Ellery Queen is the pen name of cousins Frederic Dannay and Manfred Lee who had originally been named Daniel Nathan and Manford Lepofsky, respectively. Under the name Ellery Queen, they wrote a series of novels, short stories and radio plays in which mysteries are solved by a character also named Ellery Queen who writes mysteries about a detective named Ellery Queen. Typically, Frederic Dannay plotted the EQ books, and Manfred Lee wrote them from Dannay's outline. Over the years a number of other writers wrote novels under the Queen name, generally with some collaboration by Manfred Lee. Except for the series of juvenile mysteries written as being by Ellery Queen, Jr., I found these novels to be of inferior quality and won't discuss them here. Frederick Dannay founded and for many years edited Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, encouraging many new writers who were published for the first time in EQMM. He also was a prominent mystery anthologist.
The first Ellery Queen mystery was The Roman Hat Mystery (1929). It was written as an entry in a contest sponsored by a publisher. Although it won Dannay and Lee first place, the promised prize was not forthcoming. Its subsequent publication, however, started them on a long and profitable career. This novel introduced their series detective, Ellery Queen, the intellectual son of Inspector Richard Queen, the NYPD's top investigator. Ellery is a pince-nez wearing, young man of athletic build but with the manner of an aesthete. At times he can be quite an irritating stuffed shirt, but the relationship between the younger and elder Queen is appealing and was one of the strengths of the series -- and about the only part that made its way into the various movies portraying Ellery Queen. The influence of S. S. Van Dine is clear in this and the other early EQ novels.
When a man is found murdered in the audience of a performance at the Roman Theater a number of strange facts about the case are immediately noticed: For one, although the play was sold out, there were seven empty seats surrounding the murdered man. For another, the victim's top hat was missing and could not be found despite a thorough search of the theater and audience. And finally, the victim was a man who had many enemies, a number of whom were also in the audience. The plot development is clever and the mysterys solution is satisfactory, although both contain a few points that are a bit hard to swallow. This isn't EQ at his best but it is still an enjoyable mystery novel and I have reread it a number of times with continuing pleasure.
In The French Powder Mystery (1930) EQ investigates the murder of the wife of the owner French's Department Store, whose corpse was found in a window display. The plot features some surprising twists and some solid deduction. EQ may be even more conceited than he was in the first novel but he delivers the goods. The one serious flaw in the story is that since EQ has given a series of partial solutions in the course of the story, the final solution has only a little more to add when EQ names the murderer. As a result, the finale is something of a disappointment.
The Dutch Shoe Mystery (1931) may be the first of many tales in which a patient about to undergo surgery is discovered to have been murdered. This is a very carefully constructed mystery in which the movement in time and space of the various suspects and witnesses is a crucial concern. The clues lead clearly to the solution, but it takes a mind as brilliant as EQ's to see the connections. The story plays fair insofar as the clues are concerned, although the motive is not as fairly presented until the end. Ellery's mannerisms may be at their most Philo Vance-like in this novel.
The Dutch Shoe Mystery was filmed in 1941 as Ellery Queen and the Murder Ring -- the third in a series of films in which Ralph Bellamy portrayed Ellery comically. This is the one film in the series that presents a decent mystery plot and is quite entertaining but still a gross disappointment to any fan of the novels.
I only recently read The Greek Coffin Mystery (1932) for the first time. I have heard that many critics regard it as one of the best EQ novels, but I was a bit disappointed in it.
The Egyptian Cross Mystery (1932) is one of my favorites in the series. It contains elements that were highly sensational at the time of its publication, such as a strange religious cult, nudism, and gory murders. The action is faster than in any of the preceding novels and includes a great cross country rush in EQ's Duesenberg (a fast and classy car that is no longer made). The detection and the solution are of excellent quality and EQ is showing signs of becoming less of a stuffed shirt and more of a person. A few of the ideas may seem familiar from other mysteries, but this is where they were first used. If you want to read just one of the early EQ novels, this one would be a good choice.
There is an excellent setting and atmosphere for The Siamese Twin Mystery (1933). As in The Egyptian Cross Mystery, this mystery takes Ellery out of his beloved Manhattan. EQ and his father are caught up in a forest fire and take refuge in the isolated mountain retreat of the mysterious Dr. Xavier. Cutoff by the fire, they are presented with a classic set of suspects when Dr. Xavier is murdered. All the while, the fire is encroaching on their island of safety and doom seems inevitable. In my opinion the final solution depends too much on guesswork rather than deduction and the surprise is almost a cheat. Still, it is an interesting story that maintains a high level of tension. I have always thought that it would make a good movie.
The first EQ mystery I ever read was The Chinese Orange Mystery (1934) and it blew me away. EQ is presented with one of his most challenging puzzles in this classic locked room mystery. Not only is the body found in a room with the door locked from the inside but the corpse's clothes are all worn backwards and all the furniture in the room has been reversed. On first reading, I found EQs deductions hard to follow. They are clearer on rereading, but they don't have the crystal clarity of, for example, Agatha Christie at her best.
The Chinese Orange Mystery was the second EQ mystery to be filmed -- in 1937 as the Mandarin Mystery, starring comedian Eddie Quillan. Little of the plot was retained from the novel. For an EQ fan this 'adaptation' was practically sacrilege, but it did make a pretty amusing piece of light comedy entertainment. It was the first of many EQ movies where much of the story was played for laughs.
The first Ellery Queen story to be filmed was The Spanish Cape Mystery (1935). Filmed the same year it was published, the low-budget movie stayed fairly close to the original plot. Donald Cook's performance as Ellery Queen is a good deal closer to the original than that in most of the movies that have featured the character.
