Whatever happened to Ellery Queen?

Tuesday Feb 02 2010

One of the most venerable and venerated names in crime fiction is that of Ellery Queen, the author, editor, and anthologist. “He” was really two cousins who dominated the American detection scene for many years. Curiously enough, after years of success in every entertainment medium, from books and magazines to film, radio, and television, Queen suddenly virtually disappeared. Before the mid-1970s he was a household name. His Spanish Cape Mystery, originally published in 1935, went through seven hardcover printings in North America to 1941, and then as a Pocket Book went through another eleven printings to July of 1944. As late as 1977 he had his own weekly television series on NBC, but thereafter he gradually slipped from public view, and is today remembered only for a mystery magazine. Since Wendy and I took over Whodunit? in mid-2007, I have not sold a single Ellery Queen novel, although we have had many on the shelves. A few weeks ago, I discovered to my surprise that not a single Ellery Queen novel is still in print. Unlike the British Queens of Crime who were his contemporaries and whose works remain republished and still read, Ellery Queen has virtually vanished from the crime scene. What happened?

Ellery Queen was the joint pseudonym of two Brooklyn-born cousins: Manfred Lee (1905-1971) and Frederic Dannay (1908-1982). Their heyday came between 1929 and 1945, during which time they published nearly twenty well-received crime novels, were responsible for a very popular series of weekly radio programmes, and saw many films made from their books. The books, which were the basis of EQ%u201Fs reputation, were distinguished for their so-called “Fair Play” doctrine, claiming that the reader had all the available information to solve the crime ahead of the detective. Clever puzzle-plotting, much better done than Agatha Christie, was Queen%u201Fs principal stock-in-trade. Readers and listeners were challenged to solve the cases. The books were not distinguished for depth of character, fine writing, or much other gimmickry.

After World War Two, the collaborators gradually ceased to work together. Lee virtually retired, officially because of an ill wife, and Dannay (who prepared the complex plots) wrote with others, although always under the “Ellery Queen” house name. The later books were not nearly as strong as the early ones, and many in the 50s and 60s were published as cheap paperback originals with covers reminiscent of writers like Mickey Spillane and other pulp fiction writers.

Moreover, the puzzle element gradually went out of fashion in crime writing and simultaneously out of existence in the work of Ellery Queen. A later series set in the small town of Wrightsville, either in New York of New England, never achieved much buzz. The puzzle element disappeared and Ellery Queen the sleuth morphed from a cerebral consulting detective with a strong supporting cast in the early books into a typical fifties private eye acting alone in the later ones. Early Queen surrounded his sleuth with a number of well-realized characters, including Inspector Richard Queen, Ellery%u201Fs father, Sergeant Velie, a tough and thick-headed New York cop, and an oriental houseboy. There never was a consistent romantic interest, except possibly the houseboy. After 1977, when the television show disappeared from the networks, Ellery Queen„s name survived mainly as an anthologist and magazine editor. Dannay did edit the Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine until his death in 1982, and others carried on the tradition.

In short, Ellery Queen failed either to change successfully with the times or to continue to trade on the strength of his earlier reputation. His success as editor and anthologist (especially after both the original collaborators were dead) to some extent disguised the extent of his creative bankruptcy. Nevertheless, the books published before the end of World War Two were clever enough, and deserve more attention than they presently get from crime fiction buffs.

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