Dead Man's Slang

"You have all the clues, but do you know which ones point to the killer?"
- Ellery Queen (The Adventure of the Disappearing Dagger, 1976) 
Jon L. Breen is what Ellery Queen perhaps would've described as a cat of many tales, who writes novels, short stories, pastiches, editing anthologies and held court in "The Jury Box" of Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine as the resident reviewer for three decades – following in the footsteps of John Dickson Carr, Anthony Boucher and Allen J. Hubin. In 2011, Breen handed the judicial hammer over to Steve Steinbock in order to devote more time to writing fiction and editing collections.

The (Original) Justice League: Carr, Hubin, Boucher and Breen

"The Jacket Blurbs Puzzle" was featured in the double-sized March/April 2013 issue of EQMM and is set at Worden University's Conference on Bestselling Fiction, where two of the five participants in the bestseller conference are feuding faculty members. Cosmo McDougall from the English Department wrote a handful of political suspense novels and a dash of light verses, which are sprinkled through out the story. And not without a reason. In the other corner we have a physics professor, Amos Bosworth, who has a technically accurate techno-thriller from the Tom Clancy knock-off line to his writing credits. Bosworth has requested a cover blurb for his novel from McDougall, who hates doing them and had hidden a cutesy, if unflattering, message in the quote.

McDougall wrote a cover blurb for each of the panelists, which were reproduced in the story, because they've all got a message hidden in them and this time they're subtler. But not subtle enough, apparently, when someone knifes McDougall. It takes a while to actually get to this point, but what this story is really about is decoding the hidden subtext in the blurbs – one of which contains a motive for murder. The blurbs do require you to look at it and think for a bit, but it's a solvable puzzle gracefully sidestepping the trap of resembling a maddening cipher from the Zodiac Killer.

"The Parson's Nose" is Breen’s contribution to the latest double-sized issue of EQMM and makes Ellery Queen’s favored trope, that of the "Dying Message," the bone of contention in a murder trial. The Rev. Henry Anstruther of the State Street Church is seen at the opening participating in embezzling church funds, but was this the motive for the stabbing of his secretary, Ms. Bancroft, who confided before her death that she was on to something. However, did Ms. Bancroft accuse Anstruther when she drove a letter opener in the picture of the reverend – smack in the middle of his nose, to be precise.

Gordon Moon represents the defense and argues against the interpretation of these last acts, even distancing himself from the trope and fiction itself, "I've seen it many times myself, but always on the pages of fiction." And "Why do you think Ms. Bancroft didn't just write down the name of the killer rather than go this esoteric route?" Quite a bit of lampshading, huh? But hey, even Perry Mason would've disowned Erle Stanley Gardner, if that got a client off the hook. 

Moon points out a number of possibilities, but the solution is suggested in the final lines, which keeps a lingering sense of mystery even after the story had ended. But the implication treads dangerously close to the mask-clock-teaspoon puzzle, described Henri Bencolin in The Four False Weapons (1937), where all the enigmatic clues are rendered pointless when the murder is solved by finding the killer's fingerprint on the victim's collar and I expected something more from the letter opener-picture clue – even if Moon placed the story outside of fiction.

"The Jacket Blurbs Puzzle" and "The Parson's Nose" where both fun mysteries to read, but I think the former was the superior detective story and did the ending where real-life intrudes on the story book reality much, much better.

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