Thursday, May 24, 2012

Mr. Queen on the Essence of Boredom

The Spanish Cape is located somewhere on the Atlantic coast, and it is the scene of a violent death when notorious philanderer John Marco is found bludgeoned to death. This comes right on the heels of a botched kidnapping effort also directed at Marco. Apparently, someone wasn’t fond of the man… but why on earth would anyone have removed the dead man’s clothes???

Yes, Marco is naked as the day he was born, but luckily Ellery Queen is on hand to investigate the business. There’s a lot of nasty secrets hidden, and blackmail is tied into Marco’s death as well. Which of the people on the Spanish Cape have stained their hands with blood? You can find out in Ellery Queen’s The Spanish Cape Mystery

Or you can just read the first 50 pages, because this is one of the most transparent plots I’ve come across in a while. The very instant such-and-such occurs, I said to myself “That’s the killer.” It was the fastest I’ve solved a mystery since I solved I, The Jury the instant the killer’s character was introduced. (The only reason it took longer here is because something needed to happen for the realization to occur.) I put everything together very quickly and spent most of time waiting for Ellery Queen to come to the obvious deductions. This is a very, very weakly concealed mystery.

By itself, that doesn’t necessarily doom a book to failure. If we have strong characterization or atmosphere, that might make up for the plot’s shortcomings. Sadly this isn’t the case. Atmosphere doesn’t exist, and the most fun we get comes in conversations Ellery has with a friend of his, a judge. Meanwhile, the characters are laughably unconvincing. There are several moments of exposition that are absolutely cringe-inducing. An overheard conversation (scratch that: monologue; these characters adore monologues) might go like this:

Bob: But Sarah, my dear, ever since your car accident three years ago you haven’t quite been in the same mental condition. How could you possibly tell whether it was Steve that you saw heading into the garden in order to conduct an affair with Susan, who is (as you well know, my dear) our neighbour’s nephew’s brother’s uncle’s wife? I would expect Jenny, who will be coming of age in a matter of weeks and inheriting a massive fortune kept for her by her father (Steve) who used to be married to the ship captain’s daughter who is our neighbour’s housekeeper, to tell such wildly fantastic stories. But you, my dear? You, who are twenty-eight, lovely, blonde, and engaged to a wealthy real-estate developer, who may have had some shady dealings with John? I simply cannot believe it, even less than I believe the wild and completely unfounded rumours about Jenny having poisoned her father’s last wife!

Now, there may not be any Sarahs or blondes or neighbours’ housekeepers in The Spanish Cape Mystery, but the “overheard” conversations have the same note of exposition to them and become extremely dull when the forced exposition isn’t laughable.

Add to all this an incredibly unnecessary death (that serves only to pad things out). Some obvious red herrings are called for. And laughably pathetic attempts at misdirection. And you get yourself a frankly incompetent book that isn’t much fun to read. The Spanish Cape Mystery is quite simply a flop. I recommend avoiding it; it’s a book that thinks it’s far more clever than it really is. It’s the worst of the Queens I’ve read so far.

And the final segment of the book is no fun, either. Ellery and another character discuss why Ellery didn’t clear that character of suspicion (which never fell on him) during his iron-clad-logic session. Ellery responds with something clever. Meanwhile, I wanted to kick a hole into the wall. More obvious than Ellery’s cleverness was this: the character was miles away with Ellery at the time and could never have pulled off the crime. Game, set, and match.


  1. I read The Spanish Cape Mystery a long, long time ago as a teenager and enjoyed it. It sounds like I'll want to avoid it from here on. It's strange when a good writer (or pair of writers) forgets how to write. Or maybe they just got lazy.

  2. Funny bit on the overheard conversations, Patrick. I recall one reviewer complaining that Ellery does nothing but eavesdrop on people, so you're in syn with that guy!

  3. I agree that this one is stunningly obvious, although I wasn't convinced for a while simply because I figured Dannay and Lee would have had something cleverer up their sleeves. It's still miles better that the next tranche of the books, which have effectively stalled my bibliography...