Saturday, March 31, 2012

The Dutch Shoe Mystery

Abigail Doorn, benefactress of the Dutch Memorial Hospital, is due for operation, but when her comatose body is wheeled into the operation theatre, she is already dead. She must have been strangulated in the anteroom next to the amphitheatre. The anaesthetist Francis Janney, the strongest suspect who benefits from Doorn's death and was witnessed being in the anteroom by several persons, has a rather insufficient alibi since he had a meeting with an unknown person called Swanson, whose identity he does not want to give away. Was Janney impersonated? It takes a second murder for Ellery Queen to deduce the murderer from a set of various clues - most prominently a pair of white canvas shoes.

Usually I see this in Japanese Top 3 Queens along with The Greek Coffin Mystery and The Egyptian Cross Mystery (not counting the Drury Lane novels), so maybe my expectations were too high for this novel, but I wonder why this is so highly regarded. This is by no means a bad book (quite the opposite) and I admit it's constructed really well and Ellery's logical deductions are as awesome as ever. I just don't see where exactly it's supposed to excel in comparison to other Queens I've read so far.

While a comparison with Greek would be totally inappropriate anyway, as a detective novel I prefer The French Powder Mystery for several reasons. First and foremost, the setting of a hospital and the display of the body in an amphitheatre for operations is unique and intrigues immediately and the initiating 10 chapters of the novel that introduce the whole crime situation are brilliant and draw you in. However, the following chapters until the second murder more or less shortly before the Challenge To The Reader are rather dull and don't lead anywhere, as most of the essential clues are already revealed in the beginning and the search for a motive bears no definite results. These chapters are not totally irrelevant of course as the interrogations feature some of the more interesting and distinct personalities in the early Queen novels I've read so far. But in the end, they were quite a letdown after that awesome first third of the book, especially since most of the content was not that important for the solution and the essential clues Ellery uses in his deductions during the finale are already mentioned before the later interrogations.

This also goes for The Chinese Orange Mystery, where the backwardness of the crime scene leads to the revealing of several of the characters' secrets, which turn out rather irrelevant to the solution eventually, but the plot device was a little more fun to read compared to the interrogations in Dutch. And in Chinese the motive is actually stated very early, provided you are on the right track, while in Dutch there is no way you can logically pinpoint the motive, even supposing you are able to build a logical prison around the culprit using the physical clues at the crime scenes. I admit though, it would be even easier to guess the murderer otherwise...

This case has the typical problems of "bigger" clues like the shoes or in other novels the backwardness of a crime scene, dying messages and so on: It's rather difficult to build a plot around them that actually develops and justifies a whole novel instead of a short story. French for example is constructed with a lot of smaller clues and while that novel has the weak point of explaining a bit too much prior to the Challenge To The Reader, I found that mystery more intriguing as it moved forward steadily. To provide that focus on the mystery itself the novel does not feature any memorable characters in contrast to Dutch, so again I have to conclude that any Queen I've read so far has its share of stronger and weaker points.

So as I already said, this is still a fine and recommendable novel, but personally I prefer French which tends to be overlooked or just ranked otherwise by other readers. I just hope Egyptian is more fun to read (if I actually start reading that one before concentrating on my overdue papers), which I sadly doubt since it's kind of similar in its clues' nature.

1 comment:

  1. I read this one way back when and from what I remember of the book, my opinion from back then coincides with yours. The exact details of the plot have become a bit fuzzy, but remember that information was withheld from the reader that would have enabled us to substantiate our deductions with a possible motive and the reason why this one never made it to one of my best-off lists.