The Ellery Queen Mystery
Why is the corpus no longer alive?
Oct 10, 2005, Vol. 11, No. 04 • By JON L. BREEN
LITERARY REPUTATION IS AS FRAGILE in crime fiction as anywhere else, but the precipitous decline of Ellery Queen may be unique, one of the most total, and in some ways inexplicable, cases of devalued stock in the annals of American letters. From the 1930s into the 1970s, Frederic Dannay (1905-1982) and Manfred B. Lee (1905-1971), the two cousins behind the joint pseudonym, justified the midcentury pronouncement of New York Times critic Anthony Boucher that "Ellery Queen is the American detective story." Now, in their centenary year, most of their books are out of print, and the contribution of the team is frequently understated, or even ignored, in historical accounts. Some reasons, if not good ones, can be identified for their fall. But first, the happier story of their rise.
Lee and Dannay, drawing on experience in publicity and advertising, made an ingenious marketing decision when they used the same unforgettable name for their byline and their gifted amateur sleuth. First appearing in The Roman Hat Mystery (1929), Ellery the character was an erudite and somewhat annoying bibliophile along the lines of Philo Vance, the creation of S.S. Van Dine (Willard Huntington Wright), whose novels were bestsellers in the 1920s. Detective novelist Ellery aided his New York police inspector father in much the same way Vance advised District Attorney Markham. In their first novel, the cousins included some of that puzzle-minded time's familiar accoutrements--a mock nonfictional preface, a floor plan of the crime scene (New York's Roman Theatre), a list of characters--and added a refinement of their own: Fifty pages from the end, they interrupt the action to present a challenge to the reader, who now has been provided the necessary clues to name the murderer "by a series of logical deductions and psychological observations."
Through the early 1930s, the team took the intellectual game that was the formal detective novel to greater heights than any American writer, arguably raising it from a craft to an art. They mined the mystery potential of specialized backgrounds--a department store in The French Powder Mystery (1930), a hospital in The Dutch Shoe Mystery (1931), a Madison Square Garden rodeo in The American Gun Mystery (1933)--and concealed among their characters a succession of master killers with god complexes who carried out seemingly inexplicable, or even impossible, murders of victims who left helpful, if initially misleading or impenetrable, dying messages. In the single year 1932, Dannay and Lee published four novels that are considered classics by proponents of formal detection: The Greek Coffin Mystery and The Egyptian Cross Mystery as Queen, The Tragedy of X and The Tragedy of Y as Barnaby Ross, the second byline they adopted for a four-book series about deaf actor/sleuth Drury Lane.
At some point in those early years, they hit on the division of labor that would continue throughout their collaboration: detailed plot outlines by Dannay would be expanded into novels, short stories, and, later, radio plays by Lee.
The partners, unlike their model Van Dine, were able to adapt to changing fashions. In the late 1930s they dropped the nationality/object title pattern and the overt challenge to the reader, and took pains to humanize Ellery, while introducing more romantic interest in an effort to crack the slick magazine serialization market.
Through their peak period of the 1940s and '50s they deepened their exploration of psychology and serious social themes in landmark novels like Calamity Town (1942), the first of four books set in the small New England town of Wrightsville. Cat of Many Tails (1949) vividly depicts the trauma to the collective psyche of Manhattanites from fear of a serial killer. The Glass Village (1954), a rare Queen novel without Ellery as a character, confronts xenophobic hysteria and lynch-mob justice in response to the murder of an elderly small-town artist resembling Grandma Moses. Inspector Queen's Own Case (1956) is a study in gerontology, in which the elder Queen detects on his own while exemplifying the adjustment problems of a new retiree. Experiments with style and theme continued through The Finishing Stroke, a 1958 novel looking back nostalgically to 1929, originally intended to be Ellery's final case.
Through it all, they never renounced their allegiance to the pure fair-play puzzle that was their early hallmark. While they were quite capable of creating effective sequences of action, menace, and pursuit, they knew readers relished the intellectual pleasure of those extended scenes in which Ellery explained his reasoning in careful, painstaking detail.
