“A Tribute to James Yaffe” (by Jeffrey Marks)

James Yaffe is a name to conjure with at EQMM even to this day, decades after his last story for us was published. I regret never having had the opportunity to meet the man who was, and remains, EQMM’s youngest debut author—a writer who went on to do the magazine credit through his long and stellar career as a novel and short-story writer, a playwright and screenwriter, and a general man of letters. James Yaffe passed away earlier this summer and we invited Jeffrey Marks, award-winning biographer and previous contributor to this site, to provide us with a post in his memory.—Janet Hutchings

James Yaffe passed away on June 4, 2017. He is survived by his wife, Elaine, three children, and three grandchildren. He was 90 years old.

Within the mystery community, Yaffe is best known for being the youngest author ever to publish a short story in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine. Yaffe was only 15 when his story “Department of Impossible Crimes” was purchased by the magazine, and it appeared in the July 1943 edition. The story featured Paul Dawn and the titular Department of Impossible Crimes. That series would run for six stories in the magazine. Later in life, Yaffe would say that the end of the series marked the height of his ingeniousness as a plotter, stating that “. . . it’s been downhill ever since.”

However, he didn’t rest of those laurels. Following a stint in the Navy, Yaffe graduated from Yale, summa cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa. For 26 years, he was a professor of English at Colorado College in Colorado Springs.

After his early writings for EQMM, Yaffe went on to write a short-story collection, Poor Cousin Evelyn, published in 1951. He also wrote original works for the small screen, including some for Alfred Hitchcock Presents.

Beyond his love of mystery and scholarship, Yaffe was involved in theater. His adaptation of Friedrich Durrenmatt’s short work The Deadly Game ran on Broadway in 1960, off-Broadway six years later, and was reimagined for television in 1982. One of his own works, Cliffhanger, appeared off-Broadway for a short time in 1985.

Through all of this, Yaffe continued to write mysteries, creating a series of books and short stories about “Mom,” a Jewish mother who solved her son’s cases based on her experience and knowledge of human nature, similar in manner to Miss Marple and her English village parallels. Yaffe used humor in the stereotype of the Jewish mother to make the series endearing in the early works, deepening the character as the series progressed. Dave, a New York policeman, and his wife Shirley visit Dave’s Mom every Friday night and the conversation always seems to come around to the cases that Dave is currently trying to solve. Mom posits a few questions, and when Dave provides the answers, she solves the case. The original short stories were published in EQMM from 1952 until 1968. Yaffe revived the series in 1988, writing four novels based on Mom, moving Dave to Colorado after the death of his wife.

The Mom stories can also be seen as works based on his Jewish faith. Yaffe was known for his writings on Judaism, and incorporated his own insights into the Jewish experience of the middle years of the 20th century in his fiction. In 1966, Yaffe published The American Jews, his perspective on his community. In one interview, he said, “From my own experience, of course—mostly from my experience of the world I was born and brought up in, the world of middle-class, second-and third-generation Jews living in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, I have chosen to write about this world because I know it instinctively and subliminally, because it was part of me before I was old enough to doubt my perceptions.”

I had the good fortune to work twice with James Yaffe during the last few months of his life. I’m currently working on a biography of Frederic Dannay and Manfred B. Lee, and I’ve been reaching out to the remaining people who knew the two men in life. Through his wife, Elaine, he answered a number of questions about EQMM, working with Fred Dannay, and his experiences and anecdotes about those times. He shared how he had first approached Dannay with his first mystery short story, telling the editor that he’d written the piece “in class,” so that he could convey that he was younger than the normal contributor to the magazine. Dannay published the story and had a photographer from the World-Telegram come out and take the now-iconic photo of man and boy discussing the magazine.

Frederic Dannay and James Yaffe, 1943. Photo by Al Aumuller, New York World-Telegram and Sun. Image file courtesy of Gideon Yaffe.

Crippen & Landru also published a complete volume of Yaffe’s Mom stories a few months before the author’s death. (For those of you who don’t know, I’ll be taking over day-to-day operations for Doug Greene at the end of this year. He will remain the senior editor with Crippen & Landru.)

In 1997, Crippen & Landru had produced My Mother, the Detective, a volume of all the Mom stories to that point in time. In 2002, Crippen & Landru commissioned a new Mom story, “Mom Lights a Candle,” which appeared as a limited-edition pamphlet for series subscribers for the holiday season. These short booklets are extremely rare today, and in 2017, the commissioned story was added to an updated version of the book. The revised collection was a well-deserved coda to James Yaffe’s long and well-received career.

Jeffrey Marks is an award-winning crime-fiction biographer. His first book-length work, Who Was That Lady?, appeared in 2001, chronicling the life of mystery writer Craig Rice. It was followed by Atomic Renaissance: Women Mystery Writers of the 1940s and 1950s. More recent works include the Anthony Award winning Anthony Boucher, his 2013 biography of Erle Stanley Gardner, and his work-in-progress, a biography of Ellery Queen.

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3 Responses to “A Tribute to James Yaffe” (by Jeffrey Marks)

  1. Jon L. Breen says:

    Thanks for this remembrance, Jeff. I might add that Jim Yaffe contributed a terrific essay on Jewish detective fiction to SYNOD OF SLEUTHS: ESSAYS ON JUDEO-CHRISTIAN DETECTIVE FICTION (Scarecrow Press, 1990), with I edited with the late Martin H. Greenberg.

  2. Josh Pachter says:

    Many thanks for this close-up look, Jeff. As the second youngest author ever to appear in EQMM, I have lived most of my life in James Yaffe’s shadow, and one of my few regrets is that I never had the opportunity to meet him face to face and tell him how much I enjoyed his contributions to EQMM and his later novels. If I have to live in a shadow, I’d prefer it to be a long one, and James Yaffe certainly cast a long and impressive shadow.

  3. jeffbaker307 says:

    I stumbled across the “Mom” stories back I the ’90’s and enjoyed every one of them!

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