I sampled two new (new to me) mystery writers recently. I had heard of both, but neither’s books are terribly well-known nowadays. Everyone has heard of Agatha Christie and Raymond Chandler, and to a lesser extent people know Dorothy Sayers and Erle Stanley Gardner, but who today is really familiar with Ellery Queen and SS Van Dine? So I got the first book of each author, The Roman Hat Mystery and The Benson Murder Case, from the library and read them.

Both author’s names are pseudonyms, but in the first case there are actually two people who collaborated to write the stories and in the second it was only one person. The conceit of the Ellery Queen tales is that the author is also the detective and is a well-known author of mystery stories within the world of the books as well. Layers upon layers. Van Dine’s books feature a detective, Philo Vance by name, who is something of a cross between Sherlock Holmes and Peter Wimsey. He has the lazy upper class mannerisms of Wimsey combined with the supreme ability and confidence (though in Vance’s case it crosses into being supercilious arrogance) of Holmes. And, furthering the comparison to Holmes, he has his very own Watson who tags along and then writes the case file for publication later in the person of Van Dine.

The Ellery Queen book was good. I enjoyed the mystery, the clues were laid out for one to follow and the author played quite fair with the reader throughout. The detective was quirky enough to be interesting, without being weird enough to be off-putting. Philo Vance, on the other hand, was not very good at all. Vance was irritating in the extreme and the story was not put together well. Vance spent an inordinate amount of time insulting the intelligence of everyone else and behaving like a cad. The police, and presumably the readers by extension, are expected to be uncommonly dense and to miss obvious clues. The author, via his detective, propounds a ridiculous theory of detection based entirely upon psychology and discounting all physical evidence, and I mean all. I intend to read more of the Ellery Queen novels (though not all, since they began to be written by ghostwriters after a couple decades), but I am done with Van Dine.

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