To Be Read – Ellery Queen edition

Alternative title – what you can accomplish with $70 on eBay.

If there’s one thing I love about John Dickson Carr besides the quality of his work, it’s the quantity.  70+ titles to look forward to.  Sure, the quality ebbs and flows a bit, but I’ve yet to encounter a title that I regret reading.  I’m sure I’ll encounter a few late career ones eventually, but when my worst reads so far are The Lost Gallows, The Demoniacs, and My Late Wives, you know the author is doing something right.

There are undoubtably many GAD authors who produced a string of high quality works – Christianna Brand seems like an obvious example.  Yet her entries into the mystery genre are less than 10.  How many authors like Carr do you get who provide such high quality and sustain it for 30+ novels?  Agatha Christie is a definite qualifier.  The other author(s) likely to come to your mind is Ellery Queen.

The cousins cranked out a massive catalog of books spanning the golden age and beyond.  They may not be considered to have achieved the same heights as Christie and Carr, but popular opinion seems to be that they never reached the lows of at least Carr’s worst work.  I can’t comment – again, I’ve yet to read a Carr novel that I would consider bad, although I’ve read less than a handful that left me wanting.

Stepping into a new author like Queen is exciting for me.  There is the allure of the titles that everyone holds in high regard – The Greek Coffin Mystery, The Siamese Twin Mystery, The Chinese Orange Mystery.  There are the books legendary for some element of the solution – the Carr equivalents of The White Priory Murders, The Unicorn Murders, or The Emperor’s Snuff Box.  For Queen, these seem to be titles like The French Powder Mystery or The Tragedy of Y.

Then there is the whole Wrightsville era, with works like Calamity Town, The Murderer is a Fox, and Cat of Many Tails.  This seems to take the story writing into areas that Carr didn’t even touch  In fact, the whole “three periods” thing is really interesting to me.  The traditional GAD impossibilities of the first period.  The “let’s hit it big in Hollywood” second period – somewhat derided but with a few top titles.  Then the third period, which seems to break with GAD conventions and veer off in its own direction.

TBR

But, then again, I haven’t read any of these, so I don’t even know how accurate any of this is.  That’s the fun part – the myth of works you haven’t read.  The 40+ books where you only know the title, a glimpse of internet opinion, and then the rest you fill in with your own imagination.  I’ve enjoyed that so much with Carr already – etching out a sketch of the conventional classics and highly recommended books, while trying to make sense of that large swath that sits between.

The fun part of this is being proven wrong.  To have stuck a book like The Witch of the Low Tide at the bottom of your TBR pile, only to encounter an unappreciated work to be cherished.  To trudge into a title slightly dreading it, like The Corpse in the Waxworks, only to put the book down in a stunned state.  Where will I find these experiences with Queen?

My only experience with Queen so far may be The Lamp of God – I’m 99% sure I read it, although it doesn’t ring any bell.  So, in a sense, I’m going in blind.  Perhaps I was foolish in that regard, blowing $70 on eBay for 40-some books by an author I have little to no experience with.  At the same time, the price was good, I got some nice vintage copies (I prefer reading the small old paperbacks in the style of Pocket or Dell), and I’m fairly confident I’ll enjoy them for the most part.

TBR3

Plus, it isn’t like I haven’t done some research on the matter.  Brad, at Ah Sweet Mystery, probably has one of the better write ups, explaining the three periods of Queen.  He provides another write up that concludes with his top 10 Queen works.  Sergio at Tipping My Fedora has a similar best of list, although for some reason he constrained it to nine.  More recently, Noah provided a “not top 10” list over at Noah’s archive, although I did have to give it a bare skim as it is openly laced with light spoilers.  On top of that, he’s provided a Top 5/Bottom 5 list, as well as a piece delving into the brand surrounding Ellery Queen.

I’m sure I’ve forgotten a few other sites I’ve dug into, but the basic gist is that I really love pre-planning an author with such a wide backlog.  My approach this time is actually straight forward, not veering close to the tangled logic that determines my Carr reading.  My plan is to read Queen in order… somewhat.

The tempting thing to do is to jump right in with the better regarded mysteries, such as The Greek Coffin Mystery or The Siamese Twin Mystery.  What better way to get acquainted with an author than through a few of the better works?  That’s the approach I’d advocate for Carr.  As good as his early works are, I don’t think you get a true representation of the author until you arrive at The Bowstring Murders or Hag’s Nook.  Start with a title like The Problem of the Green Capsule, The Judas Window, or any of his other “classic” works and then determine where you want to go from there.

