For the past couple of weeks I have been focusing on the novels by Ellery Queen, but this week for the Tuesday Night Bloggers, I am looking at one of their short stories. I have often found it intriguing the changes which happen when an author who writes novels switches to writing short stories and vice versa. Sometimes the change of format works really well, whilst with others such as H. C. Bailey’s Mr Fortune it does not.
‘The Adventure of the Dauphin Doll’ (1948), a title which stylistically echoes Arthur Conan Doyle, begins by directly addressing the theme of the Christmas themed story suggesting what it should include. Children is a must and the narrator says, ‘this Christmas story is no exception; indeed misopedists will complain that we have overdone it,’ which hints that Queen is not taking the sub-genre entirely seriously. The story then continues by looking backwards at the life of Miss Cytherea Ypson, the only child of a philandering Professor of Greek and an ‘Iowa poultry heiress.’ However, her significance is in her death, as in her will she states that her extensive doll collection should be auctioned, with the proceeds going to orphaned children and that this collection should be first displayed at Nash’s Department store on Christmas Eve. Practically all of the collection though is worthless, except for the Dauphin Doll, which belonged to 18th century French royalty and contains a very valuable diamond. Mr Bondling who is in charge of all of this, however, is greatly worried, as it seems the uncatchable and Arsene Lupin-like thief, Comus (the name for a god of festive joy and also of an 18th century conjuror) is planning to steal the Dauphin Doll. Determined to prevent this, Mr Bondling calls on the assistance of Inspector Queen and his son, the day before the display.
The Queens at Christmas is an amusing sight as Inspector Queen is said to spend 22 hours making his turkey stuffing and Ellery apparently becomes ‘a frustrated gift-wrapper.’ Despite this story being quite late into the Queen canon, Ellery seems to resume his earlier optimistic and sportsman-like qualities of treating detective work as a game when speaking to Comus on the phone:
‘Under ordinary circumstances I’d welcome the sporting chance to put you where you belong. But these circumstances are not ordinary. That doll represents the major asset of a future fund for orphaned children. I’d rather we didn’t play catch with it. Comus, what do you say we call this one off?’
However Comus does not agree so the following day sees the Queens along with others trying to stop the theft from taking place. This part of the story seems littered with false alarms and there is a constant anxiety that Comus will be impersonating someone. The fact Comus sends a note to Queen suggests that he is one step ahead and is also seeing this event as a game. Throughout the day no one goes near or touches the doll, so when the store shuts, the Queens are convinced they have succeeded. But this is not the case, when Mr Bondling cries that the doll is a copy.
The remaining pages of the story are devoted to the Queens and others trying to solve how it was done and to condense the ruminations and deductions of Ellery, it seems the writers have altered the typography to include a question, answer and conclusion format. The solution of course is an intelligent one, but not so baffling that the reader themselves could not reach it. Justice itself is not executed within the pages of the story, but is vaguely hinted at, as occurring in the future. Ironically, this Christmas story does not conclude with festivities, the Christmas atmosphere having rapidly dissipated by this point, with the characters eating pastrami on Christmas Day, whilst trying to solve the mystery.
Overall, it did remind me more of the earlier outings of Ellery Queen, though the language and syntax use was a bit of a mouthful at times: ‘her father’s philo-progenitiveness throbbed frustrate in her mother’s stony womb…’ for example, and nor did I appreciate the witticism that ‘a good trick, like a good woman, is best in the dark’. However I did enjoy the typographical choices made, one I have already mentioned, but there was also a play-like script moment and also a point where the editor enters the work, deleting a rude comment made by Sergeant Velie, which makes the story verge on the metafictional. I think the writers did well transferring Queen from full length novel to short story format, as structurally it did remind me of the Holmes short stories which began with a client bringing a specific problem to the detective. Although I do think pace wise it perhaps felt a little rushed at points, but that might be because I am used to reading Ellery Queen in novel format.