THE BLUE MOVIE MURDERS (1972) by ‘Ellery Queen’

Queen-Blue-Movie-MurdersFirst things first – though originally published under the ‘Ellery Queen’ byline, this novel was actually written by Edward D. Hoch. It proved to be the last of a series of paperback originals that used the pseudonym but in which the Queen character did not in fact appear (Hoch coincidentally also ghosted ‘The Reindeer Clue’, the last official short story featuring the Queen character). The protagonist instead is the Washington governor’s ‘troubleshooter’ Micah “Mike” McCall, here dallying with feminists while hot on the trail of a notorious stag film.

The following review is offered as part of Patti Abbott’s Friday’s Forgotten Books meme, this week hosted by Evan Lewis at his Davy Crockett’s Almanack blog.

“Think like a man, drink like a man. That’s the only way to get anywhere in this world, McCall”

The troubleshooter series went as follows:

  • The Campus Murder (1969) [ghosted by Gil Brewer]
  • The Black Hearts Murder (1970) [ghosted by Richard Deming]
  • The Blue Movie Murders (1972) [ghosted by Edward D. Hoch]

Queen-Campus-MurdersQueen-Black-Hearts-MurdersIn the early 1960s the already fractious collaboration between cousins Frederic Dannay and Manfred B. Lee, the creators of Ellery Queen, effectively broke apart. Dannay would plot new adventures featuring the Queen character, which would then be fleshed out into novels by such ‘ghost’ collaborators as Theodore Sturgeon (once) and Avram Davidson (three times); Lee instead worked on a series of nearly thirty paperback originals that appeared under the Queen pseudonym but which did not feature the eponymous character. These were mostly written in collaboration with Richard Deming and Talmage Powell as well as the likes of Henry Kane, Gil Brewer and Jack Vance (whose The Madman Theory I previously reviewed here). As The Blue Movie Murders was completed after Lee’s death, it was the only one of the series to be edited by Dannay instead.

“Mike, if I want prestige, I invite Governor Holland himself. If I want trouble I invite you.”

The ‘troubleshooter’ series, presumably named in the same vein as the ‘Executioner’ books launched at around the same time, all featured Mike McCall and was designed as a continuing range of suspense yarns built around topical themes. All published by Lancer Books (though the second, following some legal hassles, appeared under their briefly used ‘Magnum Books’ moniker), the series was curtailed by Lee’s death and only ran to a total of three books. The first dealt with student unrest; the second with urban terrorism and racial tension featuring a thinly veiled variation on the Black Panthers; and the third with women’s lib, labour relations, racism, pornography, and the new ‘permissive society’.

“You’d object to Snow White
“Damn right I would! Doing housework for all those dwarfs!”

Queen-Blue-Movie-penguinBen B. Sloane is a big shot Hollywood producer found dead in a motel in Rockview, a small town on the outskirts of the State currently in the grip of union strife at the local film processing plant owned by Xavier Mann, its richest and most powerful citizen. Indeed this really is a company town, one entirely in Mann’s pocket – even the Mayor is an ex-employee of the plant. Sloane was trying to track down Sol Dahlman, who twenty years earlier had directed The Wild Nymph, an erotic film that had achieved the status of an underground classic and which the producer thought was actually a work of genius – and which, possibly, had been shot at the plant circa 1950. Sloane had sent letters ahead of his arrival offering a reward for information on Dahlman to some of its most prominent citizens (including Mann), so perhaps he was killed by someone wishing to keep their past in the skin flick business a secret. With pornography hot on the agenda – thanks to the efforts of activist Cynthia Forrest, currently picketing the Governor’s mansion – McCall is dispatched to clear things up, much to the ire of the local sheriff as well as the striking workers at the plant, who believe he has been sent to break them up.

“McCall felt the sleeping animal within him waking at the scenes of  lust intermingled with the touches of poetry and true romance”

Queen-Vietato-mondadoriHe is treated much better however by April Evans, a mysterious young woman running her own investigation who refuses to explain her presence there. Things soon hot up when Forrest arrives doing what she does best – inflaming an already incendiary situation, with the press already in place to report on Sloane’s murder. And then there is of course the film itself, which McCall finally gets to see and ends up really admiring. This is a book that today, despite the apparently salacious subject matter, would probably have to be marketed to a Young Adult readership. It’s not just that it lacks sophistication but there is something almost childish and rudimentary about its language, which is remarkably simple and almost completely free of any naughty words (I counted one mild expletive). The little social homilies are rammed home with all the subtlety of a fairground barker while the characterisation is (literally and figuratively) basic and black and white. Even our macho and unreconstructed hero remains resolutely one-dimensional and absurdly clean-cut – but then all the character motivation is utterly bog-standard and one-note throughout. Which is not to say that McCall doesn’t let some real howlers through at times – for instance:

