Solve-Along #3 – The Siamese Twin Mystery (Ellery Queen, 1933)

Sorry to anyone hoping for more Miss Marple goodness. My internet hasn’t been working too well, so streaming Murder, She Said was like trying to watch it through a zoetrope while falling down the stairs. In the end the router gave up altogether. After a few minutes of panic (how can a lazy writer survive without Wikipedia?!) I decided it was an ideal opportunity for a Solve-Along. Rather unfairly, it’s another Ellery Queen book under scrutiny: 1933’s The Siamese Twin Mystery.

As usual I’ll be writing down my thoughts and suspicions as I go, along with a summary of the plot, so no guarantees that I’ll notice all the important clues. Any links I put in should open in a new window, so you can follow them without losing your place.

[Massive spoilers for The Siamese Twin Mystery. Very oblique ones for The ABC Murders and Obelists Fly High]

Preconceptions and Thoughts

I don’t really know much about the plot, although I have a feeling there’s a mansion and a forest fire or something, which means everyone has to stay inside. Also some conjoined twins had better show up, or Trading Standards will be getting a call!

I’m interested to see what EQ will do with the twins. There have been some interesting real life legal anomalies where one of pair of conjoined twins has committed a murder, and I’ve occasionally toyed with some mystery plots of my own involving them. But I can see a lot of problems:

a) I don’t think I could be convincing. It’s easy to think of everyday situations that would suddenly be awkward, embarrassing or just impossible, but what I think I’m really imagining is suddenly waking up one day and finding another guy sewn onto my side. I can’t imagine what it would be like to have grown up having a conjoined twin, and I’d suspect it’s that core of experiences that you’d need to tap into to be convincing.

b) I don’t think I could write about it with sufficient sensitivity. I’d really want to avoid playing up the Barnum-esque freak-show angle. Unfortunately mysteries tend to rely on suspense and creeping terror, which the freak-show angle is perfect for.

c) I can’t think what to do with conjoined twins in a mystery. The only arc I can think of is the obvious one: the twins are introduced; someone else dies; one of the twins is accused; then the other one; then it turns out it was neither of them. I can’t imagine how you’d write a mystery where one or both of the twins was the murderer and it was also a surprise. I suppose you could make one of the twins the victim, and then you’ve got a ready made impossible crime if you use the other twin as an unimpeachable witness. But good luck writing that sensitively!

Anyway, hopefully EQ have something ingenious up their sleeves. I know a lot of people rank this one highly (although that didn’t work out so well for me with The Greek Coffin Mystery).

Because this is an early one, I expect maximum convolution and implausibility. I also expect a Challenge to the Reader, which will be helpful because it will give me a chance to write down my final theory before being embarrassingly wrong (I’m 0 for 2 on these Solve-Alongs so far!)

On with the show!

Cover

Unfortunately I’m not lucky enough to own the Pocketbook edition from the top there. I have the Hamlyn Whodunnit edition you can see on the left. I put the Pocketbook on the frontpage because a) it’s hilarious and b) when your cover brief is to disregard plot elements in favour of cleavage, one unexpected side-benefit is an almost guaranteed lack of spoilers!

Now a bad experience with Hamlyn Whoddunits means I won’t read the blurb until the end, but I can’t really help but look at the picture. There’s a torn Jack of Diamonds, a gold ring and two bottles. I doubt you can see it in the scan, but one of them is a medicine bottle with “…ETUM CANTHARIDINI” written on it. I don’t know what that means and the internet doesn’t look like it’ll be fixed any time soon, but my spectacularly clichéd British upbringing has armed me with enough Ancient Greek to know that ‘κανθαρος‘ is either a beetle or a two-handled drinking cup. I hope it’s the beetle, because that might mean we’re in ridiculous poison country! (A lot of mystery authors take their holidays there.)

The J is torn so the two figures are separated, which obviously suggests a connection with the Siamese twins.

Contents

There are four parts with 19 chapters between them. No Michael Innes style clues as to the murderer, thank goodness, but I notice that chapter nine is called “The Murderer”. Now if I was writing this then the person who was accused in that chapter would definitely turn out to be guilty in the end (after apparently being acquitted first, of course) just so I could say “I told you they were the murderer!” at the end.

Other interesting titles… Chapter 8  is called Xiphopagus, so I guess EQ picked all the wrong subjects at school as well! It doesn’t seem to be in my trusty “Liddell & Scott” Greek dictionary, so I guess it’s a modern formulation. But ζιφος is a sword and παγυς is something like hard or hardened. So… once again knowing two Greek words proves useless if they’re stuck together to form a compound! (Ancient Greek is super wacky – look at some of the insane words you get in that scan on the right)

Other than that, there are a lot of reference to playing cards (“The Six of Spades”, “The Diamond Knave”, “The Knave’s Tale”, “The Queen’s Tale”). I suspect this might be a “dying message” mystery. EQ really loved those. They’re very hard to make convincing though.

(Usually with EQ and dying messages you just have to accept that it isn’t convincing, and that by some quirk of physiology when people are murdered in Ellery’s world they get a sudden rush of whatever hormone is responsible for cryptic bullshit.)

Characters

EQ were in their super-earnest phase, so naturally there’s a Dramatis Personae.

Some good yucks here. EQ have included a list of characters under the headings “Members of the Household” and “Visitors to the Household”. At the top is “Dr John S. Xavier …… whose god is Science”! That’s the sort of pomposity I can really get behind if it’s ironic. But I suspect Manny Lee would be cross if he knew that he’d made me giggle. I guess Dr John S. Xavier is our victim. I also suspect I will be forced to refer to him as Dr X from now on!

Underneath Dr X it says “Sarah Isére Xavier … his lady” so I suspect anyone hoping for some feminist hi-jinks is in for a disappointment!

There are a few more household members, including “’Bones’ … his vassal”. I hope we at least get a “He’s dead, Ellery!” from him.

