Monday, April 30, 2018

The French Powder Mystery: Review

The French Powder Mystery (1930) by Ellery Queen has a quite startling beginning. A crowd is gathered on the sidewalk outside of French's Department Store (a very Macy's-like place) eager to watch the daily demonstration of the latest in modern furnishings. The store employee steps into the model living room and bedroom and noon, precisely, begins showing the spectators the amenities of the suite. The focal point is the Murphy bed, hidden in the wall until the demonstrator pushes an ivory button and out pops a most modern bed complete with satin sheets...and the crumpled body of woman. 

It isn't long before the woman is identified as the wife of Cyrus French, owner of the store, and French's head of security wastes no time getting hold of the police. Inspector Richard Queen is called to the case and arrives with his son Ellery in tow. The police, including the inspector, tend to focus on the obvious clues, but Ellery's eyes are scanning everything and taking in all the minor details. Books on a desk, a glass-topped table, a setting for a card game, cigarette stubs in an ashtray, the dead woman's lipstick, the display of shoes in a closet and seemingly innocuous phrases in various witnesses' statements all catch his attention and add to the solution.

There are several suspects for the Queens to sift through--employees of the store, Winifred French's first husband, or perhaps even her missing daughter. Motives abound as well--the dead woman had headstrong ways and when she decided to interfere there was little to stop her. Perhaps she interfered just one too many times or perhaps she set her foot down on toes that had been trodden on more than enough? There are also hints that all is not as it should be at French's and maybe Mrs. French stumbled upon the secrets hidden underneath the oh-so-correct surface of the most proper department store. Leave it Ellery to sort through the clues and see through the lies and half-truths told by the suspects in order to hand his father the culprit on a silver platter (from French's kitchenware department, perhaps?).

An intricately plotted mystery with clues galore. I thoroughly enjoy the older Queen novels with cast of characters at the beginning, a few maps to help the reader get their bearings, and the challenge break where the reader is told they have all the information necessary to spot the culprit. I had my suspicions of the villain of the piece, but I can't say that I picked up (or understood) all of the clues Ellery displays at the end. A nicely done bit of sleight-of-hand on the part of Ellery Queen (Dannay & Lee). ★★

[Finished on 4/24/18]

SPOILER AHEAD--if you haven't read The French Powder Mystery or all of Dorothy L. Sayers's Wimsey novels, then you might want to steer clear.

So--one thing that struck me when reading this was the similarities between TFPM and Murder Must Advertise. Both concern a drug ring using a very proper establishment as a means to notify gang members and/or customers of the location for doling out drugs. The code used in MMA is a little less elaborate than the book system used here, but both plots are dependent upon the cooperation or involvement of at least one member of the establishment. It is also interesting that in both novels, something goes wrong with system (prior to the police catching on) and the eager buyers are disappointed.

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