The Egyptian Cross Mystery
First published in the US, 1932, Stokes
This edition: Penguin Books, 1964
Source: The bookshelf
‘I am the Healer of the Weak. I make ill bodies well and strong. I am he who sails Manzet, the Bark of the Dawn. I am he who sails Mesenktet, the Bark of the Dusk. Some call me Horus, god of the horizons. I am son of Nut, goddess of the sky…’
Behind this striking Romek Marber cover lies the fifth case to be written by, or alternatively investigated by, the great Ellery Queen.
(Mystery aficionados can probably look away while I explain that for most of his writing career ‘Ellery Queen’ was two cousins called Frederic Dannay and Manfred Lee (they are pictured on the back cover of this edition). ‘Ellery Queen’ is also the pince-nezed protagonist of more than 25 novels written by ‘Ellery Queen’, depending on where you stop counting the later ghost-written titles. He is the son of Inspector Queen of New York and a logician of genius. Ellery’s signature trick is making startling logical deductions from minor physical clues. He can reconstruct a crime-scene from a single red chequer piece, and finally unravels this case by noticing something incredibly obscure.)
The opening finds Ellery and his father in the wintry mud of Arroyo, West Virginia (pop: 200)
The road was deserted. Touching the steel sky above posed the mountains of West Virginia. Underfoot the dirt was cracked and stiff. It was sharply cold, and a keen wind blew the tails of Ellery’s overcoat about. And ahead stood the signpost upon which Andrew Van, eccentric schoolmaster of Arroyo, had been crucified.
Like the book says, Ellery’s interest has been piqued by the beheading and crucifixion of one Andrew Van, the town’s eccentric schoolmaster. His investigation reveals some interesting features to the case – notably the number of T shapes that litter the scene of the crime, which Ellery identifies as Egyptian Crosses rather than ordinary Ts. Another peculiarity is the presence at the scene of the Egyptian sun-god Ra-Harakht (self-styled). This barking mad itinerant preaches a gospel of naturism and sun-worship whilst peddling suspicious patent medicines. Putting the Egyptian Crosses and Harakht together leads to – a dead end, and the hunt for the killer peters out for want of a decent lead.
However, six months later, Queen’s old college professor Yardley gets in touch. Yardley lives near the home of millionaire carpet-importer Brad. Brad has just been crucified and beheaded in the same way as Van. Ellery motors up to Long Island in his elderly Duesenberg to see if the two cases are connected.
There follows quite a leisurely investigation in which Ellery assists local DA Isham and the irascible Inspector Vaughan (who at one point pops off to have a fist-fight with one of the suspects). The case takes in a nearby nudist colony led by Harakht (yes, he crops up again), real or fake limps, local gangsters, and a traditional country house cast of characters.
Towards the end, Queen issues a Challenge to the Reader – you are now in possession of all the facts needed to identify the killer. Can you? No.
The Egyptian Cross Mystery is my second entry for the #1932book challenge described elsewhere in these pages. Is it especially 1932ish? Not really. I think I’d have trouble dating it to within ten years. However, I laid down an additional challenge for Halloween: Is it spooky? And yes it is. What with multiple beheadings and buckets of blood, it’s certainly as sanguinary as your average slasher movie.
‘You go into that cabin and see what’s there. Or maybe you’d rather not. It looks like the inside of a butcher’s shop. He hacked ——-‘s head off right on the floor, and there’s enough blood splashed about in there to paint the yacht red.’
But for me, the spookiest part is the wintry bleakness of the first chapter and the dead-end town of Arroyo. Great atmosphere.
This is the only Ellery Queen I’ve read, but I’ve read it three times, which suggests I should get hold of some more. Any recommendations?
Les Blatt beat me to it – and with audio! Go and listen to his podcast. ‘For those who think traditional mysteries are cosy, there’s nothing cosy about this one.’
And thanks to Les for linking to Tony Hays at The Rap Sheet: ‘I cut my teeth on Ellery Queen. I believe it was his “Challenge to the Reader” that really captured my attention. The sheer audacity of an author saying, essentially, “OK, now you know everything that I know and everything that you need to solve this mystery. So, go for it.” (Pardon the 21st-century language.) That was simply fuel for my fire. And go for it, I did. Of course, I never solved a single one. Oh, I might have guessed one or two, but I never was able to follow, exactly, Queen’s logic.’
