Ellery Queen Queen, Ellery [Joint Pseudonym of Frederic Dannay ( (Vol. 11) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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

Americans Dannay and Lee created both novels and stories around their character Ellery Queen and contributed some of the finest mystery and detective fiction to the genre. They are five-time recipients of the Edgar Award and have compiled several anthologies of memorable pieces from Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine. (See also CLC, Vol. 3, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.; obituary for Manfred B. Lee, Vols. 29-32, rev. ed.)

Newgate Callendar

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

["A Fine and Private Place"] exhibits all of the virtues and defects of the Queen books. It is full of stale literary devices, such as a simply preposterous diary. The writing is arch and labored. ("I'd better totter off and tuck my lil ole self into beddy-snooky-bye.") Any character capable of delivering this sentiment deserves all that is coming to her … But if Ellery Queen doesn't write too well, he can plot. In this story—about the murder of a jinx-haunted super-tycoon and a wife who inherits under curious circumstances—there is the usual rash of well-planted clues, real or fake; and the outré paraphernalia of the murderer; and a couple of familiar characters, now growing older. There always will be a market for this kind of old-fashioned puzzle. (p. 38)

Newgate Callendar, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1971 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), June 20, 1971.

Only recently did I begin to like the Queen detective novels. I always admitted, of course, the extraordinary plotting ability of the authors, and the amazing capacity to plant a million clues while being perfectly fair with the reader. But, I confess it, Ellery himself put me off: there was always something of the Philo Vance about him which I didn't like….

[Both Calamity Town and The Dragon's Teeth] are excellent…. I found in them virtues I did not expect. The detection in both cases is not too difficult, and when you have solved the crime you can sit back and enjoy what is a delectable brace of psychological dramas. The personality of the hero is less intrusive than before or since, and the manoeuvring among the characters excellently done and highly contributive to tension. It is not often that a writer (or writers in this case …) whose forte is pure detection can contrive an atmosphere so well. (p. 187)

The Spectator (© 1973 by The Spectator; reprinted by permission of The Spectator), August 11, 1973.

Francis M. Nevins, Jr.

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Dannay's and Lee's early books], from Roman Hat through The Spanish Cape Mystery (1935), are generally bracketed together as Queen's First Period. The obvious hallmark of this period is the recurrence of adjectives of nationality in the titles. Another, more significant but less obvious, is the overpowering influence of [S. S. Van Dine], which began to melt away around 1932 and had almost totally vanished … by 1935. The Ellery of these first "Problems in Deduction" is a polysyllabic literatus wreathed in classical allusions and pince-nez—in short, a close imitation of Philo Vance or, as Manfred Lee in recent years called him, the biggest prig that ever came down the pike. For those who don't like First Period Queen—a group that apparently includes the authors themselves, to judge from interviews near the end of Lee's life—these novels are sterile, lifeless, relentlessly intellectual exercises, technically excellent but unwarmed by any trace of human character nor by any emotion other than the "passions of the mind." For those who love Period One, including myself and most Queenians, these books are splendid tours de force of the artificer's art and are nowhere near totally devoid of interest in human character or concern with fundamental issues. (pp. 6-7)

It's convenient to date the beginning of Queen's second period from Halfway House (1936) since this is the first of Ellery's cases not to contain an adjective of nationality in the title. But the new title format is merely symptomatic of changes in substance. The main influences on Dannay and Lee in this period were the women's slick magazines, to which they began to sell around the middle of the decade, and Hollywood, where they worked as script writers for Columbia, Paramount and M-G-M in the late Thirties. Compared with the early masterworks, the novels of Period Two suffer from intellectual thinness, an overabundance of feminine emotion, and characters cut out of cardboard with the hope that they would be brought to life by movie performers. On the other hand, with the broader perspective that accompanies the passage of time we can see the entire second period as a series of steps in the progressive humanization of Ellery and the Queenian universe and as the necessary preparation for the great synthesis of Period Three. (p. 7)

Queen's third period, which many would judge the crown of his career, opens with Calamity Town (1942) and embraces twelve novels, two books of short stories and sixteen years. In this period there was nothing Queen would not dare. We find complex deductive puzzles; achingly full-drawn characterizations; the detailed evocation of a small town and of a great city, each of which comes to life on the page; the creation of a private, topsy-turvy, Alice-in-Wonderland otherworld; explorations into the historical, psychiatric and religious dimensions; hymns of hate directed at McCarthyism and other brands of political filth; a gently sketched middle-age love story; a nostalgic re-creation of Ellery's young manhood. We find all this and so much more within a sequence of strict detective stories…. (pp. 8-9)

