Sunday, October 13, 2019

The Dutch Shoe Mystery

The Dutch Shoe Mystery (1931) by Ellery Queen takes place in the Dutch Memorial Hospital in New York City. It features not one, but two murders carried out--practically under the nose of Ellery Queen himself (in the first instance) and a whole posse of NYC policemen (in the second). The hospital's wealthy benefactress, Abigail Doorn has an accident that requires an emergency gall bladder operation. Since she is a diabetic and her health is a bit fragile there is some concern, but her surgeon, Dr. Francis Janney, is absolutely confident that she will pull through the operation with no problem. 

Ellery has stopped by the hospital to consult his friend Dr. John Minchen over a medical point impacting another case and is asked if he would like to watch the operation. The men sit in the operating theater and watch as the patient is brought in. Ellery immediately notices her odd coloring--but puts it down to her ill-health until Dr. Janney bends over the patient, turns and crooks a "forefinger furiously toward Dr. Minchen." Ellery's friend rushes down to the operating table, looks at the neck of the patient (where Janney drew his attention), and then beckons to Ellery.

Ellery rose. His eyebrows went up. His lips formed one soundless word, which Minchen caught.
Dr. Minchen nodded.
The word was: "Murder?"

Yes, it's murder. Someone, somehow has managed to strangle the elderly woman without the hospital staff noticing until that moment in the operating theater.

It's soon revealed that Dr. Janney visited the patient in the prep room prior to surgery and was left alone with her while the attending nurse exited the room on his indication of a need of sterilization materials for his hands (no words were exchanged--gestures were all that were necessary). This, the doctor denies categorically--as Ellery and Minchen know he was called away to attend to a visitor during the time period indicated. And when a discarded set of doctor's clothes, including the cap and mask, are found in the hallway telephone booth, it begins to look like the killer masqueraded as Janney, imitating his characteristic limp, in order to create the opportunity for their deed.

Ellery sorts through all the clues--including the impostor's white canvas shoes with broken lace and folded back tongues--and all the suspects. The suspects include Dr. Janney, Dr. Minchen, Dr. Kneisel (all of whom benefit directly or indirectly from the woman's will), Hulda Doorn (Abigail's daughter), Sarah Fuller (Abigail's companion--who has had an on again, off again raging argument for years), the mysterious Mr. Swanson with whom Janney met (and whom Janney will not assist the police in finding...), and various members of the hospital staff. Ellery thinks that he has begun to see daylight when Dr. Janney is murdered, strangled in exactly the same way as Mrs. Doorn. This time while sitting peacefully at his desk. Ellery is stumped by how the murderer managed to slip behind Janney to deliver the knock-out blow (which allowed the murderer to strangle his victim with no fuss). There's no window behind the desk. In fact, when Ellery enters the doctor's office there is absolutely nothing behind the desk except a blank wall. He can't see a legitimate reason for anyone to go behind the doctor while he was at his desk. It isn't until Dr. Minchen idly mentions that something was removed before Ellery arrived on the scene that our detective has his eureka moment.

This is a decent mystery outing for Ellery. The initial set-up and the two murders are portrayed well. And I'll go along with Ellery's wrap-up. Mostly. One thing Ellery didn't explain: what exactly did the murderer hit Janney upside the head with? According to Dr. Prouty, he was hit by "some heavy blunt instrument" [emphasis mine]. What on earth could the murderer have carried back there (in their legitimate mission explained by Ellery) that wouldn't arouse Janney's interest? "I say, what are you doing with that hammer [insert any suitable blunt object]..." And, apparently, it was something they carried in and out with them because there wasn't anything in the room that was identified as a possible weapon or anything mentioned as missing (like, say, a paperweight always kept on the desk).

Also, I cry foul on the "you have all the evidence" business. Yes, I figured out the main part. But there is a final piece of evidence (which I can't mention without spoiling) that I don't see how the reader was supposed figure out. After all--we didn't get to actually see a certain bit of evidence that is vital. Also, I couldn't figure out the relationship between two characters based on what we were actually told and shown--and it's a relationship that's kind of important to the whole motive thing. 

I agree with Ben over at The Green Capsule that there is way too much mulling, interviewing, and reviewing the evidence going on in between murders and solution. If the point was fair play to the reader--waving evidence under our noses repeatedly--then it doesn't come off (see previous paragraph). In actuality, this 305 page book could have been cut to maybe 250 (251, if we add in a portion to at least hint a bit better at the crucial piece of evidence). Still, it was a good plot with a nice bit of misdirection. So-- ★★ for a solid, mid-range mystery.

Deaths= two (both strangled)
Golden Vintage card = Where: hospital

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