The French Powder Mystery by Ellery Queen


published 1930




I was going to read this book and not post on it directly but have had my mind changed. I was interested in identifying some great last lines in books, and I had heard there was an Ellery Queen book in which the name of the murderer is revealed in the final few words of the book – an intriguing idea. I asked on the GA Facebook page which book it was, knowing that the collective mind would find this almost too easy to answer, and was proved right: the title came in very quickly and was followed by a lovely collection of comments and discussion from a large number of EQ fans.

So I read it, with an eye to a ‘last line’ collection post, which will no doubt come in the future.

And I hesitate to discuss it, because so many people love Ellery Queen and love this book, whereas I have some very specific issues with it.

MY DISCUSSION COULD BE CONSIDERED SPOILERESQUE – PROBABLY ONLY IF YOU WERE IN THE MIDDLE OF READING IT, I WILL NOT BE NAMING THE MURDERER.

First of all, the crime is discovered in the window of a department store: a crowd has gathered to see a demonstration of modern design at 12 noon. A beautiful model enters the window space, and presses a button, and a fold-up bed descends from the wall. And on this day there is a dead body on the bed. Well! That’s a tremendous opening scene in my view – would we all agree? Only it’s not the opening scene – before we get there, there are two different incredibly dull scenes where men sit around talking about things. WHY, when you’ve got such a fantastic crime scene, would you throw it away like that?

Another personal criticism – I love both crime books and novels set in department stores (see here for a collection of blog entries), and even including the Ellery Queen Christmas story The Dauphin’s Doll, which I enjoyed very much ... but the day-to-day life of the store doesn’t feature at all once we get past a very boring description of the night security arrangements and telephone lines.




There is a nice bit of detection involving women’s clothes: someone didn’t put the clothes away properly, and there is a lipstick problem. OK, tick, I approved of that – though I also think he could have added that a careful owner would not have put damp items away in the way described. I also think the owner of the clothes got a very raw deal...




Next: and this is SPOILER-ISH

I hoped this wouldn’t be true, that there’d be another twist but: there is a discussion in which a plot is explained, and a raid is planned on a certain house. When they get there, the birds have flown. So – although this is never mentioned, isn’t it obvious that someone in the meeting tipped off the criminals? Who could it have been? There is only one candidate (the person who is obviously hated by Inspector Queen) and, yes, there are not going to be any further surprises there. But nobody raises the question as to the tipoff.

In general I found the book uninspiring and uninspired.

There is one other aspect to the plot that I am keen to discuss – the drug distribution system: but that will wait for another day.

After I’d written this post, I almost ditched it because JJ said it so well, but honour is satisfied by telling you all to go over and read his take on the book:

#239: Construction, Clarity, Conformity, and the Contortions of Ellery Queen in The French Powder Mystery (1930) | The Invisible Event

And it is always a joy to find pictures for a book like this… there's plenty more in the posts linked to above.

Department story picture from the State Library of New South Wales, showing the Anthony Hordern store in the 1930s. Sales floor, telephone exchange and beauty salon.

Comments

  1. I'm sorry to hear you didn't like this one better than you did, Moira, although I certainly can understand why. I agree with you that that opening scene - where the body is found - is utterly fantastic. That part is inspired. You know, it's funny, I've thought about my own reaction to the book, and I think you bring up something important. We don't get to learn a lot about the ins and outs of life in a department store - not really. And that might have contributed to the book's atmosphere. Even though it wasn't tops on your list, you've made me want to pull out my copy and read it again. Thanks for some really good 'food for thought!'

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  2. I think you've read this one so that I don't have to, Moira! I remember having a similar problem with another early EQ, not sure which one. I like a puzzle, but at the same time I need more than a puzzle.

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  3. There must be a small subset of stories featuring window displays! There's an excellent noir where the "automaton" in the window sees a vital clue (yes, it's a man in a costume). In real life Leon Theremin (yes, that one), invented a window display where mannequins came to life as you walked past through an infrared beam. Inside the store, you elude pursuers by leaping onto a plinth and holding a pose...

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  4. I read a book called The Shop Window Murders by Vernon Loder in December 2019. A Christmas book and about a department store! I never reviewed it, I just wondered if you had ever read it?

    Moving on, I read Ellery Queen a good bit in my early mystery reading (when I was young) but have hesitated to try him I again because I know the books are so variable. So I still dither about which ones to read and haven't gotten started on any of them.

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  5. Those early EQ novels have been a rough experience for me - even when they have good ideas, such as here with the image of the body in the window, they never really make the most of them. I enjoyed this one more than the stories on either side of it in the series because it feels less static but you are absolutely right about its shortcomings.

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  6. I have never read EQ but I agree that is a waste of a dramatic opening scene. I also enjoy books with a department store setting. I was in a department store training program long ago and it was quite different from any book I ever read, however - particularly no straight men, handsome or otherwise, and hours/weekend shifts that prevented any romance. Most of those I have read have been romances, now that I think about it. My store had a leaky roof and whenever it rained, all we managers had to run about putting wastebaskets under every drip, which was not very romantic.

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  7. I have read only a couple of the early Ellery Queen's - IMHO these were not very good BUT the writing did improve over the years. "Cat O' Nine Tails" is excellent.

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