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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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.