The Tragedy of Y by Barnaby Ross aka Ellery Queen

York Hatter, patriach of the distinctly odd Hatter family, kills himself by poisoning himself and jumping off a ferry. When his body is found, his face and fingerprints have been nibbled off by the passing fish but his body is positively identified. Weeks later, there are two attempts to poison his deaf, blind and mute (dumb sounds so old-fashioned and wrong) step-daughter, the second of which ends with his widow having her face smashed in with an antique mandolin, killing her. Given that the whole family seem to be mad as, well, Hatters, can the thespian detective Drury Lane get to the bottom of the mystery? And why does the cover of the book seem to be convinced that we should be suspecting York Hatter of being responsible?

This is a vast improvement on The Tragedy of X. Drury Lane seems a more human character this time round and has reined in his quotations, to the extent that he does seem quite different to the character of Ellery Queen this time round. The police still seem to be complete dunderheads but at least this time round, Inspector Thumm doesn’t overlook blatantly obvious issues. The plot, although it hinges on an extremely unlikely occurrence, is nowhere near as contrived as the revenge plot of the previous book. There’s even an explanation of the general battiness of the family, although it would seem that in 1932 we can’t mention syphilis by name.

As for the murderer? Well, it’s a good twist, but it is telegraphed well before the big reveal. There are echoes of a later Agatha Christie book and another part of the ending resembles an earlier book by… you know, I think if I even mention the author, it would lead the informed reader to put two and two together. I may have even said too much. Some of the explanations though are extraordinarily clever, in particular the reason why the murderer was carrying a mandolin. Queen still finds it necessary to spell out exactly why the murders could not have happened in any other way, rather than just how they did happen and, as sometimes happens, gets bogged down in trivia when you want them to just get to the conclusion – we get about four pages banging on about the height of the murderer here where a paragraph would have done.

To be honest, the only drawback I can find with this is that the cover of my copy (first edition paperback) has a nonsensical blurb trying to finger the apparently dead York Hatter as the murderer. While I think it’s safe to say that this isn’t the case – I certainly wouldn’t rate the book if that was the solution – this is only proposed as a theory on page 185 out of 240. Thankfully it’s dismissed pretty quickly in the narrative, but it does make reading the book a slightly unfocussed affair as you’re constantly waiting for this development.

So – a vast improvement over X, and I understand why Y is the Barnaby Ross story that consistently gets the plaudits. Recommended.

This is part of A Challenge To This Reader, my Ellery Queen bibliography.

For an alternative viewpoint, have a look at what Patrick has to say about it At The Scene Of The Crime.


  1. I’m genuinely surprised. Yes, there are some very clever bits (like the reason for the mandolin- excellent stuff, that), but overall, the mystery is extremely obvious and Inspector Thumm seems like a complete dunderhead overlooking what he did.

    Is it syphillis? (It has an unusually high transmission rate from mother to child if that’s the case.) In every case but two (the younger boy and York) all it did was cause general loopiness without any of the other symptoms. It seemed to me like EQ just made something up, stealing half this disease’s properties from STDs and the other half from genetic mutations.

    I have this edition as well. I dislike it- an ugly cover and an unnecessary statement on the front.

    Personally, I think this is a big step down from the previous book. If anything, it confirmed my suspicions of Drury Lane as a psycho. His obsessions keep interfering with the plot. I still don’t know, for instance, why there was a feudal village at The Hamlet… I thought the place was built to seclude Drury Lane from the outisde world? So why are there people living there in a feudal village??? The answer: nobody knows, it’s just done so Drury Lane can bring the inspector into a replica tavern from Shakespeare’s times, complete with customers. (Also, the stuff he finally does to apprehend the culprit is just wrong.)


    • Well, I’m pleased to say that I’m no expert on STDs but syphilis is supposed to cause madness so that’s what I presumed it was and the authors were either being coy or going along with writing guidelines from the time.

      Quite agree about the village but I’d presumed that the Hamlet had been built near an existing such village rather than Drury Lane building his own village – might have misread that bit.

      I didn’t think it was totally obvious until we get towards the end section of the book but with regards Lane’s behaviour towards the end of the book, I felt it was well done. As I mentioned, it’s not the first time such an ending has been used – 1929 is the obvious example that I can think of, but Lane seemed genuinely upset by the event. I thought it was pretty well done.

      If anyone wants to read Patrick’s review, there’s a link to it at the bottom of mine.


  2. Glad that my memory didn’t desert me PuzzleDoctor as I always rated this book very highly amongst early Queens but I read it probably 30 years ago and in an Italian translation, so I did wonder how well that impression might hold up, but I seem to remember most of what you say and I still think the solution is pretty nifty (and daring) for its time – how easy is it to get a copy nowadays? A quick check on Amazon UK is not exactly encouraging …


    • I got mine on ebay for a fiver (along with X and Last Case) but I’d been looking for an affordable copy for ages. The other Queen book that caused problems was The Dragon’s Teeth that I had to import from the US in the end.


    • I personally got lucky and got my edition for $6. A great deal, considering how much it goes for on the internet… Factor in “The Tragedy of Z” and “Drury Lane’s Last Case” in highly attractive IPL editions for $3 each, and someone was very very lucky indeed. 😉


  3. I guess it’s time I reread this one – it has been many years. I have a battered, hardback Viking Press copy from 1932 – interestingly (to me, anyway), there’s a rubber-stamped message on the flyleaf, “Gift of The People of the United States Through the Victory Book Campaign…To the Armed Forces and Merchant Marine.” I guess this copy has been through the war, indeed. Also, on the opposite-title page, I see “Previously Published: The Tragedy of X” and “In Preparation: The Tragedy of Z.” Fortunately or unfortunately, it lacks the lurid paperback cover. The author is cited as Barnaby Ross – no mention of Ellery Queen, so I assume this must be an early, if not first, edition.


    • Good question. For whatever reason, although I’ve read about 70 per cent of the Ellery Queen output, I’ve forgotten a lot of it. Hence the ongoing bibliography – I’ll do a top five at the end, so probably in a year’s time? In the meantime, The French Powder Mystery is the best of the chronological readthrough and There Was An Old Woman is the best that I’ve read since starting the blog. Enjoy.


  4. I think this is the best of the Drury Lane books, but I must point out how much was taken from The Greene Murder Case (by S.S. Van Dyne, featuring Philo Vance).

    A rich family, all living together in an unhealthy house, an absent father, a domineering mother, one family member with a disability, the father’s workroom sealed after his departure but secretly used by the murderer, the murderer following guidelines from somebody else, the murderer’s motivation explained by a “taint” in the blood. There may be more, but that’s off the top of my head.

    The Philo Vance books were a big influence on Queen (there’s a joke about this in The Finishing Stroke), and that can be seen here. That doesn’t make this book any less good, though. Detective story writers (and writers in general) swipe ideas all the time. I used one idea once that Carr had used, and that one also goes back to Van Dyne. It’s what you do with it that counts.


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