“A Lifetime With Ellery Queen” (by Francis M. Nevins)

On this first day of new postings for 2013, our first order of business has got to be to wish everyone who visits our blog a happy New Year! Our first post, however, is one in which we depart from the New Year’s tradition of ringing out the old and ringing in the new and hope that at least as it pertains to that great, but sometimes forgotten, writer Ellery Queen, we can help ring some of the old back into contemporary consciousness.
This month, Francis M. Nevins’s new critical book Ellery Queen: The Art of Detection: The Story of How Two Fractious Cousins Reshaped the Modern Detective Novel, sees print, from Perfect Crime Books. This blog has intentionally veered away from promotion of books by authors contributing guest posts, but in this case we make an exception, since everyone at EQMM hopes to see the writing duo that founded our magazine introduced to a new generation of readers.
 If anyone is in a position to write interestingly and incisively about our field in general and Ellery Queen in particular, it’s Francis M. Nevins (known to his friends in the field as Mike). He’s a two-time winner of the prestigious Edgar Allan Poe Award for critical work, once for an earlier study of Ellery Queen and once for his volume on Cornell Woolrich.  He is also a novelist, and a short-story writer whose work has appeared many times in the pages of EQMM.  I suspect we’d have seen much more fiction from Mike over the years had he not often been immersed in critical projects, but I’m looking forward to reading this new work on Queen, so I won’t object. —Janet Hutchings

On January 6 of this year I turned 70. On January 15 a hefty tome of mine called Ellery Queen: The Art of Detection will be published. In a sense I’ve come to the end of a road: at my age it’s unlikely I’ll write about Queen again, certainly not at such length. Where did that road begin?

I was one of those strange children who somehow learned to read before they first set their little feet in a classroom. I was about four years old at the time. In one of the last conversations I had with my mother before her death, she insisted she hadn’t taught me and guessed that somehow I had taught myself by playing with a set of alphabet blocks.

I never saw my father reading much but he must have been an avid reader as a young man. At age nine or ten I discovered on his shelves The Benson Murder Case (1926), the first of S.S. Van Dine’s once hugely popular Philo Vance detective novels. At the foot of the front cover was my father’s name (which was also mine) in tiny gold letters. Perhaps that was what led me to try reading the book. Big mistake. I gave up after a few chapters, skunked by Van Dine’s sesquipedalian ponderosity.

That abortive encounter was either my first or second experience with detective fiction. The other encounter, probably within a year before or after the Van Dine debacle, took place at the home of one of my uncles, a heart surgeon. What I was doing at his house I have no idea, but one or both of my parents must have been with me. Somehow I discovered a bookcase and happened to pluck out a volume with a bright orange cover and began reading. It was the International Readers’ League edition of The Chinese Orange Mystery (1934) by Ellery Queen. If I didn’t get past the first few chapters, it was only because my parents were taking me back home. I was a precocious kid but too shy, I guess, to ask my uncle if I could borrow the book. My loss.

The next time I encountered the Queen name was in the public library of Roselle Park, New Jersey. I was still too young to be allowed into the grown-ups section, but among the juvenile fiction I found and checked out was Ellery Queen, Master Detective (1940), which wasn’t a genuine Queen novel but a “novelization” based on the movie of the same name—which itself was more or less based on a genuine Queen novel! (The Door Between, if you want to get technical about it.) This novelization I read straight through. Almost sixty years later I still remember one line. It’s dinnertime and Ellery is “sawing manfully at his steak” which has been prepared for him by his culinarily deprived new girlfriend Nikki Porter. That and two other novelizations of movies about Ellery were not written by the cousins Frederic Dannay and Manfred B. Lee, as the genuine Queen novels and stories were, but were farmed out—or, as we say nowadays, outsourced—to ghosts. As chance would have it, I learned the name of one of those ghosts recently, in a document containing the vast majority of the letters Manny wrote to Fred while they were living on opposite coasts. The true author of Ellery Queen, Master Detective was Laurence Dwight Smith (1895-1952), a long-forgotten hack who also wrote mysteries (some for adults, some for kids) and nonfiction books under his own name. Whether he wrote the other EQ novelizations remains unknown.

On turning thirteen, I was given access to the adult sections of the library. It was there that, with chance or fate as the wind at my back, I found the mystery fiction shelves and discovered Sherlock Holmes and Charlie Chan and was hooked for life. Exactly when I started reading Ellery Queen I can’t recall but I can still see myself sitting in a creaky old green-painted rocking chair in front of my grandmother’s house during the heat of the 1957 summer, lost in ecstasy as I wandered with Ellery through the labyrinths of The Greek Coffin Mystery. I was fourteen at the time and had just completed my first year of high school. Before graduating from college seven years later I had read most of the Queen novels, several of them two or three times apiece. I had also watched both of the Queen TV series from those years—the low-budget, 30-minute films (1955-56) starring Hugh Marlowe, the first actor to play Ellery on radio, and the more elaborate hour-long program (1958-59), originally live and later on tape, with George Nader and then Lee Philips in the title role—but neither was remotely in the same league with the Queen novels and stories.