As the Queen novels grew in quality and prestige, the name was advancing on other fronts, including 10 fairly unremarkable B movies between 1935 and 1942, a long-running radio series between 1939 and 1948, and several TV series in the 1950s that were neither very good nor very Queenian, but helped to keep the brand name before the public. A final series (1975-76) with Jim Hutton as Ellery sought to approximate a genuine Queen style, including the challenge to the viewer. Of these media adaptations, only the radio show had the direct involvement of Dannay and Lee.
In a more significant literary event, the cousins edited the high-class pulp magazine Mystery League, which lasted a mere four issues during 1933-34 but foreshadowed the 1941 launch of Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, still the leading crime fiction periodical 64 years later and the most prominent surviving entity to carry on the Queen name. Editorial work on the magazine, and a long series of influential anthologies, was done almost entirely by Dannay, whose separate identity as the premier editor in the field put an added strain on his relationship with Lee, which always had an element of Gilbert-and-Sullivan combativeness.
This year, the Queen centenary has been marked by a single book, The Adventure of the Murdered Moths, a collection of radio plays published by Crippen & Landru; a one-day symposium at Columbia, which houses Dannay's papers; and a series of commemorative issues of Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine. For all the biographies and book-length studies accorded writers like Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers, Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, and even the writer the Queens emulated (in the true meaning of that abused word) earlier in their career, S.S. Van Dine, there still is no full-scale biography of the Queen team, and only one book-length critical study, Francis M. Nevins's Royal Bloodline (1974), now out of print. Indeed, the only in-print Queen study is The Sound of Detection (2002), a reference work on the radio show, by Nevins and Martin Grams Jr.
How did Ellery Queen fall so far? I'll advance five possible explanations.
First, the standard version of the genre's history has hardened into an over-simplified conventional wisdom: Classic detective fiction, the artificial kind based on clues and deductions and puzzles for the reader to solve, is British and feminine and concerned with the upper classes, thus the continued obeisance paid Christie and Sayers. Tough fiction noir, allegedly but not necessarily more realistic, is American and masculine, thus the admission into the literary canon of Hammett and Chandler. In the British classical model, the detective's activities restore order to a basically stable society, while the American hardboiled model assumes that, in a corrupt and chaotic world, there is no order to restore.
The result of this pigeonholing is that American male classicists, the greatest of whom was Ellery Queen, tend to be marginalized, not fitting the handy historical grid. Opposing points--that the Queen team wrote in a proudly American idiom, that they explored many corners of life beyond the activities of the rich and privileged, that they did more experimenting with theme, approach, and subject matter than any of their contemporaries, and that they did not always claim everything in the garden of rationality is lovely--are lost in the discussion.
Second, the distinctive Queen prose style, which some find overdecorated, may be a taste today's readers find harder to acquire, as Jacques Barzun and Wendell Hertig Taylor suggest in A Catalogue of Crime, when they refer to "the chat and comment that enliven the Queen cases for some and make them a trifle too rich for others."
Both cousins loved the English language, strove for the perfect word to convey their meaning, and wanted to reflect their times vividly and accurately. One of their hallmarks from the beginning was the accretion of details that would capture a time, place, and mood, as in this example from an extended account of a New York heat wave in the early pages of Cat of Many Tails: "Some would seek the subways. The coupled cars kept their connecting doors open and when the trains rushed along between stations there was a violent displacement of the tunnel air, hellish but a wind."
In Dannay's one solo novel, The Golden Summer (1953), published under his birth name Daniel Nathan, he recounts what two, four, six, eight, and ten cents would buy in the small-town 1915 world of 10-year-old Danny, with a prose poem whose rhythm foreshadows the rap that leads off Meredith Willson's The Music Man: "When eight cents would buy a man's tie, or a whisk broom, or a white cotton-duck clothespin apron (big enough to hold 10 dozen clothespins), or a flaring open-top tin milk pail, or a fiber shoe brush with a dauber, or a leather money or tobacco pouch with a button clasp and Indian-head design."
For some readers, the Queen style remains a marvel; for others, it's a barrier.
