In The Chinese Orange Mystery the victim was stripped naked and re-dressed with his clothes on backwards in order to hide a missing piece of attire. In The Spanish Cape Mystery, the victim is stripped naked and left naked: the piece of clothing found at the crime scene proves to be a vital clue as well as the title of the novel. They tried a mystery one way, and now they were trying it another way.
The cousins writing as Ellery Queen had been easing away from the dense explanatory texts, which defined their earliest novels, and they did this with awareness. For instance, at one point in The Spanish Cape Mystery, Ellery declares, “I didn’t know; it seemed, however, a likely happenstance. Let’s defer discussion of the actual thought process; I’ll tell you about it some day. Now suppose you tell me what’s happened.” In previous novels, Ellery would have explained his thought process, and the explanation would have gone on for several pages. Plus, Ellery would never have asked another investigator for their opinion.
In the same vein of awareness, fictional preface-writer J J Mc quotes a mutual friend: “Every time I ask Queen out to my shack for an evening or a weekend I hold my great. He attracts murders the way a hound – if he’ll pardon
the figure – attracts fleas.”
In Spanish Cape, to be fair, Ellery arrives at a shack to find not a corpse, rather a bound kidnap victim. The corpse, apparently, is at the neighboring shack. Said shack is home to the wealthy couple, with guests galore: their daughter, her uncle, the murder victim, two of his lovers and their husbands. Rounding out the menagerie are the help, including a runaway maid and a butler deserving of his own fiction series.
The book, of course, was written for the mid-1930s reader, and abounds in now-obscure cultural references: Skeezix, the foundling in the comic strip Gasoline Alley is alluded to, as is the “kaffee-klatch.” Unfortunately, the language describing women is also of its time. For instance, Ellery refers to one woman as a “Very beautiful young wench. I approve.” Even worse is that the naked corpse is played for all the sexual thrills it can be: “The gentleman, Inspector: was he in the habit of strolling about in what I confess is a very fetching nude, or was last night a special occasion?”
The local inspector responds: “If he was, he must have given the gals around here a great big thrill.” A man has been murdered, strangled to death with wire, and they concentrate about how fetching his body is, how thrilling it must have been for women to see. Really? If the novelists were more self-aware, I think we would investigate how the authors were thrilled by the idea of the naked corpse, and what this had to do with their latent feelings.
Despite this, there area some more interesting passages. For instance, the host, upon hearing that his wife had slept with the victim, muses: “I often wondered how a man feels, when he learns that his wife has been unfaithful to him. You read about it in the papers – he takes a revolver, he beats her head in, he commits suicide…” Godfrey paused. “But it hurts. Damn it all, it hurts, Stella.”
Our man Godfrey decides not to act out in misogynistic violence. Good for him. But I’m starting to sound like a broken record, talking of the obvious racism and sexism in these popular novels. What I wonder at is the subtle messages I’m totally missing out on. The novel titles up to this point refer to nations. During the 1930s, I can only assume that the mention of such nations held more of a charge than they do today. What were the assumptions inherent in the terms “Spanish,” “Chinese,” “Siamese,” “American,” and so on? How would the titles have resonated differently if they had been “The Greek Gun Mystery,” or “The American Hat Mystery,” or “The French Coffin Mystery?” Were those alternate titles even a possibility at the time, or were ethnic assumptions so inbred that they did not have to be spoken, and those alternate titles would have been totally nonviable?
Anyway, some of the then new trend of introducing psychological elements does creep into the novel. The first paragraph of Chapter 8 records a murder-related dream Ellery has one night. This is certainly a welcome diversion, but Ellery immediately dismisses the dream. “Can’t say that vaunted subconscious of mine has been of any assistance.”
And, finally, in another moment of non-procedural interest, Ellery philosophizes: “That’s the trouble with clever men,” muttered Ellery. “A crime being necessary, according to their lights, they determine to commit it so ingeniously,that it will be insoluble. But the cleverer they are and the more complex their schemes, the more danger they run of going wrong. The perfect crime!” He shook his head wearily. “The perfect crime is the chance killing of an unknown man in a dark alley with no witnesses. Nothing fancy. There are a hundred perfect crimes every year committed by so-called sub-moronic thugs.”
Of course, the procedurals of those crimes would never sell newspapers, much less series of novels and short stories.
And movies. This was the first novel adapted directly to the silver screen. Earlier in the year, the cousins wrote the flop “Danger, Men Working” for Broadway (and was filmed as The Crime Nobody Saw, in 1937) They sold Spanish Cape to Republic Pictures, known for their prodigious output of B-movies. According to the king of Queenophilia,Francis M. Nevins, “Fred [Dannay] once told me that if he was watching TV in bed at night and a Queen-based movie came on, he’d duck under the covers.”
And really, who can blame him? For starters, the naked man isn’t even naked! Donald Cook played Ellery, and even though Inspector Queen was not in the novel, Guy Usher played him anyway. A usual cast of B-actors filled out the cast. While The Spanish Cape Mystery was certainly not the cousin’s best effort, the movie was much, much worse. Don’t take my word for it. Watch it here!