Packaging the Detective, Part 2

This is the third in a series of posts by Sarah Monette on Ellery Queen. You can read the first two here.

My edition of The Roman Hat Mystery is the 1967 Signet-New American Library paperback edition, badly stained with something I hope is water and beginning to fall apart.

The cover shows that we have not yet hit Signet’s soft porn era, although I admit it makes me yearn for an Ellery Queen/Addams Family crossover starring Thing.

The back cover copy is likewise faithful to both the style and content of the book:

He was dressed to kill

Suit, cape, and gloves worn with a whisky flair . . . everything but the top hat. And he was dead. With a characteristic display of intemperance, Monte Field had succumbed during Act II of the Broadway hit GUNPLAY!

“Foul Play!” claimed the local constabulary. It was clearly a case for the Queens—father and son. A case of shadowy death, an unsavory victim, and a lengthy list of suspects whose tarnished pasts had made them prime targets for blackmail.

Someone had enacted the performance of the year: THE PERFECT MURDER

I’m tempted, in fact, to believe that this is the original jacket copy for TRHM, because it sounds like the early Ellery Queen wrote it. I’ve no idea if it is or not, so let’s just note for the record that it is perfectly commensurate with the novel it advertises.

The only jarring note in this edition is the ad taking up the bottom half of the back cover, exhorting us to buy Gerold Frank’s The Boston Strangler, “soon to be a major 20th Century-Fox motion picture.” Nothing could be farther from the early EQ than a sexually motivated serial killer (or killers), and nothing more unlike the morass surrounding the Boston Strangler than the cool clinical precision with which the murder in The Roman Hat Mystery is solved.

Leaving that irony aside, let’s proceed to the packaging of Ellery Queen as practiced by Ellery Queen themselves. And I have to say, I think that starts with the dedication:

Grateful acknowledgment / is made to / PROFESSOR ALEXANDER GOETTLER / Chief Toxicologist of the City of New York / for his friendly offices / in the preparation of this tale. (emphasis theirs)

Given the penchant for bizarre murders in Golden Age detective fiction (rivaled, in my experience, only by Jacobean and Caroline revenge tragedy), this choice of dedicatee can only be regarded as programmatic. The dedication insists on the connection between the fiction to come and the scientific real world represented by the Chief Toxicologist of the City of New York.

Next up is the “Lexicon of Persons Connected with the Investigation,” prefaced by a note from the author which insists, conversely, on the fictionality of the fiction to come:

In the course of perusing mysterio-detective literature the reader is, like as not, apt to lose sight of a number of seemingly unimportant characters who eventually prove of primary significance in the solution of the crime” (viii). This author’s note is all about the genre conventions and the contract between author and reader, emphasizing the highly conventional and artificial nature of “mysterio-detective literature.”

Moreover, the Lexicon of Persons leads off with “Monte Field, an important personage indeed—the victim.” There are two things I want to note here:

1.) Although we’re reading a mystery, we aren’t being kept in any kind of suspense. We haven’t even reached page one and we already know who the murder victim is.

2.) There’s no interest, and no pretense of interest, in the victim as a person. It will turn out, as the case progresses, that Monte Field was a rather rotten sort of person—crooked lawyer, blackmailer, etc.—but those attributes don’t come as surprises, because we already know we aren’t going to care about him.

Both points, again, are things that emphasize and contribute to the artificiality of the novel we’re about to read; they position it as an example of “mysterio-detective literature,” something that is both fiction and a game.

But then there’s a counter-movement; first noticed in the dedication, it picks up again with the map, which is specified as being “drawn by Ellery Queen” (x), and bursts into full flower with the Foreword by “J. J. McC.”

I need to confess here that J. J. McC. irritates the hell out of me. I find him superfluous at best, nauseating at worst. So I don’t pretend to be offering an unbiased analysis of his function, but I do think that it’s worth asking, why did Dannay & Lee think they needed him?

J. J. McC., we learn from this foreword, is a stockbroker, a friend of the Queens père et fils, neither—he hastens to assure us—a writer nor a criminologist (xiii). He tells us that both publisher and author asked him to write a foreword for The Roman Hat Mystery, then tells a very dull anecdote about visiting the Queens in Italy and persuading Ellery to let him take TRHM to a publisher in New York, followed by some equally dull adulation of Ellery.

What does this foreword accomplish?

1. It offers third-party authentication of the veracity of the book and of the reality of Ellery himself. (The fact that the third party is himself just another sock-puppet for Dannay & Lee is another layer in the meta-game I diagrammed in my first Ellery Queen post.

2. It’s a vehicle to introduce Ellery’s post-detective life (an idea which, by the way, will sink quietly and without a trace about the same time J. J. McC. himself does): the villa in Italy, the happy retirement of both father and son, the son’s marriage to the unnamed wife, the progeny, etc. etc. etc.

3. It allows Ellery to seem modest and self-effacing; TRHM, we are told, saw the light of day because J. J. McC. beat down Ellery’s resistance, and moreover, did all the hard work himself. (Although, I have to say, selling a manuscript to a publisher seems to be remarkably easy for random stockbrokers in this version of New York.)

4. It allows Dannay & Lee to hype their hero without putting him in the uncomfortable position of hyping himself. When J. J. McC. tells us about Ellery’s genius, about his remarkable crime-solving record, about the museum of mementoes “reverently preserved by friends” (xv), we may or may not buy what he’s selling, but we don’t blame Ellery the character for J. J.’s excesses of hero worship.

5. It also allows Dannay & Lee to hype the ingenuity of the murder we’re about to watch Ellery solve, without having to come right out and praise themselves.

6. It adds another layer of pseudonymity, and another twist in the reality/artifice progression, as J. J. tells us that “‘Richard Queen’ and ‘Ellery Queen’ are not the true names of those gentlemen. Ellery himself made the selections; and I might add at once that his choices were contrived to baffle the reader who might endeavor to ferret the truth from some apparent clue of anagram” (xiv).  (Even at this early date, we note that Ellery is, as he self-identifies in Ten Days’ Wonder, an anagram man.) The announced artificiality of the names is used to increase the illusion of reality wound about the characters.

I find J. J. McC. a clumsy and superfluous framing device. None of the functions he fulfills are actually necessary for the story. You can skip the forewords in the EQ books that have them and your reading experience will lack nothing except some clutter. But Dannay & Lee thought they needed him to boost Ellery Queen, not yet realizing that that’s one thing you can always count on Ellery to do for himself.

Dannay & Lee go to great trouble to package their detective, to build him up as a crime-solver head and shoulders above the others. (It is perhaps not irrelevant that TRHM was written for a contest, and also not irrelevant that Dannay & Lee were advertising agents before they became authors.) My next post will (finally!) start talking about the detective inside the package.

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


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