“The Story Is the Thing” (by Rand B. Lee)

Rand B. Lee is a freelance writer living in Santa Fe, New Mexico. His short stories can be found in many science-fiction anthologies, in periodicals such as The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, and in the 2013 collection The Green Man and Other Short Stories (Curiosity Quills Press). He is the youngest surviving child of Manfred B. Lee, coauthor of the Ellery Queen detective novels and short stories. Occasionally, Rand’s stories too venture into the realm of detective fiction. And he has helped us celebrate EQMM’s 75th anniversary by contributing an article about his father to our August 2016 issue (on sale July 19).—Janet Hutchings

Every couple of months or so I receive in the mail a box from JABberwocky, the New York literary agency that represents so ably before the world the Ellery Queen literary properties. While the contents of the boxes JABberwocky sends me vary, they usually include recently printed foreign-language editions of Ellery Queen works. Many of these editions are in Japanese; others are in Chinese, Danish, Italian, French, Spanish, or Polish (to name just a few); recently, I received a batch of Queen novels in Korean.

Being linguistically challenged—my repertoire of foreign-language phrases pretty much boils down to “My fat dog” in Spanish, “That’s all” in Danish, and “A dog who knows his duty” in German—my spine tingles when I leaf through these books. They feel magical to me, and what a compliment (I think) that people in other countries want to read my father and cousin’s stories! And since, in my other life, I am a science-fiction writer, I naturally wonder what Calamity Town would sound like in an entirely alien extraterrestrial language, like Vulcan, or Klingon, or Mánafu/túrru.

Mánafu/túrru is the language of the Damánakíppith/fü, a nongendered alien race that appears in some of my stories. I’ve spent endless hours putting together a glossary of this language (writers are always coming up with tangential projects in an effort to avoid the horror of actually sitting down and working!).

In Mánafu/túrru, Ellery Queen is “Élri Kwínik”, literally, “Ellery of the Queen.” Inspector Queen becomes Kréghporrlyeyéstu Kwínik, literally, the “Wary One of the Queen.”

Calamity Town becomes Máha Te’Shíssakik, literally, The Pseudowomb of Troubles. The Finishing Stroke becomes Te’Bvísten Márrushénik, literally, The Strike of the Act of Finishing.

And Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine becomes Te’Vévrelljójodstan Kupréssahá’ik Kwínik—The Written Record of the Hidden Things of the Queen.

This nonsense may be more germane to EQ than you might at first suppose, for my father was a rabid science-fiction fan from way back. In fact, he was one of the circle that dreamed up the idea for the periodical now known as The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. Anthony Boucher, F&SF‘s first editor-in-chief, was a family friend of ours, and godfather of my oldest brother, Tony, who was named after him. I don’t know how much of an SF (I refuse to use the neologism “sci fi”) fan Fred Dannay was, but I know my father felt about science fiction as he and Cousin Fred felt about mysteries: that genre fiction deserves to be taken as seriously as mainstream fiction is.

In a 1968 address thanking a distinguished writers’ conference for awarding Queen a prize, my father wrote:

What makes your award so memorable to us is that this sort of recognition . . . transcends the personal and becomes a sort of symbolic victory in the battle we have been waging for forty years, to pull the detective story out of its second-class citizenship. I wish I could say that we’ve won the war. We haven’t. Detective stories are still reviewed in gross lots, as if they were so many potatoes. A great many are never reviewed at all. With the exception of a few old war horses . . . the books of most of us get little or no advertising or promotion. Yet the shoddiest of so-called ‘straight’ novels, the most pretentious put-ons, the wettest-lipped wallowings in sex, the dreariest non-fiction, get columns of learned attention and full pages of puff-advertising.

We have never asked for blanket endorsement. There are many very bad detective stories. But we submit that there are also . . . many very bad “serious” books which are regularly asked into the parlor and treated, if not always as welcome guests, at least as ladies and gentlemen. We don’t see why we must always use the tradesmen’s entrance.

My father may have been sensitive to mysteries’ second-class citizenship in part because, as a first-generation child of Russian Jewish immigrants, he had firsthand experience of marginalization. In the 1920s, when Dad applied to New York University as Emanuel Benjamin Lepofsky, he discovered that Jewish students were among the ethnic groups barred from attending the main NYU campus. Later, when he was about to graduate from the Greenwich Village campus of NYU with a summa cum laude degree in English, Dad told a faculty friend of his dream of becoming a college English professor at his alma mater. The “friend” replied, “Oh, Manny, no Jew will ever get tenure in the NYU system—you are all so much smarter than we Gentiles, it wouldn’t be fair to the rest of us.” This prompted my father to abandon his professorship dreams, and change his name from Emanuel Lepofsky to Manfred Lee. (Eventually, Dad’s father and sisters adopted “Lee” as their surnames; and Dad’s cousin and future writing partner changed his name from Daniel Nathan to Frederic Dannay.)

The cousins never gave up their commitment to seeing the mystery genre taken seriously. In the aforementioned talk, my father said: “. . . There are astonishing numbers of detective, mystery, suspense, spy—and the other kinds of stories lumped loosely in our field—that are of high quality: in the imaginative scope of their plots, in their writing, even in what some of us try to convey above and beyond story-telling. But the story is the thing [italics mine], and we are naive enough to believe that the story-teller will always find an honored place at the fireside.”

And thanks in great part to the editors, staff, and readers of Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine both here and abroad, well-written mysteries are increasingly granted just such pride of place.

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4 Responses to “The Story Is the Thing” (by Rand B. Lee)

  1. Josh Pachter says:

    I hadn’t known that Mr. Lee had a son who was also a writer! Thanks, Janet, for sharing his fascinating thoughts with us here….

  2. I also have some correspondence where they worried about representations of minorities in their work. Interesting article. Thanks

  3. Jon L. Breen says:

    This was very enjoyable reading and important to an understanding of the Queen team. As for the SF connection, EQMM did publish a fair number of science fictional detective stories over the years, and one of the editorials in MYSTERY LEAGUE urged H.G. Wells to write a detective story set in the future. (The term science fiction was never used, but maybe it hadn’t yet taken hold.) Given Manfred Lee’s SF interest, I wonder if the editorial voice in that case was his. As far as is know, the two cousins shared all duties on that short-lived magazine.

  4. pauldmarks says:

    Fascinating background on Dannay and Lee. And, like Josh Pachter, I didn’t know that Mr. Lee had a writer son. Great stuff all the way around!

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