Sunday, May 8, 2011

The Alphabet in Crime Fiction: Ellery Queen's The French Powder Mystery

The Alphabet in Crime Fiction community meme has been making admirable progress on our treacherous journey through the letters, thanks to our tour leader Kerrie at Mysteries in Paradise. Today we make our 17th stop, at the letter “Q.” My contribution for this stop is Ellery Queen’s The French Powder Mystery, first published in 1930. What you see in the ‘photo is a 1942 Pocket Books paperback edition; it was given to me by a friend and I have to confess I’m proud to have it. I admit it; that’s one of the reasons I chose this book for this letter; I wanted to share this with you. Oh, and it’s not that easy to find an author/title beginning with “Q” ;-).

The real action in The French Powder Mystery begins at lunchtime one day in May at French’s Department Store in downtown New York City. A store employee enters the main store window to begin a daily demonstration of some furniture and accessories displayed in the window. One of the pieces of furniture is a wall-bed that can be pulled out for use. To the employee’s horror, and that of the onlookers, when she pulls out that bed to show how it works, she finds the body of a woman on it. Inspector Richard Queen is called in to investigate and he and his son Ellery are soon embroiled in this intriguing case.

The dead woman is identified as Winifred French, wife of Cyrus French, who owns the department store. The evidence is clear that she was shot twice, and it’s not long before Queen is able to show that she was not shot in the department store window. Instead, she was shot in her husband’s private office/apartment on the sixth floor of the department store. As if that weren’t enough, her daughter (and Cyrus French’s step-daughter) Bernice Carmody seems to have disappeared. There’s even evidence that suggests Bernice might have been involved in her mother’s murder. Queen doesn’t quite believe that, though, and begins to look elsewhere for the answers.

What he finds is a web of secrets beneath the surface of this well-to-do, respectable family and this popular, respectable store. For one thing, it turns out that Bernice Carmody is a drug addict who’s been trying to hide her addiction from her step-father, head of the local Anti-Vice Society and outspoken opponent of drug use. It also comes to light that the department store was being used to connect drug suppliers with local users. And then there’s the clandestine relationship that Winifred French had been having with one of the department store’s Board members. Bit by bit, Queen makes sense of the evidence, both physical and psychological, and figures out who killed Winifred French and why Bernice Carmody disappeared. In the end the evidence, if the reader follows it, leads directly to the person responsible.

More than anything else, this novel is an intellectual mystery. The focus is on the clues and on the logical deductions one can draw from them. There are seemingly disparate events and pieces of evidence from which Queen draws conclusions, and the reader follows along as he does. There’s even a secret code that leads Queen to the truth about the drugs gang. So readers who enjoy trying to “outguess the sleuth” will not be disappointed. And as is the case with some of the other Ellery Queen mysteries, there’s a little interlude right before the dénouement where the reader is directly addressed and invited to solve the mystery. The solution to the mystery makes sense and is believable and, even though I have to admit I didn’t guess whodunit when I first read the book, there is a straight path, so to speak, to the killer if one’s been paying attention.

The story takes place in an interesting setting, too. French’s is an old-style fashionable department store. Readers get a real sense of what department stores were like before the days of Tesco, “Marks & Sparks,” Sears and Wal-Mart.


“On the border-line between the more fashionable upper avenue and the office building district further downtown, it catered to a mixed patronage of wealth and penury. At the noon hour its broad aisles and six floors were crowded with shop girls and stenographers; in mid-afternoon the tone of its clientele improved perceptibly. It boasted at once therefore the lowest prices, the most modern models, the widest assortment of salable articles in New York.”


French’s has a leather goods department, a books department, a furniture department and so on, and the atmosphere is much more customer-oriented than the atmosphere of many of today's department stores.

There’s also a feel in this novel for the New York City of the time. We follow the police as they try to locate Bernice Carmody, track down the drugs gang and interview witnesses. There isn’t as much focus on the city itself in this novel as there is in, say, the work of Rex Stout. But one does get the feeling that this story wouldn’t likely have taken place anywhere else.

