9 of the Best by Ellery Queen

Why 9? Well, 40 seemed too many, 5 was too few while the number 9 features heavily in the last Queen novel which was always going to be the last of my list, so … QED (a latin maxim which in one of the stories is amusingly mis-translated as ‘Queens’s Experiments in Deduction’).

Along with John Dickson Carr, Queen was the great detective story writer of my youth – when I turned 13 I began devouring their stories, marvelling at the ingenuity as they caught me out time and again. I’ll get round to Carr soon, but then again such a good job has already been done over at the ‘In Search of the Classic Mystery Novel’ blog that it is going to take a lot more effort to come up with something new to say.

“Ellery Queen” was the pseudonym of the cousins Frederic Dannay and Manfred B. Lee, who also used the name for the detective, who is himself an author of detective stories. This is typical of the convolutions within their stories, which initially offered a ‘Challenge to the Reader’, claiming that at a certain point all the clues existed to deduce (never ‘guess’) who the murderer was. Lee later was polite enough to admit that this was probably only true if the reader was a genius!

The first novel, The Roman Hat Mystery, appeared in 1929 and Ellery appeared in a further 23 novels up to 1958′s The Finishing Stroke. In addition the cousins also wrote 4 novels as by ‘Barnaby Ross’ featuring the actor Drury Lane as well as 2 novels in which Ellery does not appear: The Glass Village, an attack on the McCarthy witch-hunt and Inspector queen’s Own Case, in which Ellery’s father is brought center stage. The Finishing Stroke was probably intended as the final book in the series, not least because Lee was having increasing problems in his collaboration – by then Dannay was devising the plots while Lee wrote the novels, short stories and radio plays from these detailed synopses.

In 1963 a new Queen novel appeared, The Player on the Other Side, but as Lee was at that time suffering from writer’s block, unable (or unwilling) to collaborate with his cousin, the synopsis by Dannay was fleshed out by Theodore Sturgeon who acted as a ‘ghost’ for the cousins – his contribution, and that of other ‘ghosts’ including Avram Davidson and Paul Fairman, was not fully revealed until well after Lee’s death in 1971. In addition during the 1960s a number of paperback originals were published under the Queen byline but which did not feature Ellery as a character – Lee was the editor for these novels, which were ghosted by the likes of Henry Kane, Richard Deming. Talmage Powell and Jack Vance. The 28th and last of the books was The Blue Movie Murders, ghosted by the late great Edward D. Hoch and published shortly after Lee’s death. A fascinating insight into the Dannay and Lee collaboration is provided by The Tragedy of Errors, published by Crippen & Landru in 1999 which includes the final Dannay synopsis but which Lee did not live long enough to work on. The two had apparently began collaborating again by 1967 so that the final three Ellery Queen novels, Face to Face, The Last Woman in His Life and  A Fine and Private Place (and Cop Out which does not feature Ellery) were written once again in collaboration.

So, in strict chronological order, and giving as little away as possible …

The Greek Coffin Mystery
The early Queen novels are fircesomely complex and this for me is the best of the lot – the plot is utterly baffling until Ellery explains it all and the surprise murderer is genuinely a surprise. Still  written in the sway of the SS Van Dine books, this is formal puzzle-making of the highest order.

The Adventures of Ellery Queen
The first collection of Queen short stories is a lot like reading the novels of the period in miniature – there is less emphasis on characterisation and much more on the puzzle plots which are usually fair to reader as was their mantra at the time. The collection doesn’t include the classic novella ‘The Lamp of God’, which instead is in the follow-up volume, The New Adventures of Ellery Queen which is almost as good as this one.

The Tragedy of Y
Briefly the cousins created a new persona, ‘Barnaby Ross’, for a series of four novels featuring Shakespearean actor ‘Drury Lane’. This, the second in the series, is perhaps slightly less complex than Tragedy of X which preceded it but has a stunning conclusion, with a murderer perhaps quite unlike one seen in crime fiction before.

The Siamese Twin Mystery
Set during a forest fire with Ellery and his father trapped in a mansion with a rich mixture of suspects including the titular mischievous brothers, this is a variation on the snow-bound country house mystery. The setting, with Ellery deliberately spinning out the conclusion to the crime to distract everyone from the fire that seems sure to engulf them all, just elevates this title above other excellent titles of the period such as the wonderfully bizarre locked room extravaganza, The Chinese Orange Mystery.

Ten Day’s Wonder
Dannay appears to have been responsible for the injection of religious themes into many Queen novels and this is the first and finest of them – it’s’ not for everyone, and it was a bit of an ordeal to decide whether to include this or Calamity Town, but it is a particularly fine example of Lee’s writing style which can be genuinely spooky as the determinism of the plotting is evoked with an otherworldly prose reminiscent of Ayn Rand. It ranks with The Origin of Evil, Cats of Many Tails (see below) and Double, Double as the most impressively written books of this era and is perhaps the classic example of what would become a typical Queen gambit – that of a god-like controlling manipulator who is responsible for the murder but doesn’t actually do the deed itself.

Cat of Many Tails
The first classic serial killer story, in which the solution is to be found by discovering what the link is between a seemingly unconnected series of murders. Beautifully plotted against a particularly well-realised depiction of a New York summer in which people become ever more hysterical as the body count increases – a true classic.

