The American Gun Mystery by Ellery Queen #BookReview

CriminOlly thinks: An engaging old school mystery, even if the telling is a bit lacking. 3/5

Title: The American Gun Mystery | Author: Ellery Queen | Series: Ellery Queen #6 | Publisher: Penzler Publishers | Pages: 317 | Publication date: 5th October 2021 (Originally published 1933) | Source: Publisher | Content warnings: Yes | Tolerance warning: Yes


Review

This is the first Ellery Queen book I’ve read. He was an author I was aware of, perhaps mostly because of the Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine which published short stories by many of the great American crime writers, but who I didn’t know much about. In fact I didn’t even know that Queen was a pseudonym used by two cousins, Frederic Dannay and Manfred Bennington Lee. Ellery Queen is, intriguingly, also the name of the detective.

This is the sixth of the series, published in this new edition with a new introduction from publisher Otto Penzler. Penzler hails Queen as the giant of the inter war Golden Age of American mystery writing and a peer of the likes of Agatha Christie. I’m not entirely convinced by that comparison, but I did enjoy the puzzle that Dannay and Lee laid out in The American Gun Mystery.

The hallmark of this type of mystery is a crime early on that seems impossible to solve. That’s certainly the case here, with Buck Horne, noted star of numerous silent westerns, shot dead on his horse as he takes part in the dramatic opening of a new rodeo show along with 40 other riders. The mystery lies in the fact that he has been shot dead with a gun that cannot then be found and which is of a markedly different type to the many others surround Buck at the time of his death.

It’s an engaging conundrum, and the solution, when it is laid out by Queen at the end is credible if slightly unlikely. Crucially, the clues to solve it were, with the benefit of hindsight, all there in the text, that being the test of a so-called ‘fair play’ mystery.

For a book that is nearly 90 years old it is all very readable, although the middle section did drag a bit, being full of the kind of red herrings that are essential to this kind of tale. The dialogue is definitely on the stifled side and Queen himself is far from likeable. When this kind of genius detective character is done well it can work (think Holmes or Poirot) but here I found myself at times hoping that Queen wouldn’t solve the crime because he was such an arrogant dick. Even more problematic was the treatment of Djuna, a Romany boy whom Queen has adopted and “civilised”. It’s the kind of casual racism that was common in the 1930s, and which leaves a bad taste in the mouth today. A more palatable anachronism is the use of the word Brobdingnagian, which I’ve never seen outside of the Lemony Snickets books.

Overall this is a fun vintage read. The mystery is engaging and the solution amusing, even if the telling of it leaves a little to be desired. If I were rating them separately I’d probably give the mystery 4 stars and the writing 2. I’ll leave it up to you to decide which you value more


Synopsis

Ellery Queen investigates a murder at the circus rodeo.

When a washed up Hollywood cowboy-turned-circus rodeo actor is shot dead in the midst of his performance at a New York sports-palace, in front of thousands of onlookers, it seems obvious that someone would have seen the perpetrator of the crime—or at the very least, recovered the gun. But when the ensuing investigation fails to turn up any evidence, even after the newsreels made in the moment are reviewed, the net of suspicion widens across the troupe of performers and the circus staff. Who among them is cunning enough to have constructed such a baffling murder scene?

Unluckily for the murderer, genius sleuth Ellery Queen is among the thousands that witnessed the crime, and he won’t be satisfied until he cuts through the confusion to discover the truth of the execution. By the time he uncovers all the necessary clues and delivers his patented “Challenge to the Reader,” Queen (and his most careful readers) will be able to expose both the killer and the hiding place of the weapon—the titular American Gun that fired the fatal bullet.

Warnings

Content Warning: Racism

Tolerance Warning: Racism

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