Better Lock the Door

Month: October 2020

Ellery Queen-a mystery himself

Whether it’s from his novels, films, radio, short stories, or TV, Ellery Queen is one of the premier names in the world of mysteries. He has been read, watched, or listened to all over the world. But answering who Ellery was, that is a little more complicated.

Ellery Queen the Character

Ellery and His Father on teh 70s TV Series

Ellery and Father from the 70s TV series

Ellery Queen was the main detective character in over thirty crime novels and short story collections from 1929 – 1971. He first appeared in The Roman Hat Mystery in 1929. He was the adult son of Inspector Richard Queen of the New York Police Homicide Squad and was an author who spent most of his time with his nose stuck in a book. His father leaned on him to help solve the murder.

It is hard to describe Ellery with one description as he changed over the course of the series. He began as a bookworm assisting his father in New York. His mother had passed away and there was no interest in women, in fact they both lived a decidedly bachelor lifestyle wanting only to spend their evenings in the apartment they shared.

In the late thirties, Ellery, like his authors, moved to Hollywood to begin writing movie scripts. He no longer assisted his father on police cases. And he found time for women. In Hollywood. Who would have guessed. The cases became less police procedurals and took on more psychological elements.

Beginning in 1942, Ellery Queen moved to a fictional New England town called Wrightsville. This let them loosen the structures even more and allowed more emphasis on relationships and less on the details of the case.

Ellery Queen the Author(?)

In 1932, Ellery Queen was invited by Columbia University to present a lecture on mystery writing. The catch was that Ellery wasn’t a person, but a pseudonym for two cousins and they didn’t want to reveal that Ellery wasn’t a real person. To decide who would address the school, they flipped a coin. The loser addressed the college wearing a mask.

The brains behind the great detective were two cousins from Brooklyn, New York. Frederic Dannay and Manfred B. Lee were close cousins. They were both born in 1905, bore a close resemblance to each other, and often finished each others sentences during interviews. Together, they edited collections of short stories under the Ellery Queen name and founded the Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine that still comes out bimonthly. Manfred was the loser of the coin toss and continued in the guise of Ellery Queen, wearing a mask.

Dannay and Lee were prolific writers. Not only did they produce over thirty Ellery Queen novels. They also wrote nineteen plays, a screen play, radio plays from 1939 to 1948, and numerous short stories. They wrote four novels about the detective Drury Lane under the pseudonym Barnaby Ross.

They were early pioneers in franchising when in the sixties they commissioned more than twenty-five crime thrillers from other writers. These were published as paperbacks under the Ellery Queen name. Many of them were outlined by Dannay.

The Ellery Queen Style

Ellery Queen mysteries fit the style commonly known as the Golden Age of Detective Fiction. Other writers of the style include Agatha Christie, Philip MacDonald, and Dorothy Sayers. It was very popular before World War II. Afterwards, the stories became grittier, less gentile.

Ellery Queens stories were looked at as games, puzzles. The writers were careful to give all the clues to the reader that the detective would have. A crime, usually a murder had to happen early. The murder had to be presented near the beginning of the book. Although there would be numerous ‘red herrings’, the clues could point to only one person as the criminal. “Fair play’ was important and taken very seriously. If other writers thought another cheated, say by introducing an identical twin at the last moment, they would be called out in reviews.

With many of the Ellery stories, the reader would find the following elements: a geographic title, an unusual crime, complex set of clues, and multiple possible solutions until the climatic reveal. In the early books, there would be a page near the end declaring that the reader has all the clues and challenging them to give the answer. This disappeared as the public became less interested in a puzzle and more interested in the characters and relationships.

Review of The Roman Hat Mystery

The Roman Hat Mystery by Ellery QueenThe Roman Hat Mystery introduced us to Ellery Queen. Inspector Richard Queen is given the case of a murder in a crowded theatre during the play, Gunfire. Everyone was so intent on the actions and sounds from the stage that no one knew that a man had been killed until the police stopped the play. When the Inspector fails to come up with an answer, he is happy to see Ellery come in the door. The most suspicious thing about the crime scene was what wasn’t there. Where was the man’s hat?

