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?