For the visitors we have “Mrs. Marie Carreau … une grande dame” and her sons Francis and Julian. In the absence of any other likely candidates I’d say those were our Siamese Twins.

No sign of Ellery or his dad on the list, but the last entry is just “Mr Smith … a stranger” so maybe that will turn out to be Ellery in disguise.

A thought: maybe Dr X will get a sword in the head like the King of Hearts?

Foreword

Ooh, I forgot about these! In case the Ellery Queen as detective/author/pseudonym wasn’t confusing enough, all the ‘nationality’ mysteries were introduced by “J.J. McC.”, a friend of Ellery who apparently has to constantly badger Ellery into writing down all his masterpieces. Quite why this dull frame story was considered necessary is beyond me. Anyway, all that happens in these forewords is the J.J says how absolutely thrilling and amazing the coming mystery is going to be. I think I’ll be the judge of that if you don’t mind!

“Show, don’t tell,” EQ…

Enough sniping. Here we go…!

Part 1

Chapter 1 – The Burning Arrow

Ellery and his dad, Inspector Richard Queen of the New York Police, are taking a detour across Arrow Mountain in their trusty Duesenberg when they run into a forest fire. Turning back, they escape up the only side road that they’ve seen. They pass an incredibly surly man driving in the other direction. After a grumpy conversation with Ellery, he drives off towards the fire. (So he’ll definitely be coming back later! Presumably this is our “Mr Smith”)

The Queens continue along the road, which climbs further and further up the mountain before culminating at a single house, appropriately called Arrow Head. They park their car and head inside…

So just scene setting. The stuff with the fire was quite exciting. Unfortunately Ellery seems to be in a particularly arsey mood. Here’s what he says to the motorist they pass:

“For heaven’s sake, isn’t there anything remotely resembling courtesy in this part of the domain? I said there’s a very neat and thorough conflagration raging down below.”

If a stranger spat out a mouthful like that in my direction I think I’d be surly too! Domain??

Ellery does use the word “catamount” though, which apparently is another word for a mountain lion. Another awesome word. He’s partially forgiven.

Ellery has also made a lot of references to how implausible and melodramatic this situation is. Almost a dozen in the space of 18 pages. Some people like this sort of cutesy self-reference but I find it a bit irritating. I don’t mind if a book’s plot is silly and melodramatic (I have a mania for consistency, not realism), but drawing attention to it doesn’t make it any less so. I also don’t mind if the references serve some other purpose, like if there’s a proper metafictional throughplot or they’re a satire on silly melodramas or even just a series of good jokes. But what Ellery says is just commentary. It’s far better to just gloss over the implausible stuff. How is a reader supposed to get immersed in some quality silliness if the characters insist on pointing out how stupid it all is?

At least he hasn’t said “you wouldn’t believe it if you read it in a detective story”. I usually have to put a book down for a few minutes when a character says something like that.

Of course now I’ve tempted fate…

Chapter 2 – The “Thing”

Hmm. That’s an ominous chapter title. I’m guessing we’re in for an extreme display of EQ sensitivity!

The Queens talk to a cross man at the door, who is naturally reluctant to let strangers into his house. For some reason it takes them forty lines of vaguely explaining that they’re in a pickle before it occurs to Ellery to mention that the whole damn mountain is on fire. I think I’d have led with that…

Ah, the man at the door is “Bones”, the vassal. If that was my job title I’d be cross too.

Dr X intervenes and invites the Queens in. It turns out he’s a surgeon. A surgeon who lives in a creepy house at the top of a mountain. Jinkies! We also get a glimpse of Mrs Wheary, the housekeeper.

Ellery has just said, “Nice place for a murder.” He really knows how to push his luck! The fourth wall is shaken, but still intact for now.

Ah. The vassal Bones is apparently “an unfortunate old derelict” who Dr X “picked up years ago”. I hear that is the best way to get servants. I’m actually dictating this to a bag-lady while resting my feet on a crouching orphan.

Lawks-a-mercy! Dr X politely says “I’ll leave you to your ablutions” and Ellery immediately bitches to his father that he used such a fancy word!! Because obviously “ablutions” is pretentious, but “conflagration”, “charlatanry” and “saltatorial orthopters” are all dockers’ slang.

Inspector Queen sees something creepy, but we don’t get to find out what it is. Suspense! (This effect might have been stronger if the book had had a different title!)

Dr X seems to have something wrong with his arm. It’s “as rigid and hard as if the man had died and his body were in the grip of rigor mortis”. I’m assuming that’s meant literally, and Dr X has been poisoned with beetle extract, but it comes at the end of a pretty rambly paragraph, so maybe he’s just really, really tense that he’s losing the fancy word competition.

For all my snark, this is pretty sinister and fun. I just kind of wish Ellery had been made to stay in the Duesenberg. Inspector Queen is much less objectionable.

Chapter 3 – The Queer People

Ellery wonders if Dr X is the bad sort of surgeon, but decides he’s being silly. Since Ellery’s conclusions at the beginning of a mystery have an almost 100% record of being wrong, I’m guessing we’re in for something grim. If Dr X starts making centipedes, I’m voting for Ellery to go at the back.

(Another gripe about the writing. Sorry. I really don’t mind using esoteric language and dropping obscure references as long as it’s done accurately and with purpose. But you can’t say something like “to visualise him as a sort of Wellsian Dr Moreau”. It doesn’t make sense. What other sort of Dr Moreau is there besides a Wellsian one? So it’s either name-dropping, or EQ is afraid the reader won’t know the reference, in which case they should pick a different description. Every few paragraphs there’s something a bit off-kilter like this. If EQ could just reign it in for just a second this book would be miles better.)

Ooh. Dr X has “a… a guest” I expect Siamese twins do not appreciate being referred to as a single entity. I wonder if they’re here so Dr X can try and separate them.

