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Locked Room Reviews:
The American Gun Mystery by Ellery Queen (1933)
A Classic American Crime!
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Most older mystery readers will be quite familiar with Ellery Queen, but for a new generation of readers it is increasingly necessary to provide a little background information. Ellery Queen is not only a fictional detective, one of the greatest figures in American mystery fiction, he is also the pen name originally used by two American cousins from Brooklyn, Daniel Nathan, alias Frederic Dannay (1905 – 1982) and Manford Emanuel Lepofsky, alias Manfred Bennington Lee (1905 – 1971), who wrote, edited, and anthologized detective fiction, most notably in the famous Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, which was launched in 1941 and is still published today under the supervision of new ‘Ellery Queen’ editors. Even a brief review of the number of talented authors whose careers began with being published in this magazine is quite astounding. The fictional Ellery Queen, as created by Dannay and Lee, was a man about town, a mystery writer, and an amateur sleuth who helped his father, New York City police inspector, Richard Queen, in solving many extremely baffling murders. This character was initially intended to compete with S. S. Van Dine’s, Philo Vance, only with ‘less exaggerated’ qualities, though he long outlasted the popularity of his famous rival.
The early Ellery Queen novels are famous for the ‘fair play’ statement, where the authors breaks the fourth wall to inform the reader that they now have all the facts in their possession essential to a clear solution of the mystery. A statement which is always factually true, though those clues may be quite unrecognizable and buried beneath a mountain of red herrings. Still, it does provide something of a challenge to the reader.
Another unique feature of these early Queen mysteries is the framing story. In The American Gun Mystery it begins in the introduction, which is supposedly written by the anonymous “J.J. McC.”, a friend of the Queens. “J.J. McC.” fulfills this narrative role in all of the early ‘nationality’ cases (ie American, Chinese, Greek etc), not disappearing until Halfway House, but in no other novel does he makes as many appearances as he does in The American Gun Mystery.
The American Gun Mystery (1933) is the sixth in the series, and not one of the better known Ellery Queen novels. Rather than being a true locked room mystery, it is one of those impossible crime stories, like Poe’s The Purloined Letter or Dorothy Sayers’ The Necklace of Pearls’, where an item logically must be found within a sealed area, yet impossibly defeats every attempt to find it.
In this case, the missing item is a 25 calibre pistol used to shoot the famous cowboy movie star, Buck Horne, in front of 20,000 fans at a rodeo show in a New York exhibition complex, The Coliseum. Buck Horne was once a hero of the silver screen, in the early days of Hollywood, but now times have changed and Buck’s talents are no longer required. Down on his luck, he signs up with a rodeo show run by his old friend Wild Bill Grant, who is apparently a hybrid of Buffalo Bill Cody and Wild Bill Hickok. The show includes exhibitions of roping, fancy shooting, and riding, as well as a wild chase of Buck Horne by a posse of forty cowboys and cowgals, all whooping and firing blanks into the air. Unfortunately, this time, one of those shots proves to be the real thing, striking Buck Horne dead in the heart and precipitating a fall which left his body horribly mutilated by the hoofs of the posse hot on his heels.
Ellery and Inspector Queen have ring side seats for this murder, but still can’t be certain that the shooter was actually on the floor of the arena – which means they must do ballistics tests on sackfuls of pistols confiscated from the stands. Among the clues Ellery must explain are a series of ridges on the dead man’s belt, an ivory handled revolver that doesn’t quite match its mate, and the twisted and broken lock on a cash box.
Within the inner circle there are no shortage of suspects, even though no motive is initially apparent. Present in the private box of the Coliseum owner, Tony Mars, are the Inspector and Ellery, on a night out with their starstruck ‘majordomo’ Djuna. There is also Buck Horne’s foster daughter, Kit Horne, now a major Western star in her own right; Mara Gay, ‘The Orchid of Hollywood’; her husband, millionaire club owner, Julian Hunter; and prize fighting champ Tommy Black. Closer to the action in the arena, besides Buck and Wild Bill, we have One-Arm Woody, recently displaced from the lead role by Buck’s arrival; the young Curly Grant, son of Wild Bill; a mysterious new arrival, Benjy Miller; and a tough little cowboy known as Hank ‘Daniel’ Boone. There is also Major Kirby, a crack shot and ballistics expert, who is filming newsreels from the media platform and fortunately captures the entire crime on film! Of course there are numerous other potential murderers, including members of the posse, stagehands, handlers, and more than 20,000 fans that all may have had the opportunity to kill Buck Horne! However, in the best of whodunnit traditions, suspicion is focused on the celebrities and the main cast of rodeo performers and staff.
