"The name of that cocktail is XYZ... meaning there's no more hope left. The barkeeper uses it as a signal for when he needs my help."
I recently re-read my The XYZ Murders omnibus, which collects The Tragedy of X, The Tragedy of Y and The Tragedy of Z. As I haven't reviewed any of the Drury Lane novels yet on the blog, I figured I might as well write something about them, as I think quite highly of them. So the month of February will feature quite a lot of Tragedies.
Drury Lane series
The Tragedy of X (1932)
The Tragedy of Y (1932)
The Tragedy of Z (1933)
Drury Lane's Last Case (1933)
Ellery Queen's The Tragedy of X (1932).
It's common knowledge by now, but for those who don't know: the Ellery Queen cousins (Frederic Dannay and Manfred B. Lee) made their debut in 1929 with The Roman Hat Mystery. In 1932 however, they came up with a second pen name, Barnaby Ross, who'd be responsible for four novels starring the amateur-detective Drury Lane. For a while, the Queen cousins played with these two identities (even having "Ellery Queen" and "Barnaby Ross" debating with each other), but eventually the gig was up and nowadays the Drury Lane novels are known as Queen novels. The Tragedy of X is the first of the novels and also one of the best regarded books written by Ellery Queen. In the most recent edition of the Tozai Mystery Best 100 (for non-Japanese novels) for example, the book ranked in at 14 as the second Ellery Queen work (The Tragedy of Y ranked in at second place).
This was a re-read by the way, which happened under the better cirumstances than the first time I read the book, actually. While it's the first of the Drury Lane novels, it was actually the last one I read because I never read things in order, and I don't remember why, but it took me ages to get through it because of circumstances, so the book, as a whole, never left much of an impression on me except for some specific scenes (though I still thought it was a good book). I learned to appreciate the book a lot better this time around though.
I wonder how long it took for people back in the day to notice The Tragedy of X was written by Ellery Queen? Because the thing is rather obviously a Queen product. It reminds especially of The Roman Hat Mystery. Ellery was the detective in Roman Hat, and Lane obviously the one in The Tragedy of X, but both books are actually structured around the police investigation: Roman Hat was all about Inspector Queen's investigation while The Tragedy of X mostly follows Inspector Thumm's efforts, occasionally interrupted by very short actions of Lane. This focus on the police investigation, and not on 'the great detective' can also be seen in the dynamic between the Inspector and the District Attorney in both books. Bruno in The Tragedy of X is a very important person in the investigation, but who of us still remember District Attorney Samson, who appeared very often in the earlier Queen novels? At some points the narrative does switch over to Lane though, who does a bit of sleuthing himself, though in retrospect, it appears to me some of that could've been done through the official channels anyway, despite Lane saying he wanted to keep some things secret from the Inspector and the D.A.
The whole premise of the first, and the consequent murders is also typical Queen. A lot of the early Queen novels had murders in strange, and often fairly public spaces. A murder in a theater, a murder in a department store, one during a rodeo show. The Tragedy of X starts off with a murder committed inside a packed street car, but follows up with even more deaths on means of public transportation. Because of that, we see another typical Queen device in The Tragedy of X: having to confine a lot of potential suspects and search each of them for clues, in the form of an object. Similar to how everyone in the Roman Theater was detained for search by Inspector Queen, Inspector Thumm also uses the 'search everybody and everywhere' command often in this novel. Queen loved this trope and has written many stories where there is a specific search for something and The Tragedy of X betrays its writer in that respect also. The Tragedy of X is a bit special in the sense that it does not make clear why Thumm's search will prove to be important until later, while in The Roman Hat Mystery, it was made quite clear what the inspector was searching for (hint: it's in the title).
In a sense, The Tragedy of X is a very over-the-top novel, and much more... energetic than most of Queen's other novels. The book starts right off with a mystery, and that's something we often see with Queen. But more deaths follow, accompanied by trails of clues and red herrings and the story basically is running at max speed until the very end. Few (early) Queen novels are as engaging as this one. One of the is The Greek Coffin Mystery though, which was published in the same year. Like that book, The Tragedy of X is divided in several 'acts', which keeps the reader's eyes glued to the pages. But this is also done by some weirdly grotesque devices: the murder weapon (the needles coated in nicotine sticking out of a cork) for example is one of the most bizarre, yet effective murder weapons I've ever seen. And there are some gruesome parts later in the story too (the second death in particular), which make this a captivating read.
But most of all, Queen's hand can be felt in the method in which Drury Lane solves the case. At the foundation, The Tragedy of X is "simply" a variation of a very classic trope of mystery fiction. But Lane arrives at that conclusion with the same logical reasoning we expect from an Ellery Queen novel. For a deeper (and more chaotic) write-up on the types of clues in Queen novels, I refer to this post, but in general, the "correct" way of solving a Queen novel is to figure out the characteristics we know the murderer must have and then see which of the suspects fits the pattern. Of course, figuring out those characteristics isn't as easy as it sounds, and demands quite some thinking, but it's usually a lot fairer than expecting the reader to point out the murderer by a sudden flash of genius. The Tragedy of X in particular is very memorable, because it is actually possible to figure out who the murderer very probably is at the very start of the book, as Drury Lane himself also states. The rest of the adventure mostly helps confirming his thoughts. While I think it's quite possible for a reader to correctly guess the murderer, I doubt many will have gone through the complete deduction chain Drury Lane presents at the end of the book, which is really the highlight of the book and a great example of logical reasoning in mystery fiction. This is obviously also the reason why it's so well-regarded.
Also of importance for Queen fans: The Tragedy of X has a dying message. The dying message was a favorite of the Queen cousins, and especially often seen in the short stories. I think The Tragedy of X might even be the first dying message of Queen, from the top of my head? The other novel I strongly associate with dying messages is The Siamese Twin Mystery, but that was published in 1933. The one from The Siamese Twin Mystery is much more interesting though.
The Tragedy of X is one of the better known books by Ellery Queen (Barnaby Ross) and rightfully so. It's a wonderful experiment in deduction and even though at the core, it's actually a very familiar problem, the execution is daring, impressive and memorable. Definitely of the must-reads of Queen.