Tuesday, May 14, 2013

The Heel of Achilles

"I said I know everything."
"Oh." The Inspector relaxed. "Another one of your jokes. 'Course, you always know everything about everything. You're one of God's Four Hundred, you are. Isn't a subject on which you aren't an expert - like these book detectives - see all, know all... bah!"
"The American Gun Mystery"

One problem that I discovered while rereading Queen: I really need to replace some of the copies I have with better ones. I have no idea what mysterious force is keeping my The Siamese Twin Mystery in one piece, but it won't keep for long. And I know the books are available as ebooks now, but I am still old fashioned and consider e-readers bad just like rock & roll. I could get those nifty new Japanese releases too, but I'd rather have them in English.

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 American Gun Mystery brings us to the new sports stadium in the City, the Coliseum, where old Buck Horne, once a famous star in Hollywood's early Western films, is to perform in a rodeo exhibitition with rope tricks, riding and fancy shooting. The Coliseum is packed, among the guests are Inspector Queen, son Ellery and houseboy Djuna, and the eyes of all guests are fixated on Buck on his horse leading a pack of cowboys gallopping around the track, when the man is suddenly shot in his heart and overrun by the horses behind him. The Inspector immediately starts his investigation, sealing off the stadium, but no matter how much he and his men search the building and all the people inside it, they just can seem to find the murder weapon!

After a bit of traveling between states in The Egyptian Cross Mystery, we're back in New York in The American Gun Mystery. This novel feels a bit similar to The Roman Hat Mystery, because both novels have a murder during a show and a large-scale search for a certain item, which includes the need of detaining a very large number of people on the crime scene. Of course, this time it's a bit different from Roman Hat because the victim was at the center of the attention during the murder, which is something completely new in the Queen novels. For we actually see a bit of the victim before he's killed. I had said in my review of The Dutch Shoe Mystery that I liked that people died fast in these novels, which is still true, but it felt refreshing to have seen the victim alive and all (even if for just a very short time) for a change. It's also the first murder made from a distance, which is probably not that interesting, but maybe handy for some kind of Queen trivia quiz.

The literary device of J.J. McC., who pens the introductions to the Queen novels, is also used more prominently compared to the previous novels. In fact, J.J. McC. even appears in the last part to narrate the story, something I had completely forgotten about The American Gun Mystery. By now, J.J. McC. feels like an unneeded relic of the past though. His existence is as interesting as S.S. Van Dine in the Philo Vance novels, that is, not at all. The inclusion of J.J. as an active figure in the narrative is just distracting.

While not as complex and exciting as the previous two novels, The American Gun Mystery does has its moments. Like in The Dutch Shoe Mystery, it is actually possible to deduce a lot about the solution from information obtained in the early parts of the story, which shows how tricky Queen's plots can be, as it is not very likely that you will actually deduce that. Also, one of the major problems surrounding Buck Horne's death feels thematically close to a major puzzle in Arisugawa Alice's excellent Kotou Puzzle surrounding a treasure map, presenting a problem in a certain dimension, before revealing that you have to look at it from a totally different angle. It's not a logic puzzle per se, but I love these kind of riddles / puzzles that you solve by looking at things from a different angle. It is not difficult to figure out the problem, but it is interesting because it adds a possible dimension to Ellery's deductions that hadn't been explored in earlier novels.

Main criticism on the novel is probably aimed at the actual whereabouts of the murder weapon. After the searches in Roman Hat and Greek Coffin, the solution to The American Gun Mystery's problem can only be called disappointing. Of course, Golden Age novels are hardly nexi of realism, but still, this is one of those solutions you remember for reasons of the less-than-positive kind.

To make it short, not one of my favourite Queens. It's like an alternative The Roman Hat Mystery, but it is easier to forgive Roman Hat's faults considering it was Queen's debut work: The American Gun Mystery is disappointing compared to the much stronger previous novels.


  1. Disappointed in this one. There are some major problems with the solution. It is not so much the whole hiding the gun that bothers me. It is the identity and the whole lack of motive. It has the same problems that Egyptian Cross had. Would they not use fingerprints to identify someone?

    1. I'm keeping this vague because I don't want to give the game away to those who haven't read the book yet, but I think that id'ing every single death victim through fingerprints wasn't standard procedure back then, there were few reasons for doubts in the first place.

  2. Scotland Yard had started fingerprint records back in 1902 so it was probably standard in the states as well by then,31 years later.

  3. Without giving away spoilers that would be a even more relevant point in Egyptian,given that the victims are beheaded.

  4. In fairness they probably did not usually fingerprint people unless they were immigrants or criminals. The other problem is it violates fair play because a important point about the shooting is withheld from the reader.