The Great Detectives: Ellery Queen
As part of a group effort by The Tuesday Night Bloggers, I’ve previously discussed four of my favourite Great Detectives — three created by Erle Stanley Gardner, Perry Mason and Cool & Lam in Part 1 and Doug Selby in Part 2, along with Robert van Gulik’s Dee Jen-Djieh from 6th century China. Part 3 was devoted to the Typhoid Mary of Cabot Cove, Jessica Fletcher.
Today’s effort is devoted to Ellery Queen, a detective about whom I’ve had a lot to say in the past. So much so that in fact The Tuesday Night Bloggers spent November, 2015 talking about him, and I had a lot to say. If you’re interested in what I had to say about some interesting editions, Ellery Queen and broad brand and continuation works, my five most/least favourite novels, some novels that I distinguish for reasons that are not the usual ones, or a bunch (1), (2), (3), (4) of individual novels, follow the links in this sentence. If you want the general background, there’s an excellent and very detailed Wikipedia article at this link. And here, as previously, I will refer to the fictional character as Ellery Queen and to the two cousins who created the character as EQ.
My topic today is Ellery Queen, the Great Detective. I’m pretty sure this is the only topic I selected for this month’s posts with the Tuesday Night Bloggers that may actually be in the book of Great Detectives that inspired us … According to Anthony Boucher, “Ellery Queen IS the American detective story.” You will find a very complete explanation of everything that anyone would ever want to know about any aspect of EQ and Ellery Queen, at Ellery Queen: A Website on Deduction, an example of web-based writing excellence. (Devote a few hours some day to reading it through; it’s an immense treasure trove of information.) Here’s my take why Ellery Queen is a great detective.
Ellery Queen was created in 1929 for EQ’s entry into a literary contest and attained publication in 1929. That means, in literary terms, that The Roman Hat Mystery was coming into existence at the same time that S. S. Van Dine’s Philo Vance mysteries were massively dominating the North American literary market. The Benson Murder Case is from 1926, The ‘Canary’ Murder Case from 1927, The Greene Murder Case from 1928 and The Bishop Murder Case from 1929. It’s also perhaps important to remember that the first two films based on the Van Dine novels came to the screen in 1929 with William Powell as Philo Vance; The Canary Murder Case and The Greene Murder Case. And they were a big hit — by all reports I can find, the first three Philo Vance novels outsold any other detective fiction by a huge margin in 1926-1928. It’s hard to assess at this great distance exactly how big a hit, and how environment-forming they would have been for the EQ cousins, but it seems clear that Ellery Queen was pretty much based on Philo Vance.
I think that makes sense in the context. It’s easy to understand how the marketplace responds to a huge cultural game-changer. At that point in the history of detective fiction in the U.S., there hadn’t really been a male writer who had such a disproportionate effect on the marketplace. Van Dine became a kind of literary superstar who was guaranteed to sell; if you wanted your detective creation to sell, you might do worse than model him on the latest superstar.
And so Ellery Queen was the protagonist of his first nine mysteries between 1929 and 1935. Each book starred Ellery Queen and was published as by Ellery Queen. Each title fit a specific format: The X Y Mystery, where X is a nationality (Egyptian, Siamese, Spanish) and Y is a concrete noun (Hat, Coffin, Orange). I won’t go into this in great depth, because I’ve had a lot to say about it in reviews of specific books, but these nine books were a huge game-changer in detective fiction. They presented difficult plots whose hallmarks were strongly logical problems set against a backdrop of a baffling murder. And they showcased Ellery Queen as the brilliant amateur who solved them. The EQ cousins immediately took a huge presence in the marketplace, buoyed by their talent for self-promotion, and all of a sudden there were two different sources of Golden Age detection; the UK and the US.
Ellery’s personality here is, as I noted, pretty much based on Philo Vance. That means, to quote Van Dine himself from Benson:
He was a man of unusual culture and brilliance. An aristocrat by birth and instinct, he held himself severely aloof from the common world of men. In his manner there was an indefinable contempt for inferiority of all kinds. The great majority of those with whom he came in contact regarded him as a snob.
But there is a humanity in the young Ellery that is entirely missing from the pompous dandy of the early Philo Vance. In Greek Coffin, he is brash and overconfident, and has a dramatic public failure; it’s as a result of this that he swears never to reveal his thinking during a case until he is completely certain he’s solved it. Now, I have to admit, from the point of view of the construction of a detective fiction plot, that’s really very convenient. If the writers can keep the tension mounting until it’s time for Ellery to Reveal Everything, then it makes for a much more readable book. The sensible part of me wants detectives to share their thought processes as they move along, partly because, you know, what if they get hit by the proverbial bus, and partly because it makes it easier to solve for lazy me ;-). But from EQ’s perspective it’s a good choice.
I think this earliest Ellery is the one that forms the basis for much of what we see as time moves forward in the EQ oeuvre. Later on in the Wrightsville era, Ellery has emotions and he takes considerably more interest in the emotional situation of his suspects; he occasionally begins to fall in love with them (Double, Double, Paula Paris, Calamity Town, and the character in an [unspoilered] early novel who ridiculously becomes radio-based love interest Nikki Porter in the closing paragraphs). Sometimes he dislikes them (The Origin of Evil, for instance). Sometimes they pretty much bore him except for the logical problems with which they present him (The Finishing Stroke).
