THE QUEENS OF CRIME: Comparing EQ to AC

When you Google “the Queen of Crime,” guess who comes up? That’s right – Agatha Christie! But we members of the Tuesday Club Bloggers have put Christie aside for the moment and are plunging forward with a year’s worth of other authors to ponder and peruse, a list compiled by my learned colleague, Noah Stewart, right here: http://noah-stewart.com/2015/10/09/the-tuesday-night-bloggers-where-do-we-go-from-here/ . Noah will be in charge of posting links this month, so check out his blog, as well as the amazing writings of Moira, Helen, Bev, Kate, Jeffrey and our founder, Curtis Evans!

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My participation in this group will become ever so sketchy as we progress through the list! I have a huge learning curve to fill before I can discuss Phoebe Atwood Taylor or Arthur Upfield, for instance. (Like reading one of their books!) However, for the next three weeks, our focus will be on Ellery Queen, and here I’m on safer ground. I began reading Queen around the age of twelve, soon after I started Christie, and, as with Dame Agatha and And Then There Were None, my first Queenian experience was a doozy: The Greek Coffin Mystery! Since it is so hard for me to let Agatha Christie go, I thought I would provide a sort of comparison between these two authors, at least in terms of my own experience and appreciation of them both. This week, let’s look at how both authors approached their series detectives.

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Agatha Christie varied her use of her detectives, but two reign supreme: Hercule Poirot, who is featured in thirty-three novels and dozens of short stories, and Miss Marple (12 novels and many short stories). Ellery Queen wrote primarily about a detective named Ellery Queen. There are two novels where Ellery’s father, Inspector Richard Queen, is the protagonist (Inspector Queen’s Own Case and The House of Brass) and four Drury Lane novels, published under the pseudonym of Barnaby Ross. (I hope at least one of my fellow Nighters will be writing about Drury Lane!) But thirty-one novels and a great many shorts center on the adventures of Ellery Queen, so Ellery is clearly the authors’ hero of choice.

When you compare Queen to Poirot and/or Marple, an interesting differentiation arises. Throughout her writing career, Christie provides little to no variance to the personalities and personal lives of her sleuths. I did not read Christie’s books in chronological order, and, as it turns out, that makes little difference to one’s experience of the books. Arguably her most fertile period was between 1934, when Murder on the Orient Express was published, to 1950 and the publication of her 50th novel, A Murder Is Announced. During that period, neither detective really changes a jot. Miss Marple might be said to change a bit from A Murder Is Announced to Nemesis: she becomes less fluffy, more aware of the changes in the world around her, and more actively desirous of righting wrongs to the point that, in two of her final novels, she actually assumes the mantle of “Nemesis.” She travels more as well, from a visit to an old friend at Stonybrooks School to a Caribbean holiday to a tour of English gardens. Most of her new acquaintances foolishly dismiss her as a harmless old lady, but we know better. Poirot changes even less. He never ages until his final book, Curtain. The only real difference is that he tends to appear later and later within the pages of his late-career cases, but it was widely known that Christie had grown tired of the Belgian, so this was her compromise to his fans.

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Ellery Queen’s early books were republished in paperbacks (covered with sexy girls, remember?) in the late 1960’s, which sort of forced me to read him pretty much in chronological order. What emerges is that Queen’s work embodies three distinct “periods” where the style of writing and the personality of the detective vary significantly. The First Period (1929 – 1935) comprises the nine “international” mysteries: Roman Hat, Egyptian Cross, Dutch Shoe, and so on. They are pure Golden Age mysteries: complex plots, focusing on puzzle over character, with twisty surprise endings. At the center of these investigations, the figure of Ellery Queen stands superciliously, adjusting his pince-nez and looking down his nose at the police and all others who stand in his way. (In fact, he resembles another Golden Age sleuth, S.S. Van Dine’s Philo Vance, in that both are brilliant but insufferable.) These are fair play puzzles to the nth degree, filled with maps and clues and a formal “Challenge to the Reader” to try and solve the case before all was revealed. In most cases, those solutions dazzle! The climax of The Greek Coffin Mystery literally made me jump out of my chair with one of the most astounding surprises I would ever read. (Queen performed the same stunt in his Drury Lane novel of 1932, The Tragedy of Y.) Sometimes, the author nearly trips over his own cleverness, as in the Chinese Orange or Spanish Cape mysteries. But by then, I think that cousins Frederick Dannay and Manny Lee, who wrote the books, were beginning to feel that the emphasis on puzzle constricted their creativity.