In the game room the Queens meet some more people: Dr X’s brother Mark, his wife Sarah, his assistant and a young woman called Miss Forrest. Dr X tries to pass her off as the “guest” he’d mentioned before, but Ellery doesn’t believe him.

Ellery notices that two of the card tables are scattered with cards. Ellery keeps noticing things like this and deciding that they’re sinister. Now I know Ellery is a master detective, but using his superhuman intuition like this is surely a really lazy way to introduce readers to clues?

The Queens settle down for an awkward chat with the group. Lots of telling comments about an array of incidents including a previous fire. The suspects throw looks between themselves like it’s a Suspicious Glances Convention.

The topic changes to detective stories, and how implausibility doesn’t matter. The book flies across the room and stays there while I watch TV instead.

Dr X reveals that he loves games, presumably in a half-hearted stab at pre-emptively justifying the dying message. He also forgets that he’s officially retired from surgery and accidentally talks about his work in the present tense. Whoops!

No-one is prepared to admit having seen the sinister motorist from chapter 1. Mrs X seems to know something about it, but it’s also caused Miss Forrest to drop her compact. After much fussing she reveals that she lost a silver ring the previous week. Then the assistant, Perceval Holmes, claimed that he also lost a ring.

Ellery says “lickety-cut”. I’ve never seen that before. Isn’t it usually “lickety-split”? To my ear that sounds better. (It’s also less likely to get misread and cause fainting!)

Everyone heads off to bed. Inspector Queen reveals that he thought he’d seen a “giant crab” earlier, and all hopes that EQ won’t play up the freak-show angle explode. The Inspector also happens to look out of the window and see a woman who he recognises: the wealthy heiress Marie Carreau.

Chapter 4: Blood on the Sun

The next morning, the Queens look out the window and realise two things: that the house is actually perched on the edge of a cliff, and that the forest fire is still raging.

During an awkward breakfast, it’s discovered that Dr X never went up to bed. They go looking for him and find him murdered.

And that remarkably short chapter brings us to the end of part 1.

Not much to say so far. I’m not as engaged as I was with Cat of Many Tails. I think that the reason is obvious: any reader who knows the title of the book he’s reading is going to be way ahead of the Queens, who still don’t know that there’s a pair of Siamese Twins in the house. For the tension building to be effective, I think the book really should have been called something else.

Not enough information to build a theory yet, but the assistant Dr Holmes went in and discovered the body alone, which is always suspicious.

Part 2

Chapter 5 – The Six of Spades

Part 2 begins with a map of the ground floor of the house.

Oh. Dr X was shot, apparently. So what’s with the crazy bottle of beetle poison on the cover? I hope Hamlyn haven’t outdone themselves and put a picture spoiler on the front.

Dr X is surrounded by playing cards. Some of them are laid out it front of him. This is presumably his dying message, but annoyingly we’re not told what specific cards they are just yet.

Now that murder has been committed Ellery leaps into action, doing what he does best: being an arse to grieving relatives.

To the left is a screenshot of p81 of my edition. (If you right-click it and open it in a new window you should get a readable version without losing your place). I literally don’t know what the reader is supposed to make of it.

The body has just been discovered. Mark is presumably upset that his brother has been shot. (He might be the murderer, I guess, but even Ellery can’t know that already!) So naturally Ellery starts bossing him around. Mark rightly demands an explanation. Remember, the Queens are still complete strangers. The Inspector hasn’t even said what his job is yet. So first Ellery patronises him, and then, bizarrely annoyed when that gets a normal reaction, refers to him as an idiot. Note that “refers” really is the right description; he completely ignores Mark and starts bithcing about him to his Dad!

Where are the reader’s sympathies supposed to lie here? Surely not with Ellery?

Inspector Queen finally bothers to announce that he’s a police officer, something that would have been really helpful a few minutes earlier (it’s like when they forgot to mention the fire when they were at the door. Are the Queens congenitally disposed towards this? Are they missing the “timely explanation” allele?)

Then he says “I daresay it sounds like something out of a book or an-old time melodrama.” Oh Inspector – I though you were on my side! Sigh. If EQ would stop reminding me every few pages that there are pages, I probably wouldn’t notice the writing so much.

Dr X was shot twice from across the room. Rigor suggests he died nine hours ago (although there was that weird stiff arm thing). No-one heard the shots because the room was soundproofed. So possibly the assistant poisoned Dr X to give him the rigor and then shot him just now when he walked into the room. If he later turns out to have a cast-iron alibi then I’ll be extra suspicious. (If it turns out to be the final solution I’ll be quite disappointed.)

Dr X had half a playing card in his hands, a six of spades torn widthways. There’s a nice picture with a thumbprint:

The writing has really sent me into proofreader mode. I just read the description of the torn playing card (“The back was a gaudy red design of intertwined fleur-de-lis”) and instead of that conjuring up an image in my mind, all I thought was, “surely the plural is fleurs-de-lis?” Pedantry begets pedantry, I suppose. Ellery is making me hate myself.

Dr X was playing a regular sort of solitaire where the cards in the tableau are built down by alternating colours. The 6 has come from between a 7 and a 5. On the floor, crumpled into a ball, is the other half of the card:

As with most dying clues, I have no idea what it means. I’m suspicious that someone has replaced it though, because the picture on the front of the book shows a torn J (also the top-most visible card is the T, so the J could have come from above it). Maybe Hamlyn really did ruin everything with their cover?

Dr X was right-handed. This is usually a big deal in mysteries if someone mentions it. Also, this could have implications later, depending on how exactly the conjoined twins are conjoined. They may have only one arm each.

I can’t think what the 6 means, though. (Even if it’s a fake dying clue, it will probably implicate someone to start with. That’s how EQ works).

Oh duh. I’m being dense. Carreau is ‘diamond’ in French, isn’t it? Which doesn’t help for now, but will presumably be the point when the torn J shows up. (Incidentally, the Inspector sent for Mrs Carreau a few pages back, but she hasn’t arrived yet.)

