The Queen’s Square, a short story by Dorothy L. Sayers featuring Lord Peter Wimsey, is a murder mystery set at a costume party. It’s a great setup for a murder mystery, but for some reason it doesn’t seem to live up to this. It’s not a bad story, of course, but it feels a little bit like Miss Sayers is going through the motions.
To recap briefly, for those who’ve not read the story and don’t intend to, Lord Peter is at a costume ball, and a bunch of people we’ve never met before are dancing several dances and talking to each other. Then the fiancé a woman discovers her corpse—she’d been strangled—and the police come and investigate. There’s a tangle of witness of who was where, when, then Lord Peter solves the case by figuring out that one of the guests was mistaken for another by a trick of colored light, the two guests costumes being identical except for color.
The initial part of the story gives atmosphere, a few introductions, and Lord Peter a chance to have a little conversation. Unfortunately, there are only two characters who are really introduced, and one is an older lady who has nothing to do with the rest of the story. The other is the victim, but other than being a “fast” woman, nothing revealed about her is much relevant to the story.
The gathering of clues by the police is somewhat lengthy and in a way reminds me of The Five Red Herrings. That, too, was a timetable mystery in which the timetable was wrong, and therefore didn’t really matter. I’m being a little unfair, here, because the basic setup is that the victim was seen at a certain time, but couldn’t have been killed after it. Of course, that means that it was not the victim who was seen but someone mistaken for the victim, which means that the solution to the mystery revolves around who could have been mistaken for the victim. That said, it is an examination of the time table that shows clearly that this must be, so the timetable is not irrelevant.
I actually wonder if I’m not reading this incorrectly. It is overly tedious to commit all of these details to memory, but perhaps the reader is not supposed to. Such stories may be intended more like logic problems, where one is meant to construct a table that helps to keep track of the relationships and x out all of the squares that cannot be, with only a single stroke through the boxes that we have evidence against but it’s not conclusive. Those are fun to do, though having grown up in the 1980s I was used to the tables being drawn for one in the logic puzzle books.
Lord Peter figures out the solution to the puzzle in the darkroom, when he sees a red thing change color when the red darkroom light is switched off and the white light is switched on. There was a colored lamp which threw red light into the hallway in which the victim was last seen, and this made red costume which was seen appear to be white. Or, possibly, the white costume appear to be red. I don’t remember exactly, now, and either is possible depending on how much ambient light the witness saw.
It’s by no means my favorite story, but it is worth reading. Something seems a bit off with its structure, however, as the various parts give us time to meet characters who never do anything, followed by an information dump which is mostly unimportant, followed by Lord Peter and Bunter doing some photography and Lord Peter realizing the key to the mystery. The story is disjointed and we don’t get to have much fun with Lord Peter or any of the other characters. Had the cast been a little smaller and the best characters had some involvement during Lord Peter’s investigation, I think it would have been a significant improvement.
All of this said, I wonder I wasn’t more correct in thinking that this was meant to be more like a logic puzzle and less like a story. There is a solution which is actually set off with some space, told as the policeman having told Wimsey about the criminal’s confession. One unfortunate aspect of the book in which I’m reading the short stories is that it gives no information about where they were originally published.