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Bring on The Second Period, (1936 – 1939), the shortest and, by certain standards, the weakest point in Queen’s career. Queen’s personality is a looser, more romantic figure. In fact, two women gravitate toward the detective: a Girl Friday in his short stories named Nikki Porter, and a gossip columnist named Paula Paris with whom he dallies in two novels, The Devil to Pay and The Four of Hearts, set in Hollywood where Ellery goes to try his hand at screenwriting. These middle-era books have their charms – I especially like the twisted conceit underlying the solution of The Door Between – but these books pale slightly in comparison with the First Period puzzles or the masterpieces yet to come, largely because they seem padded by shenanigans more inclined to appeal to readers of The Ladies Home Journal than Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine.

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THE DRAGON’S TEETH gets a snappier title (above!)

Some fans will always prefer the first period, but it is with Calamity Town (1942) – Ellery’s first trip to the outwardly charming New England village of Wrightsville – that Ellery Queen truly emerges as a gifted writer as much as a fine plotter. The emphasis on fair play and clueing in The Third Period doesn’t go away so much as it takes a back seat to something more multi-layered. Characters become richer, but even more revealing is the way Queen writes about the effect of murder on a community and on his investigator. Nowadays, mysteries are all about the toll the case takes on a tormented policeman or private detective. Ellery Queen was one of the first series characters whose torment was made manifest throughout this third period. In books like The Murderer is a Fox, Ten Days Wonder, and The Origin of Evil, we see Ellery’s growing sense of his own inadequacy in dealing with crime and criminals. We see him do things that few Golden Age detectives – certainly not the Ellerys of Periods One and Two – would do: feel a sense of responsibility when a killer remains uncaught and people die. The Third Period novels are linked and should be read in order as they delve into Ellery’s growing existential crisis regarding his abilities as a crime-solver and expiator of evil. In some of these cases, Ellery gets played, and played badly, by the killer, and his sense of guilt nearly drives him to forsake further investigations.

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The Wrightsville novels put Ellery through the emotional wringer, but nowhere do we see the detective in crisis better than in Cat of Many Tails, one of Queen’s masterpieces and one of the best serial killer novels around. The Ellery Queen at the start of this novel has no desire to meddle anymore in police matters, due to the terrible events of his previous case. But people keep dying during a New York City heat wave, and when the killer crosses the color barrier and violence threatens to break out throughout the city, Ellery reluctantly joins his father’s investigative team. Immediately, he sees patterns that everyone else missed, and he is able to lead the police right to the killer’s door. Queen fans hope that Cat of Many Tails would show the rebirth of Ellery’s confidence. But the book lays out a much darker road for Queen to follow, and it ends with a brilliant double twist and a very dark night of the soul for the detective.

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Compare this later book with the earlier classic, The Greek Coffin Mystery. In what is arguably the best of the international mysteries, Ellery proposes four separate solutions throughout the book. I’m not talking about guesses. I’m talking about “end of the novel” full-fledged solutions that would be wonderful in any other mystery. Three times, however, Ellery is proven wrong. His reaction is basically one of annoyance, like a scientist witnessing an unwanted reaction in an experiment. With each subsequent solution, he maintains the same attitude of superiority that he did before. In the third period, however, the false solution has deeper effects, both physical (sometimes more deaths follow) and emotional, especially on Ellery the sleuth. At the end of Cat of Many Tails, Ellery journeys to Europe, to the office of a famed psychologist. His purpose is two-fold: to figure out the truth behind an alibi and to seek guidance at a terrible moment of personal crisis. The solution of the novel is almost overshadowed by the passionate exchange between the doctor and the detective. Here, the author displays a willingness to explore the torments of the soul, something Agatha Christie, for all her magnificence, never did.

