Ellery Queen Analysis


(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

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.

Other Literary Forms

(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

Manfred B. Lee and Frederic Dannay’s career as mystery writer Ellery Queen began in 1929 with the publication of The Roman Hat Mystery. They went on to write more than forty other mystery novels, including four under the pseudonym Barnaby Ross, as well as their numerous short stories. During the 1940’s, the pair produced weekly scripts for the long-running radio series The Adventures of Ellery Queen, and they worked briefly for Paramount Pictures, Columbia Pictures Entertainment, and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, writing screenplays featuring their namesake detective. Several of the mysteries that appeared in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine are written in play form. Dannay and Lee also produced several works of criticism on the detective story, the most important of which is perhaps Queen’s Quorum: A History of the Detective-Crime Short Story as Revealed by the 106 Most Important Books Published in This Field Since 1845 (1951).


(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

Ellery Queen is often thought to be one of the most influential figures in the development of detective fiction, both as a writer and as an editor. “His” work was recognized several times by the Mystery Writers of America (which Dannay and Lee founded) in its annual Edgar Allan Poe Awards, and in 1960, Queen won the association’s Grand Master Award. Like his contemporaries of the “golden age” of mystery and detective fiction—Agatha Christie, Rex Stout, John Dickson Carr, and others—Queen works in the puzzle tradition of Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes, in which mysteries are solved by using a process of logical thought.

Queen’s work as editor of Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine has been credited with “rescuing American detective fiction from the pulps and restoring its reputation as high quality literature.” From its inception in 1941, the magazine tried to publish the best in mystery fiction of all types, and it introduced new writers alongside established authors and such mainstream figures as Arthur Miller and Sinclair Lewis.


(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

Breen, Jon L. “The Ellery Queen Mystery.” The Weekly Standard 11, no. 4 (October 10, 2005): 41-43. A profile of Lee and Dannay that looks at their rise to fame and then at the decline of the popularity of their works and the reasons behind the drop.

Dove, George N. The Reader and the Detective Story. Bowling Green, Ohio: Bowling Green State University Popular Press, 1997. This examination of the conventions of the detective stories discusses Ellery Queen.

“Ellery Queen.” In Modern Mystery Writers, edited by Harold Bloom. New York: Chelsea House, 1995. Scholarly essay on Queen placing the works produced under that name in the context of mystery and detective fiction generally and discussing their place in the canon.

Grella, George. “The Formal Detective Novel.” In Detective Fiction: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by Robin W. Winks. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1980. Though Grella’s essay is on the detective novel and only briefly mentions the work of Ellery Queen, the essay does discuss the characteristics of the formal detective story of the “golden age” and is thus very useful in considering Queen’s stories.

Grossberger, Lewis. “Ellery Queen: A Man of Mystery and He Likes It That Way.” The Washington Post, March 16, 1978, p....

(The entire section is 497 words.)