Ellery Queen Essay - Queen, Ellery [Joint Pseudonym of Frederic Dannay ( (Vol. 3)

Queen, Ellery [Joint Pseudonym of Frederic Dannay ( (Vol. 3)

Queen, Ellery [Joint Pseudonym of Frederic Dannay (1905–) and Manfred B(ennington) Lee (1905–1971)]

Dannay and Lee, both Americans, have written more than fifty mystery-suspense novels for Ellery Queen's huge and adoring audience. They have also compiled several anthologies of memorable pieces from Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.)

[Ellery Queen's] The Tragedy of X must be ranked among the supreme untouchable masterpieces of the Golden Age. The plot is staggering in its complexity, stunning in its ingenuity, and dazzling in its complete fairness, employing for the first time in Queen's career two devices of which one became the hallmark of the author's first period and the other was to become his distinctive province during the Fifties and Sixties. A specific description of the first device might spoil several novels for those who haven't read all of Queen's early works; suffice it to say that it rests on the same murderer-murderee relationship that Holmes once unearthed at Birlstone Manor, from which we hereby dub this device the Birlstone Gambit. The second device is, of course, the classic Queenian situation of the Dying Message. While riding in the Weehawken local during the small hours of the morning, Lane and several others, one of whom will die within minutes, discuss the last moments of life—a conversation as central to Queen's work as is the famous locked-room lecture in The Three Coffins to the understanding of John Dickson Carr….

The Tragedy of Y (1932) is the equal of X in the dazzling perfection of its structure and technique, and in addition is an attempt more sustained and organic than in X to integrate the deductive problem with "serious" literary intent. The book's central themes can be traced back to the plays of Eugene O'Neill and through him to Greek tragedy, and apparently exerted marked influence on such later works as Raymond Chandler's "The curtain," William March's The Bad Seed, and Hitchcock's Psycho which itself influenced Queen when in 1963 he reshaped some elements from Y into The Player on the Other Side….

The Tragedy of Y is one of the most stunningly brilliant formal deductive problems ever written, easily ranking among the ten finest flowers of the Golden Age. In its deeper aspects, it has had a long and fruitful influence; its black design may well have helped to shape the nightmare stories of Cornell Woolrich (the vision of the dark power), and Hitchcock's Vertigo (the interweavings of fiction/illusion and reality) and Psycho (the stance at once of compassion and loathing towards the murderer, the horrific shock at the revelation of the truth, the matriarch as a metaphysically evil being, the relation between the mother's and the descendant's perversions). Rooted in a form that has traditionally been oriented to order, reason and optimism, Y evokes depths of tragic despair and a sense of meaninglessness that are virtually unparalleled in the deductive genre and to which Queen would return, in a different vein, in his great novels of the late Forties.

Francis M. Nevins, Jr., "The Drury Lane Quartet," in The Queen Canon Bibliophile, January, 1969.

There is no doubt about the American origins and manner of Frederic Dannay … and Manfred B(ennington) Lee …, two cousins who under the name Ellery Queen combined in one of the most successful and lengthy collaborations in literary history. Like Carr, they were unusual in coming to crime writing as young men, and like him they showed for many years an agreeable zest. The early queen stories, and also those written under the name of Drury Lane, showed some debt to Van Dine. Ellery Queen added a grace note … by making the author identical with the detective…. Ellery is an amateur investigator—and in fact a detective-story writer—always at hand when his father, Inspector Richard Queen, is confronted by a difficult case.

The word "ingenuity" gets a good deal of work in [my writings] about the Golden Age, and certainly one would not wish to avoid it in writing of the early Queen novels. The ingenuity is of a kind quite different from Carr's, resting in a relentlessly analytical treatment of every possible clue and argument. In these early books, a "Challenge to the Reader" appears some three-quarters of the way through, in the form of a statement saying that the reader has now been presented with all the clues needed to solve the case, and that only one solution is possible. The rare distinction of the books is that this claim is accurate….

[Which] of the Queen novels containing this challenge is the best must be largely a matter of individual taste. My own favorite is The Greek Coffin Mystery (1932), with its brilliant surprise ending, but almost equally good are The Dutch Shoe Mystery (1931), which has a perfect piece of extended reasoning about the shoes left by the murderer, The French Powder Mystery (1930), in which you have to wait until the last line for the solution, and The Chinese Orange Mystery (1934), with its turned-round clues. Judged as exercises in rational deduction, these are certainly among the best detective stories ever written.

Yet something has been lost to achieve this rational perfection, and, as with Carr, what has been sacrificed is the sense that the author has any feeling for the people in his story. More sensitive than Carr, or less persistently adherent to a formula, Dannay and Lee gave up the Challenge and the close analysis of clues, and made Ellery a less omniscient and more human figure, in search of a wider significance and more interesting characterization. Perhaps their immense reading in the field of crime stories made them dissatisfied with what they were doing, perhaps they felt that they had worked out this particular vein. In any case, their first ten books represent a peak point in the history of the detective story between the wars….

The best of [Ellery Queen's] short stories belong to the early intensely ratiocinative period, and both The Adventures of Ellery Queen (1934) and The New Adventures (1940) are as absolutely fair and totally puzzling as the most passionate devotee of orthodoxy could wish. At least one of the stories in the first book. "The Adventure of the Bearded Lady," is a perfect example of this kind of problem story, baffling in its components but simple when they are put in their right places. Half a dozen others are almost equally good, and every story in these books is composed with wonderful skill. Some of the later Queen stories are interesting, but generally they do not come up to those in the first two collections, because the structure is looser and there is not much compensation in the way of greater depth.

Julian Symons, in his Mortal Consequences: A History—From the Detective Story to the Crime Novel (copyright © 1972 by Julian Symons; reprinted by permission of Harper & Row, Publishers, Inc.), Harper, 1972, pp. 121-22, 169-70.