CATS WITH MANY TALES: The Misadventures of Ellery Queen

In their introduction to The Misadventures of Ellery Queen, their new collection of “pastiches, parodies and potpourri” featuring America’s favorite classic sleuth, co-editors Josh Pachter and Dale C. Andrews address three questions:

  • Who is Ellery Queen?
  • What is a pastiche?
  • What is a parody?

I’ll let you read their answer to the first question for yourself. God knows I’ve been racking my brains continually, trying to figure out why the question needs to be asked! Like Pachter and Andrews, I grew up with Ellery Queen. He was my #2 – the first time I stepped out of the comfort zone of Agatha Christie. As luck would have it, my premiere of choice was The Greek Coffin Mystery which, just like Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express, caused me to jump out of the blue and white patterned chair in our living room with a holler of surprise. Who knew mysteries could end like these books?!? Christie and Queen spoiled me for life –  and then I met my # 3 when I went to see a man about a Carr . . . but that’s another story.

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I’ve realized that one of the vexing challenges about growing (a tiny bit) older is watching some of your favorites fall out of favor. We’re not talking fads here – this isn’t the hula hoop or the lava lamp, sideburns (which ebb and flow in popularity) or the Slinky. This is literature! As the introduction to this book points out:

For almost fifty years in the middle of the twentieth century, Ellery Queen was everywhere—in novels, short stories, movies, radio and television programs, even comic books. During that Queenian heyday, noted critic Anthony Boucher put it this way: “Ellery Queen is the American detective story.”

Who could imagine that a writer as popular as Ellery Queen was would now cause new mystery fans to scratch their heads in wonder? Perhaps that’s why this new collection is so welcome and necessary in its mission to shine a light on a GAD luminary. Although the book is chockful of jokes and references that will appeal mainly to longtime Queen readers,  I’m here to say that Misadventures will be of interest not only to Queen fans but to all fans of classic crime literature.

Thankfully, Andrews and Pachter address the difference between a pastiche and a parody because I always get those two mixed up. A pastiche lovingly recreates author’s work with attention to accuracy in detail. A parody occurs when one author takes another author’s work and turns it on its ear. The idea is to appeal to the classic author’s true fans (for they are the ones who would get the joke) and to make them laugh. Growing up, I was made most aware of the concept of parody by the author Jon L. Breen, who frequently appeared in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine with one story or another poking fun at the authors I loved. His collection of mystery parodies, The Hair of the Sleuthhound, is great fun, and of course, my favorite story there was “The Lithuanian Eraser Mystery,” a cracking good spoof about you-know-who.

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A second introduction by Fred Dannay’s son, Richard (who is a copyright and publishing lawyer) provides fascinating information about the legal ramifications here. A parody is essentially “fair game,” an exercise in the rights of free speech, while a pastiche cannot always stand up to legal question due to its essentially imitative nature. (There’s a great story here about the elder Dannay’s attempt to collect a book of pastiches about Sherlock Holmes, much to the chagrin of the Doyle estate.)

The sixteen stories are divided, however, into three sections, however. In section one, we find six pastiches, (including one by Dale C. Andrews himself), that span the years 1947 to 2007. Section two includes three parodies from 1961 – 1967 and features the detectives Celery Keen, Celery Green, and Elroy Quinn. (I missed “Lithuanian”’s incarnation, E. Larry Cune.) And the third section, labeled “Potpourri,” offers seven stories published between 1960 – 2016 (including one by Pachter himself) that honor the spirit and style of Queen’s work without including imitations, comic or outright, of his detective.

 

PART ONE: PASTICHES

The Mystery of the Red Balloons” (1947) by Thomas Narcejac (translated from the French by Rebecca K. Jones)

We know that Narcejac wrote dozens of dark thrillers with Pierre Boileau, including the one that was the basis of Vertigo. But he also wrote pastiches of many of his favorite crime writers. This story is probably the first ever pastiche of Ellery Queen.

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Perhaps it’s the little I know about the author, the great deal I know about Vertigo, and the fact that I grew up continually exposed to the French short film “The Red Balloon” that I thought I knew what I was getting into when I read this. The opening of the story is moody like the film: Ellery is summoned to an apartment building where a man has been murdered. Outside on his balcony, a single red balloon is found caught on the pull string of the apartment’s Venetian blinds.

