CURIOUSER AND CURIOUSER: The Best Short Adventure of Ellery Queen

“There was a table set out under a tree in front of the house, and the March Hare and the Hatter were having tea at it: a Dormouse was sitting between them, fast asleep, and the other two were using it as a cushion, resting their elbows on it, and then talking over its head. ‘Very uncomfortable for the Dormouse,’ thought Alice, ‘only, as it’s asleep, I suppose it doesn’t mind.’”

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It’s the Tuesday Night Bloggers’ final week holding forth on the topic of “Costume in Crime,” and I have to say that the group has mined gold with this one. Kate at Cross Examining Crime has been gathering all the entries here. If you have a few minutes, go check them out. Many Golden Age writers, filmmakers, and, as I discussed last week, even comic book creators, have incorporated disguise and costume in so many interesting ways that you’re sure to find something to your liking.

Ellery Queen has been a favorite author of mine since I was a teenager, part of a triumvirate that includes Agatha Christie and John Dickson Carr. It’s harder to pin Queen down to a specific style because the authorial team of Frederic Dannay and Manfred B. Lee, the cousins who created Queen, significantly transformed both their hero and their tone several times throughout their long career. They began with studies in pure ratiocination, often at the expense of characterization. These mysteries, with their international-flavored titles (i.e. The Greek Coffin Mystery), offered complex puzzles, complete with a literal challenge to the reader, and are many fans’ favorite Queen novels. After a short second period, influenced by the women’s magazines in which the novels were serialized, that were heavy on romance and light(er) on bedevilment, Dannay and Lee found a balance between a focus on puzzle and a deep interest in the psychology and ethics of human behavior, with an emphasis on man’s relationship to the spiritual. The authors asked us to consider what propels a person to decide to commit murder, and to, in effect, usurp God’s mastery over life and death.

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If I was pushed into a corner to compare my three favorite classic writers, I might offer the following highly arguable positions:

First, here are three prolific authors, all of whom wrote many pure gems, as well as some very bad books. For Christie and Carr, most of those stinkers stem from the beginning and end of their careers. One can also argue about Christie’s passionate but awkward love for political thrillers and Carr’s similar attitude toward historical mysteries. But a person’s choice of Queen’s worst is affected by two factors: one’s preference in terms of Queen’s different periods and the fact that each change creates a learning curve in an author that can result in a whole new set of bumps in the road and some less than satisfying results at each point in Queen’s career.

Here’s the other gross generalization I will make about these three authors: in a ranking of favorite novelists, I suspect that Queen is most likely to come out third best on most people’s list out of the three, but when it comes to short fiction, he definitely should rank as number one. Christie’s short stories, charming as some of them are, tend to illustrate her shortcomings as an author, such as a tendency to rely on formulaic settings and characters, and they fall short on her strengths in that her talent for misdirection is, of necessity, abridged. As for Carr, his bold, sprawling writing style both benefits, and occasionally suffers, from his ability to spread out across the larger canvas of a novel. He managed a few fine shorts, like “The Devil in the Summer House,” but Carr was definitely more in his element in the long form.

Frederic Dannay especially understood the short story, a fact that we have all benefited from for years due to his work as both an author and an editor. In what was virtually the reverse for Carr, the short form gave free reign to Queen’s mastery over the puzzle and left no room for some of the grandiose excess of ideas found in his novels. Carr thrived on the macabre, while Queen eventually wrote in a more naturalistic vein. And while the later novels tended toward ultra-seriousness with their exploration of “the God complex”, the short stories focused on the puzzle and did so in amusing ways.

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Nowhere is this more evident than in the final story from Queen’s first collection, The Adventures of Ellery Queen (1934). “The Adventure of the Mad Tea Party” really is a perfect little tale, not only as a puzzle but for the insight it offers us about Ellery’s character. The collection appeared at the tail end of the run of internationally titled novels, when the detective was about to undergo his first major transformation. The Ellery we meet at the start of “Tea Party,” on a dark and stormy night, bears no resemblance to the supercilious prig introduced in The Roman Hat Mystery. As he stands in the rain-drenched Long Island train station, he regrets having ever accepted an invitation from Richard Owen, a mere acquaintance. Queen is sure that at some point he will be pressured to perform:

 

“People were always pushing so. Put him up on exhibition, like a trained seal. Come, come, Rollo; here’s a juicy little fish for you! . . . Got vicarious thrills out of listening to crime yarns. Made a man feel like a curiosity.”

