In the 1960s “Ellery Queen” became a house name on nearly thirty paperback originals that did not feature the eponymous sleuth created by Manfred Lee and Frederic Dannay. These were edited by Lee but mostly written by the likes of Richard Deming and Talmage Powell. Three of them were by SF author Jack Vance, including The Madman Theory, a standalone work featuring Inspector Omar Collins of the Fresno County Sheriff’s Department. We begin with a body found shot to death in King’s Canyon National Park …
The following review is offered as part of Patti Abbott’s Friday’s Forgotten Books meme, which today is celebrating the work of the legendary Jack Vance and is being hosted by B.V. Lawson over at her In Reference to Murder blog.
“Five friends hiking in the redwood forest. A shotgun explodes – now there are four.”
Earl Genneman was the head of a pharmaceutical company on a hiking holiday with four friends and colleagues including potential son-in-law Buck James and ‘Red’ Kershaw, his brother-in-law. During the trip a couple of the men notice that a stranger seems to be tracking them – this unknown person then becomes the prime suspect when Genneman is shot to death by someone hiding in the trees. The case is handed to Omar Collins, a dogged policeman with a broken nose and a brand new wife (and her two daughters from a previous marriage) who has to put up with a boss who likes to steal the limelight once a case is solved. But this investigation is particularly hard to crack as there is no apparent motive. In addition the killer also seems to have made a completely clean getaway, leaving no tracks behind. Collins checks the cars that were logged arriving in the park and concludes that the man following the group must have been a part-time musician, Steve Ricks. This is only partially helpful though because Ricks was generally liked and had no criminal background – so not only is there no obvious motive but no connection between the two men either – and yet Ricks is absent without leave, which suggests he is on the run. Things then get more complex when the musician’s body is found horribly mutilated and stuck in a goods train.
“At first it seemed as though only the Madman Theory could explain the brutal shotgun slaying which lay in wait for the friendly group of back-packing hikers …”
Is this the work of a psychopath, or is there in fact a connection between the two victims? And why did Ricks suddenly acquire a brand new car shortly before his death? Was he a hired killer, who was then in turn killed by the one who hired him? Collins soon discards the theory of a random killer, especially after he learns that Ricks’ hardboiled girlfriend Molly used to be married to Kersham (one of her five spouses so far). But she too winds up dead after attempting to blackmail the killer and Collins has to find a motive and how the killer managed to get out of the park unseen. With a little help from his wife and surprising support from his glory-hound boss, he rounds up all the suspects and springs a trap on the least likely suspect, revealing a complex murder method straight out of the Golden Age. Vance’s book, dallying as it does with a potential psychopath, is fairly modern and resolutely set in the 60s with plenty of reference to its obsession with cars for instance but the structure is very traditional, though he does have some fun with it. At one point he muses on who would have to pay the bill to have Ricks’ body taken away from the train yard where it was found; and when the suspects are rounded up, Collins then quips that he would love to point the finger at the murder right then but can’t just yet.
“Ellery Queen [sic] gave me a flat fee of $3,000 for each book. Which was then a lot of money! I did have to sign a contract never to reveal I actually wrote the books.” – Jack Vance
Vance’s original manuscript was entitled “The Man Who Walks Behind” before being edited by Lee. The other two were “Death of a Solitary Chess Player” (published as A Room to Die In) and “Strange She Hasn’t Written” (which became, The Four Johns). His original drafts have since been partially reconstructed and published in an ultra limited ‘Vance Integral Edition’ that came out n 2006. I can’t comment on those but the Queen version passes the time perfectly amiably, albeit with a bit too much padding as Collins goes to and from the Park and tracks down a seemingly endless number of cars. The murderer is fairly well hidden and the motive straight out of Agatha Christie, though there is no way for us to be able to actually deduce this. The same goes for the elaborate murder method, which is ingenious without being specially plausible and relies on a gizmo similar to that used in Philip Macdonald’s Rynox.
