The Spanish Cape Mystery (1935) by Ellery Queen

Like the title, the introductory quote ‘Nudaque veritas’ (Latin for ‘naked truth’) has a dual meaning, though in this instance bearing both a literal and abstract interpretation. In addition, The Spanish Cape Mystery (1935) includes the typographical features we readily associate with traditional Golden Age detective fiction: A cast of characters divided in to groups, a paragraph entitled ‘The Scene,’ which describes in a very factual way the location of the novel, Spanish Cape and a foreword written by a friend of Ellery Queen who gets to hear about all Queen’s exploits. Similar to many fictional sleuths, Queen ‘is constantly being either preceded or followed by crimes of a violent nature’ and on his vacation to Spanish Cape with his friend Judge Macklin is no different.

The Spanish Cape Mystery

On arriving at their rented cottage, they find a young woman named Rosa Godfrey bound to a chair, with an unusual story to tell. The previous night a mysterious man who Rosa can only describe in terms as ‘giant,’ ‘Cyclops’ and ‘Monster’ kidnap both her and her uncle David Krummer at gun point from her home, bringing them to this cottage near the beach. Whilst Rosa is left in the cottage, it appears David has been knocked unconscious and taken out to sea by this unknown assailant. The real twist in the story is that the kidnapper believed David was a man named Marco. The story becomes even more complicated when it turns out at Rosa’s home, John Marco, a guest there has been found murdered on the terrace, wearing nothing more than a cape. The circumstances of the crime point to the killer being within Rosa’s home and aside from her parents, who are incredibly difficult and prickly with the police, there is an assortment of other suspicious guests:

  • Earle Corte, a young man who has being having an on/off relationship with Rosa;
  • Laura Constable, a woman who is inexplicably fearful and anxious after the murder;
  • Celica Munn, a woman on to her second marriage and has a colourful past having had careers in modelling, Hollywood and Broadway and is married to;
  • Joseph Mann, who is the typical shifty character who made his fortune in dubious ways.

Inspector Moley is in charge of the case, though he is eager for Queen and Macklin to assist him. The tracing of the kidnapper seems to be the only early success for Moley as the Godfrey family and guests are difficult witnesses, reluctant to admit the slightest thing or even allow the servants to reveal what they know, though one servant in particular is of invaluable assistance to Queen. However, Moley and Queen’s hard work pays off and a picture of who Marco was begins to form and it ain’t pretty, revealing a man whose actions made him more than just your ordinary bad sort. Motives are abundant in this novel such as romantic jealousy or a woman scorned, but this is one of the less taxing questions for our investigators. Trickier one’s to answer include, Why did Mrs Godfrey invite people she had not met before to her home? Where is Mrs Godfrey’s maid? Why was Marco writing to a lawyer in New York? Where is Marco’s clothing and most importantly of all, where is David?

Queen in this novel is a king of logical reasoning and following up clues, though he is not above eavesdropping:

‘In short, Ellery found himself perched on the horns of the usual dilemma: to eavesdrop or not to eavesdrop. Now, while eavesdropping is an affront to hospitality, it is an essential to the business of detection; and the great question in Ellery’s mind was: Was he first a guest, or was he first a detective?’

However, the death of Marco does not mean the end of all criminal actions or dead bodies, with human carelessness and avarice perpetuating both these things. This is mystery where the motivation is easy to unravel, but the exact procedure of the killing and name of the killer is more fiendishly difficult to discover and not something I managed to properly do. Although earlier on in the novel Queen declares that catching murderers is ‘merely the mathematician’ in him, who can ‘recognise the pattern’ of a particular crime, it turns out that ‘the human equation [does] mean…’ something to Queen after all and he is rather distressed by his duty to reveal the killer, though not without having issued a challenge to the reader first. The only uncomfortable moment in the book is when Queen’s habit of eavesdropping allows domestic abuse to occur and I felt for the information gained, the lack of intervention was ethically questionable.

