“Let the Reader Beware!” by Douglas G. Greene
The distinguished critic Anthony Boucher once said, “Ellery Queen is THE American detective story.” This was not hyperbole, Ellery Queen’s contributions to the mystery story were extraordinary.
Not only did Manfred B. Lee and Frederic Dannay, using the pseudonym of “Ellery Queen,” write almost forty detective novels and seven books of short stories, most featuring Queen himself as the sleuth, they also produced some of the the earliest, and still some of the most important, volumes of criticism about the mystery. They edited numerous anthologies of short stories; founded and edited the most important magazine in the history of the genre, Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine; and encouraged countless younger writers.
Off the printed page, Dannay and Lee created The Adventures of Ellery Queen radio show (1939-1948), also scripting most of the 400 episodes. Ellery was the hero of nine feature films, two made-for-television movies (one incongruously featuring Peter Lawford as Ellery), and four television series including the classic 1975-1976 series starring Jim Hutton and David Wayne. Ellery even appeared as the hero in at least three series of comic books.
In 1929, though, all of these accomplishments were far in the future. Ellery Queen was born when two cousins, Frederic Dannay and Manfred B. Lee, both 24 years old, decided to enter a contest for the best first mystery novel. They decided to use the name “Ellery Queen” as both the name of the sleuth and as their pseudonym. Their novel, The Roman Hat Mystery, won the contest–but before the winner could be announced, the sponsoring magazine was purchased and the new owner gave the prize to Isabel Briggs Myers, now better known for the Myers-Briggs Personality Test rather than for crime fiction.
The Roman Hat Mystery introduced Ellery, his father Inspector Queen, Sergeant Velie, and most important, the “Challenge to the Reader.” Just before Ellery announces the solution, the page was inserted into the book announcing that the reader now has all the clues and should be able to solve the crime.
The early Ellery Queen novels were mind-boggling in their complexity, filled with bizarre clues such the corpse with all its clothes on backwards in The Chines Orange Mystery, (1934); multiple solutions as in perhaps their greatest early novel, The Greek Coffin Mystery, (1932); and the dying message left by the soon-to-be-corpse. (My favorite is the simple message “XY” in a later novel, The Scarlet Letters, 1953; how could “XY” even hint at the murderer?)
At the same time, Dannay and Lee adopted a second pseudonym, Barnaby Ross, for four novels featuring Shakespearean actor Drury Lane: the first, the Tragedy of X (1932), has another especially ingenious dying message.
Whether under the Queen or Ross names, the Dannay and Lee books between 1929 and 1935 are perhaps the finest examples of the classical story of deduction, when–in John Dickson Carr’s famous words–the detective novel was “the grandest game in the world.”
By the late 1930s, Queen had begun to loosen the rigid challenge form of the earlier books by moving Ellery to Hollywood as a screen writer in such books as The Four of Hearts (1938). To many readers, however, Queen’s major accomplishment was to make the detective novel a book of character. His Wrightsville novels of the 1940s, set in a small New England Town, especially Ten Days Wonder (1948), show the limitation of reason. The murderer in these novels sometimes manipulates Ellery, and instead of ending with human order restored, Ellery’s final solution may be as much of a tragedy as the murder. Cat of Many Tails (1949) makes New York City itself a character in the story, and it is one of the few novels to combine fair-play clueing with a serial killer.
As Dannay and Lee moved into the 1950s and the 1960s, Queen’s works, although remaining true to the fair-play form, were experimental. The King is Dead (1952) is a locked-room novel about facism, Inspector Queen’s Own Case (1956) is about aging, and The Player on the Other Side (1963) and And On the Eighth Day (1964) are religious allegories.
Manfred Lee died in 1971 and Fred Dannay died in 1982, but they live on through their Ellery Queen novels and through Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, which is still, almost six decades afer its founding, the premier publisher of short mystery stories. Ellery Queen has been indeed THE American detective story.
An Annotated Ellery Queen Reading ListThe Tragedy of Errors: The Lost Stories of Ellery Queen,
The final, unpublished, Ellery Queen story and other material, in honor of EQ’s 70th anniversary.
Ellery Queen, The Adventure of the Murdered Moths.
The greatest radio plays by Ellery Queen.
The operating room was ready; the surgeon called for his patient. A long, still form was wheeled in. The doctor bent over, lifted the sheet–and found his patient dead! Abby Dorn had been murdered only minutes before, almost under their very eyes. Thus begins one of Ellery Queen’s most baffling cases.
“A well-reasoned solution of an attractive problem.”–A Catalogue of Crime, Jacques Barzun & Wendell Hertig TaylorThere Was an Old Woman by Ellery Queen
Cornelia Potts is a wicked old witch of a woman with millions of dollars, a henpecked husband, and six miserable children. When, one by one, the inhabitants of the Potts household are visited by death, Ellery Queen realizes he’s up against a very cunning murderer.
“One of the very best of the Ellery Queen mysteries.” –The New York TimesAnd on the Eighth Day by Ellery Queen
It’s April, 1944, and Ellery Queen has been working in Hollywood’s film industry. Driving through Death Valley on his way home, his car breaks down. Stumbling over a rise in the desert, he encounters an odd man who seems to come from an earlier time. Ellery is welcomed into this man’s religious-utopian community. But slowly he comes to the realization that evil can invade even the most guarded of societies.Ten Days' Wonder by Ellery Queen
The whole case had sounded fishy from the beginning. Why would an amnesia victim go to a detective when he needed a doctor? But Ellery investigated and soon discovered why they needed him. Howard Van Horn and his beautiful stepmother were being blackmailed for adultery. It was an ugly situation which soon exploded into murder.
Ellery solves the case in record time. But while accepting congratulations, he suddenly realizes he’s made a horrible mistake–he’s accused the wrong person. Worse yet, the real killer is still at large!.Tragedy of X: A Drury Lane Mystery by Ellery Queen
An ingenious murderer has placed a cork bristling with deadly nicotine-dipped needles in the victim’s overcoat pocket. Two more murders ensue before retired Shakespearean actor Drury Lane solves the case.
Books On TapeCalendar of Crime by Ellery Queen
In this intriguing collection of short stories, Ellery Queen presents listeners with a mystery for each month of the year!
Buy Ellery Queen Books at MysteryBookstore.com
Douglas G. Greene is a noted scholar and critic in addition to running Crippen & Landru, a small press devoted to publishing collections of mystery short stories. He is also the author of the Edgar-nominated biography John Dickson Carr: The Man Who Explained Miracles (1995)