Francis M. Nevins has distinguished himself in every area of the field of mystery and crime fiction. He’s the author of six novels and forty short stories and has won the Edgar Allan Poe Award twice for his critical work. He is widely considered one of the leading authorities on the life and work of Ellery Queen, and he authored the influential works Royal Bloodline: Ellery Queen, Author and Detective (1974) and Ellery Queen: The Art of Detection (2013). In early 2018 his first published fiction, an Ellery Queen pastiche, will be reprinted in the anthology The Misadventures of Ellery Queen, edited by Josh Pachter and Dale Andrews (from Perfect Crime Books). It is the hope of all of us at EQMM that the collection will generate new interest in the novels of Ellery Queen, most of which are available in new e-editions from Mysterious Press/Open Road.—Janet Hutchings
I discovered mystery fiction when I was twelve or thirteen and was first allowed access to the grown-up section of the public library in Roselle Park, New Jersey. Chance, fate, or what have you guided my footsteps to the mystery shelves where I found and checked out a large volume of Sherlock Holmes stories and The Celebrated Cases Of Charlie Chan, an omnibus consisting of five of the six Chan novels. That was more than sixty years ago, and I still read mysteries today. It’s just as the philosopher Walter Kaufmann said: “The loves of childhood and of adolescence cannot be subtracted from us; they have become part of us. . . . It is as if they had entered our bloodstream.”
Exactly when I discovered Ellery Queen I can’t recall, but it must have been soon after my introduction to detective fiction. I have a vivid memory of sitting in a rocking chair in front of my grandmother’s house during the stifling hot summer of 1957, entranced as I wandered with Ellery through the labyrinths of The Greek Coffin Mystery. How could I have guessed that less than a dozen years later I’d be sitting in the living room of one of Ellery’s creators?
I had had some correspondence with Fred Dannay but we hadn’t met until the day in 1968 when I stepped off a commuter train out of Grand Central Station at Larchmont, about 45 minutes from midtown Manhattan, and was shaking hands for the first time with Fred Dannay and his then wife Hilda and riding in their car to the Dannay home in Byron Lane. In the fall of 1941, when I was studying to be a fetus, Fred had founded Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, which he continued to edit actively until shortly before his death. One of Fred’s abiding concerns was bringing new blood into the genre, and each monthly issue of EQMM contained at least one short story by an author who had never published a mystery before. He must have encouraged almost everyone he met to try writing for him, but in any event after we had come to know each other a bit better he certainly encouraged me. I slaved over a story for two months and finally mailed it to him. Its inspiration was a line from one of my favorite Queen novels, Ten Days’ Wonder (1948), and I was sure he’d like it.
A few weeks later he invited me to Larchmont again. We had dinner at a lovely old seafood restaurant and returned to Byron Lane and sipped brandy in his living room as he ripped that story of mine apart with a surgical precision that I soon came to realize was more than justified by the sheer unadulterated silliness of what I’d written. Then we began to build the story up again. He taught me what I should have done not in so many words but indirectly, by emphasizing the wrong steps I’d taken and leaving it to me to make them right. I spent the next couple of months rethinking and rewriting that story from first word to last. Finally in fear and trembling I sent him the revised version, and in turn he sent me a contract. “Open Letter to Survivors” was published in EQMM for May 1972. During the month that issue was on the nation’s newsstands, every time I entered a store and saw my name on that blue-and-white cover along with the names of all the other contributors it was all I could do to restrain myself from shouting “HEY!! THAT’S ME!!!” to everyone within earshot.
That was more than 45 years ago. Ellery Queen was still a household name back then, and many readers of the time would have spotted most of the countless Queenian motifs with which the tale was studded. Today I’m afraid very few without the specialized interest of this blog’s followers would recognize the origins of the X-Y-Z theme, the dying message clue, the Iagoesque manipulations, the Alice in Wonderland-like will (Lewis Carroll was always a favorite of Fred’s), and so many more. How many 21st-century readers will catch the oblique references to Queen’s masterpiece Cat Of Many Tails (1949), or the attempt to replicate the intellectual excitement of a Queen climax? Without the giveaway in the opening quotation, how many could even name my nameless detective?
We may soon find out: the story is being reprinted in Josh Pachter and Dale Andrews’ forthcoming anthology The Misadventures Of Ellery Queen.
In case you are among the anthology’s readers, I should mention that the biology in the story also owes something to Alice in Wonderland. Today (though not necessarily in 1948) there’s a scientific consensus that both heredity and environment contribute to one’s fingerprints, from which it follows that the prints of monozygotic siblings are similar but not identical. But which of us hasn’t made a mistake? Who can forget the story (not by Queen) that opens with a St. Patrick’s Day parade on which the April sun is shining down?
I can’t believe I’ve lived to see one (or, if you include Fred’s cousin and collaborator Manfred B. Lee, two) of the most important authors of my formative years fall into obscurity. Will the Pachter and Andrews anthology help return to Ellery the prestige he deserves? Will e-books or some other high-tech medium we haven’t yet dreamed of restore the author(s) and character to the central position they enjoyed for years before I was born and for much of my lifetime? Many of us are trying to achieve that goal. I see the forthcoming book as a step in the right direction.