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The French Powder Mystery The forgotten vocabulary word of the day, apparently, is “negress.”  Yes, “negress,” as in a woman of African ancestry.  Not to be confused with the male “negro.” Now, like most Americans, I like to consider myself somewhat conversed in my nation’s racist past, and as an historian, I am constantly reminded of it. Every so often, I am surprised by the depth of racism which took hold of the hearts of my Euro-American ancestors. In The French Powder Mystery, a department store employee is repeatedly referred to as a “negress,” and, of course, she speaks in dialect.  The non-African characters speak in whole words, and are never referred to by their skin color.  The debutantes are never called WASPetttes, for instance. To be fair, though, the two African-American characters are never treated poorly by any of the other characters, and are portrayed as, well, regular people, along with the rest.  The authors were merely lazy, and based character on race.  This led, at best, to depthless characterizations. I mention all of this because it is the major flaw of The French Powder Mystery, Ellery Queen’s sophomore effort.  Actually, a lack of depth of character could by said to run rampant throughout the book.  The players are merely scenery in this second “Problem in Deduction.”  The novel is about solving a mystery in an ordered, logical manner. But that has always been the problem, hasn’t it?  Minds are wonderful things, capable of great flights of fancy, of introducing order to a chaotic world. When hermetically sealed, those flights can form grand trajectories, usually coming to bizarre conclusions about groups seen as “other,” a pure logical construct which can be totally divorced from both humanity and reality.  Then social policy emerges from those alien recesses, and, well, I digress. Like its predecessor, The Roman Hat Mystery, The French Powder Mystery does approach social issues, which may have been unusual to some in 1930.  The main issues of drug use and the secrecy of the drug underworld certainly remain relevant today.  Above all, though, the cousins were still just getting started, and still putting the mystery above the people involved in the mystery. The world of the victim and his family (the owners of a large Department store) is intriguing.  Most of the action takes place in a secluded, private penthouse apartment, hidden above the department store.  Used sparingly by the five people who have keys to the place, it is a folly of an apartment which today would seem highly improbable.  What architect would actually design a building with such a limited access set of rooms?  Did apartments like this actually exist, or was this created by the cousins whole cloth, to hermetically seal the possibilities of the tale?  Was the hermetically sealed apartment the perfect dwelling for the hermetically sealed characters?

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