“The Return of Poggioli: T.S. Stribling’s Sleuth Given a New Home in EQMM” (by Arthur Vidro)

Arthur Vidro is a freelance fiction editor who publishes a thrice-yearly print journal called (Give Me That) Old-Time Detection (please direct any inquiries to oldtimedetection@netzero.net). He is also the author of two stories for EQMM. The first of them, “The Ransom of EQMM #1,” was posted on our Web site in 2011 and can still be read there; his second fictional outing for EQMM, “The Mistake on the Cover of EQMM #1,” was posted on this site last week as the basis for our 75th-anniversary contest. That story’s solution, and its winners, will be posted here on October 11.
Arthur Vidro is a leading expert on all things related to EQMM, and in this post he expands on an article he wrote about Fred Dannay and EQMM for Old-Time Detection. He wanted it to be clarified that he “acknowledges that Manfred B. Lee was an equal half of the Ellery Queen authorial partnership; but it was Fred Dannay who focused on finding authors and material for Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, and who served as its main editor, so Manny is regrettably absent from the article below.”—Janet Hutchings

Other articles have been written about how EQMM gave soon-to-be-famous authors their first break. Authors Jack Finney, Harry Kemelman, James Yaffe, and others made their first fiction sales to EQMM. Perhaps the most stirring case is that of the great Stanley Ellin. Ellin had given himself a one-year sabbatical to devote to fiction writing, living off his wife’s small income and a small stipend of his own from Uncle Sam—Ellin had returned home in early 1946 after having served in World War II, and unemployed veterans were allotted $20 a week for up to a year. That year was nearly up, and Ellin had received nothing but rejection slips, when (on November 21, 1946) he sent to EQMM the story that would become known as “The Specialty of the House.” After Ellin reshaped the story to meet Fred Dannay’s requests, EQMM published it and a writer’s career was launched.

Lesser known, however, are those authors whose careers EQMM did not launch, but did reinvigorate. EQMM kept Cornell Woolrich’s name before the public during a time when his productivity had dropped, and the magazine’s existence may have been the reason that in his final decade of life Woolrich continued to write some short stories even though he had stopped producing novels.

Then there are writers who were already being forgotten, or in danger of same, when EQMM reprinted their works. Short story specialist Vincent Cornier was rescued from near-oblivion by Dannay and EQMM and went on to write new stories for the magazine. The Department of Dead End stories by Roy Vickers may have already been forgotten when Dannay and EQMM stepped forward again, reprinting some of the tales, which spurred the publication of a full book of the tales.

Then there is the case of T.S. Stribling (1881-1965). None of his novels were mysteries, but one of them (The Store) won the Pulitzer Prize for best work of fiction published in 1932.

The mystery world remembers Stribling for his short stories starring Henry Poggioli, a psychology professor. Five of the tales were collected in Clues of the Caribbees (Doubleday, 1929), and nine additional Poggioli tales appeared in magazines from 1929 through 1935. (Those nine tales were collected in 2004 by Crippen & Landru under the title Doctor Poggioli: Criminologist.)

Clues of the Caribbees today is on the Haycraft-Queen Cornerstones list and the Queen’s Quorum list; both lists indicate its excellence. But despite the critical acclaim, there is nothing to indicate Stribling meant to write additional Poggioli stories after 1935.

By the time EQMM was launched (1941), Stribling was becoming forgotten in his own time. His final published novel came out in 1938, and though he continued to write fiction, his new fiction was no longer published. With one exception. Twenty-three additional Poggioli stories were published from 1945 through 1957 in various mystery magazines, fifteen of them in EQMM.

Without EQMM and Fred Dannay, those twenty-three additional stories almost certainly would not have been written.

The debut issue of EQMM comprised seven stories, all of them reprints. One of the seven (“The Cablegram”) was a Poggioli tale. Dannay would tell the EQMM readership, in the July 1945 issue, that their editor was “America’s Number One Poggioli fan.”

Dannay encouraged Stribling to write new stories featuring the quirky detective. Stribling obliged with a tale he called “The Sock.” But then Dannay found himself in the uncomfortable position of rejecting the very story for which he had lobbied.

Dannay’s rejection letter seems lost for the record, but apparently a contrite Dannay apologized in it for having failed Stribling in encouraging him so ardently for a story and then rejecting it. Soon after receiving the rejection, Stibling wrote the following, on April 24, 1944:

Dear Dannay,

The idea that you have “failed me” is perfectly absurd. Certainly you have not. If I didn’t write what you wanted, I don’t at all blame you for not taking it.

Also because you write me for the story I don’t feel you have to take it. You wanted a certain kind of story and thought I could do it. I wouldn’t consider it ethical to insist on your taking it when you found I could not do it.

My own opinion of the story is that it’s fair. I always found it personally amusing to let Poggioli get balled up on his solutions. . . .

Anyway, I assure you in a long life I have had so many stories returned that another one does not upset my equanimity in any degree.

