Friday, September 3, 2010

Ellery Queen (author)

(1905-1971) & (1905-1982)

He was probably the most influential and popular of all American detective story writers and editors in the 1930s until the 1970s, yet, Ellery Queen seems to be only live on in the name of one magazine, where many of its readers may not even have read any of his work.

image"Ellery Queen" was the pen name of two cousins, Manfred Lee and Frederick Dannay, who started writing together in the late 1920s.  Their first novel, The Roman Hat Mystery, introduced a new star to the lineup of detective sleuths:  Ellery Queen.

It was a cute conceit* as were several others.  Queen the writer was a strong advocate of the "fair" detective story -- where all the evidence is laid before the reader so that you had a chance at guessing the solution.  Queen took it even further by stopping the narrative for a "Challenge to the Reader," where he would say that you now had all the facts you needed to solve the crime and would dare you to guess.  These gimmicks helped make the Ellery Queen novels stand out from the many being published at the time.

The early novels -- all of which were titled "The <nationality> <noun> Mystery"** -- used this gimmick to great effect and worked because the solutions were all difficult to guess, but clear once Queen explained it all.

That the big thing they had going for them, since the character of Queen was not well defined.  He was introduced as a sort of a upper class snob, son of Police Inspector Richard Queen, who wore a pince nez and quoted Latin aphorisms without bothering to translate.***  He is more mannerisms than a character, and probably would not have lasted long once the gimmick got tired.

Lee and Dannay realized that.  Their tenth novel, Halfway House, dropped the nationality in the title (even though the introduction shows they could easily have stuck with it) and had the final "Challenge to the Reader."  The title not only fit the mystery, but it also signified that the book would be a "halfway house" into a different form of mystery. 

The later books made Ellery more human, the mysteries more than just puzzles.  Lee and Dannay set a group of books in Hollywood, but were more successful with several more in the fictional small town of Wrightsville, which he joked had more murders per capita than any other town in the US. 

Toward the end, Lee and Danny hired other writers like Theodore Sturgeon and Avram Davidson to flesh out their outlines. My favorite Queen mystery, The Player on the Other Side, was actually written by Sturgeon, and the Davidson title, And on the Eighth Day, is memorable in its portrayal of real-life evil and how it can come up even when we think it's defeated.

In addition to the novels, Queen wrote many short stories, often based upon a "dying clue" -- something the victim did in his last moments that identified the killer, but which is not clear until Ellery Queen shows up.

But Queen was more than a writer; he was an editor (or rather, Dannay was).  In 1941, he founded Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine as a place to showcase mystery fiction, and it quickly became the top magazine in the field, and is still being published today.  Queen's anthology, 101 Years' Entertainment, was essential reading to familiarize readers with the best of the genre (no Sherlock Holmes, though -- but that's because it was easy to find Holmes stories, but difficult to find detectives like the Old Man in the Corner, Arsene Lupin, Dr. Thorndyke, Father Brown, Philip Trent, Professor Poggioli, or Ruth Kelstern.****

Lee died in 1971, and Dannay continued his editorship.  There were few Ellery Queen stories now and they were strictly puzzles.*****  The partnership seemed to work with Dannay coming up with the plots and puzzles and Lee fleshing out the characterization, so the stories after Lee's death were puzzle stories.  Danney died in 1982.

So why is Queen not remembered today?  Of course, there is the change of taste in mysteries; Queen was too old-fashioned to work in a Raymond Chandler mystery universe.  In addition, the Ellery Queen stories never had the type of popular success that someone like Agatha Christie did when translated to other media.  There were several movies, but none were major hits and the last US film was back in 1942.  In the mid-70s, there was a TV series starring Jim Hutton (and run as a period piece, with Hutton stopping the story to give the "Challenge to the Reader" each show) that ran for one season, but to mediocre ratings.

Without a presence in other media, the novels lost their appeal, especially the earlier ones that were based on gimmicks and sometimes clues that are now badly dated.****** 

But the books are still fun to read as puzzles and as detective stories.  And Queen's work as an editor and anthologist have cast a long shadow on the field.

*Though why they did it is a mystery.  The stories were written in the third person, and Ellery Queen the detective was clearly not Ellery Queen the author.  But it did make thing memorable, and maybe that was the point.

** The Roman Hat Mystery, The French Powder Mystery, The Dutch Show Mystery, etc.

***In the first book, he is said to be retired, married, and living in Italy after the events of the mystery, but that bit of background vanished away.

****It might be easier now, with the Gutenberg Project.

*****It is generally thought that Dannay wrote the plots and puzzles, while Lee handled the characterizations.  With Lee gone, the stories were all plots and dying clues.

******The resolution to one book, for instance, is based on the assumption that no man would appear in public without a tie.


The Langtail Press said...

Hi Chuck - great write up. At The Langtail Press we are bringing back a handful of classic detective fiction authors that have gone out of print, including Ellery Queen in ebook and paperback. I've just discovered some of their radio plays are available online.

Edward J. Cunningham said...

Regarding the "******" footnote:

A bigger problem isn't the assumption that no man would appear in public without a tie, but that collars to men's dress shirts are DETACHABLE. Today, collars to men's shirts are FIXED. Without understanding this fashion difference of the 1930's, the solution to that mystery becomes impossible.

Joseph said...

The Chinese Orange Mystery is still one of the greatest "Locked Room Murders" ever written and Calamity Town is a masterpiece.