Friday, April 5, 2013

Forgotten (or Overlooked) Books Friday: THE FRENCH POWDER MYSTERY (1930) by Ellery Queen

THE FRENCH POWDER MYSTERY has the greatest beginning - not surprising that the rest of the book doesn't quite live up to it. But this is still a pretty good puzzle mystery. An improbable crime, no question, but it has tons of mystery impedimenta and many suspects (which I love). And as usual Ellery gathers up clues like a human vacuum cleaner, but this time out (in the second Ellery Queen book in the series) he's not as annoying as he seemed in the first book. (Not reason enough NOT to read the books, by the way.) I do like the warmth of feeling between father  (Inspector Richard Queen) and eccentric son.

Cyrus French, retail giant and owner of French's Department Store in central Manhattan (sort of like Macy's) is also head of the Anti-Vice Squad - his own personal war on drugs, gambling and other assorted human vices. He is a man full of rectitude who doesn't realize that vice has slowly crept into his family sphere. Imagine his surprise and shock when his second wife's dead body makes a startling debut in a French Department Store window during a room and furniture design demonstration. When the model pulls down the wall bed, out pops the dead body of Mrs. Winifred French.

Great beginning.

I loved the hubbub of horrified street-side gawkers, uniformed cops trying to keep order, the confused bustle of shoppers in the store being corralled before anyone knows what's really going on, store detectives attempting to take charge, executives and other hirelings running to and fro while Cyrus French takes one look at his wife's body and collapses. Fabulous furor. The sort of thing that starts a mystery off with a very satisfying bang.

When a harassed (the new Police Commissioner is an officious pain in the butt) Inspector Richard Queen arrives on the scene, his son Ellery in tow, they are met with the kind of Important Crime which must be solved asap if not sooner.

As if the murder wasn't enough, it turns out that French's step-daughter Bernice Carmody has gone missing and not only that, she appears to be a drug addict - unknown to the elderly French, head of the Anti-Vice Squad, as I mentioned. Talk about shock and awe.

Atop French's Department Store is a convenient apartment used exclusively by Cyrus French and other French family members as a kind of pied-a-terre and setting for important business meetings. Only a limited few have keys (with incised initials) to the pent-house which is reached by private elevator. The authors supply a handy map for the reader's edification.

What is the motive for this heinous crime? How are access to the apartment and the murder linked? Where is Bernice? Is this a case of unspeakable matricide? How is the wife's ex-husband, an imperturbable antique-dealer involved? What about the European interior decorator? And what to make of the mysterious doings in the store's book department? What about the board of directors who very conveniently were having a meeting that morning in the store-top apartment? Is it true that one of the store's directors was Mrs. French's lover?

Ellery soon figures it all out with the help of an old school friend who works for French's as the old man's assistant. As I said, it is all very improbable but I don't really mind - improbability is often key to a good mystery.

We have lots of suspects from which to choose and while I did, once again, pick the killer, it was more or less done by guess work on my part based on my own personal mystery reading experience and my recognition of certain mystery story telling tropes. So I take no credit.

I do find the final chapter in which Ellery lectures everyone - cops and suspects and even, the Police Commissioner - and grandly announces his methods and how the clues came together, a bit much. Okay, Nero Wolfe does the same, but it seems somehow more do-able when Wolfe does it.

I'm currently reading THE SIAMESE TWIN MYSTERY, so it's obvious I am immersed in all things Ellery Queen at the moment.

Stay tuned.

Don't forget to check in at Patti Abbott's blog to see what other Forgotten (or Overlooked) books other bloggers are talking about today.


  1. I am on the hunt for this fact, THE copy of the book that you have pictured. I love those pocket size editions. I like Ellery Queen...but in small doses. I can't take as much of him at a time as I can Nero Wolfe.

  2. If you can't find it I'll send you my copy, Bev. Just email me. I got a mass market paperback from amazon. Not the one with the gorgeous cover.

  3. You guessed the murderer? Ellery Queens usually stump me.

    I read this one nearly ten years ago and so don't remember much, except to think that I thought it a fairly good one in the Queen pack, all of which I consider more or less brilliant (but I think I'm secretly(?) in love with Ellery) ;-)

  4. You must have seen those three-in-one mystery books from one of the mystery book clubs back in the 1970s? I had a bunch of them and they often had an Ellery Queen mystery in them. I still haven't unpacked my mystery books from our move six years ago (!), but I'm thinking I kept some of those to read. I also have the complete Ellery Queen tv series DVDs with Jim Hutton. Love those, too, especially for their period interiors.

  5. I think it's my age and how many mysteries I've read over a lifetime, Debbie. I recognize certain things. But not always.

    You can be in love with Ellery. I'm in love with Nero Wolfe.

    Go figure.:)

  6. I only vaguely remember the television show for some reason. I do know I watched it way back when. I liked David Wayne (was that the name?) as Richard Queen too.

    You must dig out those old books, Joan. :)

  7. I thought I had commented here earlier, Yvette, but it has disappeared...however...

    My favorite EQ books are the early ones, where the authors were concentrating more on the puzzles than on the psychology. I haven't read "The French Powder Mystery" in a while, but it certainly falls into that early group of puzzles. I think you're really going to enjoy "The Siamese Twin Mystery," which is not only a good mystery in itself but also a wonderful thriller, with an uncontrolled forest fire threatening considerable mayhem.

  8. Sorry for the disappearing act, Les. I don't know what could have happened.

    Yes, I think I'll like the early ones best, too, Les. I'm not big on psychology. Ha!

    I'm enjoying THE SIAMESE TWIN MYSTERY and I took a look into THE OLD WOMAN WHO LIVED IN A SHOE and was laughing out loud. Very fun beginning.

  9. I remember liking this book as a lad and being really impressed by the construction of the finale so that the final two words of the book are the name of the murderer (a warnign tot hose who peek at the last page if ever there was one) - and SIAMESE is just one of my favourites in all the Ellery Queen canon - look forward to reading your review of that one too Yvette - ta!

  10. I enjoyed it, Sergio. But the last two words were about the rain, not the killer.

    Maybe you mixed it up with another ending?

  11. I read THE OLD WOMAN WHO LIVED IN A SHOE last year for the first time. It has now become my second favorite of Queen's books. So utterly insane! If you'e never read Harry Stephen Keeler, then reading ...OLD WOMAN... is surely the next best thing.

    I finally found a copy of FRENCH POWDER two years ago (for some reason one of the most difficult early Queen titles to find), and keep meaning to get to it. I'll have to pull it from the TBR box and put it on the night stand. That's the only way I'll see it!

  12. I got a couple of mass market Ellery Queen paperbacks easily enough, John. Then my library had a few. Currently reading THE CHINESE ORANGE MYSTERY which is turning into a fave for me.

    THE OLD WOMAN WHO LIVES IN A SHOE is still being read by me as well. How do I do this sort of thing? Don't know. Ha.


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