In the reviewer’s opinion there is little reason to read this book unless one is a particular fan of Queen, or feels a pressing need to read every book in this series, or is interesting in development of American detective stories or wishes to peer into one aspect of popular culture at the time the book was written. Although The Siamese Twin Mystery was published within a year of the first Nero Wolfe novel there is little to suggest that Queen and Wolfe lived in the same city. And while Stout’s sparse style reveals an amazing amount of about characters Queen’s more convoluted writing results in two-dimensional characters that are often little more than stereotypes.
Both authors center most of their books around a detective who, the reader is told, is brilliant. Stout manages to demonstrate Wolfe’s brilliance so convincingly that it is often only later that the reader notices any holes in his arguments or gaps in his logic. Queen’s deductions not only require credulity they are too often obviously overstretched or simply wrong.
The broad setup of this book is strangely reminiscent of Murder in the Calais Coach/Murder on the Orient Express. In both cases the detective (Poirot/Queen) is cut off from the outside world with a small number of people among whom is a murderer. In both cases the detectives are without access to information, backup, and forensic analysts. While Christie’s book is by no means among my favourites it is technically competent. Queen’s is neither technically competent nor well-paced and contains some egregious forensic/medical errors and a truly disturbing level of prejudice. In addition to the normal catalog of simplifications, over-generalizations and stereotypes the reader comes to expect in books published in this period there are constant, incessant and gratuitous reminders of how “fat” one of the characters is. There is scarcely a passage in which that character appears in which his weight is not brought up—often in the most vivid and denigrating fashion.
Queen (the detective) overlooks a simple and obvious clue/detail when the first body is discovered. This reviewer noticed it immediately for the simple reason that the knowledge necessary to “catch” the clue was central to discovering the murder in an earlier Queen novel. That Ellery Queen forgets and then remembers that diabetes speeds up the onset of rigor mortis allows him to first ‘buy into’ clumsy attempts to frame different individuals as murderers and then to ‘brilliantly’ debunk those same attempts. The reader can be forgiven for not knowing or remembering a rather obscure forensic fact but an individual (Queen) whose memory and knowledge of such details is central to his characterization cannot. Queen also apparently thinks that kleptomania is hardly distinguishable from the type of mania that leads to paranoia and murderous rages.
In addition to all of the other problems in this book there is basic lack of good sense on the part of everyone unable to leave a house where a murder has taken place. Ellery is at one point surprised to find that one of the women has locked her bedroom door before going to sleep. The reviewer was surprised to find out that not everyone did so. Nor did any of the characters feel a need to avoid being alone with any of their housemates.
In addition to the problems touched on above this book is dreadfully paced. Pages are devoted to the literary equivalent of treading water. Finally, after the author demonstrating that Ellery is not a particularly a good detective by having him “solve” the murder incorrectly several times, the real murderer finally confesses under laughably unbelievable circumstances and brings about her own death so that Ellery has no need to find the kind of clues or information that would have been necessary to actually arrest the culprit.
Five minutes after finishing the book the reader will realize that the fire that destroyed the house in which most of the action took place also destroyed most of the evidence against the murderer. The only persons left who could be charged with a crime are Ellery and his father since between them they brought about the death of the brother of murdered man.