Dec 6 2010 4:07pm

Introductions All Around: Ellery Queen and Me

Ellery QueenThe lovely people at have agreed to let me play in their sandbox, but I thought before I start building castles, it would be polite to introduce myself, and, in progression, Ellery Queen.

I’m Sarah Monette. I’ve been on LiveJournal for *mumblecough* years as truepenny. I write fantasy, horror, and (rarely) science fiction. My first four novels (Melusine, The Virtu, The Mirador, Corambis) were published by Ace Books, and a collection of horror short stories, The Bone Key, was published by Prime in 2007. I’ll have a second collection of mixed-genre short stories, Somewhere Beneath Those Waves, out from Prime in 2011. For Tor, I’ve co-written one book, A Companion to Wolves, with Elizabeth Bear. (The sequel, The Tempering of Men, will be out in 2011.) I’ll have another novel out from Tor in 2012, The Goblin Emperor, under the pseudonym Katherine Addison.

I also have a Ph.D. in English literature. My specialty is Renaissance drama, specifically Jacobean revenge tragedy (and if you’re interested in my dissertation, I put it online here). I did a generalist Master’s degree (everything from Beowulf to Toni Morrison) and I’ve taught for courses in nineteenth century British literature and twentieth century American literature, amongst a rather bewildering host of other things.

Which is all to say that both my professional hats are about analyzing the snot out of stories.

That’s the techincal term.

If you want to see what my non-academic critical analyses look like, I’ve done several series on my blog: Dorothy L. Sayers’ Peter Wimsey books, C. S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia, the television show Due South (ongoing). For, along with reviewing new releases, I suggested that I start by writing a series of posts on Ellery Queen. The lovely people at were amenable.

Which means that, having introduced you to myself, I need to introduce you to Ellery Queen.

*    *    *

Ellery QueenAs Dorothy Parker said in Esquire in 1959, Ellery Queen is:

“an author somewhat difficult to explain. Ellery Queen is two men. Or perhaps it is better to say that two men are Ellery Queen—no, that doesn’t look right, either. Well, anyway, it seems there are two gentlemen named, respectively, Frederic Dannay and Manfred Lee, who banded together to write as one, signing their products as Ellery Queen. Then, possibly to make shorter the way on which lies madness, they named their crack brain-child, the hero of their many tales, Ellery Queen, too. So there, if you can clear your head, you are” (Quoted on the back cover of The Ellery Queen Omnibus (New York: Library of Crime Classics-International Polygonics, 1988).

The situation is actually even more complicated than that.* Frederic Dannay and Manfred Bennington Lee’s birth names were Daniel (David on the birth certificate) Nathan and Manford (Emanuel on the birth certificate) Lepofsky, so their joint pseudonym is nested inside other pseudonyms and onomastic confusion. The fiction is also maintained, at least in the first Ellery Queen books, that “Ellery Queen” is the character’s pseudonym, and the final twist in the Queenian knot is that Ellery Queen the character is a writer of detective novels. The nature of his detective novels changes over the course of the series. In the beginning, he’s supposed to be writing the stories in which he appears from the villa in Italy to which he has retired; in later novels, when the more precieux corners have been knocked off, he’s a working writer, and most of his output seems to be unrelated to his career as a detective. Eventually, as the EQ empire grew, Dannay and Lee would start hiring other writers to produce Ellery’s novels. Among those writers were Jack Vance, Avram Davidson, and Theodore Sturgeon.

So the state of play with regards to the signifier “Ellery Queen” looks like this:
Ellery Queen diagramEllery Queen, in other words, is a matryoshka doll of nested identities: Ellery Queen the pseudonym writes about Ellery Queen the character/author who writes about Ellery Queen the character/detective.

EQ => EQ => EQ


*    *    *

Peter Dickinson has a wonderful essay in Murder Ink (New York: Workman Publishing, 1977), “The Lure of the Reichenbach,” in which he talks about the difference between deliberate and accidental mystery heroes. The accidental hero, he says, “come[s] into existence because the author wants to write a particular book. The book itself demands a detective, and he grows into being, quite slowly, finding his shape and nature from the needs of the book and the author’s own needs. He may turn out a very odd creature, but all his oddnesses are expressions of what he is like inside” (67). On the other hand, deliberate heroes are those which are created because the author has decided to write a series of books and has decided that therefore they must have a trademark: “Thus, traits of difference are accumulated, selected not from the way they grow out of the character but solely because nobody else has yet thought of them. In much the same way, minor German monarchs of the eighteenth century invented uniforms for their household troops” (65). Dickinson points to Nero Wolfe and Hercule Poirot as deliberately created detectives (and of course the shadow of Sherlock Holmes looms over the whole piece), and he suggests Margery Allingham’s Campion as a transitional type, a detective who starts out deliberate and becomes, as it were, accidental, who grows from an assemblage of quirks into a character who feels like a real person. He could also have pointed to Lord Peter Wimsey. Or Ellery Queen.

My intention is to write a series of posts about Ellery Queen’s transformation from a deliberately assembled (or jumbled, as Dickinson says) detective to a three-dimensional character, and about the ways in which Ellery’s metamorphosis is reflected in the novels surrounding him. Or, to put it another way, the process by which Ellery Queen (Dannay and Lee) went from writing typical Golden Age detective fiction to writing quirky, self-interrogatory mystery novels. (And, yes, the slight failure of synonymity of the phrases “detective fiction” and “mystery novels” is deliberate.) I’ll start, in the next post, by talking about the first three Ellery Queen novels—The Roman Hat Mystery (1929), The French Powder Mystery (1930), and The Dutch Shoe Mystery (1931)—about how they construct a detective and how they construct a detective story. And in the subsequent posts, I’ll explore how both of those things evolve.

