Thursday, June 02, 2011

The Mad Hatter Strikes Again!

Somewhere in the early 1930s, Manfred B. Lee and Frederick Dannay (who together wrote under the name Ellery Queen) created a new persona: Barnaby Ross. I recall reading somewhere that they even staged debates in public, with one cousin posing as Ellery Queen and the other being Barnaby Ross. The Ross novels involve retired Shakespearean actor, Drury Lane, who was forced into premature retirement due to deafness.

I had read one Drury Lane novel before: The Tragedy of X. It was an interesting read: the plot was interesting, and Queen actually bothered to explain why someone would bother leaving a dying message, reminiscent of Carr’s locked-room lecture in The Hollow Man. However, I highly disliked the character of Drury Lane. He has an unhealthy obsession for Shakespeare, building a shrine to Shakespeare called The Hamlet. For no apparent reason, he convinces people like his makeup man, Quacey, to move in with him and become his servants. (Quacey’s makeup skills are unparalleled, for instance, but he devotes himself to working for Lane instead of helping in the theatrical world.) Add to that dialogue that he seems to have stolen from Norman Bates, and you have a character that frankly struck me as a psycho in the making.

The Tragedy of Y did nothing to quell that impression— if anything, it confirmed it. I found him just as unlikeable, as he withholds his solution from the police mainly for the purpose of mystification, making puppy-dog eyes at the reader afterwards and asking “What else could I do?” (To which I wanted to answer “JUST TELL THE POLICE, YOU FOOL!”) His justification almost makes sense up to a point—but afterwards, he keeps silence for no reason at all. In fact, his final actions for bringing the killer to justice have no justification whatsoever, and I refuse to say more. Not only that, The Hamlet now has a feudal village. How does it work? Why is it there? Was The Hamlet not built to seclude Drury Lane from the outside world? So why is there a feudal village there? Personally, I think it’s just an excuse to throw in a replica of a tavern from Shakespeare’s times— and that’s just another way Lane’s unhealthy obsessions interfere with the story. Overall, Drury Lane is an unsuccessful experiment: The Great Detective and all his eccentricities are taken to a surrealistic maximum and overall, the result is unappealing.

Generally, the mystery is solidly constructed, but ultimately, it is much ado about nothing. (See? I can make Shakespearean references too!) The twist ending is not really surprising, and the police officers should have come across the solution on their own. But they are completely shocked by the obvious, and it’s rather annoying. In a way it’s unusual, as the explanation depends largely on mathematical reasoning—but Drury Lane, already an annoying character, does not do his case much justice by talking all about “infallible logic” which is actually far from infallible in some places. The explanation is long-winded, the motive is puzzlingly banal, and the story is deliberately (and infuriatingly) vague in certain places.

Overall, this entire story reads like “Drury Lane in Wonderland”—the story revolves around poisoning attempts followed by a brutal murder in the Hatter family. The press even dubs them the “Mad Hatters”, the clearest reference to Alice in Wonderland. Overall, this is an extremely surrealistic story, with larger-than-life characters populating the story. I was drawn into the tale immediately, as Emily Hatter, a nasty woman, angrily confronts Inspector Thumm over her late husband’s suicide. She is a murderer in a way, who poisoned the man’s life for many years, leading him to take his own life. She is despised by her family and yet feared, and into these mechanics is thrown in an attempt to take the life of her blind-dumb-and-deaf daughter, the only person Emily shows any compassion towards. It is a mad, surreal, and overall, fascinating experience.

So to sum things up, the story is readable overall, even if its solution is extremely predictable. It could’ve done with some polishing and it may have worked far better without Drury Lane in a starring role. A more appealing detective is called for— a more reasonable, likeable one, not an exaggeration of unlikeable mannerisms.

Overall, I enjoyed this story, but I did not enjoy the role Dury Lane played in the proceedings.

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