“Saved by Ellery Queen” (by Russell Atwood)

When I first came to EQMM in June of 1991, editor-in-chief Eleanor Sullivan was no longer able to work due to illness and the magazine was being run by Russell Atwood, EQMM’s managing editor. Russell was anxious to get on to other things in his life, especially his own writing, but he stayed at the magazine for an extra couple of months so that I could learn the ropes before having to find a replacement for him. I’ve never forgotten the generosity of his staying on—but that’s the kind of person he is. His decision to go freelance and thereby make more time for his own writing paid off. Five years later, he appeared in EQMM’s Department of First Stories with “East of A” (June 1996), which subsequently was expanded into his first novel, of the same title, published by Ballantine/Fawcett. Payton Sherwood, the protagonist of that highly praised debut novel, appeared again in Losers Live Longer, from Hard Case Crime, and Russell tells us he is currently working on a third book in the series, Cheaters Never Quit. He has also produced numerous live-action shows, including Ghost Stories Live! and the Nickie, Jameson, and Fred Show, all of which are available for viewing on YouTube under his production name SidMartyLovecraft.—Janet Hutchings

I met Ellery Queen when I was fourteen years old, in January of 1979 at the dinner celebrating the 50th Anniversary of the first Ellery Queen novel, The Roman Hat Mystery. At the time my family lived in Massachusetts, far from Manhattan, but I’d read about the event in Chris Steinbrunner’s Jury Box pages of Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine. I badgered my father into taking me to New York City to attend this event (it would be my Christmas and birthday presents! I pleaded). My dad wasn’t a fan of mysteries himself—or even much of a reader; his limited selection of books consisted of Ted Williams’s autobiography and a coin-collector guide—but he took me anyway, God love him.

I’d become a fan of Ellery Queen watching the NBC series that starred Jim Hutton and David Wayne. It only ran for one season, produced by the creators of Columbo, Richard Levinson and William Link (themselves alumni of EQMM, having had their first fiction published in the magazine), but I believe from the very first I was won over by the moment when Hutton turned to face the camera and obliterated the fourth wall to present his famous challenge to the viewer: “Well, I now know who the killer is. . . . Do you? All the clues have been revealed.” I’d been brought up on TV, like most people of my generation, but this was the first time a television character had literally spoken directly to me (or at least that’s how it felt to me—lying on the living room floor with my chin propped up in the palm of my hands—he was talking to me alone).

My fascination with the “detective,” to begin with, probably stems from the fact that I was once falsely accused of a crime I didn’t commit. Or don’t believe I committed; I was only six years old at the time. During a pool party at my parents’ home in 1969, my mother’s diamond engagement ring went missing. She’d taken it off and left it on the kitchen sink’s drainboard while rinsing out some glasses and plates. About twenty-five friends and family were in attendance. It was late—about 9:30 P.M.—but I’d come down in my PJ’s to investigate the frolicking. I remember none of this myself, but it’s how the story goes: The ring was suddenly gone and I was accused of taking it (even now, I wouldn’t put it past me, I still love shiny objects). To this day, it has never resurfaced, but a family legend grew from it that I was the one responsible.

I never shook the mixed feeling of guilt and affront; for decades all I desired was just to know the truth. Even before I knew what a detective was, I wished one had been there: a Holmes, a Poirot, an Ellery Queen, someone to set the record straight. I’m only guessing now, but I believe that’s where my affinity with the amateur sleuth was born. Certainly after my first viewing of The Hound of the Baskervilles, starring Basil Rathbone, when I was ten, the detective became my hero for life. If only HE’D been there that night, I would not have been unjustly branded a thief for ever after.

I tried to be Holmes for many years after that, but I learned I had neither a feel for the violin or a knack with chemistry. I felt defeated. I’d never be Holmes. But then one night, I met Ellery Queen (not in person yet, but on the TV screen). He was a regular guy. Absent-minded, clumsy, unkempt, shirt untucked, and . . . a dreamer. He was me. So from then on, I was determined to become HIM.

I wanted to solve crimes just like he did every week. And I wanted unjustly accused people to come to me for help in proving their innocence. But in order for that to happen, I first had to write (and publish) detective stories Or else how would people know I was good at solving them? (Quick reminder: I was twelve-years-old. . . . It made sense then).

