Thursday, 23 April 2015

The Egyptian Cross Mystery - Ellery Queen, 1932

On Christmas morning, in the city of Arroyo, in West Virginia, a murder was discovered. The victim, Andrew Van, an eccentric teacher, was found decapitated and crucified in order to form a huge T. Ellery Queen was present at the trial, but the whole story seemed absurd and totally obscure, and he was forced to come back home.
Six months later, a former professor of Ellery, Mr. Yardley, who lived in Long Island, called Ellery to come to Long Island because it was discovered the corpse of Thomas Brady, a rich businessman. The victim was found decapitated and crucified to a Totem, again in order to form a grim T.
What can link two murders, committed in two different and distant towns? Probably these murders are linked by the name of a mad killer called Velija Krosac. The nightmare, for Ellery, starts now.
The fifth Ellery Queen novel contains vendettas, decapitations and crucifixions, it is full of darkness and sense of death. This novel is very different from the previous ones: if the three early novels are deeply influenced by Van Dine, and the fourth (The Greek Coffin Mystery, 1932) is the triumph of plotting and the utmost level of whodunit, with The Egyptian Cross Mystery Queen starts to move away from the writing style of Van Dine. The prose is less magniloquent and more enjoyable than Van Dine's, the plot is more clear, the atmosphere is more vivid and the characters are more believable. The method of Queen is also more logical than Vance’s, less tied to psychological elements.
In this novel Ellery is different from the previous books: he feels badly, powerless in front of the absurd profanation of the human body. Francis Nevins claims that the novel is so full of death and blood because it represents the metaphor of war. The reasons of vendetta are grounded on trivial but horrific elements, and these explain why the novel could become a war book: death rules uncontested.  The atmosphere is dark and oppressive; Danny and Lee studied the reaction of people to the present of the evil in the world, and they prepared the ground for novels like Cat of Many Tails. The interesting climate of the novel is also an important starting point for the future creation of Wrightsville, «a small tight-knit American community that with the outbreak of war in Europe has become a boomtown» (Nevins).
What astonishes the readers is the departure from the whodunit frame: first of all, in the introduction Dannay and Lee distance themselves from the Egyptology, theme overdone by authors like Van Dine and Freeman; secondly, the writers give few clues to the reader (even though the one in the last chapter before the "challenge to the reader" is brilliant), the suspects are few and the whole atmosphere is imbued with death and it recalls some paintings by Bosch. Surprisingly, there are more holes in the plot here than in the previous novel, The Greek Coffin Mystery, which was more complex, full of clues and red herrings. 
The reason behind the murders is very complicated, some explanations are hard to believe for the readers and many events don’t have any link with the story. Even with these issues, the novel is exciting and the solution, even if it has some holes, is amazing, a clear lesson of misdirection. It will influence writers like J.T. Rogers (The Red Right Hand) and Thomas Harris.

Velija Krosac, the crazy killer, reminds me of Keyser Soze, character of The Usual Suspects, a masterpiece directed by Bryan Singer in 1995.


  1. Been a long time since I read this one but I remember liking it a lot at the time, though not as much as GREEK COFFIN though SIAMESE may be my favourite early Queen now. And, of course, ben arrivato Stefano!

  2. Hi Sergio, thank you!
    Speaking about puzzle, The Greek Coffin Mystery is probably the best early Queen I have ever read. It's a masterpiece of plotting, full of clues and red herrings. The Siamese Twin Mystery is not as richly plotted as earlier Queen books but it's more powerful and believable and, in my opinion, it represents the first step toward the second Period.

  3. I agree completely about SIAMESE - the plot is less complex but the drama element (or rather, the elemental drama) makes up for it