Ellery’s finished with the corpse for now. They take Dr X’s body to the lab and dump him in the refrigerator. It’s what he would have wanted.

As the chapter ends, the motorist from earlier has turned up and is having a set-to with Bones in the kitchen.

Chapter 6 – Smith

A short chapter, this. The Inspector questions the motorist who says he’s Mr Smith from New York. He claims to have turned up the side road by mistake and to have no connection with the house. Lies, obviously, but Bones doesn’t shed any light on the matter. Ellery checks him for the stolen rings (he doesn’t have them) and Mrs Carreau comes in.

Chapter 7 – The Weeping Lady

Mrs X really doesn’t like Mrs C. It’s not clear why, though.

Mrs C reveals that she’s been in the house for two weeks. Ann Forrest is her secretary. The Inspector suggests that Mrs C might have come for some treatment herself, and she gladly leaps on the excuse. I’ll say what I said before: this would all be a lot more interesting if it wasn’t obvious from the title and the character list what was really going on.

Mrs X saw Mrs C go downstairs in the night to visit Dr X. Mrs X thinks that Mrs C had eyes for her husband.

Oh good, we’ve finally met the Siamese twins. They’re quite young, and joined at the breast-bone. So they’ve both got a full complement of limbs. Looking at them face-to-face, Julian is on the left and Francis is on the right. Julian has broken his left arm, which is in a cast behind his brother’s back. Working on my hypothesis from before, I’ll note that both of the could be responsible for any right-handed card tearing, but only one of them left-handed.

Chapter 8 – Xiphopagus

Well I apologise to EQ. The twins are cheerful teenagers. If anything they’re too chirpy. So I think it’s going to be handled quite well. Xiphopagus, it turns out, is the word for the sort of conjunction they have. Francis and Julian are joined at the sternum by a mass of cartilage that they can actually stretch for about six inches. EQ uses the example of tugging on your ear-lobe, which seems a good way of describing what it’s like.

So I was right, and the twins were brought to Dr X with the hope of separating them. This makes it hard to see what motive any of the Carreaus (Carreaux?) would have for killing him. The assistant possibly does have a motive: he doesn’t seem too comfortable with the sort of things Dr X was up to.

The twins wander off to get some food. The pace is picking up quite nicely.

Chapter 9 – The Murderer

Mrs X is the sole beneficiary, it seems. And Dr X was very wealthy. She also seems to know about the 6.

Oh. Of course. If I hadn’t been so busy poking fun earlier I’d have seen it as soon as I copied it down: “Sarah Isére Xavier … his lady.

S.I.X.

That’s quite neat, although I’d have preferred the clue to have been in the story, rather than in the character list.

Neat or not, that’s obviously bunkum. The first explanation always is. I wonder if that’s what Mrs X was thinking of, though?

Oh. She admits it. So I’m back to my poisoning theory. Assuming she isn’t lying, then when she shot Dr X he was already dead or dying.

Chapter 10 – Left and Right

The writing has really settled down. Although “he bethought himself of the telephone…” is quite silly.

Inspector Queen locks up the pack of cards in a cabinet and takes the key. Meanwhile, Ellery has also been experimenting with cards and has come to a conclusion: if a right-handed person tears a card into halves and throws one away, it’s natural to use the right-hand as much as possible, i.e. for the tearing, the crumpling and the throwing. If Dr X had really done this, being right-handed, the uncrumpled 6 should have been found in his left hand. Therefore the card was a plant, placed there to frame Mrs X. So Mrs X is taking the blame for someone.

Luckily my house is strewn with incomplete packs of cards. Time for an experiment of my own.

Well. Ellery’s description matches my own behaviour (although it’s hard not to be biased when you know what the result is supposed to be). It also matches that of some thoroughly bewildered passers-by.

I think the conclusion Ellery draws from it is stupid, though. At most, you could say that this interesting fact means it’s worth considering other options. But Ellery, as usual, frames his argument as though it’s a complete physical and psychological impossibility that the 6 could end up in Dr X’s right hand, which is idiotic. What if Dr X ripped the card, threw one half away, looked around for the most prominent place to display the other half and then decided to just keep it in his hand anyway? Then he might have transferred it. In fact any explanation where the choosing, ripping, crumpling and disposal of the halves isn’t a single fluid movement but a set of distinct movements with the possibility of thought and re-evaluation between each one would allow for a transferral of the pieces. Ellery’s outline is one possibility, but it’s hardly the only one.

And that’s only if we’re thinking of plausible scenarios. In the mad logic of EQ-land, where characters are allowed to make deductions about other characters’ deductions, and people can think through the ramifications of any bizarre action in an instant, almost any amount of bluffing and re-bluffing is permitted. How about:

Mrs X put the 6 there to frame herself, knowing that Ellery would eventually exonerate her.

or:

Mrs X shot Dr X in a fit of passion, but he forgives her. He picks up the 6 and deliberately rips it with his left hand. Then he puts the saved piece into his right one, safe in the knowledge that Ellery will reason the way he does and exonerate Mrs X.

or:

Dr X dies with the 6♠ untorn in his hands as a clue. Mrs X (or anyone who wants her to get off) later notices and tries to remove it, but because of the rigor the card tears. Rather than taking the torn half away, they realise the chain of reasoning Ellery will go though if he finds it crumpled up on the floor.  So they do that, making it look like someone wanted to make it look like Dr X wanted to make it look like he’d left a dying message!!