The hallmarks of Period Four are, on the one hand, an undiminished zest for radical experiment within the strict deductive tradition, and on the other hand, a retreat from attempts at naturalistic plausibility coupled with a reliance on stylization of plot and character and the repetition of dozens of motifs from the earlier periods. (p. 12)

[No] major mystery writer anywhere was more influenced by S. S. Van Dine than was Queen. But in several significant respects Queen altered the Van Dine structure for the better. First of all, even in his earliest novels Queen proved himself far more skillful at drawing character, writing vividly, and plotting with finesse. Second, Queen dropped the first-person narrative employed by Van Dine and thereby gained the flexibility of being able to write scenes at which no official is present. But most important of all was Queen's innovation of fair play, of providing the reader with all the information needed to solve the case along with or ahead of the detective. Fair play was not a ground rule of the game as Van Dine played it, and in fact most of Vance's solutions depend on intricate, and often debatable, psychological analyses of the suspects. Ellery's solutions on the other hand are based on rigorous logical deductions from empirical evidence, which, unlike the mental data from which Vance proceeded, was as accessible to the reader as to the detective, a point emphasized by Queen's famous "Challenge to the Reader" device. (pp. 18-19)

The Tragedy of X must be ranked among the supreme masterpieces of the Golden Age of detective fiction, a book of staggering complexity, stunning ingenuity and dazzling fairness to the reader. Queen used this novel to introduce two motifs that were to become hallmarks. First is a distinctive murderer-victim relationship whose exact nature I can't specify lest I spoil several early Queen novels for those who haven't yet read them; the locus classicus of this motif being Conan Doyle's The Valley of Fear, I will refer to it as the Birlstone Gambit…. Queen employed the motif over and over during the early Thirties, then dropped it at the end of Period One. The second motif introduced in X was left virtually untouched for almost two decades but became literally synonymous with the Queen canon during the Fifties and Sixties: I mean, of course, the classic Queenian device of the Dying Message…. Drury Lane and several others, one of whom will be dead within minutes, discuss the last moments of life in a conversation which is [central to Queen's work]…. The discussion culminates in Lane's words: "There are no limits to which the human mind cannot soar in that unique, godlike instant before the end of life." That statement suggests that beneath the criminous surface of X Queen is seriously concerned with power and the love of power, and indeed these themes recur in the book in several forms, such as the murderer's silent intimate relationships with his victims over the years in which he is shaping their destruction, Long-street's sadistic lust for power over the men and women in his milieu, the motives behind Lane's own investigations, and the god-like power of the dying. And if we prescind from serious literary intent and simply look at the large number of sharply etched characterizations, and the vivid evocations of time and place (and especially of the transportation network made up of the streetcar, the ferry and the shortline passenger train, all three near extinction today), and the integration of the milieu into the plot and of each of the plot's myriad details into a rationally harmonious mosaic, we will find so many more reasons why The Tragedy of X must appear in any listing, however short, of the supreme achievements of crime fiction, and why it will be read with awe long after our grandchildren are dust.

The Tragedy of Y (1932) is no less dazzling than X in perfection of structure and technique and in its blending of serious intent with the deductive puzzle. In it Queen created a milieu fully worthy of the doom-haunted Eugene O'Neill…. (pp. 27-9)

[The Hatters, the doomed family in The Tragedy of Y, are] not merely a group of figures in a detective novel but a paradigm of American society, its members rotting with greed and sadism and inertia, consenting for the sake of expected legacies to be dehumanized in love-hate relationships with each other and with the bitch goddess of wealth and property who rules the roost. But the sickness in the Hatters is not curable by surgery or social revolution; it is not some naturalistic venereal disease but a disease of human nature and the human condition, the gift of a dark god. (p. 30)

The Tragedy of Y is, like its predecessor, one of the most stunning detective novels ever written, and also like X it introduces two motifs that have come to be distinctively identified with Queen. One is distrust and despair of human nature, which will reappear throughout the Canon but with especial force during the McCarthy-haunted Fifties in such books as The Origin of Evil and The Glass Village. The other is the motif of manipulation…. And over and above the brilliance of Y as a detective novel stands the power of its black vision…. Although rooted in a genre that has traditionally been oriented to reason, order and optimism, Y evokes depths of tragic despair that are virtually without parallel in the history of crime fiction. (pp. 30-1)