However, I think it was very kindly of you to be so very courteous in your rejection. And assuring you of my appreciation of your rating of my former stories, I am,

With best wishes,
T.S. Stribling

What triggered the ongoing correspondence and the creation of the twenty-three Poggioli tales the world would eventually see was this postscript that Stribling added:

Dear Dannay,

I had sealed up my letter ready to send to you but I fooled around a bit before taking it to the post office to mail and I reflected on what you had written me and why you didn’t like my story.

Now your written objections seemed to hinge a good deal on a matter of form and technique . . . Poggioli didn’t come through.

All right, assuming that is correct which it certainly is. I am very dubious of judging stories on a matter of form. The only question it seems to me to be fairly asked of a story is, is it interesting and will it keep a reader reading from start to finish. An incidental question is, is it amusing, if it is, so much the better, but amusement is a by-product.

You see, after all, “form” is simply an arrangement which readers have found interesting, but one could hardly assume or believe that it was the only arrangement of interest. In fact too great a persistence of “form” in a magazine could easily have an iterant effect which would defeat its purpose.

I know I have had a long experience in off-form stories. Arthur Hoffman, you probably never heard of him, once editor of Adventure, never did publish a story of mine but what he labelled it an “Off-the-Trail” story just to give the conventional reader warning to by-pass it if he thought best.

My personal bent is so set against repetitiousness of anything that I would urge you to keep this idea in mind as you make up your magazine.

Now I am not particularly arguing that you take my story. I really don’t care whether you do or don’t. Moreover I don’t believe the story I sent you was particularly clever but it seemed interesting to me and I wondered if it did to you. If it really did, then for heaven’s sake (which means your own sake) don’t turn it down simply on a matter of form. There is only one criterion for a short story or long for that matter, is it interesting clear through. If so it’s a good story, if not, it’s a poor story, no matter how it’s arranged.

Now I hope you will pardon MY frankness and sermonizing.

More good wishes,

Rather than give up on the story, Fred Dannay chose to write back to Stribling. The following is excerpted from a Dannay letter dated April 29, 1944:

Dear Mr. Stribling,

One of the greatest compliments one man can give another is to say to him: “You’re a regular guy!” And this I say to you in all sincerity. I was enormously pleased to hear from you in the understanding way you wrote. I haven’t been an Editor for so long a time that I’ve become hardened to shock; by that I mean that as an Editor I’ve received some amazing letters from other writers, incredibly on the un-understanding side. But thank God you and I speak the same language.

I was also very glad that you decided in your postscript to discuss the story. That’s exactly what I wanted to do—but not knowing you as well as I feel I do now, I was hesitant to open up. I just threw in one general criticism in the hope that you would take up the cudgels on it. You see, I have some definite ideas to suggest, and it’s more than possible that you will like my suggestions.

Let’s dig into the story. . . . First, let me say that I have no objection per se to a detective failing. In fact, I like the idea: it’s refreshing, and the bigger the detective, the more refreshing his failure to solve a case. But I don’t think that mere failure for failure’s sake is enough. The failure should be an integral plot-idea of the story; there should be a reason for the failure, an interesting reason—more, a clever reason.

Next, I do not (and never have) put too much stock in form and technique. Yes, they are essential elements, as we both agree; but they should always remain flexible, susceptible to change, variation, and manipulation. . . .

Dannay continued with more than two additional pages of single-spaced typed comments and suggestions and idea explorations on “The Sock,” then wrapped up the letter with:

      Well, I’ve rattled off at a great pace—that’s the kind of editor I am. But I’ve tried to be creatively constructive—which is my job, as an editor.

Please let me know what you think. Write me, as before, directly to my home address (below). I do all my work at home—the New York magazine address is merely that of the business office.

One last point: Don’t ever again ask my pardon for YOUR frankness. When you want to throw brickbats at me or at my work or at my opinions (as in this letter), throw with all your might. I can take it.

My very best regards to you, and looking forward to hearing from you as soon as you can write.

On May 2, 1944, Stribling wrote back:

Dear Dannay,

You are an incorrigible editor and you probably will become a great one. I had laid aside that Poggioli story with great comfort and had returned to my unending reading of history, when here comes your letter and not only stops my reading but actually gives me a lift toward redoing the story, not for the sake of getting it published and paid for but just for the sake of the thing.

So I imagine I’ll take a shot at your idea. It’s “intriguing” to use a very damnable word indeed.

Stribling’s lengthy letter concluded with:

      As I say I’ll look at the Pog story again in the light of your comments and see what can be done.

Good luck,

Then on May 18th, Stribling sent the following letter:

My dear Dannay,

I must say your suggestions seemed to have worked like a charm. I hope you like the story as well as I do. I am delighted with it.

If anything in the body of the story seems to give the denoument away, please soften or eliminate same.

I have the glimmer of another tale in my head, this time about Miami. However I would like to tell you how I came to write “The Sock,” it might be of some possible service to you.

In Mexico I met an American woman whose home had been entered by SEVERAL BURGLARS OR ROBBERS OR SOMETHING. And one of the men caught this woman, held her in his arms a moment looking at her, while she pleaded in bad Spanish that he would not harm her. Then he turned her loose and the whole band went out and away without harming or taking anything at all.

