A school teacher is found at a crossroads, crucified and decapitated, in West Virginia. Six months later, a millionaire on Long Island suffers the same fate. There appears to be no connection between them apart from a madman seen at both locations claiming to be a reincarnated god from Ancient Egypt. When a link begins to appear in the form of a vengeful Central European man with limp, it looks like an open and shut case. Except no-one knows what he looks like – could he have already infiltrated the people surrounding the victims? And why is he painting the letter T in blood everywhere?
This is the fifth Ellery Queen book – so far we’ve had four others ranging from good to excellent, generally improving as we go, so how good is this one going to be?
Not very, to be honest. The problem here is, the author has thought up a clever, but extremely guessable, plot but cannot find room to introduce any real alternative suspects. The murdered millionaire’s family, including suspicious neighbours – and by the way, no English person would call the American police “bobbies” – and a neighbouring island housing a cult/nudist colony where the Egyptian nutjob is hiding are brought in as alternative suspects, but, with the exception of the actual murderer, never seem to be part of the same narrative. Even Ellery doesn’t seem particularly interested in them. There’s a significant chapter where we need to overhear some potentially incriminating conversations and we switch away from following Ellery to one of suspects – it jars, to be honest, and it almost feels shoe-horned in to keep up our interest in characters who not only have nothing to do with the main plot, but don’t have an interesting plot themselves. It’s interesting that for the first time, not even Ellery can be bothered with proving why some of them aren’t the murderer – if even he wouldn’t bother to suspect them, why should we? Late on as well, there’s an attempt to make the guessers re-consider, but there’s really no other solution that isn’t “there’s a madman we haven’t met yet” and we know it’s not going to be that!
There are a few nice exercises in deduction as to what the murderer is up to, and what happened in the various crime scenes, but there’s also, until the last chapter, an amazing lack of urgency or even concern that there appears to be a decapitating maniac out there. It’s disappointing that pretty much the only clue pointing at the murderer appears in one of the final chapters. The motive is similarly disappointing – especially as the vaguely logical (although still massively flawed) one is dismissed and we are presented with stuff that is introduced out of nowhere.
In terms of the development of the novels, the introducer J.J.Mc. seems to be taking a sabbatical – there is a reason for this as he usually needs to explain that he’s manfully persuaded Ellery to let him tell the tale whereas Ellery, late on, provides his own reason for writing this one up, making such and introduction redundant. Ellery himself is again less irritating than earlier – this is a necessary and welcome development here as, without his father to provide the sympathetic character, we have to warm to Ellery and he’s presented as a decent sort of chap here. There are a few too many “I’ll explain later” moments for my liking, but I am starting to like the chap.
I think this would have worked better as a novella, but I suppose cutting out the extraneous characters would signpost the denouement even more. So far, the weakest of the five. It’s not bad, per se, but this sort of plot is hard to pull off and I’ll classify this as an interesting failure.
WHY THIS BOOK WON’T BE REPRINTED:
“Mistuh Ya’dley, some un’s jest breakin’ th’ do’ down tryin’ to git in hyah.” [It’s] “Dat ‘Spectuh man. He’s awful stewy, seems like, suh.”
Another attempt to provide an authentic voice for a black servant… Oh dear.
WHERE CAN I GET THIS BOOK IN THE UK?
If you still want to read it after that, then good luck finding an affordable copy. There aren’t many cheap copies of it on Amazon (second hand, of course – it’s been out of print for ages) or Abebooks. Ebay hasn’t got much at the moment either…
[…] The Egyptian Cross Mystery […]
Like I said about The French Powder Mystery: “You often have to keep in mind that it was written when it was written… At the same time, it’s rarely a reflection of the author’s personal beliefs, it was just a stereotype of the time. Sometimes, stock characters are called for, and this was a way to just get the plot moving forward. I don’t want a detailed biography of Sgt. Peters, complete with his recent sex life and his troubled childhood, when his only function in the story is to remark to Insp. Smith “Blimey, what’s that behind the couch?””
The idea for the plot interests me, but I am certain I already know whodunnit. I mean, the plot summary itself practically cries out who the guilty party will be. (Incidentally, I have that Pocket Books edition of “Egyptian Cross”, and if anything, that is one helluva cover. Pocket Books came up with some really nice ones. I particularly like my editions of “Nine- And Death Makes Ten”, “The Reader is Warned” and “The Red Widow Murders”.