[The Tragedy of Z] is by no means one of Queen's greatest achievements, being far less dazzling and full-bodied than the masterworks. Except for one brief scene, Lane is kept offstage until almost halfway through the book, and the presence and first-person narration of Patience Thumm are woefully inadequate substitutes. Compared with the great novels of 1932, Z's plot is both simplistic and flawed…. But the faults are more than compensated for by the bone-chilling bizarrerie of the two sequences in the death house (which are both suspenseful and effective as outcries against capital punishment), and by the unobtrusively brilliant planting throughout the book of clues to be collated by Lane at the denouement. Though not one of Queen's most distinguished novels, Z is a highly intriguing work that repays more than one reading.

Which is more than can be said for the last of the Barnaby Ross tetralogy. Drury Lane's Last Case (1933) has some excellent ideas but is marred by haste, disorganization, coincidence, artificiality, incredible motivation, and a staggering number of holes in the plot…. Although murder doesn't rear its head until the final quarter of the book, there is so much intellectual puzzlement throughout that no one cares. (pp. 32-3)

[The Greek Coffin Mystery] may blow your mind, especially if you're unfamiliar with the complexities of the formal deductive puzzle. Although it's not perfectly flawless in all its thousands of details, the flaws are virtually imperceptible without several careful readings. In short, The Greek Coffin Mystery is probably the most involuted, brain-crushing, miraculously well constructed detective novel published in the United States during the Golden Age. (p. 36)

There is more abundant carnage in [The Egyptian Cross Mystery] than in any other deductive novel by Queen or anyone else, but the bloodbath, far from being gratuitous, serves two purposes. Within the deductive framework, the profusion of headless and crucified bodies is a precondition to the ingenious variations of the Birlstone Gambit on which the solution rests. Looking outward to the experiment with larger meanings, the physical horror of the murders is necessary to Queen's analogies between the Tvar-Krosac vendetta and its equivalent in macrocosm, war. If we look at the parallels Queen draws between the fugitive Tvars and nation-states (each brother's alias, for example, is the name of a city in a distant country), and at the fratricidal elements of the plot, and at the staggeringly vague and inadequate motives for the carnage, we will appreciate that buried within Egyptian Cross are the aborted remains of what might have become a powerful anti-war novel.

Technically the book is less than perfect, with much of the counterplotting in the middle chapters only distantly related to the story as a whole—a defect I call the Hollow Center. There are also a few unplugged holes at the end…. But with an exceptionally large and well-handled cast and a richly involuted plot and the vivid evocation of several socially, economically and geographically disparate milieus, Egyptian Cross must be ranked one of the better Queen novels of Period One. (pp. 37-8)

The solution of [The American Gun Mystery] is eminently fair to the reader, but once again depends on the Birlstone Gambit. Furthermore the killer's motive is a woefully weak one, and Ellery never explains how he managed to get his first victim into the position required for his plan. The novel also suffers from a Hollow Center, with the boxing counterplot that fills out the middle chapters unrelated to the basic storyline. And last but not least, Queen's unfamiliarity with film history and technique leads to the incorporation of several sizable cinematic gaffes into the plot structure. But despite its flaws American Gun is still a richly rewarding detective novel; if it does not strike one as an untouchable masterpiece, this is largely because Queen's own best work has helped raise the standards so high.

In The Siamese Twin Mystery … queen again attempted to infuse a philosophic dimension into the formal deductive puzzle, with notable success on both levels. (pp. 39-40)

The Siamese Twin Mystery is not as richly plotted as the earlier Queen novels; were it not for the fire sequences the book would be no more than a novelet. But Queen does not pad. The detection and the fiery background are necessary to each other and to Queen's theme of the power and emptiness of reason in the face of death. Purely on the puzzle level, Queen supplies some truly dazzling variants on the false confession gambit, and sets out (for the first time in a novel about Ellery and his father) a series of magnificently involuted Dying Message devices. Siamese Twin is by far Queen's best book of 1933 and one of the best of all his Period One works. (pp. 41-2)