Ellery Queen dropped some well regarded books early though.  Yeah, I know that The Roman Hat Mystery is probably going to be a bad start, but The French Powder Mystery receives some good recommendations for being a second book, apparently on the strength of its solution.  The early works seem to fit the mold of what I’m looking for with GAD impossible crimes, plus it isn’t long until I get to The Greek Coffin Mystery.  Given that the joy of that book seems to somewhat hinge on Queen’s overly arrogant character being humbled, it seems beneficial to have some of the earlier books under my belt to fully appreciate the matter.

At some point I might consider jumping into some of the second or third phase books without completely finishing the first phase.  The focus on impossibility in the first phase matches my style, and so no need to burn through them too quickly.  The second phase seems to be considered the weakest phase, so I might just dabble there before moving on to the next.  The common consensus is to tackle the third phase in order, so I’m not going to simply jump into one of the higher rated works like Cat of Many Tales.  Brad taught me better than that.

Then there are the Drury Lane titles published in the early 30’s under the name of Barnaby Ross.  It seems that these are fair game to treat as an entirely different author, so I’ll weave the four stories in as I see fit.

TBR2A number of short story collections also got swept up in the purchases.  With Carr, I’ve been holding off on the short story collections until the end of my reading because I know he recycled a few of his ideas.  I’d rather ruin a short story than a 200 page novel.  I’m inclined to take a similar approach with Queen.  Not all of these short story collections are by Queen though – some are collections of stories by other authors, including such names as Carr and Christie, which should make for interesting reading down the road.

Since I bought bulk collections, I did get a few titles published under the “Ellery Queen” name that weren’t written by either of the cousins.  These will go way down to the dredges of my backlog.  Perhaps there are a few worthy stories, but I’ve too much other interesting GAD works to read.

So there I am – probably a year’s worth of reading of “one” author alone.  I look forward to any recommendations from the crowd.  More so, I look forward to reading back through this in a year or so and laughing at my assumptions and naivety.  I’d love to hear about your own experiences.  How did you approach Queen?  Which books and periods were your favorites?

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19 thoughts on “To Be Read – Ellery Queen edition”

  1. Calendar of Crime might be the best collection! I believe all or most of the stories are based on some of their radio plays. The first collection, the adventures of Ellery Queen, is very much of the old school, and there are some find stories there as well. I’m also a big fan of QBI and QED, but I’ll bet some of those were written by other people. The stories in both collections are relative trifles, but they are fun puzzles nonetheless.

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    1. I’m not sure I agree with you there, Brad. “Calendar of Crime” certainly has quite a few great short stories (“The Dauphin’s Doll”, “The Inner Circle”, “The Needle’s Eye”), but unfortunately I find the quality of the included stories extremely variable. There are some really poor stories there, unfortunately: The Emperor’s Dice, The Fallen Angel, The Three R’s, and The Telltale Bottle in particular. The Dead Cat is no great shakes either.

      I think “Adventures” is probably best, especially for someone who likes the early first period Queen. “New Adventures” is pretty solid as well, though the final handful of stories which are from period 2 are hit and miss. There’s also “Queen’s Full” which has a few shorter stories and a couple of very long novellas. The long stories are pretty good, actually.

      QED, QBI and the short stories in “Tragedy of Errors” are quite similar, short-shorts which were described by Fredric Dannay himself as “fun and games”. On the whole they’re not particularly weighty. I don’t think there were any other writers involved in them, though it might be that Dannay himself wrote most of them without the help of Manny Lee, since they are so very condensed. Well, except for “The Reindeer Clue” which Edward Hoch finished from a Dannay outline.

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  2. You’ve a lot of enjoyment ahead of you there. I’ve read maybe half of the EQ output, or a little less and I don’t know how best to approach it all. Personally, I just delve in where I feel like it, it works a lot of the time. And i wouldn’t rule out the short stories till the end, some of the best of EQ is to be found in the shorter form and there’s great stuff in Adventures & New Adventures.

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  3. I’ve talked about Ellery Queen in more detail in my blog in a couple of places (and more, there’s another post or two if you search for the keywords). One is here, (https://noah-stewart.com/2015/11/24/the-tuesday-night-bloggers-my-five-mostleast-favourite-ellery-queen-novels/) which is pretty much a Top Ten list but contains an overview of what I think are EQ’s FIVE writing periods. No spoilers, as far as I know.
    And another is here (https://noah-stewart.com/2015/11/10/the-tuesday-night-bloggers-ellery-queen-broad-brand-and-continuation-works/) where I talk about EQ as early masters of branding and brand diversification.
    I try not to blow my own horn too much with blog links but I’ve given Ellery a lot of thought over the years so I hope you find this useful.

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    1. Thanks for the links, I updated the post to include them. The top/bottom five piece is actually one I recall reading a while back when I first was building up an interest in Queen. It’s particularly interesting because you include additional periods beyond the conventional three. What books do you regard as being the boundaries for period 4 and period 5?

