It’s been a while since I looked at The Quintessence of Queen #1 – an anthology of “best prize stories” from Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine. It was originally published alongside these entries as part of a larger collection, but my Avon editions find the compilation split in two. We get some reasonably big names in part two – Nicolas Blake, Helen McCloy, and John Dickson Carr, plus entries by less renowned authors. Similar to part one, you get a wide range of styles, although not too many of the stories really stand out. Two of them do though. Both Carr and Jorge Luis Borges provide excellent entries well worth tracking down.
Ellery Queen’s Calamity Town (1942) was a turning point for me with the author. Up until then I had suffered through the early era works (1929-1932) with little to indicate why Queen is held in regard as a top author of the golden age. The Four of Hearts had some promising bits, but besides that, Queen had been a desert of boredom.
Calamity Town was different. The series shifted from NYC detective fiction heavy on investigative footwork to a cozy small town New England murder. Gone were the heavy police procedurals, the dense chapters chronicling every last detail of the hunt for evidence. Gone was the privileged son of Inspector Queen, smugly weaving teetering towers of filament-thin brittle logic to snare the killer. In its place we got a slice of Americana that lived and breathed. Wrightsville, a town that was brought to life by its own citizens. A town where as a reader you got to know the butcher, not because he could provide evidence relating to the story’s crime, but because he was part of the fabric of the community. The characters actually live lives and carry out actions that aren’t directly related to the mystery, and the story benefits from it.
My last encounter with Ellery Queen – 1942’s Calamity Town – left me wanting more. It was with some restraint that I didn’t immediately pick up The Quick and the Dead, instead electing to mix up my authors a bit. Well, I’ve done my mixing and I’m back for more.
I’ll spare you the tales of boredom that I experienced with the early period one Queens – dry monotonous tomes filled with chapter after chapter of never ceasing investigative footwork. I found a different Queen with the second period’s The Four of Hearts – cardboard in a Hollywood sense, but not boring; even clever in the end. It was Calamity Town that won me over though. This was no classic mystery by a long run – if you’ve read more than five GAD books then you’ll see through it in an instant – but the milieu was so damn fine.
Before I ever started actually reading Ellery Queen, I had read a lot about him. Err…them…and him? If you’re reading this then you’re likely aware that “Ellery Queen” refers to both the detective character and the pseudonym used by the Dannay/Lee cousins who wrote the series. And quite a series it was, stretching well over 30 novels. Two of my favorite blogs – Noah’s Archive and Ah Sweet Mystery – have excellent posts breaking that career down into a set of periods. From the very beginning, the third period – Wrightsville – has stood out as a destination I very much wanted to get too.
My experience with Ellery Queen hasn’t exactly been great so far. The first period books were dry slogs. I dragged myself through four of them before abandoning my mission to read the series in order. I skipped ahead to the so called Hollywood period, and had much better luck with The Four of Hearts, even if it did feel a little…well, Hollywood.
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…
Ok Ellery Queen, you finally won me over. I’ve been your critic up to now, but from this day forward, some part of me will always be your fan. The Tragedy of Y did something for me that none of your books have ever accomplished – it kept me engaged from cover to cover. More importantly, this is the one that’s sticking with me for a long time to come.
I recently abandoned my attempt to read Ellery Queen in order because it was just plain boring. The four first period stories that I made it through were dry, overly long, and never really paid off in the end. The same could be said for The Tragedy of X – my one encounter with Queen writers’ alter-ego Barnaby Ross. Published in 1932 (the same year as The Greek Coffin Mystery and The Egyptian Cross Mystery), The Tragedy of X was a marathon of exhaustive police work and… weirdness. You see, the amateur detective of the series, Drury Lane, is an odd character. An actor residing in a storybook castle situated on the Hudson river, Lane exists somewhat outside of the realm of standard Golden Age reality. His gnome-like servants, his positioning as a 60 year old adonis,… I really have no clue what the authors were going for.
I absolutely love reading about Ellery Queen. When I read posts at Ah Sweet Mystery or Noah’s Archive detailing the various phases of the detective/author’s career, I get completely sucked in. There’s a myth I create in my mind about these unread books and it’s amplified by the sheer number of them. They may simply be titles and cover art to me at this point, but my imagination fills in those gaps with the promise of something legendary.
Unfortunately, I don’t actually enjoy reading Ellery Queen. At least, I haven’t so far. The first phase of his career, known for its puzzles and logical deduction, sounded right up my alley. It wasn’t. Attacking the books in order, starting with The Roman Hat Mystery and clawing my way through to The Greek Coffin Mystery simply wasn’t much fun. These weren’t stories – they were painstaking descriptions of crime scenes followed by crossword puzzle-esque contortions of logic at the end. There were some pleasurable moments mixed in there – the denouncement in The French Powder Mystery was a heart pounding moment; The Dutch Shoe Mystery had a clever bit of misdirection; The Greek Coffin Mystery wasn’t nearly as tedious as its predecessors – although somebody should have carved about 80 pages off that one.