Gone is the superior attitude found in the early novels. Ellery is just tired. But he has come to Owen’s estate to help celebrate the birthday of his host’s little boy, “a stringy, hot-eyed brat” named Jonathan, because it will afford Queen the chance to meet the enchanting stage actress, Emmy Willowes. He just hopes that he can enjoy a pleasant get-together without anything strange occurring over the weekend.

I ask you: what chance is there of that happening?

And so it is that Queen walks in on the dress rehearsal for a birthday party . . . and I finally make the connection to this month’s theme. With an actress of Miss Willowes’ caliber on the premises, something special is planned for Master Jonathan: a live reenactment of the Mad Hatter’s tea party from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. The cast features Emmy as Alice, Mr. Owen himself as the Hatter, his wife Laura as the Dormouse, and the Owens’ neighbor and friend, Paul Gardner, as the March Hare. Completing the party are Paul’s wife Carolyn, whose every quality screams femme fatale, and Mr. Owen’s genteel but malicious mother, Mrs. Mansfield.

The opening scene, set against such a whimsical background, contains enough tension amongst the members of the house party to fill several chapters of a much longer work and sends Ellery off to bed in a disquieted mood. Thereafter, many people, Mr. Queen included, find themselves wandering about during that storm-tossed night, and the household awakes the next morning to find that their host has disappeared. And with that, Ellery literally steps through the looking glass into a topsy-turvy case full of impossibilities and scattered through with references to Lewis Carroll’s classic fairy tale.

Has Owen been killed or kidnapped and, whatever his fate, where is his body? Who is responsible for the zany occurrences that follow, including the delivery of a group Mickey Finn and the arrival of a series of bizarre presents, each addressed to a different guest? On the one hand, the case boils down to a simple equation, but the circumstances that pile up around it are what make it so unusual, and the fun lies in discovering the surprising yet logical reason for all the odd events. Best of all is how the whole story takes on the dream-like tone of an adventure in Wonderland, where a bottle marked “Drink me” can have disastrous results and where the pathway to the truth may be strewn with nonsensical things.

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Forty-one years later, NBC chose “The Adventure of the Mad Tea Party” as the only episode of its wonderful but short-lived series Ellery Queen to be based on an actual Queen story, and it is easily the best episode of a marvelous bunch. The daffiness of the source material is present from the start, although several minor changes to the original are made that are quite fascinating. Richard Owen becomes Spencer Lockridge, a Broadway producer, and Ellery has come up to Lockridge’s home to discuss having one of his books turned into a play. He has to endure a P.R. man who keeps calling him “El” (played by the marvelous Jim Backus). For some reason, the beautiful Mrs. Gardner and the mousy Mrs. Owen switch places, and Owen/Lockridge’s mother becomes his mother-in-law. Emmy Willowe becomes a much more prominent character as she tries to charm and pressure Queen into letting her play the lead.

Once the house party goes to bed however, the original story asserts itself, and the adaptation is faithful and well-done. In fact, I would venture to say that this episode is the most successful film adaptation to date of a Queen-penned story. Its utilization of costume is charming, and one can only hope that someday Queen’s work will be rediscovered, republished and readapted to the screen in a more satisfying manner.

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7 thoughts on “CURIOUSER AND CURIOUSER: The Best Short Adventure of Ellery Queen

  1. I’m so glad that you mentioned the TV series starring Jim Hutton, Brad! I always wished it’d gone on for longer than one season. And I agree with you: some of the Ellery Queen stories are great!

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    1. Me too, Margot! I loved that series–and it seemed (to my younger self) that it lasted much longer than one season. When DVD became a thing and I went hunting for the show, I couldn’t believe how few episodes there were. Jim Hutton was marvelous in the part.

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  2. Because and Margot, I’m glad we’ve got an EQ fan club going here! Jim Hutton played his own version of the character, but he carried that show in the midst of so many wonderful guest stars!

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  3. Brad, you’re right that Queen’s forte was the short story – and (heresy?) many of the Period 3 Queens would have made better short stories than novels. Although there’s a lot of symbolism and social commentary, there’s often not enough *plot* to fill out a novel.

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    1. Or maybe novellas? The Murderer Is a Fox is moving, but it drags. The Last Woman In His Life should have been a short-short. I agree that we lose all that First Period plotting ability in favor of Big Ideas, and it only works part of the time.

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