In what I think of as the “Hollywood period”, when EQ were trying to sell scripts to the movies, Ellery’s personality becomes plastic and malleable — anything he’s needed to be or do, he’ll be or do, because the cousins’ primary focus is hitting it big as scriptwriters. But then there’s a long period in which Ellery has just almost no personality at all. The astonishing events at the end of The King Is Dead, for instance, just seem to roll off his back without much comment or interest. In the last few books, after a long period of his having been ghosted by other authors, it’s hard to say if Ellery is even interested in what’s going on around him on any level at all. The events of A Fine and Private Place are apparently so uninteresting that he can’t be bothered to do anything about solving the mystery, like search for evidence which is there to be found.
I suspect that in the post-Wrightsville period, the EQ cousins could legitimately assume that everyone who wanted to read about Ellery’s adventures already knew as much about him as they needed to know. The radio show, nine or ten films, the Ellery Queen name on the masthead of EQMM, even the later television series saw to that. He’s a detective, he’s brainy, his father is a police officer and he solves crimes. He didn’t really need to have emotions — at one point in the Wrightsville/Hollywood period, he actually is so upset that he wants to quit being a detective, and heaven knows that would have been disastrous to the series. So after a certain point he simply stopped having them.
But what kind of Great Detective is Ellery Queen? In my view, there are a few basic kinds of cases that seem to suit him best (or, of course, actually suit the cousins who constructed the character and the stories).
- Ellery is possibly best known for solving “dying clue” mysteries; at least, it’s a regular feature of many EQ short stories and at least two good novels (The Scarlet Letters and Face to Face). In the “dying clue” format, a murder victim has just enough time and consciousness left to leave some sort of cryptic reference to his/her killer. When Ellery realizes the real meaning behind the clue, and that it can only refer to one person (because dying people are apparently preternaturally intelligent about that sort of thing, considering and rejecting all kinds of possible dying clues — cf. The Last Woman In His Life) the story is over. So if the reader gets to the clue’s meaning before Ellery does, the story is solved.
- There’s a format that appears to be restricted to the short story form that is similar to the dying clue style, in which Ellery is confronted with a situation in which either A, B, or C commits the murder. Ellery must identify the one-and-only-one killer by observing or deducing that only one of the three individuals is not ruled out and thus is the only possible candidate. (Only suspect A is tall enough to have seen something from the window and thus is the killer.)
- There was a style in Ellery’s earliest days that seemed to vanish later in his career, possibly because they were very difficult plots to construct. That’s what I think of as the “long, long logical chain” story, like Greek Coffin or Dutch Shoe or Halfway House, in which Ellery (for instance) makes a series of interdependent deductions about the murderer based upon one or two tiny clues. So from the evidence of a broken shoelace and a few dents in some linoleum, Ellery deduces a hidden relationship between two people and solves the entire murder. These are very satisfying structures for those of us who enjoy this sort of mental exercise, but I bet they didn’t find much favour with the less logical reader.
- There’s a well-known Ellery Queen style of case that I’ll call the ABC format — perhaps best exemplified by The Finishing Stroke and Cat of Many Tails, and not as pleasantly in books like The Origin of Evil and Ten Days’ Wonder. We know that the crimes are linked because something is found upon the murder scene that links them (in The Finishing Stroke, a series of little index cards with weird notations), or there is a device that appears to indicate that the victims are selected merely because of, say, their occupation (Double, Double). Is it a demented serial killer or is someone merely trying to mislead the police and conceal a single crime with a group of others? Ellery figures out the meaning of the way in which the victims are linked and solves the case.
- In closing, perhaps the best-known story format with which Ellery Queen is linked is “the false solution, then the true”. Ellery’s skills seem uniquely suited to cases in which a lesser mind might find a chain of logic that leads to the incorrect killer, but there’s just that one little niggling bit of evidence that doesn’t fit … So first Ellery solves the crime, sometimes in a way to which the reader has been led down a tempting garden path, and then he solves it again correctly the second time and we have a dramatic finish. I think the best example of this is Greek Coffin but really this pattern repeats throughout Ellery’s long career. Sometimes Ellery merely pretends to solve the case in order to lure the real murderer into making an error (Greek Coffin); sometimes it’s that the wrong solution is easier to pin on an unpleasant person and the correct solution would place the guilt on the shoulders of someone “nice” (at least two novels I can think of, but they’d be spoiled for you so I won’t name them). One of my favourite cases of Ellery’s involves a situation where the false solution, then the true, both point to the same person for different reasons; another is where Ellery persuades everyone to accept the false solution because the truth would ruin someone’s life (and the crime was actually an accident).
To sum up — I think if you stood on a street corner and asked passers-by to name a famous male detective, of course you’d get a huge response for Sherlock Holmes. But I think primus inter pares for the remainder of male literary detectives would be Ellery Queen. The character’s enormous and vastly widespread penetration into every area of the fictional sphere — movies, TV, books, games, radio programmes, jigsaw puzzles, computer games, postage stamps, comic books — has lasted since 1929. It’s a little sad that the EQ estate hasn’t licensed any continuation activities (especially since the cousins were so keen to rent out the Ellery Queen name during their lifetime — the list of ghosted books is a long one) but I think there’s just enough life left in this Great Detective to take him into the 21st century and beyond.