It goes on and on…

There’s another problem here, although whether it’s the fault of EQ or the publisher is hard to tell. Let’s look at those pictures of the 6 again, but this time putting them side-by-side (in the book they’re several pages apart):

Who needs Ellery’s complicated reasoning? Those thumbprints are completely wrong. To rip a card in two, you have to hold it at the top between your thumbs and index fingers. If you do that your thumbs have to point downwards and towards each other, otherwise there isn’t space for the rest of your hands! Those prints are facing in completely the wrong direction. The only way to make prints like that would be to grab the card from beneath or the sides. To me that not only feels unnatural, but it’s incredibly hard to tear the card at all. Are those pictures the same in everyone else’s editions?

A third issue, touched on in my third silly example and one that Ellery should have picked up on I feel: why bother tearing the card in half at all? If the point of the message is S.I.X., then why not just pick up the 6 and hold it? Even granting Ellery’s reasoning that the message is a fake, this is still a problem: why did whoever planted the card as a frame bother to tear it in half?

Maybe this will come up later. For now, Ellery has dramatically and spuriously exonerated Mrs X and it’s the end of Part 2.

I don’t have much of a theory at the moment. I’m inclined to think it was Mrs Carreau who planted the 6. She probably came down and saw the torn J (I know I’m getting ahead of myself with that fact, but unfortunately it’s right there on the cover), realised it implicated one of her sons, and so swapped it with another card. But I don’t think she’s the murderer. My money’s still on the assistant.

Part 3

Chapter 11 – The Graveyard

Mrs X ain’t talking, despite Inspector Queen’s oh-so-sensitive and not-at-all-chauvinistic line of questioning, focusing on the behavioural traits of “women of her age”.

I haven’t been mentioning it because it’s not really part of the mystery, but the fire stuff is actually pretty good. The fire is creeping closer and the house is filled with wisps of ash.

Ellery thinks he senses something between Mrs Carreau and the stranger, ‘Smith’. His intuition is really working overtime this case!

The suspects start up a game of bridge, except for the twins, who go off to play billiards. Mrs X and the Inspector make up, and Ellery wonders how any woman could cry so much and not then apply face powder. He really is a prince. The Queens set off to investigate the laboratory, which I’m guessing is going to be the ‘graveyard’ of the title. I expect rainbows!

Naturally the laboratory is full of conjoined animal twins. Apparently some of the cages are empty. Maybe two monkeys did it!

Oh, the empty cages were for the animals which Dr X tried to separate and failed. Bones’ job is to bury them, hence his nickname. Ellery wonders something, but naturally doesn’t say what.

A mad notion has come into my mind: would there ever be a reason for conjoined twins, once separated, to want to pretend to be still joined? I don’t think that will be the case here, but there might be a mystery idea in that. It would be a way of being in two places at once, which everyone else would think they weren’t capable of.

Anyway, that wouldn’t help here. I wonder if Ellery is thinking that one or both of the twins didn’t want to be separated, because Dr X seemed to be frankly quite shit at it? That might be the glimmer of a motive, although there are far easier ways to not be operated on than killing the surgeon. You could, for example, say that you’d really rather not have an operation. Or you could go out for a nice cup of tea instead.

Unless the other twin was unlikely to cooperate, I suppose…

Chapter 12 – Beauty and the Beast

The next morning, the Queens find Bones hacking Smith’s car to bits. The reason? He doesn’t like the man’s “fat face”. Fair enough.

They look through Dr X’s possessions. He has lots of different trinkets, but apparently no rings. The same goes for Mrs X. I have to admit, I have no idea whatsoever as to the significance of all these missing rings. Could someone be looking for one in particular? But how would stealing all of them help with that?

The fire is coming closer and the food is running out. Inspector Queen decides they must all go onto strict rations, which he says “will suit the ladies”. Such a charmer! He compounds this by suggesting the ladies all get into their knickers and search the woods! I suppose there’s no point in having authority if you’re not going to abuse it. (I actually suppose that knickers must mean something sturdier in the US – knickerbockers, presumably.)

They split up to search the woods in the hope that there’s a way through the fire. There doesn’t appear to be. When Ellery returns to the house he sees Smith take something from his wallet and give it to Mrs Carreau. She then tears it into pieces. Neither of them seem very happy about it.

Oh it’s not going to remain a mystery. Ellery gathers up the pieces and finds that it was a cheque for $10,000 made out to cash.

Chapter 13 – The Test

Hmm. Ellery is also wondering about the smudge. So it’s not an error, Ellery was just being slow. I wonder if it might be something to do with the twins. If they used one hand each, for example? That might explain why the prints were facing the wrong way.

Ellery proceeds to re-enact various aspects of the murder, and explains about the discrepancy in the thumbprints. Interestingly, he thinks I’m wrong. He says that the usual way to tear a card is with the thumbs together at the top pointing upwards. Maybe I have really weird shaped hands. Maybe these cards are a weird size. (Are British bridge cards a different size from American ones?) Anyway, Ellery for some reason has only just now realised that the thumb print on the crumpled card is from a left thumb (I don’t see how you could think anything else). Ellery uses his previous reasoning to show that a left-handed person must have torn the card.

After a good deal of silly rigmarole, it turns out that only Mark Xavier is left-handed. Inspector Queen tries to get him to sign a confession, but instead he runs off.

Incidentally, Ellery decided that the twins couldn’t have torn the card because they could only do it “by crossing their adjoining hands and tearing – a procedure so pointless that it need not be considered….” Which seems very spurious, especially when you consider that, in EQ-land “to be deliberately confusing” is apparently the best motive of all! That sentence smacks of a hasty last minute addition during editing.

And, actually, isn’t Ellery just wrong? Why can’t they just hold the card normally, but with one hand each? Look at this picture on the right of Chang and Eng Bunker, the original “Siamese” twins. Their hands don’t seem too awkwardly placed to hold a playing card between them. And right- and left-handedness means nothing if there are two of you. You just have to pick one person to do the holding and one person to do the tearing. I honestly don’t understand what Ellery is talking about with the hand-crossing.

(Separately, why haven’t the Queens bothered to take anyone’s thumb-prints? Sure the soot may not be enough to give a good print that you can see under a microscope. But you could at least find out whose thumbs were totally the wrong size.)

