Welcome to Masters of Mystery, an ongoing series which features a fictional detective and examines his or her unique contribution to mystery fiction. This month:
Some interesting facts about Ellery Queen and his creators:
1. Ellery Queen is both the name of the fictional detective and the nom de plume for the writing team of Frederic Dannay and Manfred Bennington Lee. They were cousins from Brooklyn, NY.
2. Dannay and Lee wrote the first Ellery Queen novel for a “Best First Mystery Novel” contest in McClure’s Magazine. Although they won, the magazine changed owners (or sponsors, according to one site), with the first place prize going to a different contestant (I don’t think that would fly in our day and age, do you?).
3. Obviously, that little setback didn’t stop them: the Ellery Queen canon of novels and short stories is immense, spanning forty-two years, from The Roman Hat Mystery (1929) to A Fine and Private Place (1971), with more than three dozen novels, and innumerable short stories and radio scripts.
4. The series popularity prompted the founding of The Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine in 1941, a mystery short fiction magazine which has been in print ever since (making it the longest-running mystery fiction magazine ever). The publication features some of the best mystery writers around, including Ed Hoch, Ruth Rendell, Jeffery Deaver, and Peter Lovesey, among others.
Why we like Ellery Queen:
1. The series is intricately plotted in the grand “golden age” fair-play tradition of detective fiction; lots of clues, twists, turns, and surprises. Other golden age mystery writers include Agatha Christie, Dorothy Sayers, Michael Innes, and Josephine Tey. For more about the “rules” of golden age detective fiction, check here.
2. Ellery is a Harvard-trained, rather snobbish, ratiocinative amateur detective. He “dabbles” in amateur detection. He is the kind of eccentric that Golden Age mystery fans came to expect of their detective hero. While he is of independent means, he writes novels and edits a fiction magazine. He’s a bachelor and lives with his dad, Richard Queen, a down-to-earth former New York City police inspector. The father keeps the son in the real world, and affords him contacts within the NYPD that the son ordinarily wouldn’t have had. So we get the best of both worlds: amateur and professional, the wealthy of the East Side contrasted with the bums of the Bowery.
3. During the course of the novels, Ellery becomes more humanized and develops more heart, to the point of doubting himself in some of the stories, falling in love, and quitting detection (temporarily). This is one of the benefits of a long-standing series. Another is that it provides ample material for the detective to cross over to other media.
Beyond print – Ellery Queen on radio, film and television:
- Radio: The Adventures of Ellery Queen was broadcast on the three major network radio stations from 1939 to 1948. The Dannay/Lee writer team wrote many of the radio scripts during those years, even though doing so wasn’t the norm of the time. For those interested, here’s a link to a catalog of MP3s of the radio broadcasts, via archive.org. I still remember the Ellery Queen 1-Minute Mysteries being broadcast on radio in the 1970s. (Yeah, I’m old.)
- Film: Ellery Queen didn’t really break out on the silver screen, unfortunately. There were some films made in the 30s and 40s, most notably with Ralph Bellamy (who played the insurance salesman in His Girl Friday, which I discussed in last Friday’s post – check the link in the post to view the film and you’ll see who I mean). And going even farther back, here’s an Ellery Queen film called The Mandarin Mystery (1936), available via archive.org.
- Television: most folks who have encountered the Ellery Queen character have seen him here. Although there was a series in the 50s, the most recent version of the detective comes from the 1975-76 series, starring Jim Hutton (father of Timothy Hutton) as Ellery Queen. David Wayne played his father, Inspector Queen.
Great sites for more info:
- EQ – great resource for the novels, tv series, and films
- Wikipedia: Ellery Queen
- Archive.org – Ellery Queen
- Open Library – Ellery Queen novels
So, have you read any Ellery Queen? What about Golden Age mystery fiction generally? I’d love to hear from you!
Until next time,