‘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.’