“Unlike some of the women’s lib supporters, who flaunted their masculine-lesbian tendencies, Cynthia Rhodes was all woman”

Queen-Blue-Movie-vgOh boy! See what he did there? ‘O tempora, o mores’ indeed (though good luck finding anyone who would know a Cicero quotation in this book). In the end a surprise villain is unmasked (it is only a mild surprise and that because the motive is pretty thin) and the identity of the film director also revealed in an admittedly amusing little fillip in the final chapter.  This then is a minor work, competently written and plotted but which ultimately adds little in the way of luster to either the canons of ‘Ellery Queen’ or Ed Hoch. At best though it is a fascinating footnote, full of the strangeness that was the tail end of the sixties as one tries to fathom what was going through the mind of the people who produced it and what potential readership they thought they were aiming it at. In this sense at least it makes for bizarre if  occasionally intriguing reading  for its depiction of a society whose WASP values at the time were clearly perceived by some as being permanently under threat, with McCall regularly having to dispense words of wisdom to the less enlightened people surrounding him before he goes and does some macho thing or other.

***** (1.5 fedora tips out of 5)

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46 Responses to THE BLUE MOVIE MURDERS (1972) by ‘Ellery Queen’

  1. Margot Kinberg says:

    Sergio – The ‘behind the scenes’ story of this one seems (and I admit I’m not being very kind here) much more interesting than the story itself. Perhaps as a period piece but not much else about it ‘gets’ me. But then, I admit to being a bit of a purist about some things. I like the collaboration between the original two ‘Queen Team’ members than anything else, much as I respect Hoch, Powell and the rest in their own rights.

  2. Colin says:

    Another of those late era Queen novels that I’m not familiar with. From what you say, I don’t reckon I’ve been missing much, or at least nothing I need to go out of my way to track down.
    I actually got a little excited thinking of Hoch writing this but it doesn’t sound like one of his stronger efforts.

  3. TomCat says:

    I’m not a particular fan of the later-period, non-EQ (character) novels and the few I read hardly left an impression on me. I only remember A Room to Die In, because it was such a waste to discover one of Ellery Queen’s best locked room ideas in a sub-par story.

    Anyway, there’s one small correction I have to make: “The Reindeer Clue” was not the last story to (officially) feature Ellery Queen, but the novella “The Book Case” (May 2007) by Dale C. Andrews and Kurt Sercu – which was approved by the estates of Dannay and Lee for its publication in EQMM. There was also a second story entitled “The Mad Hatter’s Riddle,” but that one I haven’t read.

    • Thanks for all that TC – must admit, I know I’ve read Room to Die In but can’t remember any of it! As for the “Book Case” story, well, OK the estate may have sanctioned it, and I take your point but ‘last’ in my mind at least really does mean in Dannay’s lifetime as it was canonically by ‘Queen’ as far as anybody knew at the time rather than post-mortem pastiches.

  4. Kelly says:

    Keeping up with who wrote which Ellery Queen books is a job in itself. The premise of this one sounds interesting, but then I’m always distracted by a hint of sleaze.

    • Well, quite Kelly – indeed, as hobbies go, it kept the likes of Allen J. Hubin busy for a good many years! Actually, I wish I could say the book was grubbier than it is, but I’d be faking …

  5. TracyK says:

    This post was interesting to me for the history of when Dannay and Lee quit writing the books. I knew some of the history but get confused about it, and had just been wondering which ones were written by both of them.

    I am with Kelly, the premise of the book you review here sounds interesting. But, since I need to read some of the early Ellery Queen books and have a huge backlog of everything else, I don’t think I will ever get to it. I have found your 9 of the Best by Ellery Queen post and will be using that as a guideline. I think I have The Greek Coffin Mystery.

