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.
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.
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.
A 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?