Monday, November 2, 2009

Crime Fiction Alphabet: E is for Ellery Queen (author, character, magazine)

Continuing the fun series started by fellow Anzac book blogger Kerrie at Mysteries in Paradise, where each week bloggers from around the world write about a notable crime fiction novel or author (first name or surname) starting with a particular letter of the alphabet, this week is the turn of "E".

This week I've decided to blog on Ellery Queen, one of the most famous names in the history of crime fiction. Some may recognise it as the name of a 'Golden Age' American detective; some may recognise it as the name of an author from the same era. And still others will recognise it as the name of arguably the premier mystery publication over the past 70 years...

Ellery Queen (author, character, mystery magazine)
Ellery Queen is both a fictional detective and a pseudonym used by two New York cousins born in 1905, Daniel Nathan (aka Frederic Dannay) and Manford Lepofsky (aka Manfred Bennington Lee) who wrote dozens of detective fiction stories starring that character from 1929-1971. Like the Hardy Boys stories written by 'Franklin W. Dixon', the cousins also allowed 'Ellery Queen' to be used as a 'house name' for detective stories written by other authors.

The Ellery Queen stories have been much-adapted for television, movies and radio shows, and prior to arrival of Raymond Chandler's Philip Marlowe and Dashiell Hammett's Sam Spade, Ellery Queen was the most well-known and popular detective in American crime fiction.

The cousins' debut Ellery Queen novel was THE ROMAN HAT MYSTERY, published in 1929, which deals with the poisoning of a disreputable lawyer in the Roman Theater in New York City during the performance of a play.

A number of suspects whose pasts had made them potentially susceptible to blackmail are in the theater at the time, some connected with the Roman Theater and some audience members. The case is investigated by Inspector Richard Queen of the Homicide Squad with the assistance of his son Ellery, a bibliophile and author. A major clue is the disappearance of the victim's top hat - the hat may have contained very important or secret papers...

Beginning in 1932, the cousins also wrote four whodunnit-style novels using the pseudonym "Barnaby Ross" about a retired Shakespearean actor, Drury Lane, who was consulted as an amateur detective. For a while in the 1930s "Ellery Queen" and "Barnaby Ross" staged a series of public debates in which one cousin impersonated Queen and the other impersonated Ross, both of them wearing masks to preserve their anonymity.

Perhaps an even greater achievement than their dozens of novels, however, is the fact the cousins, particularly Nathan/Dannay, were also responsible for co-founding Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, one of the most influential crime fiction publications in history, and the longest-running, and most-awarded, mystery fiction magazine in existence.

Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine was launched in 1941, and is still putting out great issue after great issue today. Nathan/Dannay served as the magazine's editor-in-chief (although still under the name Ellery Queen) from its creation until his death in 1982, when managing editor Eleanor Sullivan succeeded to the post. Following her death in 1991, Janet Hutchings became editor of EQMM.

Quality writing in detective fiction has always been the aim of Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine. As noted on its websites, in 1941, Nathan/Dannay explained his manifesto as being to "raise the sights of mystery writers generally to a genuine literary form," to "encourage good writing among our colleagues by offering a practical market not otherwise available," and to "develop new writers seeking expression in the genre."

In pursuit of the first goal — to raise mystery writing to a respected literary form — he set about finding and publishing stories with elements of crime or mystery by great literary figures past and present. The result was the inclusion of more than forty Nobel and Pulitzer Prize winners in EQMM — Rudyard Kipling, William Faulkner, Ernest Hemingway, Norman Mailer, and Alice Walker among them.

Almost seventy years on, getting a short story published in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine is still seen as a very 'big deal' for modern mystery writers, from acclaimed novelists to budding writers (their Department of First Stories has launched more than 700 writers).

The magazine continues to deliver top-notch stories written by the world's leading crime and mystery writers, including, as noted on the subscription part of their website, Lawrence Block, Jeffery Deaver, Margaret Maron, Val McDermid, Anne Perry, Ian Rankin, Ruth Rendell, and Peter Robinson.

You can see the long, long, list of award-winning short fiction first published in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine here.

Apart from their novels and establishing EQMM, the two cousins behind 'Ellery Queen' also anthologised, biographied, and collated a lot of important information about detective fiction. Their 994-page anthology 101 YEARS OF ENTERTAINMENT: THE GREAT DETECTIVE STORIES, 1841-1941 is considered a landmark work, and it remained in print for many years.

Unsurprisingly 'Ellery Queen' received a Grand Master Award from the Mystery Writers of America in 1961. When we think of the great and influential from mystery writing's past, names like Poe, Christie, Marsh, Allingham, Sayers, Conan Doyle, Chandler, and Hammett quickly spring to mind, along with their modern literary descendants - but perhaps Ellery Queen was the most influential of all?

Have you read any Ellery Queen novels? Seen/heard any of them adapted for radio/TV/film? Have you read (or written for) Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine? Thoughts and comments most welcome...


  1. Craig - Thanks for this very nice review/overview. I've read several Ellery Queen novels, and always been impressed by the intellectual level of the challenges in them. I think you must be psychic, too, because I very nearly chose Ellery Queen for my own "E" post. Fortunately, I made another choice....

  2. I read a good many of them years ago -- rather too many years for me to now recollect them in detail, but I most certainly did enjoy them greatly at that time, as also the Barnaby Ross books. I'm not going to risk recalling the title, but I remember well reading one of the early, 'nationality' titles, getting to what I thought was the conclusion, immensely satisfied with the resolution, only to find overleaf two more pages that completely upended what I already thought a fine ending. Utterly brilliant and rather exhausting. I generally do not care for the short story form, but I did read passim in EQMM, and must mention one 'writer' who wrote a story especially for the magazine: 'The Corsican Ordeal of Miss X' by Bertrand Russell, which appeared in the April, 1966 issue.

  3. Any ideas about who did write under the house name of EQ? I know Ray Bradbury wrote one, but I don't know about the others.

  4. Fred, Francis M. Nevins' books on Queen -- Royal Bloodline, et al. -- may be the best source on the matter, but those writers include Talmage Powell, Edward Hoch, Richard Deming, Theodore Sturgeon, Henry Kane, Milton Lesser, Charles Runyon, Jack Vance. I'm sure there were more.

  5. Philip,

    Thanks for the reference. Sturgeon and Vance, as well as Bradbury, wrote SF, which is where I first encountered them.

    Along with Anthony Boucher and Fred Brown, I think of them as being SF writers who also wrote mysteries. It's only recently that I discovered their "hidden lives" as mystery writers.

    I suspect those who read their mysteries first see it differently.

  6. I thought of Ellery Queen too, but only wrote a bit in my post - a mixed bag of 'E's. I read loads of the Ellery Queen books years ago, too many years to remember detail but I did enjoy them. Maybe I should go back to them soon.

  7. Long time I read Ellery Queen. My brother had a lot of Queen's books along with Erly Stanley Gardeners. I tthink I will look out for those.

    Here is my Crime Fiction Alphabet: E post!

  8. Excellent article!

    I've had a couple of stories in EQMM, and I've been an on/off reader of the magazine since I was a kid. Ngaio Marsh had about 6 stories in EQMM, I believe. I was also a great fan of the short-lived 70s TV series.