Chapter 14 – Cheater Cheated

Oh wow. The Inspector shot Mark. On the basis of Ellery’s stupid test and the fact that he ran away instead of being cajoled into signing a confession. That seems… odd. Maybe we’ll blame it on the heat. (Actually, a lot of EQ mysteries would be a lot more plausible if you assume that, from this point onwards, Ellery was permanently suffering from heatstroke and dehydration!)

Xavier admits to having torn the card, but denies having shot Dr X. He says he knows who did, but is too weak to say (thanks, Inspector).

Actually the assistant injects him with a sedative before he can say anything, which doesn’t do anything to allay my suspicions.

They take Xavier upstairs and the Queens take it in turns to guard him. Then there’s a touching scene where they both admit that they’re complete ninnies.

But they don’t stop there. They somehow manage to fail the comparatively simple task of guarding Xavier; when Ellery comes to take his turn on watch he finds that someone’s clonked his Dad on the head and injected Xavier with something grim. He apparently died in “exquisite agony”. Hope you’re proud of yourselves, lads!

And that’s the end of part 3.

I still don’t really have a better idea than blaming the assistant. I guess the beetle stuff from the front cover might now have nothing to do with the death of Dr X. Or perhaps this is just a way of trying to introduce it surreptitiously.

Part 4

Hmm. Interesting. Before each new part there’s a little quotation. This one is attributed to “A.F.” and is their “Statement to the Press While Awaiting Execution at Sing Sing Prison.

Now “A.F.” suggests Ann Forrest. By mystery logic I guess that makes her innocent. But, assuming this quotation isn’t apropos of nothing, who else could it be? I guess they could be the real initials of Mr Smith, or they could also belong to Bones, whose name we’ve never learned. Unless maybe this is going to end with Ann Forrest killing the actual murderer.

Chapter 15 – The Ring

Ellery briefly thinks that his dad is dead, and is annoyed with himself for crying at this. He’s getting more and more sympathetic with every passing page! Naturally the Inspector isn’t dead, only chloroformed. Ellery does the time honoured detective thing and tastes the liquid from the vial by the corpse. This is apparently not dangerous and a totally fool-proof way of telling if something is poisonous.

Oh… It’s Mark Xavier who’s left the J as a dying message. So all my previous thinking was nonsense.

Wow. The poison turns out to be my new favourite: oxalic acid! That’s exciting, but then what was the beetle label on the cover about?

Ellery proceeds to rouse the household and expounds his latest theory: that Mark Xavier framed Mrs X because that way he could get her money without killing her. Because of course people are often convicted on the strength of playing cards, and there was no possibility that the real killer might be caught!

(This is Ellery’s terrible super-power: because he gets to be right by authorial fiat, his proclamations retroactively make the people he meets and gets killed into idiots. He can literally send stupidity hurtling backwards through time.)

Ellery explains how implausible it is that Mark Xavier would have left a torn J as a dying message when there was a pen and some paper in the same drawer as the playing cards. Unfortunately the topsy-turvy logic of this book means that I can’t work out whether he’s saying he thinks it’s a plant or not.

But enough griping! Something genuinely interesting has happened. While the Inspector was asleep, his ring was stolen. I still don’t have the foggiest what these rings have to do with anything.

Chapter 16 – The Diamond Knave

Ellery is “more fascinated by the theft of [the Inspector’s] ring than by anything that’s happened so far”. I’m inclined to agree with him.

As the Queens discuss the case on the terrace, they hear a noise from inside. Someone has tried to break open the cabinet with the pack of cards in it. They look through the deck (which I really feel Ellery ought to have done before) and find that the J is missing.

I still don’t have much of a theory. I wonder if Mr Smith might be Mrs Carreau’s husband. He’s supposed to be dead, but that’s never stopped anyone in a mystery being alive before (in fact it’s often a good sign!). Maybe he’s called Jack? Or Jacques? Because of course in the book the Jack of Diamonds is consistently referred to as the Knave of Diamonds, possibly as misdirection for a name clue…

We’re running out of pages to accuse the twins, though. It would be a bit dull if they did it. They’re going to have to be accused pretty soon, I reckon.

Chapter 17 – The Knave’s Tale

The Queens come up with my original theory – that Dr X died with the J in his hand and it was switched out for the 6.

They also reach the inevitable conclusion that the Jack of Diamonds in Dr X’s hand must have been torn, or Mark could have returned it to the solitaire unnoticed. That’s reasonable enough, and it sort of gives a semi-plausible reason for why Mark Xavier might have torn the 6 in half (association with the torn jack he found – although of course he didn’t need to duplicate it exactly because he planned that no-one else would see it). However the fact that Ellery doesn’t mention it makes me suspicious that EQ just didn’t think of it.

One thing isn’t really clear from Ellery’s musings: is there supposed to be a half-jack still floating around or not?

Anyway, the suspects are gathered and Ellery does what I’ve been waiting about 150 pages for him to do: realises the Diamond/Carreau connection and accuses one of the twins but not the other (he doesn’t specify which). The apparent motive, as I suspected it might be, is that they were afraid that the separation would go fatally wrong. Miss Forrest quickly points out my own objection: why not just leave?

While they’re arguing about this they hear a sound. At first they think it’s thunder, but it turns out to be an aeroplane.

Chapter 18 – The Last Refuge

Ha! Awesome. The plane wasn’t coming to help them, but to drop off a message basically saying “You’re screwed! Sorry!” They decide to dig a trench to try and stop the fire. I can’t help but think they should have tried that a few days ago instead of worrying about torn playing cards and shooting each other for no reason.

The writing for these sections concerning the fire has been consistently good. It’s very melodramatic and implausible, but it’s certainly exciting.