Rich – Perhaps you’ll enjoy 1934’s The Chinese Orange Mystery…
The first nine novels and Cat of Many Tails are a good start. Of the first nine, I think The French Powder Mystery, The Greek Coffin Mystery and The Siamese Twin Mystery in particular are the most interesting.
I like The Egyptian Cross Mystery, but it feels a bit different compared to the other early Queen novels because it’s so graphic and has such an open setting.
Ho-Ling, I agree whole-heartedly. The French Powder Mystery, The Greek Coffin Mystery and The Siamese Twin Mystery are superb examples of the early Ellery Queen style of the 1930s.
The Egyptian Cross Mystery is just a bit too blood-drenched for my tastes!
Rich- thanks for the plug! I agree with Margot – The Chinese Orange Mystery is good. I think the best of the early Queens, though, is the Siamese Twin Mystery. Lots of good twists and turns, and the presence of a (perhaps inescapable) forest fire helps to increase the tension.
There are so many good EQs that it’s hard to make a recommendation, but my own favorite — bucking the trend of other commenters here! — has always been Calamity Town (1942); it’s the first of the Wrightsville books, and it has more of an emotional depth than (as I recall) any of the EQs before it or all that many of them after.
The Ellery Queen books are ones I read years ago, but I have been wanting to get back to them. You review is helpful, and I like the recommendations in the comments.
I’d also recommend The Siamese Twin Mystery as the best of the first ten (which, for the most part, are the best of the overall canon). I’m not a fan of the later, slower books, like Calamity Town, although I see why they have their admirers. And if you’re thinking about The Chinese Orange Mystery, read it without anyone telling you anything about it. Otherwise, the murderer sticks out like a sore thumb.
Oh, and there are reviews of the first seventeen (and a couple of others) over on my blog here.
If you liked this one Rich there are plenty, plenty more – hell, Queen published three other near-masterpieces in 1932 alone – THE TRAGEDY OF X and its sequel THE TRAGEDY OF Y and my personal favourite, THE GREEK COFFIN MYSTERY.
The Spanish Cape was the first EQ that I read many years ago – and it hooked me – and I have since read many, many more titles. I would recommend Spanish Cape and The French Powder Mystery if you’re looking at the earlier novels – and that probably is best to start there.
I possess the entire Ellery Queen collection (excluding a few ghost-written ones). My top 5 favourites are The Dutch Shoe Mystery, The French Powder Mystery, The Siamese Twin Mystery, Cat Of Many Tails and There Was An Old Woman. Among the ghost-written novels, I specially recommend The Player On The Other Side.
I like THERE WAS AN OLD WOMAN a lot. It’s as if Ellery Queen decided to write a Harry Stephen Keeler novel. It’s just plain strange yet delightful all the same. I am not a fan of CHINESE ORANGE at all. I think it’s utterly contrived with its gimmick of the turned around room. GREEK COFFIN is not only one of the best of the early Queen novels it’s a true classic for the entire genre. A tour de force of ratiocination in the detective novel. I’ll echo Sergio in turning your attention to the Drury Lane books. But make sure to read DRURY LANE’S LAST CASE last! I read it first when I was a teen and was bowled over by the ending. And I didn’t get to read the first there until 30s year later because they were so hard to find back then! Since no one is talking about later Queen I’ll put in a good word for THE FINISHING STROKE which takes place in 1930 (right after The Roman Hat Mystery in fact) and is very much like an early Queen even if it was published in 1958. Also, A FINE AND PRIVATE PLACE is just as good as the early Queen books.
BTW, my 1932 book is posted today: The Mask of Fu Manchu. Meant to copy out one of the hyperbolic passages and include it, but I was so caught up in reading I didn’t take a single note or mark any of the pages with Post-Its like usually do. So much for me winning the prize you promised for “spookiest” quote.
Pingback: ‘I will see you and kill you to-morrow at daybreak’ #1932book | Past Offences Classic Crime Fiction