    • I’m so glad you found that post useful (one of my first actually) – I agree, the use of the Queen name is fairly easy to keep straight in broad terms but gets really tangled up in detail due to the success that the cousins had with the character of the same name in the 30s. There were all sorts of spin offs and off-shoots – the radio shows were initially by both then Lee and others; the magazine was by Dannay alone; then there were several paperbacks to tie-in with the early movies based on the character that were all ghosted – and then it gets to the 1960s and goes mad!! Look forward to reading your review of Greek Coffin – I remember being stunned by it at the time …

  6. The ghosted Ellery Queens vary widely in quality. I like the ones Jack Vance wrote, but it sounds like this Ed Hoch volume was a dud. I need to go back and read the real Ellery Queens like THE FRENCH POWDER MYSTERY.

    • It would be great to know if you though that Jack Vance’s voice really comes through to some degree in the three he wrote – have you seen the original versions that were published in the Limited edition? French Powder Mystery, with its amazing 30-page summing up that saves the name of the murderer for the last 2 words of the book is a tour de force – However, Greek Coffin is my favourite from that era though.

  7. Todd Mason says:

    I imagine this was all dispensed with in the writing, editing and publishing as quickly as possible, and thus not anyone’s finest hour (nor week). Shall have to Go Check to see if this was the only Hoch EQ work aside from that short story (and sorry if my eye skipped over another citation above)…if anyone was close to being a ideal ghost for EQ under better circumstances, it would be Hoch.

    Was the Magnum imprint shortlived (even by the relative mayfly standards of Lancer Books)? I certainly bought enough of their Easy-Eye classics (for a quarter apiece new) as they were sold in bulk as remainders by the WT Grant’s discount department store chain (Woolworth’s competitor) in the early ’70s post-collapse (or ongoing collapse) of Lancer…copies of Barry Malzberg’s and some others’ Lancer-published novels in the same bins…thus I was the only kid I knew to read the likes of Edward Bellamy’s LOOKING BACKWARD or Kipling’s “CAPTAINS COURAGEOUS” or, hell, even Twain’s TOM SAWYER ABROAD…

    • Well, I’d be relying on you for info about Magnum normally! My impression was that while the ‘Magnum Easy Eye Classics’ line lasted longer, the ‘Magnum Books’ imprint itself only lasted about a year or so but would love to have this confirmed (or not). Hoch only admitted to those two, and this only after Dannay’s death so no reason to suspect otherwise – I agree that in terms of plotting he was ideal though his prose style was much less dense than Lee (some would see this as a good thing of course).

      • Todd Mason says:

        You do thus suggest the intriguing possibilities a Hoch/Davidson collaboration on a ghosted EQ might’ve produced…

        • Todd Mason says:

          And, of course, on occasion Hoch would turn a hair from the almost breezy style of most of his work, not least with the Simon Ark stories, most obviously “The Oblong Room” to judge by the way that one tends to haunt readers (probably the Hoch storiy I’ll forget last).

          • You are certainly right about that story (didn’t it win the Edgar?) – and that reminds me, I have not read nearly enough of the Ark stories (where’s Crippen & Landru when you need them …

          • Todd Mason says:

            Ha! I won’t forget the story, but I will forget that it’s (perhaps the most tangentially of any in the series I’ve read) a Captain Leopoold story rather than an Ark…it certainly Feels like an Ark. And it did indeed win an Edgar, perhaps the first story published in THE SAINT MYSTERY MAGAZINE to do so?

          • Actually I misread your message and thought you meant the Ark stories as well! Well, it may have been the only one – it certainly would have been one of the last (it shuttered in 1967, right?)

          • Todd Mason says:

            And Mysterious Press did, back in 1985 and their heroic years, produce a volume, THE QUESTS OF SIMON ARK…not cheap used, Very not cheap in better shape…

          • I know – it’s one of those books that every know and then I look for in the hope that the prive might come down but logically that is the opposite of what is likely to happen over time – stupid logic!

          • Todd Mason says:

            Correct about the folding of THE SAINT magazine…with the weak exception of a three-issue coda in 1984:

          • Blimey, I missed the 80s reboot – presumably to tie in with one of the TV revivals perhaps? Hmm, not sure actually …

        • The mind doth truly boggle Todd! Mind you, I’ve probably read more longform Davidson under pseudonyms than not, so who knows what was really going on…

      • Todd Mason says:

        Hm. This from Michael Moorcock:
        That’s right, John. Lancer went bankrupt but then one of the founders brought out those editions [Magnum “originals” and Lodestone books] without paying anyone. Their bankruptcy tied up my books for a while, which is why there’s a gap in publication until DAW started doing them. It meant I got no money, but the ex-Lancer guy made some illegally. Too hard to track down.