In this day of men wearing shorts, jeans, and tee shirts, we don’t usually think of going to the theatre in formal wear. And the best most men can do is a work suit and their suit they wear to funerals. But a hat? This was a different time and Ellery immerses us in it totally. Back then, anyone wearing formal wear would have to have a top hat. But after turning the theatre over, they couldn’t find it. And they were careful to make sure no man left with two.

So, where was it? And why was it important?

The Roman Hat Mystery revealed a different time for policing. This was in the early days of forensic, toxicology tests, and fingerprints. The characters were diverse and well developed. Watching the Queens wade through the suspects lies was a lot of fun. We can see why the series lasted so long.

Judge Deborah Knotts

Tobacco field from Pixabay

 

The rural farmland of North Carolina is one of the last places one would go to find the lead in a modern mystery series. Yet that is exactly where Margaret Maron finds the lead of her Deborah Knotts series. The series lasted over 20 books and had a very promising start with the first book in 1992, Bootlegger’s Daughter, winning four of the top awards given out each year in the mystery field, the Edgar, the Anthony, the Agatha, and the Macavity.

I got in early on the series and felt like I had found a new family. I love studying the family dynamics in a story. One of the things I like about the Murder, She Baked shows on Hallmark is how Hannah Swenson’s mother and sister are always butting into her personal life. Funny and it comes off as so real.

Knotts’s family gives us a lot to study. She’s the youngest of twelve children. And the only daughter. Of course, all of the brothers feel they are responsible for her. At least that was what their parents told them when she was a child. And there’s one thing about families, we never let the younger grow up.

Several of her brothers are old enough to be her father and aren’t afraid to step into that role, whether she asks them to or not. With all the brothers, in-laws, nephews and nieces, cousins, etc., there are always things going on someone would rather kept hidden. The family dinners remind one of the closeness of the Ragan family on Blue Bloods on steroids.

But let’s be sure to not make one mistake, this is not a family of angels and Deborah knows it. She isn’t surprised when one of her cousins or other family member appears before her bench. And they know she will be fair, but she won’t be walked over either.

Not only does Deborah come from a large family, she’s also in politics. She is a District Court judge in fictional Colleton County. She is constantly having to run for votes, keeping on her toes and with a smile pasted on her face. Her court cases can get her into quite a pickle, inside and outside the courtroom.

Add to all this, her father was a well-established bootlegger even beyond the county lines. ( I know, the title of the first book gave this away. But it’s still good.) Deborah is continually finding that old roots run deep. And grow into interesting places.

These are the kind of stories that you can lose yourself in. You don’t turn the page to get to the end of the book but to see what happens next. Coming to the end was always disappointing because I didn’t want to leave the community Maron makes.

I like how we are allowed to see Deborah age and mature. We watch as she goes through a lot of not-right relationships. When she does find the right one, will she get her brothers to go along with it? And we see how the cases change not only herself, but her family and those and her.

I also like to see a series that continue after the marriage. She does get married later in the series and their relationship, a judge and a cop, adds so much spice. So many stories seem to either never let the star settle on someone, or when they do, end the series. Writers seem to think that once they get married, there is no more romance and no more excitement. Oh, how little they know. And how much conflict we miss.

Bootlegger’s daughter book cover

This is only one of two series Margaret Maron has written. I like to think she brought a lot of herself in creating Judge Knott. She told, in an interview, how she “grew up on a modest  two-mule tobacco farm that had been in the family for over a hundred years.” She went home and lived on a corner of the family farm.

She wanted to character to be a “young woman with one foot in the agrarian past and one foot in the urban present.” You can see this in how Deborah feels the strength and history when she walks around the farm.

Having grown up on a peach farm in South Carolina foothills, I know the whisper of the land when you go back. Things have changed greatly, our orchards and her tobacco fields are gone, but there is more to that land than just the crops. You feel this in her books. And you can understand why so many issues concerning our farmlands affect Deborah and her family so strongly.

But the best thing I can say about  Judge Deborah  Knotts is she is the sister or sister-in-law many of us would love to have. To a point. She also isn’t going to let you get by with anything, which a lot of people in the stories are sad to discover.

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