Queen, Ellery (Frederic Dannay [1905-1982]/ Manfred B. Lee [1905-1971])

rdfather-2-e1526399239379Ellery Queen is both a fictional character and a pseudonym used by two American cousins, Frederick Dannay (1905–1982) and Manfred B. Lee (1905–1971), to write detective fiction. In a successful series of novels that covered 42 years, Ellery Queen was not only the name of the author, but also that of the detective-hero of the stories. Movies, radio shows, and television shows have been based on their works. The two, particularly Dannay, were also responsible for co-founding and directing Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, generally considered as one of the most influential English crime fiction magazines of the last fifty years. During an extended period of writer’s block, ‘Ellery Queen’ novels were turned out by a stable of writers from plot outlines provided by Lee.

Ellery Queen was created when Dannay and Lee entered a writing contest sponsored by a magazine for the best first mystery novel. They decided to use as their collective pseudonym the same name that they had given their detective. Inspired by the formula and style of the Philo Vance novels by SS Van Dine, their entry won the contest but before it could be published, the magazine was sold and the prize given to another entrant by the new owner. Undeterred, the cousins decided to take the novel to publishers, and The Roman Hat Mystery was published in 1929.

The Roman Hat Mystery established a basic formula: the unusual crime, the complex series of clues, the supporting characters of Ellery’s father Inspector Richard Queen and his irascible assistant Sergeant Velie, and what would become most famous, Ellery’s “Challenge to the Reader”. This was a single page near the end of the book declaring that the reader now had seen all the same clues Ellery had, and asking if the reader could deduce the solution.

Ellery the character was himself a detective story writer, a snobbish, almost priggish intellectual who investigated and solved crimes solely because he found them stimulating. His mannerisms in the first nine or ten novels were apparently based on those of the extremely popular Philo Vance character of the same era and are today tiring, even irritating, to most modern readers—among other things he wore a pince-nez. Eventually these mannerisms were toned down or disappeared entirely, to the point where he became a near-faceless, near-characterless persona whose role in the books was purely to solve the mystery.

The Queen novels were the epitome of the classic “fair play”, whodunit mystery, particularly during what was known as the “Golden Age” of the mystery novel. All the clues are made available to the reader in the same way they are to the protagonist detective, and so the reading of the book becomes an intellectual challenge as well. Mystery writer John Dickson Carr termed it “the grandest game in the world.” Other characteristics of the early Queen novels were the intricately plotted clues and solutions. In The Greek Coffin Mystery (1932), often regarded as the finest Ellery Queen novel, multiple solutions to the mystery are proposed, a feature that would show up in later books, most notably Double, Double and Ten Days’ Wonder.

In that same year, the cousins created Drury Lane under the name of Barnaby Ross, eventually writing four novels about Lane, a Shakespearian actor/detective. These novels were later reiussed under the Ellery Queen byline. For a while in the 1930s “Ellery Queen” and “Barnaby Ross” even staged a series of public debates in which one cousin impersonated Queen and the other impersonated Ross.

By 1938, with Ellery making the move to Hollywood to try his hand at scriptwriting, both his character and the character of the novels began to change. Romance was introduced, the solutions began to involve psychological elements as well, and the “Challenge” vanished from the pages. The novels also moved from mere puzzles to more introspective themes. Ten Days’ Wonder (1948), set in the New England town of Wrightsville (a backdrop for several Queen novels during the 1940s), was even bold enough to show the limitations of Ellery’s methods of detection. The 1950s and 1960s showed more experimental work, with one of the last novels to feature Ellery, And on the Eighth Day (1964), being a religious allegory touching on fascism. Although some of the later novels, especially Calamity Town and Cat of Many Tails, are considered classics, some criticize the combination of religious symbolism and detection in the later Queens as clumsy and pretentious. Some of the later Ellery Queen novels were ghost-written by science fiction writers Theodore Sturgeon, Avram Davidson, and Jack Vance.

Towards the end of their careers, the cousins also produced novels, mainly original paperbacks, written by various people under the Ellery Queen name that did not feature the character Ellery Queen as the protagonist. These included three novels featuring the governor’s “troubleshooter” Mike McCall: The Campus Murders (1969, written by Gil Brewer); The Black Hearts Murder (1970, written by Richard Deming); and The Blue Movie Murders (1972, written by Edward D. Hoch). The science-fiction writer Jack Vance also wrote four of these books. One of them, A Room to Die in, is a particularly ingenious locked room mystery.