The most critically praised of the EQ novels is Calamity Town (1942). The character of EQ, as presented in this novel, had undergone considerable development from the earliest novels in which he was presented as an emotionally detached "pure reasoner." He had become more fallible and more emotionally involved with the people he met in his cases. In this novel more than any other, he agonizes over the consequences of his investigations and he suffers personal emotional loss. I would never suggest that Dannay and Lee had achieved the sort of characterization to be found in the writings of a novelist such as Ann Tyler or Donna Tartt, but for mysteries of their era Calamity Town is a surprisingly sophisticated novel of setting and character.
No longer the dilletante dabbler of the first novels, EQ is portrayed in Calamity Town as a serious writer committed to honing his skills. Because his next novel will be set in a typical small town, city-dwelling EQ plans to live incognito (as "Ellery Smith") in such a town for the next six months, while researching the setting and producing s first draft of his novel. Thus, the town of Wrightsville, New York, makes the first of its appearances in an EQ story. The portrait of Wrightsville is vivid and has depth, making it a virtual character in this and the subsequent Wrightsville stories.
Ellery soon makes the acquaintance of the eponymous Wright's, the first family of Wrightsville, headed by banker John F. Wright and his wife Hermione. They had built a separate house on their property as a wedding gift for their daughter but the engagement had been called off and the house came to be known as, "Calamity House" a name EQ initially scoffed at, saying, "Calamity House! As sensible as calling Wrightsville Calamity Town!" When the long-delayed wedding finally takes place after all, the marriage proves to be a troubled one and is ended by murder. EQ's role has less to do with the arrest than with the subsequent trial and its aftermath. The solution to the mystery is probably the easiest for the reader to figure out of any of the EQ novels but solving the mystery isn't what this novel is primarily about.
Calamity Town was filmed by Japanese director Yoshitaro Nomura under the title Haitatsu Sarenai Santsu no Tegami ("The Three Undelivered Letters") in 1979. There also was a comic book based on Calamity Town published in China in 2001. I have never seen either of these.
EQ returned to Wrightsville for The Murderer is a Fox (1945), a novel that some say contains the best characterization in any of EQ novels but I didnt care much for it. The solution is probably the weakest of any EQ novel in terms of the evidence. EQ returns to Wrightsville a third time in Ten Days' Wonder (1948). Ellery was renamed Paul Regis and the setting was moved to the French wine country when this novel was made into an Italian-French motion picture directed by Claude Chabrol in 1972. Several more returns to Wrightsville followed but none, in my opinion, are worth mentioning or reading.
EQ returns to Wrightsville a third time in Ten Days' Wonder (1948).At the beginning of this novel, Howard Van Horn, the son of millionaire Diedrich Van Horn, staggers into Ellery Queen's apartment with s bruised face and blood -- not all of it his own -- on his hands and clothes. He has no memory of where he had been or what he had been doing during the preceding nineteen days. He asks his old friend, Ellery, to discover what he has been doing during this fugue. That investigation leads Ellery back once more to the New England town of Wrightsville. Over the next nine days, a series of small, bizarre crimes occurs, which appear to have been committed by Howard during further blackouts. Murder and suicide follow, with Ellery initially offering a mistaken solution to the mystery before he finally uncovers the true criminal.
The setting of Ten Days' Wonder was moved to the French wine country when it was made into an Italian-French motion picture directed by Claude Chabrol in 1972 under the French title La décade prodigieuse. Orson Welles and Anthony Perkins starred as Diedrich and Howard Van Horn. Ellery Queen was renamed Paul Regis and portrayed by Michel Piccoli. The film cannot convey the full depth of the novel but I find it a very satisfying adaptation.
The Cat of Many Tails (1949) is another major departure for EQ in that it is more of a manhunt than a mystery, although with a neat twist. While it is highly regarded by some EQ fans, I didn't care for it. It did do a good job of evoking an atmosphere of New York City nearly paralyzed by fear -- years before reality in the "Son of Sam" case imitated art in this regard. In this case, Ellery is given official status as a special investigator to track down a serial killer
The Cat of Many Tails was filmed in 1971 under the title Ellery Queen: Don't Look Behind You as the pilot for a proposed TV series. Peter Lawford played an English-accented EQ and Harry Morgan was cast as Inspector Queen, who was EQ's uncle rather than his father in this version. It retained the basic plot of the novel but none of its subtleties. NBC decided against producing the series, wisely substituting the vastly superior McMillan and Wife, and this inferior production was shown as a TV-movie.
Dannay and Lee, writing under the name Barnaby Ross, created a new detective in The Tragedy of X (1932), The Tragedy of Y (1932), The Tragedy of Z (1933), and Drury Lane's Last Case (1933). Their new detective -- retired Shakespearean actor Drury Lane -- like Ellery Queen (or Philo Vance) before him) is an amateur detective of genius who works closely with the police. None of the four is one of my favorites. I had high expectations for The Tragedy of X, which presents a challenging puzzle with a man who is murdered on a crowded streetcar, yet no witness can tell the police anything useful about the who or how of the crime. But I found the story to be boring and the solution improbable. I got only a few chapters into The Tragedy of Y before giving it up as a waste of time. I have been told that the last two are the best, but that doesn't impress me as saying much, so I have never read them.
The Glass Village (1954) was a non-EQ novel written under their nom de plume of Ellery Queen. An allegory and attack on McCarthyism, it asserts the theme that when mere accusation takes the place of evidence, the freedom of all is in peril. It isn't a great novel by any means but it is well worth reading and it makes its point effectively.
As a kid, I greatly enjoyed the mysteries for young readers written by several authors under the name of Ellery Queen, Jr. I reread one several years ago and found that, in my judgement, it did not hold up to rereading the way the Hardy Boys' mysteries do.