One imagines that Vance put in these nods to the past to satisfy the use of the ‘Queen’ name, though it is hard to imagine that anyone was really fooled. Vance, who used his full name John Holbrook Vance for his non SF thrillers, gets to indulge his well-known fondness for unusual character names (which include, among the suspects, Bob Vega and Myron Retwig, while the widow is Opal Genneman) but otherwise this is a fairly run-of-the-mill mystery with only the barest hints of any individuality. The one exception perhaps is in an extended sequence in which one of the characters shows off their elaborate train set, constructed to resemble L. Frank Baum’s land of Oz (of which Vance was a great fan). But that’s pretty much it – but then, this was very much an ‘ersatz’ Ellery Queen book to begin with …
For more info on this book and the whole Ellery Queen corpus (and to see further comments by Vance about his brief stint as ‘Ellery Queen’), then do yourself a favour and visit the dedicated website: Ellery Queen: A Website of Deduction.
Sergio – I can’t blame you for the rating you’ve given this. I admit I”m biased, but I really prefer the ‘original’ Ellery Queen mysteries. The rest are just not my cuppa…
You’re right really Margot, as ever – I probably wouldn’t have picked this one up were it not for the Jack Vance authorship in fact …
I’ve never gotten round to these late era Queen stories, and in all honesty I don’t think of them as “real” Ellery Queen. To me, these are curiosities that I may explore at some point but they are well down my list of priorities.
The weird part for me is that I think I may have read some of these very early when I became I fan, before I learned there was a big difference between the ones that did and did not actually feature Ellery Queen as a character, with the notable exceptions of The Glass Village and Cop Out, which were by Dannay and Lee, and Inspector Queen’s Own Case, where the title speaks for itself. Of course, most of the ‘official’ Queen novels of the 60s have a slightly odd vibe too due the behind-the-scenes shake ups between the cousins and the use of ghost authors to replace Lee for most of the them.
Yes, a lot of the 60s books don’t feel quite right, mainly I guess for the reasons you cited.
I remember enjoying Inspector Queen’s Own Case a lot, so it’s not so much the absence of Ellery as a character that I have problems with as the general feel.
I too remember liking that one quite a bit (Queen biographer Francis M. Nevins ranks it very highly too in fact) – there is I think a noticeable drop in quality after the highpoint of Origin of Evil at the beginning of the 50s though fans do tend to get a bit polarised on think. I still think there are lots of good thinks even in the 60s, especially in The Player on the Other Side (co-authored by Theodore Surgeon) as well as Face to Face and A Fine and Private Place, which were by all accounts proper collaborations between Le and Dannay again.
At least the cousins knew who to tap for their ghost jobs, including such brilliant fantasy/sf/crime fiction talent as Vance, Avram Davidson and Theodore Sturgeon (among others, later on). But part of the problem of hiring such brilliant and distinctive talent for a ghost is that they have to bank their own fire to fit the mold. (And, frankly, Dannay and Lee weren’t up to any of the three ghosts at their best, though D&L/EQ were pretty damned impressive at their own best.)
I’m a big fan of the Queen novels and short stories of the 30s and 40s but as prose authors (which mainly means Lee) I agree their output is not particularly noteworthy, though I do think that Ten Day’s Wonder, Cat of Many Tails and Origin of Evil especially do have something special to offer there too. It is fascinating how they turned to SF authors though as ghosts – no idea why that is, Todd?
Because all these guys (plus the guys they turned to who were more exclusively crime-fiction guys, though certainly, say, Ed Hoch wrote some horror and sf over the years, too) were top-notch crime fiction writers when they wanted to be…Sturgeon less so than Vance, and Davidson was the truest hybrid of these three between speculative fiction (sf, fantasy, horror, surfiction, metafiction) and crime fiction (and true crime writing brought to its highest form). I suspect their ability to handle prose hadn’t escaped Lee’s attention as it certainly hadn’t Dannay’s.
Thanks Todd. Just about to embark on he Ed Hoch novel as Queen so will get back to you. Sturgeon’s Some of Your Blood is remarkable of course but have not read his other non SF/Fantasy titles yet. I need to read more Davidson clearly! I have a recent-ish compendium-cum-celebration of his work which has been on the shelf unread for too long
Sergio, thanks for the review. I’m still a little confused, not being even remotely familiar with Ellery Queen. I assume he is the namesake sleuth in the original stories created by Manfred Lee and Frederic Dannay and that Jack Vance simply wrote THE MADMAN THEORY with Inspector Omar Collins as the chief protagonist and not detective Ellery Queen. Duh!
