At last, a really good Ellery Queen short story! The characters have at least some individuality, the mystery intrigues, and, for once, the racially insensitive remarks seem to represent the views of characters, and not the authors.
This story sees Ellery relaxing, coming down from his sterile tower, even breaking the law: “In defiance of fire regulations Ellery lit a cigaret and puffed throughfully [sic].”
Like its predecessor, “The Adventure of the Three Lame Men,” “The Adventure of the Hanging Acrobat” concerns itself with marital infidelity, this one with the jealous husband of of beautiful woman. Ancient attitudes towards sexuality show up, though, as Inspector Queen says of the murderer and the victim, ““He’s not a bad sort, just dumb. Well, she got what was coming to her.” Such sympathy for the murderer, and blaming the murder victim, in domestic violence cases remains prevalent to this day, most notably, recently, with prosecutors in Virginia.
For his part, the ever “objective” Ellery responds to his father with: “Dear, dear, drawled Ellery. “Philosophy, Inspector? I’m really not interested in the moral aspects of crime…” No one is present in this story to express concern over domestic violence, only that the woman, somehow, “got what was coming to her.”
But, then again, where do the views of the writers end and those of the characters begin? Were the cousins merely reporting the realities of attitudes of the day? Were they writing the characters, or were they the characters themselves? The change in how the ethnic slurs are presented hints that the cousins were writing from what they heard around them. They either did so unquestioningly, or did so because it was expected of them (see, for instance, the tale of Will Eisner’s Ebony character who editors insisted Eisner retain in the series), because they really were conscious promoters of racism and sexism. On the other hand, if these socially acceptable views of the time were so prevalent, I stand in even greater awe of those people who fought so hard to change our culture.
Whichever the answer turns out to be, the reads are starting here, anyway, becoming better written, with more depth. There are even clues and hints which have nothing to do with solving the case. The knot of magician Gordi, for instance, has nothing to do with Gordian’s Knot. The cousins just threw that one in for some slight humor.