As the fire approaches the house, they take the last food and water down to the cellar. Ann Forrest rips off her dress, and the Inspector finally gets to see those knickers he’s been yearning for all book. At least he’ll die a happy man.

They huddle in the cellar as the fire reaches the garage and the cars explode. R.I.P. Duesenberg.

And that’s the end of the penultimate chapter. Isn’t there going to be a “Challenge to the Reader”? I thought all the nationality murders had one. I’m going to put the book down and see if I can work out how the J could mean something other than the twins.

Right. Well with only one chapter left and no plausible explanation offered so far, the missing rings must have something to do with it. But what could that be? I’m still inclined to think that there was one ring in particular that was important and the other thefts are just a blind, ABC murders style.

So what are my theories?

– That Perceval Holmes did it, because he disapproved of the surgery. But then that would have nothing to do with the rings. And offer no explanation for the J, unless he planted it as a frame. But why would he accuse the twins if he wanted to save them? Because accusing one of them was unlikely to harm them because murderers who are one half of a pair of conjoined twins tend to get let off?

– That Smith is actually a Carreau. Explains the Jack but not the rings, unless it’s something to do with wedding rings. But that’s weak. Against this is the fact that Mrs Carreau’s husband is supposed to be dead. And when he was alive he was supposed to be rich, so why would he need to blackmail her?

– Then there’s my joking theory from way back at the beginning, that the person accused in “Chapter 9 – The Murderer” is the murderer, because mystery writers love to parade the truth in front of readers. That would make the killer Mrs Xavier. That’s not a bad theory. It has a nice irony, in that Mark Xavier framed the real murderer by mistake. It also explains her hysterical confession, which the Queens haven’t really been able to provide a satisfactory reason for. In this theory it was simply genuine, and when Ellery later “exonerated” her with his smart-assery she leapt at the chance to retract it. Assuming the J was a frame up job as in the Holmes theory (Mrs X presumably wouldn’t care about framing the twins) it also fits in really nicely with Mrs X’s bewilderment at the 6 being found. It wasn’t because she solved the rebus, but because she knew it was supposed to be the J. The motive would presumably be to do with the rings, but I still don’t know what that would be.

Against the theory? Well Mrs X doesn’t really seem to have done anything to incriminate the twins, which is the logical follow-up to her plan. And it wouldn’t explain why Mark Xavier left the second J. He’d only do that if he thought one of the twins was the murderer, but he must surely have seen his killer. Unless both Jacks were red-herrings? That seems a bit too stupid.

Well I think I’m going to go for that, on the simple basis that I managed to find the most to write about it.

Chapter 19 – The Queen’s Tale

Oh. I was right. It was Mrs X.

Turns out all the playing cards were red-herrings. Ostensibly the motive was that she was a kleptomaniac and obsessed with rings. Ellery smoked her out by putting his own ring in the middle of the room until she broke down. That’s…. well that’s not like any kleptomania I’ve ever heard or read about. It also doesn’t really explain why she killed her husband. So presumably the motive from her earlier confession was the true one, and she was madly jealous of Mrs Carreau. I guess the real explanation was that she was suffering from some sort of unspecified mental illness (to be fair to EQ, kleptomania does often go hand-in-hand with serious mental disorders. And also eating disorders, strangely enough).

It does explain some nice things though, such as why neither Dr or Mrs X had any rings. It also explains the existence of the crazy mountain-top house: Dr X built it so that his wife could be kept away from temptation. I like it when last chapter revelations explain why the whole situation came about. (Although would Dr X really have not confided in his assistant? It seems silly to build a mansion in the middle of nowhere to protect your wife from rings, only to then employ an assistant who owns some.)

Anyway, we’ll leave that for the post mortem. Mrs X confesses, then she runs out of the cellar into the fire. Gruesome.

After Ellery explains some loose ends, the Inspector peeks out of cellar only to find that it’s raining.

I guess that’s supposed to indicate that they’re saved, but I’m not completely convinced. Have you seen how much water it takes to fight a forest fire? Anyway, I should stop being such a grouch, because that’s the end!

Post Mortem

Hmm. Lots going on here, so this wrap-up is probably going to be a bit disjointed. If I was going to give an overall reaction it would probably be “unsatisfied”. There was lots to enjoy, but just as much to sigh at.

The kleptomania angle seems weak. I really liked some of the things it explained, but in the end it didn’t have anything to do with the murders. I also don’t think it is kleptomania. Surely kleptomaniacs usually steal anything small and valueless, they don’t get obsessed with a particular type of item? And they don’t steal them when everyone’s looking! What Mrs X seems to have is just an obsession with rings. I can believe that such a thing exists, but in a book that would need a lot of setting up.

I’ve mentioned my distaste towards the treatment of mental illness across the whole genre before. One of the things I really don’t like (this is usually confined to Midsomer Murders and books with terrible serial killer torture plots) is when the culprit suddenly reveals at the end that they’re mad, mad, MAD!!! even though they’ve seemed perfectly normal throughout the rest of the story. I don’t deny that some people are so ill that they’re completely detached from the reality that others inhabit, and I also don’t deny that some people are so adept at hiding their symptoms that even their closest family never know that something is wrong. But these aren’t the same people. Weaker mystery writers often want to have it both ways, with healthy-seeming people holding down regular professional jobs while also committing murders, taunting police and perfectly hiding their symptoms who turn into gibbering monsters when they’re unmasked in the final chapters. That’s just not believable.

This is nowhere near as bad as that, but there really is no indication whatsoever that Mrs X is obsessed with rings, other than the fact that neither she nor her husband owns any. That’s a good clue, as I’ve already said, but it’s not sufficient on its own. Ellery must have been wearing the ring he uses to taunt her at the end throughout the entire story, but as far as I can tell it’s never mentioned. If Mrs X was really as obsessed as she seems to be at the end, unable to even stand to be near a ring without grasping for it, then it’s hard to believe she would have been able to mask it completely throughout the first part of the story. Mrs X never looks at anyone’s hands or mentions rings or jewellery at all. Simply indicating that her behaviour is a bit weird doesn’t seem enough.