Subsequent murders ensue, each featuring a red balloon, indicating the work of a serial killer of sorts. It’s a haunting – and to me, very French – opening to a Queen story, but then more concrete details start pouring in and the whole thing comes down to earth in a vaguely disappointing way, given the quirky promise of the first scenes. Narcejac includes a “Challenge to the Reader,” a staple of early Queen tales, but I’m not sure we have exactly all the facts we need by the end.

I’ll score it – Three balloons out of five.

Dying Message” (1966) by Leyne Requel

A lot of my fellow bloggers gripe about the dying message as a clue! I get their argument, but I don’t care: while nobody in their right mind would take the time to manufacture a message that obfuscates before it enlightens, I have always taken great delight when a murder victim decides to end his life with a juicy word  or phrase (or number, or symbol). Ellery Queen manufactured some doozies. Okay, the one in The Last Woman in His Life is inexcusable on several levels, but it’s the exception to the rule. The point then, is that Requel’s is a perfect title for an homage to Queen. The question is – how well did Requel handle it?

You know what? I can’t tell you anything about this one without spoiling it. Suffice it to say, the editors had a challenge picking in which section to fit this story. I’m not sure they picked the correct one – it’s possible Dying Message deserves a section all its own – but it is both a clever short and a delightful homage to the author who inspired it.

Score: Five balloons!

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The Gilbert and Sullivan Clue” (1970) by Jon. L. Breen

Breen introduces his own story, explaining why he wanted to have a pastiche included rather than a parody. Compared to the zany “Lithuanian Eraser Mystery,” Breen plays it straight here. The Ellery we find here is the Period Two Hollywood hack, a more charming persona than Queen’s supercilious egoist of the First Period. Suffering in his studio office, Ellery is relieved to get an invite from sleazy agent Gil Castberg to cruise around on a luxury yacht with some of the beautiful people His host is the famous comic Ozzie Foyle (think Lou Costello or Jerry Lewis), and to everyone’s surprise, who should turn up but Foyle’s estranged straight man, Joey Dugan. The tensions in the party build until the inevitable murder, which Queen solves largely due to a clue from the collected works of Foyle’s favorite composers, Gilbert and Sullivan.

The set-up is great, including a nice use of the song “I’ve Got a Little List,” and the case has a few twists and turns, but inevitably it doesn’t quite play fair – and a certain amount of G&S knowledge is absolutely required.

Score: Three and a half Major Generals!

Open Letter to Survivors” (1972) by Francis M. Nevins

It follows logically that Nevins, the foremost biographer of the Queens, would possess the understanding to conceive a fine pastiche of their work. What is so remarkable is that this was Nevins’ first story, submitted to EQMM with the encouragement of no less than Fred Dannay himself.

In terms of style and content, the result is nothing short of brilliant. Nevins sets his tale in 1948 and the Ellery we meet here is the sensitive tortured artist from Period Three Wrightsville and Cat of Many Tails. Indeed, the references to so much that is Queenian in nature are expertly woven in these few pages. Nevins centers the mystery around a device so hackneyed that rules were drawn up by GAD authors to limit its use, and then he does something new with it. The story is suffused with a deep sense of post-War melancholy, and the unsettling denouement is befitting of a Period Three novel.

Score: Five Days Wonder

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The Reindeer Clue” (1975) by Edward D. Hoch

This is one of only two stories in the collection I had come across before. Hoch’s tale was included in the collection, Tragedy of Errors, published by Crippen & Landru. Everyone knows that Ed Hoch was a magnificent short story writer, and Fred Dannay, who featured Hoch’s work regularly in EQMM, thought so too, for he himself commissioned the author to write an Ellery Queen tale for Christmas. It has the feel of one of the later shorts you’d find in the Queen collection, Q.E.D.: light, fun quickie mysteries without much substance. Here, you’re given so little information that the whole thing is reduced to a single puzzle element, and since I know my Queen, I saw through this one right away.

Score: Three Snowballs

The Book Case” (2007) by Dale C. Andrews and Kurt Sercu

What can I say about this lovely story? It works as a Queen mystery, sure, but more than that it’s a gift for rabid fans. Kurt Sercu runs perhaps the best website devoted to the author: Ellery Queen, A Website on Deduction. After starting an online friendship, Sercu and Andrews met at a symposium on Queen and decided to write this story together. They chose to set it in the present day and it feels like they’ve created a Period Four Ellery, an elderly man who has lost some energy but none of his sharpness. Nearly every page of this lengthy story contains some token for fans to savor – a character, a reference, a plot trope. I love this for the homage it pays to Queen and for the sense of nostalgia it gave me for the years I spent buying and reading and loving the author.