I hope you’ll come with me.

*All biographical information is taken from Ellery Queen, a website on deduction.

Sarah Monette wanted to be a writer when she grew up, and now she is.

Danelle Mallen
1. astrophilia
I literally clapped when I read your specialty is revenge tragedy. People usually look at me with blank stares that grow steadily horrified whenever I try to explain it, so meeting another enthusiast is unexpected and wonderful! Welcome! I look forward to your posts!
Ken Walton
2. carandol
Are the Ellery Queen books in print? I remember reading and enjoying them as a teenager, 35 years ago, but haven't seen them recently, though I do subscribe to his other work in progress, Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine. (What do you mean, he doesn't actually edit it himself?!?)
Brit Mandelo
3. BritMandelo
Looking forward to this series, it sounds like a lot of fun.
4. shireling
Used to have copies of all the old Ellery Queens -- The Roman Hat Mystery on. I loved the gloriously artificial world, and the way Ellery stayed the same age as the decades went by (1920s, 30s... ). Someone did a wonderful parody story at the time of EQ's greatest popularity called The adventures of Celery Green.

Looking forward to these posts, and (very much) to The tempering of men.
Sarah Monette
5. truepenny
@carandol, almost all of my EQs are books I found used, except for some random trade paperbacks that were being put out in the early oughts. Oh, and one of the splendid Otto Penzler reprints. As far as I know, libraries and used bookstores are the only way to find them (and there are a couple I'm still looking for.

@astrophilia, I managed to persuade a class of upper level English majors that revenge tragedies were awesome, but it took some doing. :)
Jay Dauro
6. J.Dauro
Looking forward to this. Just went and counted - over 30 EQ stories in paperback, and one trade collection. It will be fun trying to keep up.

When do we start? I've got three to re-read before then.
Lis Riba
7. lisriba
Haven't read many of the written EQ stories, but I'm a huge fan of the late 1970s tv series, which I hope you'll get to.
Sarah Monette
8. truepenny
@J. Dauro, I may not talk about absolutely all of them--most of the ghost-written EQ are (a.) not very interesting and (b.) not to my taste. And I'm not sure, honestly, that I can make myself reread The Last Woman in His Life. But we'll see.

I may be posting somewhat irregularly, as I have a number of other commitments. And the next post has proved to be about the meta aspects of the early novels more than about any of the specific mysteries. So you've got some time!

@lisriba, I loved the episodes of the TV series that I saw when they reran on A&E (my fangirl crush on David Wayne, I shows you it)--and, oh dear, I see the complete series is out on DVD. Your chances just improved. *g*
Michael Walsh
9. MichaelWalsh
Eons ago, "Back Before The Internet", I managed to acquire all of the Queen novels and read them in publication sequence. It was interesting watching the character of Queen change without getting much older. The "Challenge To The Reader" was an amusing - and frustrating - gimmick.

Looking at Amazon, it looks like Queen is out of print. But between Amazon and various used book sites - and quite possibly your local used book shop - it should not be that difficult to pick up most of the books at reasonable prices.

Looking forward to your future essays on Queen.
11. Kelly Saderholm
This is fantastic.  I'm so pleased you are doing this.  Oddly, I just requested, and had sent to me, The French Powder Mystery from Bookmooch last week.  With any luck, its sitting in my mailbox as I type this.  Oh, this is going to be fun! 
12. Alexander K.
Oooh. This should be cool.
13. RustyM
@shireling, Arthur Porges (also known for his SF) wrote at least a couple of parody stories about "Celery Green" back in the 60s -- perhaps they're what you were thinking of? The ones I read were "The English Village Mystery" and "The Indian Diamond Mystery" and they were hilarious. Like a number of other EQ parodies, they were published in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine.
14. shireling
@RustyM, Possibly the one I read was one of Porges', and "The adventures of Celery Green" was an umbrella title for the series.
I do remember that Ellery's father was referred to as "the birdlike bulldog of Center Street".
Sarah Monette
15. truepenny
@shireling, Ouch. Whoever the author was, he nailed that one.
16. RustyM
@shireling, I think that line was in “The Lithuanian Eraser Mystery,“ one of Jon L. Breen’s “E. Larry Cune” stories (EQMM was not exactly reluctant to print parodies of EQ). IIRC, at one point E. Larry thinks back to the 1920s, when he’d been in his early thirties and his father was the Birdlike Bulldog of Center Street… now it’s 1968, E. Larry is in his late thirties, and his father is still the Birdlike Bulldog of Center Street.
17. jfleon1
I read Ellery Queen as a kid.....remember the part of every book where he speaks directly to the reader and tells you that you now have all you need to identify the murderer! I could NEVER get it.
18. b. lynchblack
coming in a little late to the discussion but my heart lit up a bit at the name Ellery Queen. i love mysteries, a love my mother encouraged almost accidentally by handing off her copies of whatever book she had just finished. she started with Agatha Christie, went to the Perry Mason books, then Ellery Queen... next came Albert Campion and Lord Peter Whimsey. but EQ holds a particular spot in my heart since he's the only character from the "classic" age that is an american i could get behind. i was, and still am, a huge british mystery fan -- but EQ had a certain quality that i really liked. loved the old show with jim hutton. i may have to reread a few of the oldeer books and i'm looking forward to your discourse on his character and mysteries.

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