The Magazine

The Ellery Queen Mystery

Why is the corpus no longer alive?

Oct 10, 2005, Vol. 11, No. 04 • By JON L. BREEN
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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.