DONALD A. YATES: LIFELONG DEVOTEE OF MYSTERY FICTION

In my first days as editor of Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine I was fortunate to have the hand of friendship extended to me by some of the magazine’s earliest contributors—people whose connection to EQMM went back to founding editor Frederic Dannay. One of those people was Donald A. Yates, whom I met in the early 1990s, when he dropped by our offices to say hello and to peruse our archive of issues and anthologies. I immediately recognized in Don a quality I’d seen in other contributors from Editor Dannay’s time—an extraordinary ardentness when it came to everything related to Ellery Queen and, consequently, to EQMM.

Thirty years of attending conventions of mystery fans has given me ample opportunity to meet avid readers and scholars, and loyal devotees of particular authors. But I have not encountered in recent generations of fans anything quite equal to the passion displayed by those whose interest in mysteries was born in the early to mid years of the last century. As perfectly as anyone I’ve known, Donald Yates illustrated, with his life and career, the fervor of that generation of mystery fans.

The first time we met, Don told me the story of his first encounter with Frederic Dannay, who was, of course, not only the editor of EQMM but half of the two-person writing team behind the pseudonym Ellery Queen. Don was just a teenager then, but he’d become hooked on the novels of Ellery Queen, and on seeing Fred Dannay’s home address printed in classified ads he’d placed in EQMM seeking rare titles for his book collection, Don worked up the nerve to write to him—and got a reply. Think how extraordinary that would be in a modern context: Ellery Queen was already a best-selling novelist with a successful radio show and movie adaptations of his novels. Yet he felt comfortable releasing his home address in a magazine with a circulation of around a quarter million. As Don explained in a 2005 article for EQMM (“Remembering Fred Dannay”), after a further exchange of correspondence with his idol, he took things a step further, turning up unannounced on the doorstep of Fred’s house with a suitcase of books he wanted signed. Fred invited him in and spent several hours with him, showing him, Don said, “the highlights of his collection, chatting about mysteries, and, before I left, signing every one of the books I had brought along.”

It’s easy to see why an era with so few barriers between a celebrity author and his fans would foster a deep devotion in the latter. But I think other, more significant factors were at work in shaping fans such as Don. The mystery genre as we know it today was only just beginning to take shape at the time. The Mystery Writers of America was new on the scene, having been founded in 1945, and EQMM was changing perceptions of what belongs within the field by publishing between its covers a wide variety of different subgenres of crime fiction. Moreover, Fred Dannay always had an eye out for contributions to the genre in other countries, running a series of Worldwide Short Story Contests in the magazine and welcoming translations of detective stories from other languages.

Like Fred Dannay, Donald Yates had a particular interest in the detective subgenre of crime fiction—he and Fred were both fervent Sherlockians—and like Fred Dannay, he sought examples of it in other parts of the globe. What allowed Don to follow this particular road further than Fred had was that Don, by the time he was twenty-six, had become a professor of Spanish and Latin American Literature. He was fluent in Spanish, and soon began looking for Latin American detective and crime fiction worth translating for the American market. Although the first English translation of the great Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges, “The Garden of Forking Paths,” was done by Anthony Boucher, for Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, Don translated a number of other important Borges stories, including “Death and the Compass,” which was first published in the collection Labyrinths and reprinted in EQMM in 2008.

In 2003, when I decided to make translation a monthly feature of EQMM through creation of the Passport to Crime department (which still runs in each issue today), Don was one of the first people I contacted. He’d been translating for EQMM since 1962, and I knew he could steer us to the best crime writers in Latin America. He served as both scout and translator for Passport to Crime from then on. When he passed away in October of 2017, he had on his desk, for review, the translation of a story for us by Rodolfo Jorge Walsh that he had encouraged his friend John Dalbor to translate. Health problems prevented Don from finishing his vetting of that translation, but we hope to be able to present it to readers in 2019. According to Don, “Next to that of Borges, [Walsh’s] name is the most important one in the history of Argentine detective literature.” Don’s involvement in this final Walsh translation brought him full circle, in a way. A Rodolfo Jorge Walsh story was his first published translation, in 1954, for The Saint Detective Magazine.