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      1. Good question. I have to say that the boundaries are blurry. For instance, Ten Days’ Wonder (1948) to me is both a Wrightsville novel (Period 3) and the first of the “solve the imposed pattern” mysteries of Period 4. Similarly, There Was An Old Woman is the last of Period 2 but falls chronologically within Period 3, Wrightsville novels. The end of Period 4 is clearly The Finishing Stroke (1958), which to me is an announcement that EQ is finished with the puzzle mystery, and Period 5, the “fast, shallow, and exciting” house name period, goes until 1967, Face to Face, which hearkens back to Period 4. At which point some novels like Cop Out are Period 5 and the last few return to Period 4 (The Last Woman in His Life, A Fine and Private Place).
        And of course there are always a few outliers. The Glass Village and Inspector Queen’s Own Case (1954/1956) might be a little two-book period of their own where EQ was trying to strike out in new directions and not getting very far.

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  4. By the way — I think you’ll enjoy this process immensely and you’ve made a very wise purchase. I look forward to hearing your thoughts about many of these books. My general opinion is that you should read them chronologically and ignore the ghosted ones until later (there’s a list in Wikipedia under “Ellery Queen (house name)”.

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  5. As it would happen, I’ve got a post coming on Tuesday that might interest you in light of this. I shall now twirl my moutsache in a supercilious way and fade backwards into the fog…

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  6. Although I am not a huge fan of Queen, it does sound like you got a good deal. I think my favourite Queen novel is The Chinese Orange Mystery. Characterisation and puzzle element are both strong in my opinion.

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  7. Do note that “Cat of Many Tails” is not a Wrightsville mystery!

    The Wrightsville mysteries are, off the top of my head:
    “Calamity Town”
    “The Murderer is a Fox”
    “Ten Days’ Wonder”
    “Double, Double”
    “The Last Woman of His Life”

    “The King is Dead” has a short section in the middle which is set in Wrightsville.

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  8. Well, it worked. After reading this excellent post I went to eBay and bought a lot of 12 Ellery Queen hardcovers! I’ve read two Queens, Greek Coffin and Cat Of Many Tails. I look forward to following your adventure through the novels.

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    1. Buying in bulk is definitely the way to go. It allowed me to fill out ~60% of Carr and an even higher percentage of Queen for cheap. From that point on I tend to pick up the rest of the books for $3 to $12 each, although I might occasionally find the lucky 4 pack of books I don’t have.

      Of course, as I get more familiar with an author, I realize I really want particular editions. I just love the classic 40s cover art style featured in the image above with the six books. I’m not personally going to go much out of my way to acquire a certain cover, but I kick myself when I see a gorgeous Dell map back and I’m holding a late 60’s Bantam with cover art that would be just as well at home on any random book. I got pretty lucky with the Queens – most of my copies are 1962 Pocket Books. Not only are they in perfect shape, but a fair share of their cover art is classic style.

      I understand the allure of buying at a bookstore, but I’d probably snatch up any Carr/Queen title I found. Just a few weeks ago I bought Colin Dexter’s The Riddle of the Third Mile at a used book store in the Raleigh, NC airport (a random, but cool location for a used mystery book store) simply because it was the only title that I recognized. Well, sure, they had all of Christie, but I have access to a full collection of that, and they had a ton of Marsh, but popular opinion is keeping me away from her for the time being.

      I will say that I don’t understand the desire for hardcovers either, aside from collectability. Dust jackets are a pain, and without the jacket you’re missing out on the art, which is half the fun. Plus, they’re big and cumbersome and less convenient to read. I’m sure I’m missing something…

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      1. Yeah, I prefer paperbacks myself. But this deal was too good to pass up. I believe one was a first edition and they all have dust jackets.
        The Dell maps are awesome! I have a few of those and I often wonder why every mystery doesn’t come with a map. It’s a neat thing even if it doesn’t help with solving the mystery.
        I, too, own multiple Carr copies. If I see one, I buy it. And that is an odd place for a used book store!

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  9. I’m glad that you’re branching out to other authors, though I daresay I’ve very much enjoyed your Carr reviews. 🙂 I recall preferring Queen to Carr when I first starting reading both of them – which happened about the same time. The first few Queen novels were superior to the first few Carr novels I read, but then I soon discovered that Carr wrote more good-to-great novels than Queen did. I might recommend keeping the best Queen novels for the last because you might run out of them quite soon… 😦

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  10. You will not be disappointed. I came upon EQ on the advice of a friend. For me, The French Powder Mystery is tops from the classic period, and I very much enjoyed And on the Eight Day among the ‘third period’ of EQ. Enjoy!

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