On the whole I thought this was a complex and interesting mystery, with a dramatic twist at the end on a suitably stormy night. The allusions to other fictional sleuths such as S. S. Van Dine’s detective, Philo Vance were great to read, however, to be honest, reading the pages and pages and pages of Queen’s journey to the truth was a little trying at points due to its detail and it did affect narrative pace a bit. I enjoyed Queen’s descriptions of people and Moley’s investigations are not burdened with repetitious interviews, though I can’t say I got attached or involved with the characters. I think Queen’s focus and valuing of logic and theorising is a style I need to get accustomed to before I can fully appreciate its value.

Rating: 3.25

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  1. Certainly the early Queens – with their strict focus on the logic and ratiocination behind the commission of a crime – do take some getting used to. My very first Ellery Queen was The Greek Coffin Mystery, which has some of the finest narrative reversals in the series in my experience (there’s one particular set of traps I walked straight into, convinced I was deftly avoiding all the regular pitfalls of the mystery reader…ah, the folly of youth), but it’s an exhausting read and really stretches the patience a little with it’s “Just one more thing…”-style of working things through.

    But then the later Queens that I’ve read – and be aware that the name was ‘hired out’ later on, so Dannay and Lee didn’t write a lot of the very late stuff – don’t have the same rigour and don’t read as well as a result. There’s probably a rish seam of middle-period Queen which alances it all wonderfully, but I’ve not read them consistently enough to be able to state with any authority where that may begin and end. I’ve not even read The Chinese Orange Mystery, for pity’s sake, and I call myself an enthusiast of impossible crimes…!

    Liked by 1 person

    • The Greek Coffin Mystery sounds quite mentally exhausting, though the sneakiness you speak of does sound intriguing. My favourite Queen to date ironically is actually The Chinese Orange Mystery and I think you would enjoy the puzzle element of it.


      • TGCM is wonderful but, yeah, exhausting is the word. I shall absolutely get to TCOM – and others bedsides – I just have others to clear aout of the way first. Pleased to hear you’re off to a good start with Dannay and Lee, though; they did so much important stuff for the crime story and they really do desrve the widest possible audience.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. I enjoy Ellery Queen’s novels, though I confess that the middle section tends to move slightly slower than I would prefer. I don’t recall many, if any, impossible crimes in the titles I read; ‘The Door Between’ sounds like it has a locked-room scenario, though I’ve not read that one. I’m glad to see that you have ‘Origin of Evil’ on your TBR pile.

    I recall enjoying the first 3 Nationality novels (‘Roman Hat’, ‘French Powder Mystery’ and ‘Dutch Shoe’), as well as ‘There was an Old Woman’ and ‘Face to Face’. I didn’t enjoy ‘Egyptian Cross’ and ‘Cat of Many Tails’; give me ‘ABC Murders’ any day – and that’s not even the best of Christie!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Wow you’ve read a lot of Queen novels! I think this novel is the earliest Queen novel I have read, but I shall look out for the three early you mention. I have also read The King is Dead, There was an Old Woman and The Chinese Orange Mystery, the latter of which is my favourite Queen to date. Think Origin of Evil is a later Queen so it will be interesting to see how the writing might have changed.


      • I don’t think I’ve read that many Queen novels; as per my reading habits, I’ve left what I’ve heard to be the best (‘Greek Coffin’ and ‘Siamese Twin’) to the last. Though I think I might try ‘Player on the Other Side’, ‘Origin of Evil’ and ‘Ten Days Wonder’ first. I’ve heard mixed reviews of ‘The King is Dead’ – what did you make of it?

        Liked by 1 person

        • erm from what I remember it was an okay novel, didn’t knock my socks off. I’ve also read Ten Days Wonder, but the fact I forgot this in my last message, doesn’t suggest that I liked it enough to remember it sufficiently. Struggling to think now what on earth it was about!


  3. […] ‘On the whole I thought this was a complex and interesting mystery, with a dramatic twist at the end on a suitably stormy night. The allusions to other fictional sleuths such as S. S. Van Dine’s detective, Philo Vance were great to read, however, to be honest, reading the pages and pages and pages of Queen’s journey to the truth was a little trying at points due to its detail and it did affect narrative pace a bit.’  (crossexaminingcrime) […]


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