovered later? This philosophical problem plays throughout Queen's novels, but it is most evident here. One might for example also consider the fact that this novel does not feature the traditional Challenge to the Reader, for Ellery does not present his final answer because he 'found everything', he is forced to tell his ideas because the forest fire is not leaving him much time!

And to bring the topic back to the blog's main topic, Japanese detective novels, it's pretty clear that many writers were influenced by Queen in general, but also this novel in particular. You will find plenty of closed circles, Queen tropes and Later Period Queen problems in Ayatsuji Yukito's novels for example (especially the Yakata series), while Arisugawa Alice's debut work Gekkou Game similarly features a dying message and naturally created closed circle situation through a vulcano eruption.

Overall, The Siamese Twin Mystery feels a bit different. The range of the main problem, the dying message, is quite compact small and the story feels like a lengtened short story at times. The deductions are less complex and the final deduction even features something more intuitive rather than logical. But the novel reads more like an actual story. It's a slightly different Queen, but I think it's also one of the easier Queen to recommend to people, as the thrill of the closed circle and the more compact deductions are more accesible.

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