To be clear, this isn’t The Case Book of Ellery Queen, a short story collection published in 1945. Rather, this is a strange bit of history that I stumbled upon as part of a bulk Queen purchase a while back – a Reader’s Digest booklet featuring a collection of Ellery Queen stories. It clocks in at a mere 48 pages, and given that it contains five stories, you can take the “condensed by permission” note on the copyright leaf at more than face value.
Or can you? The original stories, gathered in Queen’s Bureau of Investigations (QBI) and Queen’s Experiments in Detection (QED) are already brief affairs, most running in the range of six pages each. Imagine that compressed down a bit, and The Ellery Queen Casebook is a breakneck tattoo of mysteries, with solutions being offered up while the paint is still wet on each premise.
Take the opener, Last Man to Die. We get half of a page that really has nothing to do with the mystery – simply establishing what Ellery is doing at the time the case is presented to him – which is actually brief setup even for your typical short story. Follow that by a page and a half of a distressed woman telling Ellery of the tontine her grandfather is part of. Follow that with one page of the remaining benefactors being found dead, and then blam, the solution.
You blink and you’re through the story. That’s not to say that it isn’t interesting – I had no knowledge of the nuance that led to unraveling of the case (and can’t imagine most modern readers would) – and I guess it’s well done for the brevity of the form. But man, these make an Encyclopedia Brown story look like a full fledged novel.
For that reason, I don’t know if it’s worth dwelling on any of the entries here – if you want to read extremely short Ellery Queen stories, you might as well seek out the original collections. Queen is much more palatable in the short form, although there’s only so much you can do in six pages. I’m sure there are some examples of sublime mysteries in extremely short form – Theme of the Traitor and Hero (six pages) by Jorge Luis Borges jumps to mind, although that’s more of a sketch of an idea for a story – so I’d be curious to hear what are your best.
For the record, here are the stories and where they were originally collected:
- Last Man to Die – Q.E.D
- The Three Widows – Q.B.I
- Snowball in July – Q.B.I
- Miracles do Happen – Q.E.D
- Abraham Lincoln’s Clue – Q.E.D
The lone bit that may raise your interest is the single page introduction by Frederic Dannay (Manfred Lee having passed away a few years earlier), in which he offers up some inspiration for each story.
“The creative spark for Last Man to Die was our perennial fascination with the intrinsic dangers of a tontine inheritance plus the curious convention in the whodunnit that ‘the butler did it.’”
It’s almost like liner notes in a “best of” collection, where a rock band goes song by song and provides a tantalizing nugget of the inspiration.
“Two of the stories in this book, The Three Widows and Snowball in July, had their origin in our longtime preoccupation with solving the seemingly unsolvable.”
I’m curious, how many authors did this? I’d give anything for brief essays by John Dickson Carr or Christianna Brand in which they spell out the inspirations for their stories. These are tastes though; a brief glimpse at the inspiration, but leaving just as many questions unanswered.
“The source of Miracles Do Happen was our desire to blind the intellectual and emotional, to combine detective interest and human interest. And Abraham Lincoln’s Clue derived from our lifelong devotion to Abraham Lincoln and Poe.”
So there’s our little bit of history. If you’ve seen a brief mention of The Ellery Queen Casebook, now you know what it is – a tiny collection of extremely short abridged puzzle mysteries, with a one page intro by the surviving author. Not worth seeking out for any reason other than collectibility, but it does exist.