Ellery's solution [in The Spanish Cape Mystery] is relentlessly logical and scrupulously fair, but one can sense Queen's realization that he is fast exhausting the possibilities of the formal deductive puzzle. For this is the fourth of his novels since 1932 that rests on another version of the Birlstone Gambit, and the wary reader of earlier Period One work should be able to spot the gambit, and the murderer it entails, before he has finished fifty pages. A more significant pointer to Queen's dissatisfaction is the beginning of a change in Ellery's world-view that parallels a shift in Queen's view of his craft. In Chapter 15 Ellery expresses his credo up to this point: "My work is done with symbols … not with human beings…. I choose to close my mind to the human elements and treat it as a problem in mathematics. The fate of the murderer I leave to those who decide such things." This of course is the classic stance of the scientist who develops Cyclon B or napalm and leaves the practical consequences of his brainwork to the practical men. But at the end of the book Ellery realizes that he has exposed a murderer whose act was justified if any crime ever was. "I've often boasted that the human equation means nothing to me. But it does, damn it all, it does!"… [With] The Spanish Cape Mystery Queen closes out Period One—one of the greatest sustained endeavors in the history of crime fiction—and begins the movement away from the pure problem of deduction and in the direction of the novel that incorporates such a problem. (pp. 49-50)

[We] can see the whole of Period Two [late 1935 to 1939] as a transitional stage, as a series of steps in the progressive humanization of Queen's universe. Under the guidance of his two new markets he learned to infuse greater life and warmth into his characters, including Ellery himself; to master the presentation of a woman's viewpoint …; and to develop a skill with character and relationship approximating his finesse with clue and counterplot. In short, Queen in Period Two worked at "opening up" the formal deductive puzzle, making room within its intellectual rigor for more of the virtues of mainstream storytelling. His experiments of the late 1930's were to come to full fruition, integrated into the most devious of puzzle plots, with the great novels of Period Three.

It's convenient, and conventional, to regard Halfway House (1936), the first Queen novel to break the chain of nationality-titles, as the beginning of the second period. However, this novel preserves both the subtitle "A Problem in Deduction," which had appeared in all of Ellery's book-length adventures of Period One, and the Challenge to the Reader, which had appeared in most of them…. But as long as the movement away from the work of 1929–1935 is recognized as a gradual evolution and not a sudden change of course, there's no harm in considering Halfway House the first novel of Period Two. (pp. 51-2)

If Halfway House was not vastly different from the works of 1929–1935, Queen's next novel is so unlike its predecessors as hardly to seem the product of the same author. In The Door Between (1937) deduction takes a back seat to intuition, the stress is on characterization and relationships, and for the first time in the Queen canon one finds "love interest" on every page…. [It's] probably the best Queen novel of Period Two. (pp. 54-5)

At the denouement [of The Door Between] Ellery explains the crime to the satisfaction of everyone but himself, then later reveals, to the murderer alone, a second and even more stunning solution. This two-solutions device is employed here for the first time in a Queen novel, evoking intellectual, moral, and sheerly human ambiguities with an intensity worthy of Simenon.

As a formal puzzle The Door Between can't stand up against the best novels of Period One…. But as a simultaneous imitation and parody of the Rinehart/Eberhart "women's mystery novel" it's an excellent job, full of strokes of satiric genius like putting a hard-boiled private eye in the traditional role of idiot hero. As a study of character and atmosphere the book breaks little new ground …, but it's more vivid and convincing in these respects than many of Queen's earlier efforts. The Door Between is not in itself major Queen but it is a major stride forward on the road to Period Three. (pp. 56-7)

The plot [of The Devil to Pay] is nowhere near Queen's best and nowhere near complex enough for a Queen novel, although it's competent and adequate in most respects. The characterization and dialogue, however, are somewhat less than adequate. Even Ellery becomes no more than a mold for a B-picture leading man; change his name to Charlie Brown and, except for the denouement scene, you'd never know he was supposed to be the detective of Queen's earlier novels. (p. 58)

The Four of Hearts boasts a number of skillfully planted clues, an exceptionally well-concealed murderer, and a gorgeous plot bristling with legal points that are best discussed in the learned obscurity of a footnote. On the negative side, a great deal of the material in the book is not strictly relevant to the grand design. Here more than in any other single novel, Queen threw every conceivable ingredient into the mixture: a wacky-humor opening, three separate and distinct love stories, a barrage of movieland patter, and a quite serious multiple murder scheme. Queen's attitude toward the...

(The entire section is 7871 words.)