One Saturday afternoon during my senior year in high school I was returning to Roselle Park after taking the College Board entrance exam. Changing trains at Newark’s Penn Station, I passed a newsstand, saw the current issue of EQMM (April 1960), and plunked down 35 cents for it. By that time I must have bought many back issues at the secondhand bookstore I passed every day on the way home from school, but this was the first issue I had bought new. I still remember the occasion vividly.

After college I was offered a scholarship by New York University School of Law. The academic work was a thousand percent harder than anything I had encountered before, and for the three years of law school I all but stopped reading for enjoyment. A year or two after graduation and admission to the New Jersey bar came one of the great moments of my life, my first meeting with Fred Dannay. I can still see myself stepping off the train at Larchmont and being greeted by Fred and his then wife Hilda and being driven to their home on Byron Lane. Fred was in his early sixties at the time, several years younger than I am today. Since EQMM had a policy of publishing in every issue a story by someone who had never written a mystery before, he almost had to encourage everyone he met to try to write for the magazine. He certainly encouraged me.

I had exchanged a few letters with Fred’s cousin and collaborator, Manny Lee, but I only met him once. It was in April 1970, just before the annual Mystery Writers of America dinner. We had arranged to meet “under the clock” in the lounge of New York’s Biltmore Hotel. Just as we were shaking hands a young man sitting nearby jumped up like a jack-in-the-box and shouted “Manfred B. Lee! I think you’re the greatest writer that ever lived!” To which Manny replied: “That doesn’t say much for your taste.” I would have given much to have known him longer but he died less than a year later.

A few years passed between my first meeting with Fred and my first fiction sale, but when the May 1972 issue of EQMM hit the nation’s newsstands, there was my name on the cover along with those of Agatha Christie, John Creasey, Edward D. Hoch and other luminaries. It was all I could do to keep myself from shouting HEY!!! THAT’S ME!!! whenever I went into a store that carried the magazine. Until his death in 1982 Fred bought many more stories from me, as did his successor Eleanor Sullivan and her successor Janet Hutchings.

My book Royal Bloodline: Ellery Queen, Author and Detective was published in 1974 and received an Edgar award from Mystery Writers of America. I was in my early thirties then. As I write these words I’ve just turned 70. Perhaps Ellery Queen: The Art of Detection should have been called Royal Bloodline 2.0. It’s certainly more comprehensive than my earlier book, and better written (I hope), and does justice to Manny Lee as Royal Bloodline, I’m afraid, didn’t. What I wish most of all is that my hefty tome will return the name of Ellery Queen, author and detective, to the minds and hearts of the mystery-reading public, where it belongs.

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5 Responses to “A Lifetime With Ellery Queen” (by Francis M. Nevins)

  1. Jon L. Breen says:

    Mike’s book is an amazing job, full of information about the Queen collaborators that was new to me. My own first approach to EQ was through the back door, reading the Ellery Queen Jr. series, which though ghost-written was distinctly Queenian in approach. To this day, I remember one of the broader and funnier clues in THE BLUE HERRING MYSTERY. Mike’s bibliography informed that two of the EQ juveniles were the work of Frank Belknap Long, a member of the H.P. Lovecraft circle and best known for horror and s.f., but most of them were by a less familiar name, Samuel Duff McCoy.

  2. Dear Mr. Nevins: Thank you for this post. I still tell people today that I feel as if I learned to write—fiction and nonfiction—from reading EQ. That’s why it hurts to much that so many of those books are out of print. I first discovered them as a kid during the mid-seventies when the Jim Hutton series was on the air. My first was The Siamese Twin Mystery, which I found in my school library. It would take many years before I read them all. I read your book Royal Bloodline during that period and still have it now on my bookshelf. It clarified a lot of what I was thinking about the books and the men who wrote them. All this to say that I’m very excited to see your new book. Congratulations and many thanks. — Joe

  3. Mike Doran says:

    Thanks to the good offices of amazon.com, I recieved my copy of The Art Of Detection in Tuesday morning’s deliveries.
    This is my belated Christmas gift to myself, so I thank me, and my semi-namesake Mike Nevins, and amazon, and Man & Dan, who started it all.

    So now I gotta wait for Jeffrey Marks’s book – two years down the line?

    Mr. Marks, if you’re there – see if you can fast-track things just a bit, OK?

  4. Dale Andrews says:

    I had the pleasure of sharing a cup of coffee with Mike over Christmas in St. Louis. (Well, I had coffee, he sipped a coke!) He had what was then the only print copy of the new book along with him. It was all I could do to wait until I received my own copy, which I did one week ago. A great read and a superb updating of the already-great Royal Bloodlines!

  5. Joseph Goodrich says:

    I’m waiting for the Mysterious Bookshop to receive copies so I can show my support for an independent mystery bookstore and Mr. Nevins at the same time. I can’t recall which EQ title I read first, though I know THE KING IS DEAD was an early favorite. I look forward to Mike’s new tome, and here’s to Ellery Queen and his/their continued presence!

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