The novels and short stories of Ellery Queen span four decades and have sold more than 150 million copies worldwide, making Queen one of the mystery genre’s most popular authors. (For the sake of clarity and simplicity, “Ellery Queen” will be referred to throughout this article as an individual, although the name is actually the pseudonym of two writers, Frederic Dannay and Manfred B. Lee, and several other writers who worked with them.) Queen is both the author and the leading character in his novels.
Queen’s early novels are elaborate puzzles, carefully plotted and solved with almost mathematical logic and precision. They represent a style of detective fiction that flourished in the 1920’s, and Queen’s contributions have become classics of the form. As the series progressed and Queen developed as a character, the books improved in depth and content, sometimes incorporating sociological, political, or philosophical themes. Their settings range from New York to Hollywood to small-town America, and each is examined with perceptive intelligence. In several of the series’ later books, Queen abandons outward reality for the sake of what Dannay termed “fun and games,” letting a mystery unfold in a setting that is deliberately farfetched or farcical.
Queen’s novels and stories are also famed for several key plot devices that have become trademarks of his style. Among them are the dying message (a clue left by the victim to the killer’s identity), the negative clue (a piece of information that should be present and is notable by its absence), the challenge to the reader (a point in the story at which Queen addresses the reader directly and challenges him to provide the solution), and the double solution (in which one, entirely plausible solution is presented and is then followed by a second, which offers a surprising twist on the first).
Queen’s contributions to the field of mystery and detection are not limited to his novels and short stories. Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, begun in 1941, remains one of the world’s leading mystery publications, printing stories by a wide range of authors, while Queen the detective has also been the hero of a long-running radio series, The Adventures of Ellery Queen (1939-1948), and several television series, the first of which aired in 1950. In addition, Queen founded the Mystery Writers of America and edited dozens of mystery anthologies and short-story collections.