The Player on the Other Side
The revelation that this novel was not co-written by Lee may have reduced its standing but Theodore Sturgeon was a very accomplished novelist, mainly in the science fiction field, and this is a dynamic variation of the manipulator theme crossed with a plot that does resemble an SS Van Dine story in its air of unreality. The books written from the 1960s onwards are less realistic and naturalistic in style and approach, with the emphasis on complex plots necessitating a departure from plausibility - this may also be put down to Lee’s lessening influence, the books providing less of the texture and characterisation that he was able to bring to Dannay’s plots. But this is a major exception.

Face to Face
This is a sentimental favourite – the first Queen novel I ever read, but luckily it is a major late performance – gone is the fable atmosphere of the previous non-Lee novels for a character-driven puzzle that will keep you guessing right until the end and in which the characters are very sympathetically drawn. Apparently this was Lee’s first full collaboration with Dannay since The Finishing Stroke – it certainly feels like it.

A Fine and Private Place
The number 9 is used in a bewildering and wonderful number of permutation in this, the last ever Queen novel. The plotting is decidedly choppy, with Ellery lurching from one mutually exclusive conclusion to another, rather in the manner of some of the Colin Dexter Morse books in which one ingenious solution keeps being found to fit only some of the facts until the final one is arrived at. This book also uses a variation on the technique found in The French Powder Mystery (I can say no more without completely spoiling it) that is, to my knowledge, unique in the field.

The best on-screen interpretation of Queen is to be found in the 1975-76 series made by the team of Richard Levinson and William Link, best known for creating and producing Columbo. Their Ellery Queen series is now available on DVD in two versions – in Australia and in the USA. The Australian version is PAL and compatible with region 2 players in the UK while the American DVD one uses the NTSC standard and is region 1 which most UK DVD players and TV sets can cope with, but not all. The Australian version has all the same extras as the US release plus ‘Ellery Queen: Don’t Look Behind You’), the TV-movie version of Cat of Many Tails which is pretty poor in terms of fidelity but is fascinating and it does keep most of the plot intact - it also has the original version of the series pilot (and adaptation of the 1965 Queen novel The Fourth Side of the Triangle), also known as Too Many Suspects, while the US release uses the wrong music over the opening titles. They are both excellent in their own way and preserve a marvelously entertaining show that acts as a great tribute, and remider, to the Queen stories.

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13 Responses to 9 of the Best by Ellery Queen

  1. puzzledoctor says:

    Right, I’m off to eBay to hunt for Player, Face to Face and Fine and Private Place. Sure there’s no room on your list for “There was an Old Woman”?

  2. I will absolutely re-read THERE WAS AN OLD WOMAN – my feeling at the time I last read it (and I usually tried to make sure I read them in original order of publication, was that I preferred CALAMITY TOWN and THE MURDERER IS A FOX which, as I recall, were the ones published around it – I will admit that this may well have been a reaction on my part to the fact that Queen’s novels seem to fall into very specific ‘periods’ but this novel seems to fall outside of the pattern, belonging more to the earlier dozen or so novels without being quite as tightly plotted as those and yet not benefit from the more relaxed second period of the late thirties (THE DOOR BETWEEN is probably my favourite of these) and the bucolic Wrightsville stories of the wartime years where there was a greater emphasis on mood and character. But you are right to mention this because it has been way to long since I re-read that one and I should definitely give it another go.

  3. Mrs P. says:

    Excellent post – thanks. Lots more reading to be added to my (already rather long list) as a result. Had no idea Ellory Queen = two cousinly co-authors.

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  12. Well, it was time that someone wrote something interesting about EQ – thank you for that.
    As far as I’m concerned, my “best of” list – if such a list does make sense – may vary a little; for instance, I just love “Drury Lane’s Last Case” (in spite of what Mr. Nevins could have told of it), as well as “The Tragedy of X” and “The Glass Village”, and I have always thought that “The Chinese Orange Mystery” is a fine piece of Surrealism in popular fiction.
    Today I’m (re)reading some of EQ’s masterpieces in original English version, since I have discovered – with a shiver of horror – that the most part – if not the whole – EQ’s production has been poorly translated in Italian. For Instance, just take “The Origin of Evil”: at the very beginning of the story, the description of the urban and social changes Hollywood has got through has simply been bypassed – i.e. not translated. I think that this is outrageous; the richness of the prose and the contents of books like “Double, Double” – a minor detective story, but heavy on carachterization in the original – or even a masterpiece like “Cat of Many Tails” is just destroyed.
    I see that even in recent re-issues of those classics nothing has been made to restore the original – I mean, make a new, respectful and correct translation – apart from tha Drury Lane’s books and the series “Challenge to the Reader” (the first period books except “The Siamese Twin Mistery” and including “Halfway House”) which was published in the ’80s.
    Is there any means to ask publishers – Mondadori, Italian editor – to restore the EQ’s books so badly trated in the past?

    • Thanks Marco – I know what you mean, I was very shocked when I started realising that my old Mondadori editions, translated by the likes of Alberto Tedeschi, had often been shortened. It was only when in the 1980s that new translations started to come through from the like of AM Francavilla and Mauro Boncompagni that I started to have a bit more faith, You shoudl speak to Pietro De Palma has he is a friend of Mauro’s – you can contact his at his blog here: La Morte Sa Leggere

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