Sorry if I confused things a bit Prashant – but you are basically right. “Ellery Queen” was a character that appears in a series of novels by Lee and Dannay from 1929 to 1958 who also used the Queen name as their pen name. After that the two cousins stopped working together for several years – Dannay wrote more novels featuring Queen, providing the plots which other authors serving as anonymous ‘ghosts’ would use to turn the detailed synopses into novels, while Lee edited the paperback range which used the pseudonym of the author but did not feature the character. If you are interested, I did a general post on the author, and listed my 9 favourite books o theirs, in an earlier post: 9 of the Best by Ellery Queen.
Sergio, no confusion on your part at all. You explained it well in the first para of your post; I was slow on the uptake but that’s normal. Thanks for the explanation and the link to your earlier post on some of the best Ellery Queen. I will check it out. I mustn’t forget that this is, in fact, Jack Vance Day and I also need to familiarise myself with the works of this mystery/sf writer. I just read over at Jerry House’s blog that Vance died in May this year.
Thanks Prashant. Vance lived to a ripe old age thankfully but it’s great to celebrate his work this way and he has a lot of serious fans out there so I hope there will be a lot to learn from the post being offered today. I plan to read some of his classic Dying Earth novels as my own personal tribute but won’t be reviwing it as I am sticking fairly rigidly to crime for this blog at least. A lot of his books are available fairly cheaply as e-books and kindle (which can be downloaded to PC as I recently discovered).
Mah, Since the so-called apocryphal novels were written by various authors, which were then screened, correct and authorized by Lee, you can not say that they were not true Ellery Queen, but you can not even say they were. Moreover, the plots of some of these, they were not even original, but they were given by the elaboration of tracks designed by Dannay.
Sergio, ti ho appena inviato una email. Riesci a darmi una risposta al più presto?
Hi Piero, thanks though we need to be clear here – Dannay had nothing to do with the books in which the “Ellery” character did not appear, and for that reason alone are hard to consider canon since Lee only served as editor and not co-author of the paperback titles. But it is all a bit tangled and what matters is the book, not who was hiding behind the pseudonym.
Vado a controllare i miei email tra poco.
Sergio, you’re going to have a completely different experience with Jack Vance when you read THE DYING EARTH. I think Jack Vance just wrote those Ellery Queen mysteries for money.
I think you’re right George – and thanks again for suggesting the Earth books, really looking forward to them.
I’ve ordered a copy of this, but it’s been so long since I’ve read a Dannay/Lee Ellery Queen that I might have to do some re-reading of those to really see how the style compares.
Thanks Kelly – hope you enjoy it. I’ll be curious to know how you think it compares to Vance rather than Queen!
I think Jack Vance wrote a lot of things just for money. Read my review of SPACE OPERA. Incidentally, that book is loaded with bizarrely named characters. Didn’t know that was a Vance trademark. The characters in SPACE OPERA sport such monikers as: Blitza Soerner, Rugar Mandelbaum, Adolph Gondar, Cassandra Prouty and Andrei Szinc. And there’s a music critic/alien ethnologist with the alliterative name of Bernard Bickel, a touch that reminded me of radio shows of the 1940s. These are all people from Earth. The aliens have even stranger names as one might guess for 60s sf.
I’ve always avoided the ghosted Queen novels that don’t include Ellery as the detective. But this one with it’s GAD elements might tempt me to break my rule. I agree with Todd that the prose of Lee and Dannay never approached that of Sturgeon or Davidson. Davidson’s And on the Eighth Day is one of the best Queen novels not written by Lee & Danny. The same goes for Sturgeon’s The Player on the Other Side which I thought brilliant when I read it as a teen.
Odd and usually elegant (and often witty) nomenclature was definitely a Vance trademark, and not solely for characters. John, you must also recall that not all Vance fiction was written with the same seriousness of intent…similar grace, but some is definitely meant to be more important than others…
I’ve been travelling all day today but am really looking forward to reading all the accumulated reviews and posts on Vance this weekend – a great idea this one.
Thanks John – agree completely about Player especially. Just reading Hoch’s ‘Queen’ novel, The Blue Movie Murders, which Dannay edited. It is absolutely hilarious, but not intentionally!
Very interesting post. As always, the background you include adds to my knowledge. Years ago, when I read Ellery Queen books, I think I must have read some of the books by “Ellery Queen” that were ghost written by others… without knowing. Don’t remember specific titles though. I haven’t even gotten around to reading a genuine Ellery Queen book this year as I had planned to.
Having a whole year without reading a genuine Ellery Queen is a bit more than I could bear I think TracyK 🙂
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