Ellery Queen’s mystery stories often are a sort of animated crossword puzzle: As the puzzle solver fills in the grid according to the clues, the answers to the clues that he or she does not understand become clear through the answers to the clues that are interpreted correctly. Other stories are like riddles: The clues to the mystery must be interpreted and added together to find a logical answer. Still others are like jigsaw puzzles, where one has to fill in what is missing to get a true picture. Francis M. Nevins, Jr., in Twentieth-Century Crime and Mystery Writers (1980), wrote that Queen follows several motifs in most of his stories, those of “the negative clue, the dying message, the murderer as Iagoesque manipulator, the patterned series of clues deliberately left at scenes of crimes, the false answer followed by the true and devastating solution.” All these techniques work well to keep the reader in suspense, yet Queen is scrupulously fair in making sure that all the clues are available to the reader as well as to Ellery Queen, the detective in all of his stories. In fact, many of Queen’s stories have a formal “Challenge to the Reader” after all the clues have been presented and before Ellery solves the crime. Even the stories without this challenge, however, are structured in such a way that the reader can attempt to solve the problem before the solution is presented. Queen is not above throwing in a red herring or two, but Ellery must deal with these as must the reader. Occasionally, solutions are farfetched, but the stories never admit of more than one solution.
Queen’s stories are puzzles, and as such they sometimes lack any emotional punch. While police officers, doctors, and the like often do become somewhat hardened to violent death, it is nevertheless slightly shocking to the reader’s sensibilities to have Ellery calmly, almost absentmindedly, stepping over bodies as he examines potential clues. When someone does react, the tone of the account often becomes rather amused: In “The Adventure of the Three R’s,” after Nikki Porter, Ellery’s secretary, discovers that she is virtually sitting on a skeleton, she screams and draws over Ellery and two professors; the story notes thatthe top of the skull revealed a deep and ragged chasm, the result of what could only have been a tremendous blow. Whereupon the old pedagogue and the young took flight, joining Miss Porter, who was quietly being ill on the other side of the cabin.
Few of Queen’s stories display any horror over an act of murder; instead, the tone seems to be one of faint disapproval.
Through the years, Queen gave Ellery several different foils, whose main purpose is to bring Ellery to the scene of a crime. The first and most important is his father, Inspector Richard Queen, who seems to call Ellery in on all of his difficult cases. Inspector Queen deals with the police routine, while Ellery takes the pieces that his father digs up and puts them together. Detective-Sergeant Thomas Velie is Inspector Queen’s usual accompaniment, and he appears to have little intelligence but large bulk for dangerous situations. Another foil is Ellery’s pretty young secretary, Nikki Porter, who can be counted on to come to the wrong conclusion. Nikki can also be depended upon to take Ellery to a party or visiting to places where something nasty is likely to happen. Ellery must have been a most uncomfortable houseguest, as something disturbing seems likely to occur when he visits. Early in his career, Ellery was also involved with Hollywood gossip columnist Paula Paris, who supplied a mild love interest and tickets to various events where disagreeable things took place. Djuna, the Queens’ houseboy, appears in several stories as well. While these characters do not appear in every Queen story, the role of a foil to Ellery’s intelligence is common. There is usually someone to whom the solution must be explained.
Queen’s first stories were not collected until 1934, after more than half a dozen novels featuring his detective had been published. Thus, the character of Ellery Queen was already well known and popular, so Queen wastes little time in his short stories establishing characters: The reader is plunged straight into the plot. In “The African Traveller,” the first story in The Adventures of Ellery Queen, Ellery has agreed to teach a class in applied criminology to several university students. Conveniently, Inspector Queen has just been called to the scene of a murder on the first day of the class, and he will allow Ellery and his students to examine the case and come to their own conclusions. All the clues are presented during the students’ exploration of the room, and Ellery sends them off to consider the case and develop a solution. The students in this case are Ellery’s foils, and though they blanch when they are first faced with the dead man, they are soon happily poking around the body. Each student later presents a coherent theory as to the killer; all are wrong. The story thus follows Nevins’s pattern of the false answer followed by the true solution: Ellery tells the students where they went wrong—each ignored some clue—and lays out the logical solution, which takes into account every clue presented. The story is similar to a crossword puzzle: Not until all the answers to the clues have been filled in is the...
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