Next week, I’ll compare some of the techniques of both authors. (Guess I’m finding a way to keep Dame Agatha around!)

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16 thoughts on “THE QUEENS OF CRIME: Comparing EQ to AC

  1. A very interesting analysis, Brad, especially as a counterpoint to the never-changing fictional sleuth of lore (since it was hardly only Christie who was guilty of this). I do love how Dannay and Lee wrote Greek Coffin as a prequel to the other mysteries purely to explain why Ellery always kept his cards so close to his chest until the end of the other books – it just shows a lovely immersion in the world they had created.

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  2. Thanks, JJ. Even as early as The Siamese Twin Mystery, Ellery seems less of a prig, so I figure the “failures” within his Greek investigation had a more profound effect on him than at first seems.

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  3. I just picked up about 35 Ellery Queen books off eBay for less than $2 each. Reading your breakdown of the three eras is definitely helpful in helping me choose where to start. I’m tempted to read Queen in order, although my understanding is that the first book isn’t that great. I was thinking about dipping my toes in the water with The Greek Coffin Mystery and The Siamese Twin Mystery and then deciding where I want to go from there. I’ll definitely take your advice to read the third era in order.

    I noticed your Top 10 Queen list in your Christie vs Queen post. I have most of the books, but looks like I need to pick up four more, plus all of the Barnaby Ross titles. It would be really cool to see a more fleshed out version of your Top 10 list…

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    1. I remember reading The French Powder Mystery, the first Ellery Queen, and it started out great but it fizzled out so it’s rather a weak entry. Maybe I need to re-read it because it’s been so many years since I visited it and I only read it once.

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      1. Nope, French Powder was second, sb – after Roman Hat. It has a nice set-up and a logical build-up to a surprise ending, but it’s very much of its time: wooden characters, way too much Philo Vance-type behavior from Ellery. I loved the First period at the time, but it is admittedly harder to read the prose these days.

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    2. The Greek Coffin Mystery
      The Siamese Twin Mystery
      Calamity Town
      There Was An Old Woman
      The Murderer Is a Fox
      Ten Days Wonder
      Cat of Many Tails
      Double, Double
      The Fourth Side of the Triangle (ghost written, I believe)
      Face to Face

      Oh, Ben! I really had to look to find the list you mentioned! I copied it here because I haven’t thought of it since I wrote it down! 🙂 Here are a few thoughts:

      All I really know about your tastes are that you have hooked into John Dickson Carr and are working your way through his work. When I first read Queen, he and Carr vied for second place behind Christie for me. I think I sort of lumped them together, but they are very different. I think Carr’s prose has aged much better than Queen’s, as you may find when you check these out.

      Greek Coffin and Siamese Twin are my favorites from Period One, but you should also check out The Chinese Orange Mystery. Queen didn’t do a lot of impossible crime stories; this is one of the few. It isn’t anywhere near as clever as Carr, but there are some interesting features to it. In fact, the crime is more interesting than the characters or the identity of the killer, IMHO. I think Greek is the cleverest by far in the way that it plays with the conventions of classic GAD: the gathering of clues that lead to a clear solution, only to have that solution dashed and another put in its place. In that sense, Greek shares much with Carr; what it lacks is the warmth and humor of a Gideon Fell. Young Queen is a supercilious fop in the earliest books; Greek shows us how he got his comeuppance. I really like Siamese because it’s much more “human” in its presentation: the whodunit competes with an adventure story about a forest fire, and Queen is even more of a person than a literary entity. However, you have to be willing to accept the convention of the dying message, one of Queen’s specialties. I love them, but a lot of folks think they’re just plain stupid. Why would anyone do something like that before they die??? My answer is: because it’s a murder mystery, you dork!

      I don’t include anything on my list from Period Two. However, The Door Between has a great ending, something that few mystery writers ever attempted. I don’t think Carr or Christie did anything like it. And there’s some fun to be had with the Hollywood mysteries for the picture they paint of that milieu. As mysteries go, however, they’re sort of weak.