My first murder mystery involved a dying clue. A man was found shot in his library, limbs draped on the library ladder, his lifeless hand gripping a hardcover book. The house was surrounded by newly fallen snow, only the five inhabitants could’ve committed the crime. All family members. Wife, brother, brother-in-law, sister, and grandmother. The book he’d clutched with his last bit of life was: THE BASIC GUIDE TO ENGLISH GRAMMAR.

Well, of course, you can guess who the killer was once I tell you that on the spine of the book the last gilt letter was faded so the dying man saw the word: Gramma. He’d foolishly hinted to the old woman that he was planning on sending her to a nursing home, and she rebelled and shot him through the heart.

I submitted this story to Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine and—naturally—it was rejected (I was a first-time teenager). But in seclusion, with concentration, aided by determination, I finished it.

And so about this time, I met my hero face-to-face. Frederic Dannay, who with his cousin Manfred B. Lee, created the character I had chosen to emulate: ELLERY QUEEN. He wasn’t the six-foot, four-inch Jim Hutton from the series. He was closer to the diminutive David Wayne who played Ellery’s father, Inspector Richard Queen. A brown-and-gray-bearded garden gnome with black horn-rimmed glasses. But he WAS Ellery Queen.

The speech he gave that night was all about his love of the genre. He and Manfred B. Lee had begun writing artfully crafted “whodunits,” but they witnessed the change that soon came to pass, and Fred Dannay—as editor of EQMM—bolstered and helped to advance writers who took the genre beyond the “guess-who’s-the-killer” formula.

Fred and Manny had begun writing Ellery Queen novels to mimic S. S. Van Dine’s Philo Vance books (The Canary Murder Case, The Bishop Murder Case, The Kennel Murder Case, etc.). But they lifted their heads and discovered there was so much more to be told in this field of writing. They became dissatisfied with the whodunit—but not with the puzzle. They realized the puzzle wasn’t merely solved by discovering who, but also how, and much more importantly why.

I only spoke with Fred Dannay for a short time that night in 1979, but that brief encounter has served me well ever since. For one thing: He was happy. He wasn’t six-foot, four-inch Jim Hutton in stature, but he was the man behind that character who had fooled so many die-hard fans with his play-fair puzzles.

Photo courtesy of Russell Atwood.

That night I also met the mutton-chopped sci-fi great (and also frequent contributor to EQMM) Isaac Asimov, who gave me the advice that writing was like having a hole in your head: “The more you pour out, the wider it gets and the easier it is to write. But as the hole grows smaller from less output . . .”

As I matured, my interest in mysteries waned, but my love of writing increased. In college I concentrated more on James Joyce, Flannery O’Connor, Stanley Elkin, and Wallace Stevens. I thought I’d become a “literary” novelist when I moved to New York City after graduating with a B.A. in Literature. But of all the magazines and publishers I submitted resumes to, the only return phone call I received was from Eleanor Sullivan, editor-in-chief of Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine. After a brief interview I was hired as her editorial assistant, a position I held for three years until her death. During my term as an editor at the magazine, I encountered again Isaac Asimov, who came once a month to oversee the editing of the magazine bearing his name—also in the same offices at that time. And best of all became friends with one of my favorite authors from the pages of EQMM, Edward D. Hoch, a man who delighted in the craft of confounding and puzzling people with problems in deduction, a soul-mate who is still greatly missed. It was also at this time, I met a young man—barely out of high school—who on the surface was a prototypical nerd, but who shared the same love of the bizarre and mysterious as I did when I was his age. Phew! Fortunately we became friends, because afterward Charles Ardai ended up as the publisher of my second novel LOSERS LIVE LONGER, under his imprint Hard Case Crime.

I’ll end this all by saying, there was a moment while I was Eleanor Sullivan’s assistant when I confronted her and challenged her judgment on some story, and blatantly asked her: “Well, why did you hire me if you didn’t think I was a good editor???”

She said, “Russell, the only reason I hired you was because you met Fred Dannay when you were fourteen.”

It humbled me, but also made me feel great. Ellery Queen had saved me after all.

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This entry was posted in Books, Classic Mystery, Editing, Ellery Queen, Fiction, Genre, Guest, History, Magazine, Readers, Writers and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to “Saved by Ellery Queen” (by Russell Atwood)

  1. tfmoran2014 says:

    Fantastic post. Thanks so much.

  2. Josh Pachter says:

    Absolutely fascinating, Russell! Thanks so much for sharing these memories!

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