As a translator, Don’s career spanned sixty-four years, and I could go on for several more paragraphs about the various authors and projects he brought to EQMM—my personal favorite being 2016’s double collaboration “For Strictly Literary Reasons” by Christian X. Ferdinandus, in which a story written in homage to Borges (EQMM’s most famous author in translation) and penned pseudonymously by a team of writers (in the Ellery Queen tradition) was translated by a team of translators (Don and John Dalbor). But I am not going to focus more here on the specific authors Don translated. Interested readers should have a look at Francis M. Nevins’s post for Mystery File, “First You Read, Then You Write,” for more on that topic. My intention here is to show how Don’s love for mystery and detective stories influenced the course of so much else in his life. He was a key figure in bringing Latin American literature to the attention of the American public, but it was through the lens of his interest in detective fiction that he did it, and Don himself was clear about the centrality of mystery fandom to his life.

In 2003, I received a letter from Don in which he forwarded some correspondence he’d had with a Bouchercon committee member he hoped was considering him for fan guest of honor. In that letter to Bouchercon he said: “You may not think of me primarily as a fan, but that’s how I think of myself. And after some fifty-five years of fandom, how can I be wrong?” By the end of his life, Don could have referred to seventy-plus years of fandom, and he was not wrong. The qualities he enumerated in that letter are the hallmarks of the committed fan.

Collecting was one of the characteristics Don thought distinguished the true fan. As must be evident from his first meeting with Ellery Queen, Don was a lifelong collector of mysteries, acquiring his first signed copy in 1944. He collected not only books but complete runs of the principal digest magazines, including seven complete runs of EQMM. He was also an anthologist, a critic, and a reviewer in the genre, with many publications in each capacity. He knew several of the great mystery writers of his time personally, including Jorge Luis Borges, Ellery Queen, Cornell Woolrich, Ross Macdonald, and Margaret Millar. He edited the first collection of Borges’s writings in English. He wrote poems about Sherlock Holmes, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Cornell Woolrich, Ellery Queen, Agatha Christie, Anthony Boucher, and more—a number of which were published in EQMM. He was an active member of the Baker Street Irregulars from 1972 until his death, and he even authored a couple of mystery stories himself, including one that turns around the theme of mystery fandom, “A Study in Scarlatti” (EQMM February 2011). Add to this the way in which his professional career was influenced by his love of mystery fiction—Could he have played the pivotal role he did in bringing Latin American literature to light in the U.S. without that passion for mysteries?—and you have a fan of a sort we will probably not see again. Our contemporary world seems too diffuse—we have too many conflicting claims on our attention—to produce a fan of that order.

In life, Don received recognition for many of his accomplishments, but he was never honored as a fan. I hope one of our field’s conventions will honor him posthumously in that capacity. He deserves to be remembered for his lifetime of fidelity to the genre that was his first real love in literature.

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This entry was posted in Ellery Queen, History, International, Magazine, Memorial, Passport, Translation, Writers and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to DONALD A. YATES: LIFELONG DEVOTEE OF MYSTERY FICTION

  1. Josh Pachter says:

    So nice to see you paying tribute to one of our field’s true luminaries, Janet. Don personified the time-worn expression “a gentleman and a scholar.”

  2. pauldmarks says:

    Fascinating story of Donald Yates, Janet. I was unfamiliar with him, but I’m amazed at his story. Especially just showing up at Dannay’s doorstep and being invited in. Today they’d call in SWAT. Also interesting is the fact that he translated Borges, one of my favorite authors.

  3. Thanks Paul and Josh. Yes, it was certainly a different world, then. If you’re a fan of Borges, check out the Francis M. Nevins piece I referenced—Don apparently knew Borges well enough to spend an evening with him when he was in the U.S.

  4. Nice to see a translator get such a thoughtful write-up. Anyone who speaks a second language knows that there is far more to meaning than translating words. It is a unique art form that Donald Yates practiced.

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