The Magazine

The Ellery Queen Mystery

Why is the corpus no longer alive?

Oct 10, 2005, Vol. 11, No. 04 • By JON L. BREEN
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

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."