And then there’s the relationship between the Queens. As with most of the Ellery Queen novels, we see the attachment between father and son. They rely on one another and respect one another, although neither is particularly demonstrative. For his part, Ellery Queen is happy to give his father public credit for solving the mystery, especially since New York’s police commissioner has more than a passing interest in this case and has been following Inspector Queen’s progress. Ellery trusts his father and “steps back” to let his father handle the machinery of police investigation. At the same time, Richard Queen listens carefully to what his son says. He’s by no means stupid himself, but he knows his son has strong deductive skills and he depends on them. The two Queens complement each other and they both know it.

The characters in the novel are not its focus, so readers who prefer novels with a lot of character depth, evolution and development will be disappointed. It’s worth noting one or two things about the Ellery Queen character, though. In this novel, Queen is drawn as an educated intellectual whose interests are chiefly literary. Although he’s not entirely without humour and personality, in my opinion (so no need to agree with me if you don’t), his character is not fully developed. In later novels, he develops a more compassionate side and even finds love, but here he’s rather dispassionate except for his obvious devotion to his father.

This novel was published in 1930, so there are some elements of it that would be quite offensive by today’s standards. There are several racist comments and there’s blatant sexism; even the dialogue reflects these “isms.” There are class issues, too; the French family is clearly well-to-do and well-connected, and there are sharp differences between the way they’re portrayed and the way some of the characters from other backgrounds are portrayed. I admit I found all of that irritating. That said, though, it’s important to remember when the novel was written and what the prevailing attitudes of the day were. One can look at it as a “snapshot” of the way people thought, wrote, spoke and acted at that time.

The French Powder Mystery is an intellectual puzzler in the classic sense that takes place against an intriguing backdrop. And Queen fans will find it interesting to see how both Queens’ characters are portrayed in this early outing (it’s the second of the Ellery Queen mysteries). Although the “isms” are annoying (at least they were to me), the story is believable and the solution makes sense. But what’s your view? Have you read The French Powder Mystery? If you have, what elements do you see in it?

79 comments:

  1. I have a 1956 Penguin edition on my TBR shelf, and when I feel up to the intellectual challenge and the smaller font I will read it encouraged by your analysis.

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  2. Norman - Oh, those Penguin editions are great, I think! Some of them are hard to find now, so you are lucky to have one. If/when you do get to it, I'd love to see what you think of this novel...

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  3. Oh, I love the title and cover. How charming both are.

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  4. Patti - Aren't they? I have to say that I was really thrilled when my friend gave this to me, and I keep it apart from my other books and (I hope) better protected.

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  5. I always loved the earliest Ellery Queens. Yeah, the dated stuff got to me too sometimes, but I didn't mind the character stuff because the relationship between father and son was always so satisfying. (I also liked the WW2 era stuff, but not so much the later ones.)

    I sure wish the Dannay and Lee estates would get with the program and release all the Queen books on Kindle.

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  6. Daring Novelist - Wouldn't that be great if the Queen series was out on Kindle? I know it would find a whole new market.

    And I agree with you that the relationship between the Queens is one of the best parts of that series. We really see their bond, although neither is what you would call demonstrative. Good point!!

    Interesting you'd mention your preference for the earlier/WWII Queen stories than the later ones. I have to say I agree with you, despite all of the "isms." I just don't like the Queen novels from the late '50's and '60s as much, even though the Ellery Queen character matures and evolves. Interesting point...

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  7. My mother was a big Ellery Queen fan, but I haven't covered nearly all of them. This will be a good place to start. And I agree it would be awesome to get a complete collection on Kindle.

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  8. It's been years since I read any Ellery Queen books. I'm going to a great secondhand bookshop tomorrow and your post has spurred me on to look out for any of the Queen series. I would love to find one of the early books.

    I agree it would be good to read them on Kindle, but it wouldn't be as satisfying as reading the 'real thing'. There is something so personal about an actual physical book that doesn't come over for me on Kindle.

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  9. Sounds like a great puzzle mystery! I love solving the case alongside the sleuth and I can't remember having read this Ellery Queen. Thanks for the tip!

