Twelfth Night: The Finishing Stroke by Ellery Queen

1958


[Events in late December 1929 and early January 1930]











As if in revolt at authority, Valentina appeared for dinner in full battle array. Her evening gown was apple-green chiffon in the long lines of high fashion, with tier after tier of ruffles; and over it she wore a matching coat of transparent velvet, which she promptly insisted on John’s taking from her. He did so sullenly. She wore a 16-button white glacĂ© glove on her left hand and carried the other and a French evening bag of green faille silk embroidered with coral and pearl beads. Her iridescent green evening pumps had three-inch ‘needle’ heels, and she towered over Rusty like a queen in a fairy tale.

Rusty was furious. She, too, swept downstairs in full panoply. She had put on an evening ensemble of flat crepe with a jacket, furred in white lynx at the elbows, falling halfway to her knees. The dress was majestic with pennons and had a long irregular hemline full of drama. The only trouble was, by some fiendish coincidence, Rusty’s outfit was also apple green. They sat opposite each other throughout dinner glaring.





observations: I read this book when I was researching a piece for the Guardian on Twelfth Night (coming shortly  here on the Guardian website): the concept is a houseparty covering the 12 days of Christmas. The usual group of disparate people collect in a fancy house in upstate New York. 
Apparently they are only the people in the house - apart, of course from the servants - and there is snow on hand to cut them off (to a limited extent). A series of weird tricks are played on them: a small, strange present appears each day with a mysterious note. A dead body appears, but no-one knows who he is.

Twelves are used as a theme throughout, in many inventive ways including signs of the Zodiac: but in fact Twelfth Night had no real relevance in the book. So it didn’t make it into the Guardian article but seemed worth a nice Christmas-y entry.

Ellery Queen is one of the guests (for those who don’t know – EQ both writes the books and is in them – long tradition, look it up if it is not clear, or you want to know who used this pseudonym. See also this entry on another Queen book). The action of the book takes place in 1929/1930 – but the framework of the book is Queen looking back on these events in 1957, and finally solving the crime that has puzzled him all this time.

Queen researched the book well, one might almost think too much: we’re constantly told what radio programmes the guests are listening to, and you’d be certain that the author had looked this up in the newspapers of the time.

He does poke fun at himself slightly: Queen is (this is all very meta and complex) a writer of detective stories, but his father is a police inspector, so Queen gets to do some sleuthing in book after book, for reasons which are really not convincing. So in this one, he says to the police chief from the local town:

‘Is it all right with you if I look the dead man over?’

‘Hell, yes.’

‘Wait till I tell my father,’ Ellery said sotto voce as the police chief tramped off. ‘Letting a suspect in a murder investigation be the first to examine the body!’ 
Splendid stuff.

I always enjoy Queen’s books, and his (their) contribution to the world of crime fiction is unassailable – but in this book, as some others, I wasn’t particularly impressed with the solution. There are too many red herrings, too much irrelevant stuff. Half the plot seemed fairly easy to guess.

The other half – well, if you have read 100 books with a certain family/inheritance element in it – but no spoilers ….

All round, still a nice Christmas-y read. And look at this splendid cover:


The fashion pictures fitted the description to an impressive degree I thought, and they are green – they are one page from the NY Public Library costume collection, I didn’t put them together. I was very dubious about the idea of transparent velvet, but apparently it is ‘very lightweight velvet on a sheer silk or rayon chiffon base’.


Comments

  1. It's widely believed that THE FINISHING STROKE was intended to be the final Ellery Queen novel, and the idea of the older Queen solving a case that his younger self could not, gives the novel a sense of finality. However, the publishers of 'Ellery Queen' informed Dannay and Lee that if the series finished then the sales of the books would start to decrease. Lee felt that he could no longer write, and so Dannay kept plotting the stories and used ghost-writers to finish them.

    The early books are brilliantly plotted but rather dry, the later ones have deeper characterisation but aren't plotted as well. My favourites are the middle era ones from the 40s/50s, which manage to get the balance more or less right.

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    1. Thanks for that extra info, very informative. Are there are any of those middle-era titles that you would particularly recommend? - there are so many, I always feel I am missing out on the best ones.

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  2. Moira - Definitely this is a nice choice for Twelfth Night. It's not my favourite Queen; I think there are others with more absorbing plots. But I do like the somewhat dry wit that peeps out now and again. And the scene you shared - with the apple green outfits - is great. As you say, there is no denying the influence of the 'Queen team' on crime fiction.

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    1. Yes, their influence is incalculable, isn't it? and this was a fun read even if not perfect.

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  3. Enjoyed this, Moira. I am impressed by this wealth of costume detail, especially from a male writer. I too would like some recommendations for Ellery Queen. I remembered enjoying some of the short stories.

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    1. Yes, he is good on clothes - I suspect he looks them up, ie would have looked them up in a fashion magazine maybe. And yes, we need to find someone to give us recommendations....

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  4. "transparent velvet"

    Is such a thing possible? I'd have thought velvet was one of the least likely materials to be transparent.

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    1. Just what I thought, but apparently it just means a light shimmery velvet rather than a thick full one.

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  5. I did wonder if I was about to read about a sex novel, but I had completely misinterpreted the title........my bad. What an awful pun - but I couldn't resist.

    Feel free not to publish and I'll reply with a sensible answer! :-)

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    1. Well that gave me a good laugh. I think you should have realized that there might well be such a book, but I'd be unlikely to be featuring it! Not much in the way of clothes after all....

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  6. Moira: Some very good 'mid-era' books are CAT OF MANY TAILS/ THERE WAS AN OLD WOMAN/ CALAMITY TOWN/ THE MURDERER IS A FOX. I particularly like the short story collections. CALENDAR OF CRIME has twelve stories with connections to every month of the year, and is my favourite of these. However, THE NEW ADVENTURES OF ELLERY QUEEN has the novella THE LAMP OF GOD, where EQ has to work out how someone has made an entire house vanish overnight...

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    1. Hey thanks, I'll go for those. And as you can see from the comments above, there are plenty of people who will also be grateful for your recommendations.

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  7. I'm grateful too. I think I may even have The New Adventures somewhere. Must dig it out.

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  8. Moira, I ought to have read and commented on this post before I read your post on "Twelfth Night in Literature." Like "clothes in books," I have never considered festivals in books I read. There is so much more to a story than a plot and characters.

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    1. I'm getting my festive posts in together Prashant! Have you read any Ellery Queen? I was grateful to Gary above for suggesting some good ones.

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    2. Moira, I'm afraid I have never read Ellery Queen though I have read a few reviews of the books as well as about EQMM.

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    3. You can add him to your list, and see if you come across them in your 2nd-hand bookshop travels...

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  9. Another Christmas-y book to add to my list. I have read many a Queen book when young but only remember that they were very variable. I remember liking some and being disappointed with some. But I may have been reading books by Ellery Queen written by someone other than the original two authors. Anyway, I do plan to try some of the books again, but only have a few to try.

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    1. You never know with Queen, do you? Did you see Gary above recommended some titles, I am going to be looking out for those.

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    2. I did see that list. I don't have any of those, but I will be looking for them too.

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