One critical point must be explained before this case can move forward: Where is the murder weapon? Ellery knows you can’t charge a suspect without a weapon, especially when the crime occurs in front of a stadium full of witnesses. All 20,000 fans are searched and the entire arena is covered multiple times. The murder is even carefully reviewed on film, but the 25 calibre murder gun cannot be found. Ellery Queen gradually works his way through all the complex relationships and subtle clues of this clever crime, but a second perplexing murder rocks the Coliseum once again, before Ellery finally pulls all the strands of this puzzle together and sets a clever trap which reveals the identity of the murderer and the original hiding place of the missing gun!
It is interesting to look through the reviews of this Golden Age classic. Several have found the plot ‘stupid’ or ‘ridiculous’, but while this is far from being a Queen best, I can see little reason for this harsh judgement. Others have complained that the shot would be too incredible – but the cast is chock full of trick shooters! The means of hiding the gun suffers from the same criticism, and it does seem highly unlikely, but it is not beyond the realm of possibility. All considered, I am just willing to give the plot a pass on credulity, though it clearly pushes the limits. Another critique, raised by Mike Grost, claims that the solution is a “cheat” and this is actually a valid point. As I noted above, this tale is one of those impossible search puzzles, where an item must be found within a defined area, and the solution requires the sleuth to reveal a hiding place no one else has been able to discover. To make this type of puzzle work, it is necessary to provide an extensive description of the scene that allows the reader some possibility of uncovering this location. Unfortunately, in this case, there is simply no way this spot could be fairly suggested! Yet another problem with this novel revolves around the fair play solution, and again I must unfortunately agree. The question of determining the angle of the shot is made so obvious that few readers will miss the point, but the most essential clue, which generates Ellery’s entire chain of reasoning, is glossed over far too rapidly and the two key observations are deliberately separated by several pages.
It is interesting to note that while some critics find this mystery too verbose and over padded with descriptive passages, while others find that the characters and scenes are not well enough developed. I would suggest that this is simply a typical Queen novel where the puzzle is the key element and characters and settings are only developed as required by the plot. It is another novel drawn from the ‘radio school’ of mystery writing, where action and dialogue always trump eleborate scenes and back story. If you prefer deeper characters or more elaborate scenes, stay away from those authors who were accustomed to writing the fast paced radio programs! Still, the endless search for the missing gun does become rather tedious.
One interesting point in The American Gun Mystery occurs when Ellery deflects a question he is not prepared to answer by asking: “What did you think of the new Nobel award for literature?” When this novel was published, the most recent Nobel Prize for Literature (1932) had gone to John Galsworthy for The Forsyte Saga, a long rambling tale of a wealthy commercial family raised up from poor farmers in a few generations. They are acutely aware of their status as “new money” and Ellery’s reference apparently offers a comparison to the rowdy, uncouth, rodeo crowd and their new found stardom.
I also must briefly note the omnipresence of the American gun culture in this novel. The story suggests that a startling number of New York’s citizens were walking around and entering public events carrying arms – if this piece of fiction is even vaguely close to reality! As Inspector Queen notes: “Would you believe that so many birds here tonight came heeled?”
This mystery also demands comment on the way Ellery handles evidence. When he finally discovers the gun, he simply sticks it in his pocket, keeps the news from his father, then plants it on an innocent person, as a ruse to force the real murderer to confess. Any idea of chain of custody or proper police procedures is simply thrown out the window, while planting evidence and knowingly conspiring in a false arrest are apparently condoned! Anyone ever hear of the constitution? Or police corruption? Ellery almost becomes the anti-hero of this mystery – and in real life he would likely be arrested and get 5 to 10 in Sing Sing!
Which brings me to my final note. If I was Inspector Queen, I would be tempted to put the arrogant Ellery in cuffs myself! Ellery solves most of the mystery in the first couple of hours, then holds out on the police – including his own father – for over a month! Ellery has always been a little too ingenious and more than a bit supercilious, but in this novel he carries this arrogance way too far. Ellery’s habit of flouting the law actually becomes quite disturbing near the end!
So how do we rate this classic Ellery Queen novel? It is certainly no masterpiece, but if you ignore the Ellery factor and don’t give up during the too long hunt for the gun, this is actually quite a good read! Tempted to just give it a solid three, but will make it a very lightweight four.
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