dr_hermes (dr_hermes) wrote,

Just who WAS this Ellery Queen anyway?

This illustration by Tom Adams is from Julian Symon's book GREAT DETECTIVES: SEVEN ORIGINAL INVESTIGATIONS (Harry N Abrams, 1981). This is a fascinating experiment in creative biography, like Philip Jose Farmer's TARZAN ALIVE, but done in a more respectful and perceptive manner. Symons has himself as an interviewer questioning Archie Goodwin about what finally happened to Nero Wolfe, or talking with the man who inspired Raymnond Chandler's Phillip Marlowe. There's a particularly charming vignette where an elderly beekeeper meets an inquisitive young lass named Jane Marple. Here we see Tom Adams' version of the famous portrait of Richard and Ellery Queen which hung in their apartment on West 87th Street.

Now, if you've read some of the Ellery Queen books, you've likely noticed something puzzling about them. The first ten have titles like THE CHINESE ORANGE MYSTERY or THE GREEK COFFIN MYSTERY. In them, Richard Queen is a NYPD police Inspector who is helped with particularly difficult murders by his son, Ellery. To be honest, the Ellery in the first ten books in insufferably snooty and vain and condescending, calling his father "Pater" and "poor old Dad," wearing a pine-nez and speaking like a fop. I'm certain many hard-boiled New York cop daydreamed about pushing Inspector Queen's irritating kid in front of a subway train. The redeeming quality is that young Ellery is in fact as much of a deductive genius as he thinks he is, and the first ten books are gems of tightly plotted classic mysteries. After that, the stories become looser and more playful, and Ellery Queen settles down to become a much more likeable and unaffected guy. In fact, he seems like a different person altogether.

Adding to the puzzler is that we are told in the first few books that the Queens have retired and are living in Italy; Ellery has married and is raising a son. So the Ellery Queen stories are supposed to be cases from before their retirement and before the first book was published in 1929. All well and fine except that the Queen saga didn't end and new stories kept coming out into the 1970s, all modern and up-to-date and not dusty historical pieces. So what's the deal? Julian Symons gathers the facts and arrives at the conclusion that Ellery Queen did retire as we're told before the first book was published, but was succeeded by his younger brother Daniel. It was Dan who was more fallible and human (but still a master of deductive reasoning), and Daniel who became the new "Ellery Queen."

I like this idea well enough, it makes sense and it also extends "Ellery Queen" career a decade or so, while allowing natural aging. But before I found Symond's book, I had mused over the oddness of the Queen stories myself and thought I found a slightly different answer myself. Here's my take on the situation from January 29, 2005, when I reviewed THE EGYPTIAN CROSS MYSTERY:

I think Ellery Queen can squeak in as a pulp figure, because he had seven short stories appear in MYSTERY in 1933 and 1934, and another four in BLUE BOOK in 1939. His most outrageous short story, "The Lamp of God" first appeared in DETECTIVE STORY for October 1935 (as "House of Haunts")

Still, although the character successfully apeared in many books and short stories, a radio series and a half-dozen "B" films (starring Ralph Belamy and William Gargan in turn), as well as a very enjoyable short-lived TV show starring Jim Hutton and David Wayne, it's the first ten books that (to me) really capture the essence of Ellery Queen. Starting in 1929, they had titles following a formula like THE SPANISH CAPE MYSTERY and THE GREEK COFFINS MYSTERY. Those early books were amazing examples of the mystery as an intellectual puzzle.

There is almost no onscreen violence or sexual activity in these stories, and you're not likely to ever see Ellery shooting it out in an alley or opening a suspect's blouse while asking questions. Instead, you get a baffling series of murders that are investigated in exhaustive detail by our hero, going over every conceivable possibility. Usually, a killer of great cunning is behind the crimes and he (or she) has gone to incredible pains to mislead the police. And yet, sure enough, the clue needed is prominently there in the story and only has to be interpreted correctly to solve the whole horrible mess. The books were even helpful enough to include a cast of characters at the start, with the page of each one's first appearance in the story listed and brief reminder of who each one was.

A trademark of the early books was the "Challenge to the Reader", where at a critical point near the end, we were informed in a block of italics or bold print that we now had all the information necessary to solve the mystery. "..By the exercise of strict logic and data, you should now be able, not merely to guess, but to prove the identity of the culprit." It's a good thing I wasn't on the police homicide squad of these books in the 1930s or I would have been trying to send the wrong person to Alcatraz four out of five tries.

