Like Agatha Christie, Ellery Queen was a master of intricate plotting. From the very first of the Queen novels, The Roman Hat Mystery, his cases are cunningly devised puzzles that the reader must work to assemble along with Queen. Unlike some practitioners of the art, Queen is a believer in fair play; all the pieces to his puzzles are present, if the reader is observant enough to spot them. One of the features of many of the books is Queen’s famous “challenge to the reader,” in which the narrator notes that all the clues have now been presented and diligent mystery lovers are invited to offer their own solutions before reading on to learn Queen’s. The mysteries abound with misdirections and red herrings, but no vital clue is ever omitted or withheld—although arcane bits of knowledge are sometimes required to reach the proper solution.
The Early Queen Books
In Queen’s earliest books, all of which sport “nationality” titles such as The Egyptian Cross Mystery (1932) or The Chinese Orange Mystery (1934), the clever plotting is often at the expense of character development (as is also true of Christie). The Ellery Queen featured in these novels is a rather cool, bloodless character—an assessment shared by at least one half of the writing partnership that created him. According to Francis M. Nevins, Jr., in his later years, Lee was fond of referring to the early Queen as “the biggest prig that ever came down the pike.” It is an accurate description, and one that the Queen sought to change later in his career.
Queen appears in the early books as a brilliant, self-absorbed gentleman sleuth, complete with pince-nez and a passion for rare books. As the series progressed, he slowly grew into a character of some depth and feeling, although he never reached the level of three-dimensional humanity achieved by Dorothy L. Sayers in her development of Lord Peter Wimsey. Indeed, Wimsey is an apt comparison for Queen; both are gentleman sleuths with scholarly interests who begin their fictional careers more as caricatures than characters. Yet Sayers fleshed out her detective so successfully in the following decade and a half that Wimsey’s emotional life becomes a central feature in several of her later novels. Queen, on the other hand, is humanized and sketched in without ever becoming a truly compelling figure apart from his dazzling crime-solving talents.
Character development aside, however, Queen’s mysteries employ several ingenious recurring plot devices that have become trademarks of the series. Chief among these is the “dying message,” in which the victim somehow provides a vital clue to his killer’s identity, a ploy that would play an important part in many of the series’ later books. It first appeared in The Tragedy of X, a Drury Lane novel originally written under the name Barnaby Ross and later reissued with Ellery Queen listed as the author. The Scarlet Letters (1953) features one of the most gripping examples of the device, as a dying man leaves a clue for Ellery by writing on the wall in his own blood. The Roman Hat Mystery contains another important trademark, the “negative clue,” in this case a top hat that should have been found with the victim’s body but is missing. The negative clue exemplifies Queen’s skills as a detective: He is able to spot not only important evidence at the scene but also details that should have been present and are not.
The Finishing Stroke
Another familiar motif in Queen’s stories is a carefully designed pattern of clues, sometimes left deliberately by the murderer, which point the way to the crime’s solution. The Finishing Stroke contains a superb example of the technique in its description of...
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