      Then we get into the Third Period, and my list leans heavily on Wrightsville, the small town in which they are all set. However, as much as I mentioned this, I need to warn you: these are NOT typical Golden Age puzzles, strewn with clues and such. They are much weirder than that: more character-based in a way but really Queen is onto something sort of psychological/spiritual/existential that grows and grows as the books progress. (That’s Calamity Town, The Murderer Is a Fox, and Ten Days Wonder.) Of the three, CT is my favorite. It’s like a Thornton Wilder play with murder in it: a small town family exploded by a crime. The Murderer is a Fox contains a solution that is rarely done, but in this case there’s a striking tone of sadness, like “What the hell . . . ?” And then Ten Days Wonder is simply nuts: small cast (like Carr) but it goes to a place that . . . well, you have to read it for that. (I know I’m being very vague, but I want to tempt and not spoil.) There Was an Old Woman is like a quick return to the Golden Age and is almost like a Kelley Roos screwball mystery. I love it. Double, Double is like a weird hybrid of a Wrightsville novel and a screwball GAD mystery. It is more than a bit derivative of previous Queens, I’m afraid, as is Face to Face. In fact, the ending to all three is virtually the same, so if you DO decide you like Queen enough to read them all, space them out and read the best one (There Was an Old Woman) first. The Fourth Side of the Triangle is, as I mentioned, probably not a “real” Queen, as Manfred Lee had died, and the authorial name was farmed out to other writers. But it’s a fun old-fashioned mystery. It’s not on the list because it comes anything close to being the best; it’s purely a fun title that I enjoyed.

      Which leaves Cat of Many Tails. I think this might be Queen’s best book, but it isn’t a puzzler in any conventional sense. There are clues and twists and turns and a surprise, but mostly Queen is trying to paint a picture of New York during an angry time in the 1950’s. If you commit to reading him, You really should read Calamity, Fox, Ten Days, and Cat in order. Any shake-up of this is going to cost you.

      Finally, there are no titles from the Barnaby Ross quartet. Frankly, if your preference is to stick to the Golden Age, you must find these and read them. I checked on eBay, and you’re going to have to spend a lot of money there! But hopefully, bundles will appear. I realize after your last few posts on your site that there’s a stack of Merivale titles that I really want to get. I lucked out finding a bundle of nine that I didn’t own, and I have only read one of them (She Died a Lady). But there are many I still want to find that are not part of that stack.

      Let me know if you have any more questions or comments about Queen. We could e-mail too, if that is easier for you.

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      1. The advice is much appreciated and will definitely influence how I approach my reading of Queen. Your comment was a fun read and almost like my own private blog post – “A beginner’s guide to Ellery Queen” (not a bad idea, nudge, nudge…similar for Christie, nudge, nudge…). If it were possible to ‘like’ a comment multiple times, I’d do it.

        I also like how a post like this can lay dormant for nearly two years and then garner 5 comments in 18 hours. I can only hope that I’m so lucky with a few of my own posts. As much as I love the articles people like you, TomCat, Puzzle Doctor, and JJ post, it is the commentary where I get some of the most enjoyment. It’s one thing to read through Puzzle Doctor’s “9 of the Best by Ellery Queen”, but then it’s even more fun to see people agree or challenge the opinion.
        https://bloodymurder.wordpress.com/2011/02/06/9-of-the-best-by-ellery-queen/

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      2. “The Fourth Side of the Triangle” was indeed ghost-written, but not because Manny Lee had died – that would be almost 10 years later. When Lee in fact did die, Dannay stopped writing himself, and there were no more Queen novels.

        Instead, Lee suffered from writer’s block at the time – I think there are five or six ghost-written novels all in all, however all of them are plotted by Dannay as usual and both cousins were heavily involved in editing the novels into the form they wanted.

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  4. Ooops, that’s what I meant . . . .Roman Hat, not French Powder. Can you tell it’s been many, many years since I last read it? I’m confusing the titles! I may have to revisit Roman Hat again and see if my opinions change. The thing is, unfortunately, my library doesn’t have a copy of it. The only Ellery Queen mystery they have is The Greek Coffin Mystery.

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    1. The Roman Hat Mystery is available at The Digital Library Of India and also at The Internet Archive (which has taken it from DLI)

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