I have wondered and wondered why this housebreaking by a whole gang, to no purpose except to look at a woman, briefly, and go away. It still has got me guessing. My story is an evasive simplification of the original.

Best Luck,

The “glimmer of another tale” would develop into “The Mystery of the Chief of Police.” The following excerpts from Dannay’s reply, dated May 24, 1944, show how much labor the editor put into the stories that appeared in the Queen magazine, from rewriting (and retyping) large sections of story to changing story titles.

Dear Mr. Stribling,

The new version of “The Sock” is very fine. Yes, the new approach seems to have, as you wrote, worked like a charm.

I made some corrections—punctuation, and so on, consistent with our own style, and some cuts here and there to shorten the story. All are minor matters that you can leave confidently in my hands—all but one, and that is why I am writing to you.

I think the story needs one important change—in the clock-and-time business. Rather than try to explain the change I suggest, I have retyped the last five or six pages of the story, incorporating the change. I am sure that after you’ve read the enclosed pages you’ll agree that the change both clarifies and strengthens the whole story.

If the last pages, as enclosed, are satisfactory, please let me know at your earliest convenience, and as soon as I hear from you, I’ll put through a purchase order so that you can receive your check without delay. Naturally, if you wish to correct any of my new phrasing, by all means do so; in this event, simply return the enclosed pages, with your corrections noted.

How do you like the title “The Sock and the Clock”? I’m attracted to it. The rhyme and swing, it seems to me, are both piquant and provocative. Besides, I find that for some strange reason longer titles are better for a magazine than very short ones. May I use “The Sock and the Clock”?

I almost forgot: I have also added a short paragraph at the very end of the story. You know, we can’t be too careful with a certain type of reader: you can’t be too subtle. This added paragraph points up the climactic idea for those magazine readers who need an explicit “tag.”

Of course, change or correct as you please, but I do think that this sort of “topper” is needed.

Stribling pretty much left Dannay’s rewrites alone. Much or possibly all of the final paragraph of “The Mystery of the Sock and the Clock” was written by Fred Dannay, not T.S. Stribling.

Stribling’s reply was dated “Saturday, end of May ‘44”:

Dear Dannay,

I thought you would like the story. Your corrections are O.K. with me. I have changed a word or two because I try never to say a character did a thing “shrewdly” or “cunningly” or any of those adverbs. If the reader doesn’t feel that much, he and I just let it go. I also changed “Perk up.” And I suggest another final sentence which you can use if you want to or use the end you now have. Either all right with me.

I am now at work on “The Case of the Chief of Police,” which is a whimsy generated by the present storm in Miami.

Your new title is better than “The Sock,” “The Sock and the Clock” makes a very catchy phrase.

Best luck,

Dannay not infrequently would jot on his incoming letters reminders or ideas. On the last-quoted letter from Stribling, Dannay scribbled the following six words: unusual, exceptional, singular, extraordinary, outre, unconventional. It is as if he were trying to come up with le mot juste to describe Stribling’s story to the EQMM readers.

The next tale Stribling submitted to EQMM was “The Mystery of the Chief of Police,” a top-rate Poggioli story far superior to “The Sock and the Clock.” Dannay liked it so much that he wanted to publish it ahead of “The Sock and the Clock.” Eventually he did so, while letting the readership mistakenly believe “Chief of Police” had arrived first and “Sock and Clock” had arrived second.

Some of the correspondence between Dannay and Stribling concerned the advantage of publishing either story before the other, and what to tell the readership.

At one point Stribling wrote:

Of course I don’t care which you say was written first. God will probably mark you down as a liar and send you to hell, but I will remain calm and indifferent about the matter.

Note: Frederic Dannay Letters Copyright (c) 2016 by the Frederic Dannay and Manfred B. Lee Literary Property Trusts.
T.S. Stribling Letters Copyright (c) 2016 by the estate of T.S. Stribling

This entry was posted in Characters, Editing, Ellery Queen, Fiction, Genre, Guest, History, Magazine, Story, Writers, Writing and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to “The Return of Poggioli: T.S. Stribling’s Sleuth Given a New Home in EQMM” (by Arthur Vidro)

  1. Art Taylor says:

    Absolutely fascinating.

  2. Arthur edited the Crippen & Landru anthology, DR. POGGIOLI: CRIMINOLOGIST. When Dannay began EQMM, he must have contacted authors who seemed to have stopped writing detective short stories — and he eventually got stories from M. P. Shiel, Frederick Irving Anderson, C. Daly King, and others.

  3. Josh Pachter says:

    Very revealing insight into the way Fred Dannay worked remarkably closely with authors. My experience with him was in most ways very similar to this (although I don’t pretend that the end results came anywhere *near* the level of the Poggioli stories).

  4. jeffbaker307 says:

    Thanks for this! I’m a big Stribling/Poggioli fan I have the anthology that came out in the 70’s, (I think.) “Best Dr. Poggioli Stories”. Dannay and Lee picked one of Stribling’s stories to include in the 1940’s anthology “Challenge to the Reader.”

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