I acquired a substantial portion of my Ellery Queen library through bulk purchases of 15-30 books at a time. Swept up in the tide were several “associated by name only” compilations such as The Quintessence of Queen – assortments of short stories published in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine and probably tossed into the bundles by some seller who didn’t know much better.
I’m admit I’m a fan of the short story. As a child I read a fair amount of Ray Bradbury and similar authors who walked the tightrope between science fiction, mystery, and horror. As an adult, I found my way into the locked room genre via the short story form. Since going full in with my reading of John Dickson Carr, I’ve stuck to novels based on the knowledge that authors such as him recycled story ideas occasionally – The Gilded Man being a well known example to appear in both short and long form. Better to ruin a twenty page read than a two hundred page one…
The Quintessence of Queen has been a compilation that I’ve pecked on occasionally during road trips or other circumstances where I felt that I didn’t have the opportunity to fully devote myself to diving into a novel. It’s most notable from my perspective as featuring From Another World by Clayton Rawson. The story is striking for being part of a bet between Rawson and John Dickson Carr to write a locked room mystery in which the room was completely sealed from within by tape – Carr’s entry being his much heralded He Wouldn’t Kill Patience.
Although The Quintessence of Queen is tagged as a collection of award winning short stories selected from Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine by Anthony Boucher, the compilation doesn’t feature any actual contribution from the critic – although the follow up (The Quintessence of Queen #2) does include an intriguing forward by him on the history of mysteries in the short form. These stories were originally published in a single volume, and it appears that my editions have the stories split in two, with Boucher’s forward making it into the second part – somewhat of an odd choice.
This collection is interesting for its sheer breadth – the likes of Clayton Rawson and Q Patrick situated alongside William Faulkner. There’s a diversity of story, ranging from locked rooms, thrillers, historicals, and caveman detectives (yes, you read that right). A few of these aren’t that notable. I don’t know that I have anything to say about Margery Allingham’s Tall Story other than it was an enjoyable enough brief read. My favorite of the collection was Q Patrick’s difficult to describe Love Comes to Miss Lucy, followed by Clayton Rawson’s locked room dynamo From Another World.
Let it be known that these aren’t all conventional mysteries. Several entries are more innocent stories that spiral into darkness by the end. I don’t know if that qualifies as a thriller or something else, but I’d say they’re similar to Ray Bradbury minus the sci-fi aspects.
William Faulkner – An Error in Chemistry
Why would a man call police and confess to the murder of his wife, making it abundantly clear that the death wasn’t an accident? Why, after nearly begging to be confined to a cell would the self-accused then vanish from behind locked bars? To tell you the truth, after having read this, I can’t quite say.
An Error in Chemistry starts strong, with a multi-layered setup that practically shouts that there’s more going on than meets the eye. And, there is. Faulkner’s writing is planted deeply in the rural south, and there’s a comfort to how the story unfolds, even as a layer of “not everything is as it seems” boils beneath the surface.
Published in EQMM 1946 (although written in 1940), An Error for Chemistry was eventually released in Faulkner’s second short story collection Knight’s Gambit. It starts strong, with a man calling the police and confessing to the murder of his wife, leading to the intriguing question of why. The dead woman’s father is holed up in a locked room in his house and refuses to come out. Is he afraid of the imprisoned killer or is the self accused man hiding from him? As intriguing as these opening questions are, they never pan out into something brilliant. The story simmers along comfortably and ends with a twist that was a little too easy to predict given earlier foreshadowing. Still, it was an engaging read and I’d be happy to try more of Faulkner’s excursions into the genre.
Q. Patrick – Love Comes to Miss Lucy
This is my first encounter with Patrick Quentin (published here under the writing team’s alternative pseudonym) and I’m looking forward to devouring the rest of the library. Love Comes to Miss Lucy is a strange tale of a group of women vacationing in Mexico. It doesn’t really contain any mystery, other than where the story will end up. Unfortunately I can’t really elaborate without spoiling this one, but it was my favorite in the collection.
Clayton Rawson – From Another World
As a lover of locked room stories, this was the entry that I was most excited about, and I’d say that it paid off. The setup to the crime is fairly out there and something akin to what you might expect from a writer such as John Dickson Carr. A man is found stabbed to death in a completely sealed room. It isn’t simply locked – every door and window has been additionally sealed with untampered tape. There’s an unconscious woman in the room dressed in a bathing suit, and suspicion quickly falls on her, as exit from the room is clearly impossible.
