It was certainly a dangerous, even potentially deadly situation for the detective and his father: trapped by a raging forest fire, with no escape likely or even possible. It became even worse when they found themselves investigating a murder and realizing that a killer was trapped alongside them. That's the situation in one of my favorite early novels by the great Ellery Queen called The Siamese Twin Mystery. It's the subject of today's audio review on the classic mysteries podcast. You can listen to that review by clicking here.
If you're not already aware of Ellery Queen - the author and/or the character - you should be; as Anthony Boucher once observed, "Ellery Queen IS the American detective story." Ellery Queen, the author, was actually the pen name used by two cousins, Frederick Dannay and Manfred B. Lee, to create their mysteries, starring a character named - Ellery Queen, the amateur son of Inspector Richard Queen of the New York City homicide squad. In an effort to make this post a little less confusing, I'll use the name "Queen" when referring to Ellery Queen the author and "Ellery" when referring to the fictional character. The Siamese Twin Mystery was Queen's seventh, first published in 1933 - and it remains, I think, one of their best.
Driving home from a vacation over a back road through the forest on Arrow Mountain, Ellery and his father suddenly find themselves trapped by a raging forest fire. Their desperate search for an escape route takes them up a road which proves to offer no escape. Instead, at the end of the road on the very top of the mountain they find an isolated house owned by a prominent doctor named John Xavier. It is evident to Ellery and his father that their presence is unwelcome, but they also quickly discover that there is no way out – unless the people who live in the valley below the mountain can put out the fire. They also discover that some very peculiar things seem to be going on at Dr. Xavier’s house. There seem to be a number of people either living there or visiting the place, all of whom apparently have secrets to keep hidden. There is something – something frightening – apparently hidden in one of the rooms of the house. And – before the next morning – there is a murder. Ellery and his father – who are in the house by accident and who find that the proper authorities cannot possibly reach the house – find themselves investigating the murder and trying to uncover a determined killer in that small circle of suspects even as the terrible forest fire closes in upon them.
The Siamese Twin Mystery is a powerful book. It's a puzzle, pieced together by Ellery, complete with "dying message" clues, but it's also a suspenseful and harrowing thriller, made even more effective by the constantly increasing danger posed by the forest fire. Print copies are relatively hard to come by, but the book is also available in e-book format from MysteriousPress.com/Open Road Media. I recommend it very highly indeed.