Third, there is a general critical prejudice against literary collaboration. Two-handed fiction may be good commerce, but how can distinct creative visions combine to achieve the status of art? Both Dannay and Lee had serious literary aspirations, but their artistic visions were frequently at war. Dannay, a very good amateur poet as well as a puzzle-making genius, sought to break down artificial barriers and get the detective story taken seriously as literature. Lee, who would have pursued an academic career had he not been convinced his Jewish identity would prevent it, did not think the detective form could ever achieve the heights of great literature.
That the unlikely result of this collision of competing sensibilities was a cohesive whole is illustrated by their disagreements over the 1948 novel, Ten Days' Wonder, written while they were living on opposite coasts and communicating by long, often acrimonious letters. It's clear from surviving correspondence that both were unhappy with the finished product: Dannay thought his original concept had been distorted and violated by Lee's efforts, while Lee thought the elaborate puzzle was too far-fetched and psychologically implausible to render believably. Their mutual friend Anthony Boucher hated the book, whether because he shared Lee's concerns about the psychology or because (according to Dannay's theory) "it offended his deep sense of religiousness and theological purity, though he won't admit it."
Still, many commentators consider this troubled project one of the team's greatest works. Though only a genius could piece together the clues of the incredibly complex early Queen cases, an attentive and thoughtful reader might actually figure out Ten Days' Wonder, both Ellery's initial mistaken solution (a Queen specialty) and the final true solution.
Fourth, and possibly the biggest blot on the Queen image, is a decision of the partners, taken in the early 1960s, no doubt fiscally and commercially wise at the time but disastrous in its effect on their claim to a serious literary reputation. Apart from juvenile books and radio scripts, Dannay and Lee did not use ghostwriters or third collaborators through the end of the 1950s. But in the 1960s, the Queen byline appeared on a series of paperback original novels, edited by Lee but written by a variety of popular fiction pros. Ellery the character did not appear in them, and most did not even try to approximate a Queenian writing or plotting style. At least the difference in format helped American fans to separate the real from the ersatz, but in Britain, the wholly ghosted works appeared in hardcover from the same publisher, Victor Gollancz, as the genuine Queen novels.
Further confusing matters, several of the "real" Queen novels that appeared in hardcover in the 1960s, and actually featured Queen the sleuth, involved uncredited third collaborators. Lee, suffering from various health problems and a case of writer's block, was unable to perform his usual function of fleshing out Dannay's detailed outlines, and the job fell to Theodore Sturgeon on one book and Avram Davidson on three.
Just how damaging was this whole ghostwriting business? Once the employment of ghosts became known, its extent became blurred in the minds of readers. One of the best Queen novels, and one of the few currently in print (in the omnibus volume The Hollywood Murders) is The Origin of Evil, published in 1951 and unequivocally the sole work of Dannay and Lee. A few years ago, a friend remarked to me how impressed he was with the book, and then asked who had actually written it. His suspect was Ross Macdonald.
Are all of these explanations for the Queens' decline just an advocate's straw men? Or do the Ellery Queen team really deserve higher stature in the history of detective fiction--and American fiction generally? I believe they do. But the lack of contemporary appreciation may have more to do with their detective-puzzle style than their thematic explorations, literary aspirations, or elegant prose. Ellery Queen practiced a lost art. When I read a contemporary mystery novel that has one or two fairly-placed clues to guide the alert reader to the solution, I tend to celebrate it as a classical throwback. But nobody today is even attempting the kind of ornate puzzles the EQ team put together--and did better than anybody, even Christie and Sayers and John Dickson Carr.
One of the lessons producers William Link and Richard Levinson reportedly drew from the short-lived Queen TV series of the 1970s was that you mustn't make the puzzles too hard. They dumbed down the clues in their subsequent project, Murder, She Wrote, and it was a triumphant success. Thus, my fifth possible explanation: that Ellery Queen has fallen from public attention because our respect for intelligence, our cultural literacy, and our attention span are all in steep decline.
Jon L. Breen writes about mystery fiction for The Weekly Standard.