Score: Five volumes of Period Three Queen!

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PART TWO: PARODIES

The collection contains only three parodies, and I think that’s just enough for a pleasant non-scored amuse bouche between the main course and the dessert. “Ten Months Blunder” (1961) by Jerry Neal Williamson and “The English Village Mystery” (1964) by Arthur Porges both model their sleuth after the early Queen with his pince nez and supercilious ways. In the first story, Williamson uses the tenets of a Queen short story – pawnbroker is killed, leaves a dying message that must implicate one of three visitors – and casts it to the wind, using it to serve his portrait of “Celery Keen” as an insufferable egoist. But Porges gets it right – I clearly need to find this guy’s impossible crime short stories – and creates a charming spoof of Queenian logic as a mad serial killer decimates the village of Tottering-on the Brink. I spotted the killer right away, but that didn’t stop me from laughing at Celery Green, partly because he seemed to know he was in a parody and could laugh at himself!

Elroy Quinn’s Last Case (1967) by Denis M Dubin is the best of the lot, presenting the sleuth as an old man, who “had discarded his pence-nez for thicker, stronger lenses.” Elroy is called in to investigate a murder with royal connections, one that could spell the total destabilization of the Middle East. (So what else is new?) But the case is really an excuse to deliver a Valentine to all true Queen fans, one I will leave for them to discover.

 

PART THREE: POTPOURRI

The Norwegian Apple Mystery” (1960) by James Holding

I have been holding my breath for the release by Crippen and Landru of a collection of the Leroy King stories by Holding, and the wait is nearly over. In a meta-fictional swirl, King is the fictional construct of a fictional team, King Danforth and Martin Leroy, whose novels about their sleuth all begin with a nationality. Actually, this tale, the first of the series of ten stories Holding wrote, adopts more of a Kelley Roos or Patrick Quentin tone: it’s a light, breezy adventure set aboard a ship upon which Danforth and Leroy are cruising with their wives. A voluptuous blonde has been found dead in her cabin, and the bulk of the story consists of shipboard conversations between the two couples, brimming with morbid humor as the guys seek to provide fodder for their next book by spinning a theory that the woman was murdered. It’s not a complex puzzle by any means, but it has a nice bite to it.

Score: Let’s say four Honeycrisps (my favorite apple), but somebody took a big bite out of one.

The Man Who Read Ellery Queen” (1965) by William Brittain

Crippen and Landru continues to provide great news: they will be publishing all eleven of “The Man Who” stories Brittain wrote for EQMM (with five bonus stories featuring high school science teacher Leonard Strang). It was authors like Brittain and Holding who kept me subscribing to EQMM for years and years.

The concept of these stories was that they each featured a different hero found themselves faced with a crime appropriately patterned in the style of whoever their favorite mystery writer happened to be. Here it’s Arthur Mindy, senior citizen, who has been relegated to the Goodwell Home with one wish: that he might get to solve a mystery just like his favorite author did in all those cherished books he owns. In this lovely tale, Mr. Mindy’s dream comes true.

Score: Four first editions.

E.Q. Griffen Earns His Name” (1968) by Josh Pachter

Given his premise here, co-editor Pachter could have easily written a series similar to Brittain’s: Inspector Ross Griffen has named each of his children after eleven of his favorite literary detectives and has trained them since they were wee ‘uns in the art of sleuthing in the hopes that his progeny would each solve a mystery and “earn his or her own name.” (I think this might have made a charming TV show, but then again in my world everybody reads Ellery Queen!)

So far, young Ellery has been slow to crack a case, but he gets his chance when two crimes present themselves, one of them of the impossible variety. The story is charming and clever, with the repartee between the siblings, all of whom bear a resemblance to some pretty famous crime-solvers, being especially sparkling. But what makes the tale all the more remarkable is that Josh wrote it for EQMM when he was sixteen. This club of published pubescents to which our editors both belonged is one to which I would have given anything to be a member!

Score: Five slices of apple pie a la mode.

The Last Check” (1972) by Patricia McGerr

How unfortunate that only one female author is represented here, but Pat McGerr has manufactured a fine, quick homage to the man of the hour, presenting us with murder in the study, a dying message, and both a victim and a police inspector who are rabid EQ fans! Perfection!

Score: Five messages drawn in blood!