        Reminds me of my bookstore days at the late 1980s height of Walter Zacharius’s next major project, the even more low-rent Kensington, and the flourishing of the Zebra imprint as a not completely but mostly schlock horror novel line…the regional Zebra rep would come into our store, an older man continually bemoaning about how if he had some lace on his underwear, meaning that if he’d been a woman in this case, he’d be able to Get Somewhere in his company…

        • Bloody hell Todd, heady days, or what? Not sure I’ve ever knowingly picked up a Kensington book though when I was visiting my girlfriend at Berkeley in the late 80s I could have done … time for a FAMILY GUY style flashback I think …

          • Todd Mason says:

            And, here, Sergio, you mention something I’d not known previously…trans-Atlantic romance! The shuttling between Italy and the UK would be culture-dislocation enough…the other major Kensington line was Pinnacle, which made its biggest initial splash with THE DESTROYER-style “men’s adventure” novels…

          • Oh, romantically-speaking way more complex than that – the girl was someone I met in Singapore when I lived there but who was actually from Indonesia (of Chinese descent) – and at that point I would have been studying at London School of Economics and making regular trips to San Francisco and Jakarta to keep up with her. She went and married someone else eventually and I’m glad to say is still very, very happy indeed. Now Pinnacle I do remember! Thanks chum.

      • Todd Mason says:

        Looks like they used the Magnum imprint on non-Easy Eye classics (that series begun no later than 1968) as early as 1970, and then mostly in the twilight of (and a way around the foreclosure on) Lancer proper ca. 1972/73 and possibly as late as ’76.

        • Fascinating stuff Todd – I had no idea it went on that late. Thanks chum – knew you’d know!

          • Todd Mason says:

            Or, at least, I could dig some clues out…meanwhile, I’m flabbergasted at the less whirlwind than globetrotting (windburned?) romance you two were conducting back when…my own inamorata of the same vintage is also apparently happily married and thriving in her current life. Even secondhandedly thus, it’s usually good to know things are at least pretty good for the ex. (I’m certainly curious as to why Singapore, etc.)(Writes the man who’s barely been out of the States, but has resided in Alaska, OK City, New England, Hawaii and various mid-Atlantic points of arguable glamor over the decades…)

          • Well, these are matters for a less public forum perhaps Todd … but my Dad was in the airline business so we traveled a lot (and I got a lot of reduced price air fares even though this frequently meant stopping off in unlikely place like Helsinki!) I love the sound of all your travels around the US – I have only ever visited LA (once), SF (many times, so at least I did get to know quite well in the ate 80s and early 90s) and New York (and that was only once, 10 years ago). But it is so nice to know when people we cared about do well – one of the few reasons I like Facebook!

  8. Pingback: A bumper crop: Classic crime in the blogosphere, August 2013 | Past Offences

  9. Sergio, thanks for another fine review of an Ellery Queen novel and the lively interaction between you and Todd which was an added bonus.

  10. Jeff Flugel says:

    This was a most interesting review, Sergio! I’m a big fan of the earlier Queen books but know very little about these later ghosted works. Hoch would seem to be a good choice based on his facility with short fiction but seems to have dropped the ball here, or been otherwise uninspired. I’ve read a lot of Hoch’s various series work in ELLERY QUEEN’S MYSTERY MAGAZINE, and have one of those Crippen & Landru Dr. Sam Hawthorne “impossible mysteries” collections. Most of his work is fun and inventive.

    Of course much more intriguing than all this talk about Hoch is the sidebar between you and Todd about past romances, travels, etc….good stuff! 😉 Not to get too personal, but it’s nice to see you still caring about your ex-inamorata doing well, which speaks volumes about your good character, mate.

    • Thanks Jeff – Hoch was always fairly deprecating about his own few novels and this one was certainly a small sideline from his main activities – well done for having some of Crippen & Landru editions – I had no idea they had become so scarce! As for that truly epic digression with Todd, she was a good friend before and remains one now – and her little boy is only about 3 or 4 months older than Kenji actually and is a very precious babe too after years of effort. Always great to see so many happy smiling faces on Facebook – all the best chum 🙂

  11. eadurbin says:

    Loved reading the background on this novel – I listen to audiobooks when I work out, and downloaded a recording of The Blue Movie Murders when I was in a hurry without knowing anything about it. I was pretty surprised by how dated the narrative was (though an interesting window into the culture) since it was a “new release” on my library’s website. I tried to look it up, and there really isn’t much out there! Thanks for the info 🙂

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