Oh, I understand and accept the context of the stock stereotypes, even if I don’t like them. But it would be a brave publisher who didn’t edit those dialogue fragments these days.
And yes, you probably have already sussed the murderer. There is something that could have been done to mask it better, but it would be a complete spoiler to discuss it, and we don’t do those here.
Thanks for the nice comments, Patrick.
Congrats on your continuing set of organised Ellery Queen reviews – it’s a great project and I look forward to the Carter Dickson / JD Carr equivalent! Apart from the beheadings I don’t remember a thing about this book so I really want to go and re-read it now, though as a teenager I think it made much more of an impression than it has on you by the sound of things – it is amazing that the two cousins published this, GREK COFFIN, and both TRAGEDY OF X and Y all in 1932, and published many of their short stories then as well …
It’s funny that you mention Tragedy of X as in some ways this has, apparently, the same revenge plot but with a different outcome.
I wonder if the mystery was obvious to other readers of this blog. I freely admit that this was the second time through, but I had completely blanked on the plot.
I don’t have any problem with your cited quote of a black servant. In the 1920s, things were different! No doubt, in 2100, our attitudes will be considered Neanderthal by that society. But that is no reason to edit out what was common practice. Such dishonesty not only perverts literature, but also does a severe disservice to social historians. Books should be republished with courage and integrity; “warts and all” – as Cromwell put it – albeit in a different context!
I very much enjoyed your reviews of Queen’s early (and in my view, best) novels. I look forward to my favourites: the Chinese Orange and Siamese Twin Mysteries. The latter tortured my brain for days before I gave up and read the solution – bizarre!
Thanks for the compliments. In terms of the quote, my point is really that a publisher these days, even with a reprint, would be concerned that a less worldly-wise reader would not appreciate the change in attitudes from when the book was written. I doubt many such readers would pick up an Ellery Queen novel these days, but I would imagine a reprint would ensure that there’s a “Don’t forget when it was written” comment in the foreword. I sincerely hope that they wouldn’t edit the relevant lines – to be honest, I found the English character’s references to “bobbies” much more annoying – but I have a nasty feeling that they would. Of course, let’s wait until anyone actually bothers to re-issue it and we’ll see. Given that there are some recent reissues of Carr’s books, maybe Queen is on the way too?
I’m very much looking forward to the two books you mention as I can’t remember a blessed thing about them. However, The American Gun Mystery is coming first, which I remember a) whodunnit and b) that it stretches the imagination somewhat… I hope I’m wrong, but I remember it as one of the weakest of the opening novels. Let’s see…
With regards to the ease of spotting the murderer (hush!), this is I perhaps the real disadvantage to reading these books so close together as Queen did at this time in particular make extensive use of the so-called ‘Birlstone Gambit’ (so-called by Queen biographer Francis M. Nevins Jr) – but also due to their desire to play, by their rules, scrupulously fair, which should mean that there really is only one possible solution – which I think really is the case quite often and is to my mind an impressive feat. THE SIAMESE TWIN MYSTERY and CHINESE ORANGE are two of my favourites too (though GREEK COFFIN remains the one I remember liking the most when I first read these, but which it looks like I really need to re-read!).
[…] it’s made me look more favourably on The Egyptian Cross Mystery – this is by far the weakest book so far, both in plot and in writing style. Luckily The Siamese […]
[…] rule that the majority of the action needs to take place in the given state – so I can’t count The Egyptian Cross Mystery for West Virginia, for example. I am going to give myself a head start and count books that I’ve […]
[…] The Egyptian Cross Mystery […]
[…] Egyptian Cross Mystery, The by Ellery Queen – one of the early ones […]
[…] In Search of the Classic Mystery Novel […]
Regarding the dialect language—I can’t remember which EQ novel it was that I was reading, but I had read a later 60s reprint of it first and then, some years later, reread the book in an earlier 40s edition. And in rereading it, I noticed a black character-I think a train porter-speaking in a dialect that would never pass muster today and thinking that I didn’t remember that from the later reprint. So I pulled the later reprint out and indeed the offending dialog had been altered.