Francis M. Nevins is one of the leading scholars of mystery fiction, having written the highly acclaimed Royal Bloodline: Ellery Queen, Author and Detective and Cornell Woolrich: First You Dream, Then You Die. He is also the author of six mystery novels and several dozen mystery short stories, and had the privilege of knowing Frederic Dannay (half of the Ellery Queen writing team) personally. Recently Mr. Nevins (whom we know as Mike!) was contacted by his Japanese publisher regarding a piece of correspondence between Fred Dannay and famous Japanese mystery writer Shizuko Natsuke. He explains the background to it in this post.—Janet Hutchings
Today, almost a century after he was created as both character and byline by the first cousins Frederic Dannay and Manfred B. Lee, Ellery Queen remains a household name in one country above all others: Japan. He was so popular there that in 1977, a few years after Manny Lee’s death, Fred Dannay and his wife Rose were invited by Queen’s Japanese publisher to come to Tokyo for what amounted to a spectacular media event. Rose lovingly described that trip in the fifth chapter of her memoir My Life with Ellery Queen: A Love Story (2015), from which we learn that the most important mystery writer she and Fred met while overseas was Shizuko Natsuke (1938-2016), who was often called the Agatha Christie of Japan.
Recently my own translator, Masatoshi Saito, informed me that a letter Fred wrote Natsuki on his return home had been released by her estate and published in a Japanese newspaper, and kindly emailed me a copy of the original letter. Here it is.
Oct. 12, 1977
Dear Mrs. Natsuki:
Rose has already written to you, and by this time
you will have received her letter, and she will write to
you again in answer to your handwritten letter. But in
the meantime I hasten to make clear one of the state-
ments you attribute to me. I did not mean that “sur-
prising start” is more important than “surprising end-
What I meant was, particularly for the American
reader, that a surprising start is more desirable to catch
and hold the reader’s interest. A surprising ending is
always good—when the ending is not only a surprise
but also wholly believable. The ideal opening and clos-
ing would be both a surprising start and a surprising
The concept of a detective story set against the
background of the problems of Japanese education
sounds like an important theme. It probably will be
difficult, as you say, but I am sure you can do it.
Rose and I talk of you and Kozo [Queen’s Japan-
ese publisher] often, between ourselves and to our
friends, and always with the most affectionate mem-
ories. Our trip to Japan was truly a poem for both of
us, a marvelous experience that we will never forget—
but I will let Rose tell you of our feelings. This letter
is only for the purpose of correcting one of the
detective-story impressions I gave you. And if my
correction is still confusing, please write and I will
try to explain further.
Whether Natsuki ever wrote that mystery with a Japanese educational background remains unknown. But we know from Rose’s memoir that in a speech he gave at one of the many banquets honoring him Fred referred to his visit as a poem. And on his return he actually wrote a haiku in memory of his visit.
Dropped from the sky to Japan
And their love blossomed.
In Japan “Thank you” is “Arigato gozai-masu” (with a silent u) or “Domo arigato.” Fred and Rose probably learned the phrases but they also said thank you in many other ways. Including these. And another “Domo arigato” goes to Masatoshi Saito, who made it possible for me to share Fred’s words with EQ’s many readers.