I think if I was writing it I would have had the Queens find a stash of all sorts of different rings somewhere. Possibly somewhere associated with the housekeeper, as she really didn’t get much attention directed towards her.

What else? I’m a bit miffed that all the stuff with the playing cards turned out to be bogus. It was by far the dullest part of the book, and required a lot of long, tedious and not completely convincing explanations. To then find that it was all basically irrelevant is pretty irritating. It’s also annoying for a reason that often comes up in these too-complicated mysteries: the reader doesn’t know what has to be accepted as a genre convention and what genuinely needs to be explained away as part of the solution. Ellery says during the last chapter that he’s realised that he was wrong to believe in the dying messages because “they were much too subtle to emanate from the minds of dying men”. Just ponder the consequences of that for a minute! Firstly, it means that a lot of subsequent EQ mysteries that do rely on dying messages are total bunkum, condemned from the past by Ellery’s own logic…

Secondly, it’s a bloody cheek!

I never thought that a dying clue based on playing cards was plausible in the slightest (cf. the Contents section above). But I grudgingly went along with it because I thought it was only fair to the authors. That’s what readers do when they read mysteries – or any sort of fiction really – they agree to gloss over the implausibilities in exchange for a good story. So when the solution was that you shouldn’t have been so nice to the author in the first place, it’s hard not to feel cheated. I wasn’t legitimately fooled, I was taken advantage of. And how, in a story that Ellery himself constantly admits is rife with melodrama and implausibilities, was I supposed to pick that one particular sort of implausibility and declare it to be a clue instead?

(It’s not as bad as that most obnoxious and overrated of mysteries, Obelists Fly High by C. Daly King. The solution to that is a real kick in the teeth; almost mocking the reader for stupidity when actually they were generously and graciously going along with some obviously made up science out of misplaced kindness towards the author.)

I don’t think it’s cheating. But it’s not really very satisfying.

I think it’s interesting how close my predictions based on the cover, title, character list and chapter titles were. I noticed (albeit half-heartedly) that chapter 9 being called The Murderer might be a double bluff. I also predicted most of the arc related to the twins, although I was helped by seeing the torn J on the cover. Perhaps only seeing Knave of Diamonds on the chapter list would have been sufficient for me to draw the same conclusions, I can’t be sure.

[EDIT] It turns out that a lot of different publishers went with the J on the front cover idea. I suppose it is a much more visually interesting card than the 6. But it still undermines the mystery. But Hamlyn aren’t alone in botching it. [EDIT]

Speaking of the cover, I wish I’d never looked at it. That stupid bottle coloured a lot of my thinking, and in the end it just turned out to be a bottle with a fancy label that someone at Hamlyn obviously thought looked cool. (Now that the internet is back on I can reveal that the label on the bottle is for a cantharide, possibly Spanish Fly of all things!) It also caused me to be misled by a presumably innocent comment about Dr X having a very stiff arm. Although I’m still not really clear what EQ was going on about there. Usually when something gets mentioned at the end of a chapter it’s an important piece of info. I guess it was just supposed to be suspenseful.

It worth saying for a third time: I think the title was a real error. So much of the suspense in the first third is undercut by the fact that it’s obvious that there are going to be Siamese Twins. I know that they picked it to fit in with the “nationality” theme they had going (Roman Hat, French Powder, Greek Coffin etc. etc.) but it’s still a problem.

Even when the twins do show up, they’re a bit of a let-down. They hardly get any dialogue, and they barely get a mention in the final scene. I think there should especially have been some description during the trench digging scene. I was impressed by their characterisation when they first showed up, but it soon seemed like EQ got bored with them.

I also think that quotation ascribed to “A.F.” at the beginning of the fourth part is a bit cheap. In the end it had nothing to do with anything.

In fact there weren’t many subtle clues at all. I appreciate that preferring subtlety is really just an aesthetic preference, but the overemployment of Ellery’s intuition to introduce vital information borders on clumsiness.

But it’s not all complaints at my end! I really enjoyed all the non-mystery parts with the fire. It escalated at the right pace and was almost like a dream by the end. In fact I’d have happily dispensed with all the playing card stuff (and maybe even the twins) and had a much simpler mystery that really accuented the peril of the fire. Although it was a nice touch that the ash in the air is what allowed the thumbprints to be left on the cards. Despite my snark about the rain, I think it’s a really elegant ending. It would have been even better if they hadn’t mentioned the possibility of rain in the penultimate chapter. The trench-digging scene was a highlight, as was the scene in the cellar. In fact, if EQ had just let the melodrama be melodramatic instead of pointing it out all the time it would have been almost perfect.

So, all in all, I’d say it was a very uneven mystery. Some of the best writing I’ve come across in an EQ book, but also an ample helping of the problems that seem to dog the series. It might make a good film though, and that would give someone the opportunity to rewrite almost all of Ellery’s dialogue!

3 thoughts on “Solve-Along #3 – The Siamese Twin Mystery (Ellery Queen, 1933)

  1. I read and really enjoyed your Solve-Along, after having just read the book myself. So, I’m curious what you thought of the appearance of the Giant Crab that Inspector Queen saw, for which there was no later explanation of later inside the story?

  2. Thanks! I’m afraid it’s a long time since I read this, so I don’t remember all the details. But surely the “giant crab” is just the Inspector’s impression of the Twins in the dark? Because of the positioning of the arms, conjoined twins in silhouette would seem like a single creature with six limbs…

    • I thought this too. I was also wondering if this could have been Dr. Percival Holmes in some version of a contemporary laboratory protective garment to prevent damage as he examined conjoined animals in their laboratory’s vivarium.

      I was a bit surprised how this was not commented at all in the story.

      Thank you for your reply!

      ::Brian::

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