The Ellery Queen character and stories were adapted for a critically acclaimed but short-lived American television series in the mid-1970s starring Jim Hutton in the title role. Each episode would end with Queen breaking the fourth wall to go over the facts of the case and invite the audience to solve the mystery on their own.

Among the many variants were syndicated radio “filler” spots during the 1970s, called “Ellery Queen’s Minute Mysteries”. The spots would begin with a professional announcer saying, “This is Ellery Queen…” and would go on to describe a case in one minute. The radio station would then encourage callers to try to solve the mystery and win a sponsor’s prize. Once they got a winner, the solution part of the spot would be played as confirmation.

The cousins, under their collective pseudonym, were given the Grand Master Award for achievements in the field of the mystery story by the Mystery Writers of America in 1961. (Source: Wikipedia)

As fans of Ellery Queen (Queenians?) know, the Ellery Queen mysteries have been divided by EQ expert Francis Nevins chronologically into four periods: Period I (1929-1935), Period II (1936-1940), Period III (1942-1958) and Period IV (1963-1971).

Period I Queen is the period of the most materially rich (i.e., clue dense) Queens, when the author–actually, as we know, two cousins, Frederic Dannay and Manfred B. Lee–was emulating the classic, puzzle-oriented detective novel of the Golden Age. This was the period of the famous “Challenge to the Reader,” a point near the end of the novels, when the authors informed their readers that they now had all the clues they needed to solve the puzzle.  Many people see some of the Queen novels from this period (The Greek Coffin Mystery, The Tragedy of X, and The Tragedy of Y seem to be the most consistently named, but I would definitely add as well The Siamese Twin Mystery) as being at the apex of the Golden Age art.

Period II Queen was when Queen went “slick,” seeking success in serializations in the glossy magazines and in the films.  Plotting complexity was downplayed, in favor of increased emphasis on emotions (including-gasp!-love). This seems to be everyone’s least favorite Queen period.

Period III was when Queen went for greater psychological realism and thematic depth, although there is significant variance in the books of this period as well. There is convincing naturalism (particularly in some of the Wrightsville novels, set in a “heartland” town, located either in upstate New York or New England), but often as well there is quite fantastic plotting that seems at war with the naturalism, as Lee himself complained in correspondence with Dannay. Still, many people prefer this period to Period I (and certainly Period II), seeing it as more artistically mature and complex.  In particular, Calamity Town, Ten Days’ Wonder and Cat of Many Tails are typically acclaimed as masterpieces by Queen fans.

Period IV is, for me anyway, rather harder to categorize.  Most obviously, Manfred Lee, who had written the novels from Frederic Dannay’s outlines, bowed out of the writing of a number of the books in this period, causing Dannay to seek out ghost writers for his plots (this was not acknowledged at the time). This period is seen by some as having produced some of the best Queens (The Player on the Other Side, And On the Eighth Day, Face to Face), as well as some of the worst (The House of Brass, The Last Woman in His Life, A Fine and Private Place) and some of the downright oddest (Cop Out).

I have to admit I tend to gravitate to Period I myself, but I recently read Queen’s Period III detective novel The Origin of Evil (1951) and was quite impressed, with a few caveats. (Source: The Passing Tramp)

Novels: The Roman Hat Mystery (1929); The French Powder Mystery (1930); The Dutch Shoe Mystery (1931); The Greek Coffin Mystery (1932); The Egyptian Cross Mystery (1932); The American Gun Mystery (1933); The Siamese Twin Mystery (1933); The Chinese Orange Mystery (1934); The Spanish Cape Mystery (1935); The Lamp of God (1935); Halfway House (1936); The Door Between (1937); The Devil to Pay (1938); The Four of Hearts (1938); The Dragon’s Teeth (1939); Calamity Town (1942); There Was an Old Woman (1943); The Murderer Is a Fox (1945); Ten Days’ Wonder (1948); Cat of Many Tails (1949); Double, Double (1950); The Origin of Evil (1951); The King Is Dead (1952); The Scarlet Letters (1953); The Glass Village (1954); Inspector Queen’s Own Case (1956); The Finishing Stroke (1958); The Player on the Other Side (1963); And on the Eighth Day (1964)The Fourth Side of the Triangle (1965); A Study in Terror (1966); Face to Face (1967); The House of Brass (1968); Cop Out (1969); The Last Woman in His Life (1970); and A Fine and Private Place (1971)