From September 1932, THE EGYPTIAN CROSS MYSTERY is unusual in that Ellery's father, NYPD Inspector Richard Queen, is absent for most of the story. (In his place as a sounding board is one of Ellery's old instructors from his University days, Professor Yardley.) Out of morbid amateur detective curiosity, Ellery goes to check out the scene of a bizarre murder in a tiny West Virginia town. A schoolmaster had been crucified (on Christmas Day!) to a signpost outside the village. As if that wasn't gruesome enough, the body had been decapitated and the head was nowhere to be found. The corpse on the signpost forms a T shape, the post stood at a crossroads that formed a T, and on the door of the man's house the letter T was scrawled in blood.

Not your typical domestic crime, you might think. Ellery putters about, meets some colorful characters but gets nowhere. He returns back to Manhattan to his snug life of writing his books and tagging along with his father on homicide cases, offering his suggestions as needed. But then, six months later, he gets a surprising telegram from Professor Yardley. "MY NEIGHBOR FOUND CRUCIFIED TO HIS TOTEM POST WITH HEAD MISSING STOP"

This will not be the last headless cadaver found tacked up in a T shape before it's all over. Over the next two hundred pages, Ellery Queen leads us through a tangle of religious fanatics claiming to be Egyptian deities, scandalous nudists, mysterious Eastern European men with limps, love triangles and suspicious past histories of respectable society folk. I often felt like making notes in the margins and crossing off discarded theories. And, of course, at the end when Ellery smugly reveals the vital clue ("It should be child's play now. Don't you see it yet, any of you?") I had completely missed its significance and was pounding my head on the desk in shame.

There are some interesting things about the Ellery Queen series that lend themselves to speculation. The first ten classic books all tell us that Ellery has married and fathered a son, that he and his wife are retired and living happily in Italy along with old Richard Queen and their houseboy Djuna. These "Nationality/Object Mystery" books took place years earlier, before the Queens emigrated and in fact THE EGYPTIAN CROSS MYSTERY is said to be one of the last crimes Ellery worked on before retiring. Well, that would be fine if this was the last book but in fact the series would cheerfully cruise on for another forty years.

Ellery himself changes dramatically over time. In the first group of books, he is (let's face it) an insufferable stuffed-shirt in the prissy Philo Vance tradition. Conceited, condescending and patronizing, he wears a pinc-nez (those glasses without earpieces that clip on your nose) and twirls a walking stick as he explains how brilliant he is. I am sure several of the hardboiled NYPD cops working with Inspector Queen often daydreamed about accidentally pushing his son in front of a subway train. Ellery's redeeming trait is that he is in fact a gifted deductive genius in the Sherlock Holmes tradition and he does solve several baffling murders that would otherwise never be closed. Soon enough, though, the amateur detective settles down and drops most of his affectations. He becomes much more likeable and down-to-earth. And the wife and son overseas are quietly forgotten.

It's possible to suggest that there was in fact more than one Ellery Queen. The first and most infallible one was the one who retired to Italy, and in fact never did return to detecting. Whether his role was taken up by a younger brother (or cousin or something) with similar talent who used the "Ellery Queen" name for published accounts of his own adventures is possible. But I think there's a simpler explanation. Ellery wrote the books himself, as he mentions many times. (In fact, at the end of THE EGYPTIAN CROSS MYSTERY, he explains he will make a book of the case and "let the public pay" the expenses he racked up solving it. So the prefaces to the first ten books (credited to some lawyer friend called "J.J. McC.") were just misdirection by Ellery to keep possible fans from pestering him and his father. No wife or kid, no villa in Italy, that never happened.

(Support for this can be found in my favorite Queen book, THE FINISHING STROKE. In the 1929 segment, the young Ellery has just published his first book THE ROMAN HAT MYSTERY and is slightly offended by the reviews. He seems in personality much like the more unpretentious character of the later stories; it might be that, like the imaginary family in Italy, the annoying mannerisms of the first ten books were added by Ellery himself in imitation of Philo Vance (who sold very well in his day).

It does seem odd to wrote your own exploits in the third person. Not too many autobiographies are done that way, and it sounds a little schizoid. The advantage of course is that the narrator can keep his conclusions to himself much easier until the end of the book that way. Told in the first person, it would sound much more dishonest to just keep leaving out what the detective has discovered.

Of course, the real explanation was that the stories were written by cousins Frederic Dannay and Manfred B. Lee, who had the clever idea to credit the byline to the same name as the lead character. The books were even copyrighted by that name. For the longest time, new readers might well think there WAS someone named Ellery Queen. If nothing else, this gave great recognition factor in book stores and helped sales. If you think Baker Street-style speculation goes too far, imagine if Conan Doyle had published the Sherlock Holmes stories directly as "John H. Watson, M.D."
Tags: detectives, ellery queen
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