Friday, February 28, 2014

The Egyptian Cross Mystery

Ellery Queen’s 1932 novel The Egyptian Cross Mystery is something of an oddity as far as golden age detective stories go, by virtue of its sheer gruesomeness if nothing else. Both the gore and the plot make it in some ways an early predecessor of the awful serial killer novels that have been infesting the shelves of bookstores for the past few decades.

To me it doesn’t quite feel like an Ellery Queen novel. It’s almost as if the authors were experimenting with a change of style. It also has a lot of the elements one normally associates with the thrillers of its era. The story culminates in an extended cross-country chase by both car and aircraft!

The novel opens with a grisly murder in West Virginia. A local schoolteacher has been beheaded and crucified. The whole crime scene seems to indicate some kind of obsession with the letter T, or more likely with T as a symbol of a cross of some kind. Perhaps an Egyptian cross of some variety?

This bizarre crime remains unsolved for many months and Ellery has almost forgotten it when another equally gory murder is committed. The method seems to indicate plainly enough that the two murders are connected but there seems no possible connection between the two victims.

As if all this isn’t strange enough, a nudist colony also plays a key role in the plot. Not just nudists, but Egyptian god-worshipping nudists. And the Egyptian god they worship is right among them, in the flesh so to speak.

Ellery’s father Inspector Richard Queen plays a very minor role in this story, and the hunt for the murderer takes Ellery a long way from his more familiar New York haunts.

Despite the thriller elements there’s a puzzle here as well, of course. Personally I don’t think it’s one of the better Ellery Queen puzzles. When I can guess the identity of the murderer something has gone very wrong somewhere, because I’m generally hopeless at that sort of thing.

I’ve been reading the early Ellery Queens in sequence, and enjoying them very much, but this is the first one that has disappointed me just a little. I’m hoping that this book was just an aberration and that the next one will return to the much more successful formula of the earlier books.

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