Short stories collections: The Adventures of Ellery Queen (1935); The New Adventures of Ellery Queen (1940); The Case Book of Ellery Queen (1950) – a compilation of the previous two; Calendar of Crime (1952); QBI: Queen’s Bureau of Investigation (1955); Queens Full (1966); QED: Queen’s Experiments in Detection (1968); The Best of Ellery Queen (1985) one previously uncollected; The Tragedy of Errors (1999) {a previously unpublished synopsis written by Dannay}; The Adventure of the Murdered Moths and Other Radio Mysteries (2005).

As Barnaby Ross: The Tragedy of X (1932); The Tragedy of Y (1932); The Tragedy of Z (1933); and Drury Lane’s Last Case (1933).

For a complete bibliography of his work, see the Ellery Queen web site by Mark Koldys.

“Ellery Queen is the American detective story.”

Recommended Reading: (Source: A Guide to Classic Mystery and Detection)

  • Francis M. Nevins’ Royal Bloodline: Ellery Queen, Author and Detective (1974) is a superb critical study of EQ’s work. This is perhaps the best single author study of any detective fiction writer, and it has served as a model for most critical works in the mystery field that have come after it.
  • The Sound of Detection: Ellery Queen’s Adventures in Radio (2002), by Nevins and Martin Grams, Jr., is a detailed history of the Ellery Queen radio program, with a complete listing of all the shows. It also contains biographical information on the Queen cousins. Nevins’ introduction to The Best of Ellery Queen (1985), edited by Nevins and Martin H. Greenberg, contains much useful biographical information.
  • Francis M. Nevins’ book Ellery Queen: The Art of Detection (2013) sums up his ideas and research on Ellery Queen.
  • All of the dates for EQ works in this article are taken directly from the above scholarly writings by Nevins and his colleagues, something I wish to acknowledge with gratitude.
  • The second half of The Tragedy of Errors (1999) contains reminiscences of the Queen cousins by people who knew them, along with highly informed overviews of their work. This book is available from its publisher, Crippen & Landru.
  • During each month of 2005, the Centenary of the birth of Ellery Queen in 1905, EQMM ran articles on the Queen cousins, and different aspects of their work. These are valuable, both critically and biographically.
  • A Silver Anniversary Tribute to Ellery Queen from Authors, Critics, Editors and Famous Fans (1954) was a booklet published to celebrate the 25th anniversary of EQ’s first novel, The Roman Hat Mystery (1929). One hopes that it can be reprinted, along with the recent EQMM articles, in a way that would make it currently available to all. It contains praise of EQ from virtually everyone in the mystery community, in a series of brief quotations. The booklet reveals the central importance EQ had in mystery writing and editing. The contributions are surprisingly substantial, if brief, and offer much food for thought about mystery fiction, its significance, and its historical state and status in 1954. Hugh Pentecost wrote in part: “The mystery writer in our generation has had a hard struggle to keep dignity and quality alive in a mass production period. If there is one personality in the field who has done more than any other to maintain these qualities for all of us it is Ellery Queen.”

2633 (Facsimile Dust Jacket, Frederick A. Stokes Company (USA), 1932)

The Greek Coffin Mystery, first published in 1932, was the fourth Queen novel, and is widely regarded by connoisseurs of Golden Age fiction as a classic example of the cerebral whodunit. There is a cast of characters – 33 of them, plus six staff detectives, are named. There is a foreword, explaining that this case occurred very early in Ellery’s sleuthing career. There’s a map of the location of the main action. There are two floor plans. There is a jaunty “challenge to the reader”. There are no fewer than four elaborate solutions to the mystery put forward at various times. And there is a contents list which reveals that the initial letters of the chapter titles form an acrostic, giving the title of the book and name of the author. What more could any Golden Age fan want? (‘Do You Write Under Your Own Name?’)

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