Award-winning journalist Joseph D’Agnese has written for the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and many other papers, but the dream of writing fiction was born for him in childhood. His first short-story submission, at age twelve, was to EQMM. It wasn’t until 2012, however, that he began writing short stories regularly and submitting them for publication. Since 2012, he has won a Derringer Award from the Short Mystery Fiction Society and had a story selected for the Best American Mystery Stories series. Bringing things full circle, last year he submitted a story to EQMM that will appear in our March/April 2016 issue, on sale next week!—Janet Hutchings
There’s a beautiful moment in the life of any reading child when he or she transitions from reading primarily children’s books to reading grown-up books. For me that switch came when I was about ten years old. I arrived one morning at school to find one of my classmates reading a paperback copy of The House of Brass by Ellery Queen. My first thought was, “Oh, so they make books about him, too?”
The fall of 1975 was the year I was in sixth grade. Every Thursday night, I had grown accustomed to watching actor Jim Hutton play Ellery Queen on TV. That short-lived series was just the sort of TV fare a family could watch together. The content was safe, the characters endearing. I loved that moment near the end of every episode when Ellery broke the fourth wall, telling us that we were now in possession of all the clues. Did we know whodunit? Watching from the comfort of our wood-paneled basement in New Jersey, my parents, my brothers, and I took this as our cue to start shouting solutions at the TV.
I loved that show. And although my father had probably mentioned that he used to listen to Ellery Queen on the radio back in the day, I assumed that Ellery was a new creation. That’s why I was so surprised to discover that there was, in fact, an author named Ellery Queen. I asked my friend to loan me his book when he finished, but he couldn’t. He’d promised it to another kid. Apparently everyone was reading Ellery Queen! What kind of friends were these, anyway, not to have mentioned this to me?
No matter. Our school library had a single Queen—a brown-leafed edition of The Siamese Twin Mystery. I read it over the next few days. Oh, it was so good! It was a moderately creepy tale that found Ellery and his father trapped in a country house with conjoined twins, their dead physician father, and numerous suspects. The Ellery in those early books was a little affected, but I don’t recall that bothering me much. Every time I read about Ellery and the inspector, I pictured Jim Hutton and David Wayne.
The local library had more Queen books, but before I borrowed a single one, I found myself struggling with what would develop in my lifetime as a fascination with book cover art and an incorrigible penchant for collecting. The hardcovers in the library were nice, but they were too heavy for my book bag, and the library would expect them back eventually. Plus, I really, really, really loved the look and feel of those shiny paperbacks. Another friend had come to school toting a red-and-pink edition of Face to Face, which I’d instantly coveted.
There was one way out. My brothers and I shared a newspaper route, which entitled me to a third of our profits. To this, my parents kicked in a $1-a-week allowance, which was doled out in most capricious manner, depending on my mother’s mood and our behavior in the previous week.
Suddenly I became the best-behaved, most competent paper boy the world had ever seen. Our local bookstore sold Queen novels for about $1.25. This meant that on my earnings, I could swing one, maybe two books a week. In this way I would satisfy my desire for pristine, colorful paper, and I would supplement my reading with books from the library until the next infusion of cash. Along the way, since this was my first encounter with series fiction, I would pester librarians and the bookseller for some clue as to the chronology of the series.
There were two species of Queen paperbacks in those days. The covers of the ones put out by Ballantine featured an original painting, typically of Ellery in a scene from the book. I liked that Ellery; he seemed like a soulful fellow. He wasn’t Jim Hutton, but he would do. The books published by Signet/NAL featured stylized photography.
At some point in the following year my bookseller informed me that I had read nearly everything she could order for me. The remaining Queens were out of print, a phrase I could not comprehend. If I had managed to lift my head out of my obsession, I would have read the writing on the wall. The TV show was dead in the water. My classmates had moved on to other diversions. It looked like I alone was still committed to Ellery.
With hindsight I can say that I liked the books for various reasons, some immature, some not. Ellery lived with his dad. I lived with my parents. He solved crimes with his dad. Hadn’t I attempted to solve crimes with my parents on those nights in front of the TV?
I came to cherish the Queen hallmarks. The dying clues. The anagrams. The visits to quaint Wrightsville. The scrupulous, fair-play logic. And most of all, the technique of revealing a provably false solution, followed shortly after by a far more diabolical (and correct) solution.
Beyond that, those books offered a compelling yet safe view of the adult world. Specifically, a safe view of Manhattan, the real-life city just across the river from where my family lived, and which would terrify me for years to come. Ellery’s solving of the murder in each book was an attempt to solve a puzzle, but wasn’t it also an act of profound decency? Without knowing it, I was unconsciously absorbing the code of traditional mysteries. As a nervous little kid, I must have found that message comforting.
It would be many years before I realized how strongly those books shaped my own writing. The narrative prose was conversational, detailed, engaging. Queen the writer was unafraid to break the very rules of grammar my teachers were trying to instill in me at the time. There’s one such broken rule in the opening lines of Cat of Many Tails. Which I loved.
The strangling of Archibald Dudley Abernethy was the first scene in a nine-act tragedy whose locale was the City of New York.
But I soon found it increasingly difficult to complete my set of Queens, which pushed me to ridiculous lengths. In the back of the Signet/NAL paperbacks were order forms for titles that I could order directly from something called the New American Library, located in Bergenfield, New Jersey—only a few miles down the road!
I cobbled my money together, cajoled my father into writing a check, and sent my order off. It bounced back to me in a matter of days. A terse note said that they were unable to fulfill my order.
One afternoon when my parents and brothers weren’t around, I dug out my parents’ phonebook, looked up the number, and rang them up. I described my problem to the woman who answered. Why had they not sent me my books?
“We just don’t have them in stock anymore,” she said.
“Where are you located? Can I come visit your store?”
“We’re not a store. We’re a warehouse.”
This threw me. Their name was confusing enough. First, they were a library claiming to sell books. Now, they weren’t a store at all. I hung up, bewildered.
For a couple of years, I’d walk into bookstores, go directly to the mystery section, search the Q’s, and walk away dejected. I’d prowl flea markets and used book sales in search of those missing Q’s. Years later I would read how the dearth of Queen novels had lasted for decades, and has only recently been corrected by the issuing of e-books of the old titles. But this is how that long malaise felt to me, a fan on the ground. I was trapped in an analog world without the power of the Internet to broaden my search, and I lacked the savvy (and deeper pockets) to enlist the help of a rare book dealer.
One day I was seized by a highly original thought: This was crazy, but I could try reading one of those other books in the mystery section, couldn’t I? By then I was in high school, studying both Latin and Italian. I’d begun noticing a series of books whose covers almost cried out to be translated with my newfound skills in those languages. Let’s see, I thought. Rex means King, and Stout means fat. Nero means black, and . . .
Let’s just see what this kingly, fat, black wolf book was all about.