The Death of the Mallory Queen” (1984) by Lawrence Block

This might be the oddest story in the collection. Block is one of the most prolific authors around, and he populates this tale with a gallery of thinly disguised portraits of real writers, publishers, and booksellers. I recognized a couple of them but was thankful that the introduction explained what I was getting into. The detective, Leo Haig, is an over-the-top eccentric guy whose goal in life is to be . . . Nero Wolfe. The connection to Queen here is through the victim, Mavis Mallory, who is a gender switch of Fred Dannay wearing his EQMM editor’s cap. The ending is just . . . weird. It didn’t quite work for me,  but the story will be especially fun for those people in the know of the New York literary scene.

Score: Two and a half dead critics.

The Ransom of EQMM #1” (2011) by Arthur Vidro

Easily one of the biggest thrills for me last year was to find this blog mentioned in the pages of Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine! A friend e-mailed me with the news, along with a link to the website to show me he wasn’t seeing things. It just so happened that Vidro’s story was on the site as well. And why not? It’s a charming valentine to a magazine that celebrated the best in classic and modern short crime fiction and introduced the world to hundreds of new authors. I used to have a gigantic box full of them in my parents’ garage. My mom threw them away, along with my old Superman comics. I could’’ve been a millionaire today, Ma . . .

Score: Five sentimental journeys.

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The Ten Cent Murder” (2016) by Joseph Goodrich

Goodrich seizes upon a marvelous fact – that Dashiell Hammett taught a mystery writing course at the Jefferson Institute in Manhattan and that he had Fred Dannay in as a frequent guest lecturer – and creates a great fictional sleuthing partnership set in 1951 and fittingly imbued with the nightmare of McCarthyism. The dying message here is a bit of a groaner, but it’s fun watching Fred Dannay trying his mightiest to channel what his own creation might do in order to save the day. The final moment is reserved for Dash, and it serves as a melancholy punctuation to the collection’s sweet final story.

Score: Four Marxists

final-thoughtsThe attempt to mimic an author is not an easy or necessarily rewarding one. If you get it wrong, people criticize; if you get it right, nobody believes you wrote it! A lot of love went into the writing of these stories, as these folks embraced the adage about “the sincerest form of flattery.”  There was a thrill reading them akin to discovering a previously unpublished novel by a favorite author. I wish Sophie Hannah could do it as well with Christie and Poirot. I have greater hopes for Stella Duffy’s completion of Ngaio Marsh’s last glimmer of a novel, Money in the Morgue. The writers of these stories encompassed a wealth of experience, from novice to literary master, when they penned their tales. What they shared is that, just like me, they are all Ellery Queen fans. And that’s something this world needs a lot more of right now.

Read this book!

 

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12 thoughts on “CATS WITH MANY TALES: The Misadventures of Ellery Queen

  1. It does sound good, Brad. And you are so right about pastiches and parodies. They are so hard to do well. And, as you say, no matter what you do, there’s bound to be criticism. You’re too harsh, or you’re not faithful to the character, or…..or….or…. Glad you enjoyed this as much as you did.

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  2. Have finally decided that Queen and I are incompatible and kicked him out of the house, but I still enjoy reading about him and others’ enthusiasm. It’s great that this is no lazy cash in but a genuine work of care and affection.

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  3. Is this the same collection that was published in Japan a few years ago? Ho-Ling discussed a very similar collection on his blog, but, at the time, changes for an English version looked pretty slim. So glad to see it finally appeared in English. Or, at least, something very similar to that Japanese collection.

    Anyway, The Misadventures of Ellery Queen has been added to my wish list.

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    1. That Japanese collection had the same title and some of the same stories, but i don’t believe it is an out and out translation. At the very least, there are no Asian authors represented. I remember hearing about this one, too, and I hope that someday any stories that are Japanese in origin will be translated into English.

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      1. Hi TomCat — Josh and my book differs in many respects from the Japanese volume. Some stories are present in both, others only in ours. All of this is discussed in Josh and my intro to the volume. Hope you enjoy it! — Dale

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  4. These sound like interesting reads, but I tend to be less favourable towards the short story genre. Then again, the short story was quite possible Queen’s strength – and so a continuation along these lines would be reasonable as a tribute.

    I believe Sophie Hannah is meant to write a third Poirot novel? The second offering was stronger than the first, so perhaps the third would be even better.

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      1. I thought the first was clever and convoluted – but not especially like Christie. In that her plots hinge or one or two twists that turn the tables on the reader. I thought that happened more in the second book.

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