Saturday, December 13, 2014

The Finishing Stroke: Review

The Finishing Stroke is devilish little classic mystery story set primarily at Christmas-time, but bookended by a prologue set twenty-some years prior to the main events and a wrap-up that takes place over twenty years later. The set-up: In 1905, John Sebastian, Sr. takes his pregnant wife for a New Year's fling in New York before her "confinement" to bring forth an heir. When the weather turns bad (and a bit of looting takes place in the city), he stubbornly insists on taking her home. The result? An auto accident and his wife going into premature labor. She manages to successfully deliver a son--John Jr.--and then the doctor surprises the new father with word that another baby is on the way. But giving birth to another baby is too much for his young wife and she does not survive. In a fit of misplaced anger (heaven forbid that the man admit that it was his stubbornness that forced them out onto roads unfit for driving), John Sr. blames the death on the innocent baby and refuses to acknowledge him as his own. He gives the boy to the attending physician--a man whose wife has been unable to have children--and heads home with his new (and only) son. But the father doesn't last long himself and dies within a week, having made a new will leaving everything to John, Jr. but without arranging a promised trust fund for the unwanted baby.

Fast forward to Christmas 1929. John Jr. has put together an extended Christmas party at the home of his guardian, Arthur Craig. He has invited his best girl, Rusty Brown, and her mother; an old flame and wanna-be actress, Valentina Warren, and her current escort, an angry young musician named Marus Carlo; his long-time friend Ellery Queen and Ellery's publisher, Dan Freeman; Sam Dark, the family doctor; Roland Payne, the family lawyer; and the Reverend Andrew Gardiner. Sebastian immediately announces that some important events will happen during the party. Item one: his book of poetry is being published by the House of Freeman. Item two: January 6th is twenty-fifth birthday and he'll come into the trust fund that his father set up for him in his will. Item three: He's going to marry his beloved Rusty--and that, by the way, is why the good pastor is among their number. And item four....well, he's going to save that one for later.

However, someone has a few surprises of their own. On Christmas Day when Sebastian leads them all to the Christmas tree in the living room for gifts, they find the presents have all vanished. As they are musing over this, suddenly a fully costumed Santa Claus appears from the hallway, hands them all gifts, and vanishes just as suddenly. They all assume that Felton, the butler, had been talked into performing and they go ahead and open their gifts--items that match the zodiac sign of each guest. But when Felton--and then all party members and the rest of the servants--denies any knowledge of Santa, Ellery becomes concerned. A search through the large rambling house, reveals no extra person...and the newly fallen snow outside reveals no footprints. Later an unknown man is found dead under the Christmas tree. Then a steady campaign of mystery gifts commences. Each night a gift with a parody verse matching the song "The Twelve Days of Christmas" appears with Sebastian's name. And as the gifts continue the tone becomes more and more menacing until it all culminates in a second murder. Ellery believes he has solved the mystery--but doesn't have enough confidence in the solution to put it before the police. So the case remains unsolved.

Fast forward again to 1957. Ellery receives a phone call from now-Chief Devoe (a man who had been a sergeant in the state troopers at the time) wanting to know if Queen would like a crate that contains everything gathered in the Sebastian case. [There's a general clear-out going on and Devoe hates to throw it out.] Ellery takes it and when going through all the materials, he realizes he was right--well, pretty much. He just needed to give his solution a little twist. And he goes to confront the culprit.

Provided that one is willing to suspend one's disbelief regarding the sensible actions of a few people...and one is willing to swallow an interesting twist on a central theme [can't be more specific or I'd give the show away], this is a ripping good tale. What's not to love--mysterious corpse, red herrings, large cast of suspects, isolated and somewhat snow-bound setting, lovely prose, and witty banter. This a fun mystery and I can say that I got hoodwinked (and thoroughly enjoyed it)--I was absolutely distracted by that central theme and didn't catch any of the clues that would have led me in the proper direction.   ★★


fredamans said...

My mom had quite a vast collection of Ellery Queen books when I was young. I should find out if she still has them and give them a read!

J F Norris said...

Read this at Christmas time when I was in high school. Still remember it as one of my favorite Ellery Queen novels. It has such a retro GA plot that I think surpasses some of the very early Queen books.

Bev Hankins said...

John, it is very good. And definitely one of my favorites set at Christmas.