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  10. Pat - This isn't the first Queen mystery, but it does show the Queens during those early years. And I actually like this one better than I like the first one, The Roman Hat Mystery.



    Margaret - Oh, I love secondhand bookshops! They are wonderful! And sometimes one can really find something special there. I know exactly what you mean, too, about the feel of an actual, physical book. For me, that's especially true of an old book or first edition. That most definitely doesn't come over the same way on an E-reader.



    Elizabeth - It is a good puzzle. And it's got all of the pieces right there, too; nothing is a last-minute, unfair surprise. I know I didn't guess whodunit at first!

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  11. Thanks for providing so much food for thought. I wish contribute more to this discussion as I am devoted to the Ellery Queen books but it's been too long since I read this one (literally a good 25 years I think). Mostly what I remember is how amazing the detailed summing up is at the end, keeping the revelation of the murderer's name a secret until the last possible moment, but obviously there is a lot more to it than that. I envy your lovey edition of the book - mine is not only, in UK vernacular, totally 'knackered' but also in Italian!

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  12. Sergio - Right you are about the detailed step-by-step summing-up that Queen does at the end of this particular story. And yet, as you say, the killer's name isn't mentioned until, quite literally, the last page. As we follow along with the logic, though, it really all does make sense, so I, anyway, didn't feel cheated.

    I wish I had this one in another language; my Italian isn't good, but I'd love to try it in a language (besides English) that I do speak. I wouldn't likely be able to get my hands on the edition I do have, actually, were it not that it was a gift. I have thoughtful friends :-).

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  13. Shhh! If those people who insisted on revising Huckleberry Finn get word of this book, they'll be putting it next on their list. It irritates me no end that people want to change books that were written in a different time with different cultural nuances.

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  14. Barbara - I know what you mean. Books reflect the times in which they were written. It's one thing to feel that one or another "ism" is annoying or worse. It's another to rewrite a book or ban it because it was written during a different time. I have to admit, the "isms" of classic crime fiction do bother me. Sometimes a lot. But that doesn't mean I think those books should be rewritten or banned.

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  15. What a cool older book cover! I would be proud to own it too. I haven't read the book but it sounds like a winner.

    "when she pulls out that bed to show how it works, she finds the body of a woman on it" What a great opening!

    I love novels that are intellectual mysteries. You said that you never solved it the first go, did you follow the clues and it led you to the murderer the second time?

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  16. Clarissa - Yes, the second time I read it, I did follow the clues and it led me in the right direction. Just a case (for me, anyway) of not paying attention the right way the first time.

    And yes, the beginning of the real action is pretty dramatic. There are a few scenes before the body is discovered, but it's not long before we plunge right into the story.

    I love that cover, too, and I was so happy to get this. I take extra-special care of this one...

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  17. Absolutely love this one - one of the purest mysteries out there, without being dry and unreadable. And the structure for revealing the villain is impressive - Ellery spells it out for you but it still doesn't fall into place until he gives the name - and then it makes perfect sense.

    A classic.

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  18. Classicmystery - You put that quite well; it's a pure mystery, but it's not dry. And you're quite right that Queen lays the whole puzzle out piece by piece, but it's still not necessarily clear who the killer is until the name is given. And yet, it was all there the whole time... It certainly is a classic.

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  19. This sounds like a very good one, Margot. I love your review. I've read a fair number of Ellery Queen books in the past and last year I read a couple more. I think with Queen, it's hit or miss. (Though I admit I've forgotten most of them.)

    But this is one I'm definitely going to look for. I used to work in one of those old time service oriented department stores - worked in several, actually. I sure do miss them.

    And what a great cover!

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  20. Yvette - Thank you :-). It's interesting you'd mention that you've found the Queen novels to be inconsistent; you're not the only one who's said they're "hit or miss."

    But if you're familiar with the old-fashioned department-store setting, I think you'll find this one resonates with you. Sometimes I really miss those old-time stores, myself. I like the convenient opening hours of today's stores, but the service? Not so much.

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