The Spanish Cape Mystery, which was published in 1935, was the ninth and last of the Ellery Queen “nationality” mysteries. It was also the last to feature the famous Challenge to the Reader. After this the two cousins (Frederic Dannay and Manfred Bennington Lee ) who comprised the Ellery Queen writing team would begin to change the style of the novels.
Like the other “nationality” mysteries The Spanish Cape Mystery can be considered to be a fairly pure example of the puzzle-plot murder mystery.
The setting of the story is Spanish Cape, a rocky peninsula jutting into the Atlantic Ocean. It is connected to the mainland by a narrow neck of land. Since the whole of Spanish Cape is private property, belonging to millionaire Walter Godfrey, the setting has the effect of confining the possible suspects to the Godfrey family and their motley collection of house guests.
The story opens with a bungled kidnapping (by a giant one-eyed hoodlum known as Captain Kidd!) and soon thereafter the body of John Marco is found.
Ellery Queen and his old friend Judge Macklin have taken a cottage for the summer. The cottage just happens to be right next door to the Godfrey estate. When they discover one of the kidnap victims in their cottage it’s inevitable that Ellery and the judge will become intimately involved in the case. In fact they are soon invited to take up residence in the Godfrey mansion on Spanish Cape.
There is one curious thing about the corpse. It is stark naked. There is no possible reason why John Marco would have been sitting on the terrace overlooking the small beach at the far end of the cape stark naked. Therefore the killer must have removed his clothes. But why would a murderer waste time doing something so eccentric. Inspector Moley of the local police insists it’s just a smokescreen but Ellery is convinced that the corpse’s nakedness is the key to the mystery.
John Marco was a man of very evil reputation. When Walter Godfrey opines that his murderer has done the world a great service no-one is inclined to disagree. Murder however is still murder and Ellery is determined to solve the mystery.
The identity of the killer is in fact fairly obvious. Unravelling the means by which the murder was accomplished is the real challenge. It’s not exactly an impossible crime but there are some very strange circumstances which are likely to baffle even the most astute reader. Ellery himself is baffled and remains so until almost the end of the book.
Ellery likes to think of himself as as detective who regards crime-solving as a fascinating intellectual exercise into which human feelings do not enter but in this case he finds it increasingly difficult to ignore the human dimension.
The novel takes its title from the setting but there is also another cape, a rather theatrical item of clothing belonging to John Marco, which plays a crucial role in the story.
This is almost a maritime mystery - the sea and the peculiar local tides will play important parts in the solving of the mystery.
The early Ellery Queen mysteries are usually regarded as being somewhat in the S.S. Van Dine style so it’s amusing to find Ellery making reference to Philo Vance at one point. There are those who find the Ellery Queen of these early books to be a slightly irritating character. I’m a bit mystified by his. I find him to be quite likeable. But then I find Philo Vance to be likeable as well, so what do I know? In this book Ellery does reveal a more compassionate side to his nature and admits that he is even tempted to let the murderer go free.
The Spanish Cape Mystery has an amazingly complex plot but it is resolved in an eminently satisfactory fashion. The process by which Ellery eliminates all possible suspects except the actual murderer, and eliminates all possible explanations for the murder method except the correct one, provide exactly the kind of enjoyment that fans of golden age detective fiction crave.