I mentioned in the last post that I would be taking part in the Alphabet of Crime Fiction, so here’s F for (The) Finishing Stroke. Do visit the site for other people’s Fs.
As I stated in an earlier post, Ellery Queen (as an author) was a pseudonym for Fred Dannay (who plotted the books) and Manfred Lee (who wrote them). Lee began suffering from writer’s block, and this book was apparently intended to be the final collaboration between them. Structurally, the book is mostly set right at the beginning of the career of Ellery Queen (as the detective) and the finale is placed towards the end of it. There are a number of references to the first Queen mystery, The Roman Hat Mystery, and the title itself, The Finishing Stroke, gives a clear indication that this may have been the end.
The set-up is an extremely traditional murder mystery situation. It opens with the birth of twins, separated at birth. Twenty five years later, the soon-to-be rich son is hosting a party with eleven other guests that will last from Christmas Day until Twelfth Night (the number twelve proliferates this book). Only a day or two has passed when an unknown old man is found dead in the library, but, of course, the party continues. Every night the host receives a mysterious parcel with some strange gifts (an ox, a model house, a camel, etc) and strange poems that seem to threaten his life. At the same time, the host seems to be able to be in two places at once and forgets conversations that he had minutes previously. What could possibly be going on? It’s certainly not as straightforward as you might think, especially once Ellery discovers that the twin brother could not possibly be in the house (I won’t say why, it’s a bit of a spoiler).
Certainly while reading this book I was gripped. The writing style is classic later Queen, so less of the bizarre slang and exclamations that litter the earlier books, with a puzzle plot that seems to hark back to the earlier books. However the denouement is a disappointment, to say the least.
If you’re going to spot the murderer, then you need to know some very precise knowledge to decipher the clues. It’s the sort of thing that might have worked in a short story, but it feels like a let-down after getting to the end of a novel and finding that you’ve been unable to spot the murderer due to your lack of knowledge of, say, the precise order of the lanthanides on the Periodic Table. (That’s not it, by the way, again, no spoilers). Also, moreso than in a lot of other Queen books, most of the characters are only sketches or caricatures, and motives are very thin on the ground.
So, I wouldn’t call it a fairly clued mystery – the clues are there, but every single one of them is unfair. Certainly not Queen’s finest hour.