Clayton Rawson provides a clever yet simple explanation to it all – an explanation well suited for the short story form. Had it come at the end of a 200 page novel I may have been a bit annoyed, but in abbreviated form it felt quite clever.
Miriam Allen de Ford – Beyond the Sea of Death
A retrospective look at the case of a rich heiress convicted of murder. This is one of those stories where you’re not quite sure where it will go – was she wrongly convicted or is there something more sinister going on? There is a twist in the end, but I imagine most readers will see it coming.
Wilbur Daniel Steele – The Lady Killer
A man lost in the wilderness stumbles upon a farmhouse and spends the night. The end. Sorry if I spoiled it for you.
Honestly, I’m completely perplexed by this story and why it was included in a mystery anthology. It’s as if I read the first chapter of a book in which later something interesting was going to happen. I can’t help but feel that there was some twist that occurred in the later pages of the story, but having re-read it several times, I can’t for the life of me say what it was. Like, was one of the characters supposed to be a ghost or something? Was this a meta-mystery where the mystery was figuring out what the mystery was?
I have no clue. It was an interesting enough read but I feel like something flew over my head. I’m sure someone will comment that I missed something obvious, and I can’t help but already feeling embarrassed that I did.
My edition of the compilation erroneously lists this story as by Wilbur Daniel Stone, not Steele.
Edgar Pangborn – The Signing Stick
Science fiction author Edgar Pangborn provides the most unique entry in this collection – a prehistoric mystery. The mystic of a cave-dwelling tribe is found stabbed in the back, and the leader of the group takes it upon himself to solve the mystery. This one is interesting because Pangborn writes the story from the limited perspective of the characters, eliminating modern lines of reasoning and investigation. You may roll your eyes a bit while reading it, but it’s fun.
Margery Allingham – Tall Story
Police stake out a cul-de-sac in anticipation of a robbery. The suspect enters, yet hours later hasn’t walked out. The police rush in and capture their quarry, but are unable to find the loot. This may sound like a variation of an impossible crime, but if so, it is only in the weakest sense. We’re told that the police have turned over every stone, but of course we learn in the end that they didn’t look in one key place. This isn’t really a fair play mystery; you’re simply spoon fed the answer.
James Yaffe – Mom in Spring
Somewhat of a riff on a Sherlock Holmes style tale. Over a dinner conversation, the mother of a policeman solves a murder that has baffled the law. It was fun to see how the seemingly innocent character of the mother uses a series of targeted questions and observations to unravel the case, although the actual culprit is fairly obvious.
Yaffe is notable for having his first story published in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine when he was just 15. Mom in Spring is from nearly a quarter century later.
Avram Davidson – The Necessity of His Condition
A wicked slave trader in 1850’s southern US gets his comeuppance in a most amusing way. Not really a mystery of any sort, but still a good read.
B.J.R Stolper – Lilith, Stay Away from the Door
A young man studying to be a rabbi disappears a night after telling a fantastic yarn about having been seduced by Lilith. The story is most interesting because it shows how the police have difficulty getting cooperation out of a tight-knit jewish community, and then contrast it with the observations made by a jewish detective who steps in to help.
Ellery Queen – The Gettysburg Bugle
This story is oddly not credited in the table of contents of my edition, which had me confused for a bit because the back cover promised an entry by Queen. The plot finds Ellery and Nikki Porter experiencing a breakdown, leaving them stranded in a small town near Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. A doctor who takes them in for the night tells the tale of three local Civil War veterans who stumbled upon a substantial treasure during the later years of the war. They formed a pact that the last remaining survivor would inherit the entire fortune. One of the vets kicked the bucket the year before, and as luck may have it, Ellery is in town for a second death. Although the doctor thinks it’s natural causes, Ellery suspects it’s murder.
This was an enjoyable read, but in terms of a mystery it didn’t quite deliver. The set up was just fine and there was plenty of intrigue, but Queen pretty much just pulls the explanation out of thin air at the end. I don’t know if that really bothered me though – there’s something fun about an interesting mystery with a decent explanation, even if it doesn’t quite meet the standards of fair play.
I wouldn’t go out of your way to get your hands on The Quintessence of Queen, but if you happen to stumble upon it, you’re assured of an interesting read throughout. I’m a bit surprised that all of the entries are “best prize stories” – other compilations definitely deliver more consistently in the mystery/puzzle/solution dimensions. Still, these are all engaging while you’re reading them.