- Paperback: 368 pages
- Publisher: Perfect Crime Books (1 Jan. 2013)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 1935797476
- ISBN-13: 978-1935797470
- Product Dimensions: 17.8 x 2.1 x 25.4 cm
- Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 1,145,877 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
Ellery Queen: The Art of Detection: The story of how two fractious cousins reshaped the modern detective novel. Paperback – 1 Jan 2013
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About the Author
Francis M. Nevins is the author of many popular culture books on mysteries and films, including two studies that were awarded Edgars by the Mystery Writers of America (Cornell Woolrich: First You Dream, Then You Die and Royal Bloodline: Ellery Queen, Author and Detective). In addition, Nevins has written many short stories and a number of novels. His previous books for Perfect Crime include a collection of his own short fiction, Night Forms, new editions of two novels, The 120 Hour Clock and The Ninety Million Dollar Mouse, and Love and Night: Unknown Stories by Cornell Woolrich.
Inside This Book(Learn More)
Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
Nevins gives plot summaries of every novel, plus his own evaluation, and often, for a little bit more, the evaluation of Anthony Boucher, an important person in the Queen biography and perhaps the best mystery critic who ever lived. The same goes for all the novelettes Queen wrote, and most of the short stories as well. Some of the very shortest shorts are simply listed, not discussed, but the short-shorts Nevins thinks are very good get the same kind of treatment as the novels.
Nevins was also a good friend of the team that wrote the Ellery Queen mysteries. He knew Frederic Dannay, who plotted the Queen mysteries and created and edited Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine single-handed. Dannay was Nevins' mentor and taught him how to write mysteries. He gets very affectionate treatment. Manfred Lee, the other half of the Ellery Queen writing team, who fleshed out Dannay's plots, was a friend, though not so close, and he too is treated with an extra touch of affection.
All in all, a perfect book.
What is the great Ellery Queen mystery? Well, it boils down to a question or two I have.
Nevins never suggests that the novels are anything other than mysteries. In fact, he clearly points out that many of them take place in a kind of Never-Never Land, where only the mystery matters and realism is the farthest thing from the reader's mind. Manfred Lee, whose job was to make the stories as realistic as possible (the two writers were cousins, and they saw Lee's job as precisely this) often complained about how difficult it was to make things realistic, given Frederic Dannay's wild plots.
So these are not great realistic novels. They are great mysteries or nothing. And Ellery Queen was synonymous with excellent mystery writing for more than four decades, so all that works out fine.
Some of the Ellery Queen stories, like the brilliant novella "The Lamp of God," are so good that real mystery experts will continue to admire them from now until the end of time. The same might be said (and Nevins does say it) of great Ellery Queen mystery novels like CALAMITY TOWN, CAT OF MANY TAILS, and THE GREEK COFFIN MYSTERY.
But of course, Nevins points out that some of the mysteries are better than others, and that in some of them, the plots are so mixed up that the mysteries do not succeed even as mysteries.
That's a little bit of a mystery to me.
Of course Nevins explains that the Ellery Queen team was madly trying to up its income at all times, including the decades when they had to write radio scripts for the Ellery Queen show at the rate of one a week. That would impair anybody's quality. So did trying to "hit" the slick magazine market, which paid very generously but liked less mystery and more love interest. So did the ordinary fluctuations in quality that beset every creative writer's products.
Yet Ellery Queen novels like THE SCARLET LETTERS, which Nevins likes as an okay novel but not as a mystery, sold as well as almost all of their other works. What were its readers buying? If an Ellery Queen novel was charming on its own, even when the mystery was inferior, where exactly did that charm lie?
It's a mystery Nevins doesn't consider, even as (I estimate) he labels something like twenty percent of Queen's works unsuccessful.
There's another mystery he mentions but doesn't solve. After the Queen team died, their novels went out of print and their popularity, even their memory, faded. He can barely account for that to himself, he liked them so much.
Maybe I can help with this second mystery.
The "classic, fair play" detective story was, in large part, an invention of Ellery Queen's. Other writers, like Chesterton, had written mysteries that HAPPENED to give readers all the clues they needed before the crime was solved, but Ellery Queen insisted on it.
It's a very artificial form, and there would be fewer fair-play mysteries around if ELLERY QUEEN'S MYSTERY MAGAZINE hadn't been so influential. It requires things like people who never climb out of their wheelchairs, or who write one another in codes they always deliver in one unique way ... and other equally implausible or impossible plot elements. In real life, most crimes are solved because most crimes are easy to solve, especially, and often, with the help of police informers.
It's not so much that the fair-play detective story deserved to die, as that its death was in the course of nature, and no one should be surprised by it. People who, like Nevins, lean toward blaming a general loss of intelligence in the American public are going too far, I think. We're intelligent enough to see in all the Queen stories an artificiality which Nevins sees in only the worst of them.
I've read and loved all the Queen novels the cousins wrote together. This is a great critical biography, and a wonderful contribution to the study of popular art.
(1) In essence, this is a revised and expanded version of Nevins' 1974 book "Royal Bloodline." If you have read RB, you'll (understandably) find some duplication.
(2) Nevins likes to pass judgment on Queen's works as though his is the only possible verdict. He writes that "Drury Lane's Last Case" "might better have remained unwritten;" I loved it (and the New York Times called it "the best of the DL stories"). He concludes that "The Door Between" is "not major Queen;" to me it was one of the best, with perhaps the one most shocking sentence in all of the novels featuring Ellery (last line, next to last chapter).
(3) A substantial amount of material is devoted to EQ radio episodes. This is fine for those that have been reprinted in books, to which I can refer. For the many that have not, the result is frustrating: a brief summary of each episode is followed by a "teaser"-type allusion to the clever (or, in some cases, not so clever) solution, which is impossible to appreciate because the plot synopsis isn't long enough and Nevins does not reveal the murderer. If Nevins had at least provided/analyzed Ellery's solution (preceded by a spoiler alert, as Douglas Greene did in his biography of John Dickson Carr), I would have been able to enjoy episodes that I'll never find anywhere else.
(4) Toward the end of his career, Dannay unwisely authorized ghost-written paperbacks published under the Ellery Queen byline. None of these featured Ellery, or were even close to the writing style of Dannay and Lee; most were poor. The new material that Nevins added about this is interesting: names of the ghost writers, evaluations of each book, some ghost writers deliberately wrote inferior mysteries because they were paid a miserly flat fee, Dannay was "violently opposed" to this idea but went along with it because Lee needed the money and was suffering from writer's block, Dannay asked Nevins not to include this material in "Royal Bloodline." But to those who regard this as a sad betrayal of the EQ name, it can be painful to read.
(5) "Cop Out" also does not feature Ellery, is not even close to Dannay and Lee's usual style, and isn't very good. However, Nevins provides convincing evidence that Dannay and Lee did write it. "Cop Out" was written in 1969, eight years after the ghost-writing started (and after Lee recovered from writer's block). Dannay and Lee may have felt (consciously or unconsciously) that expanding the boundaries of the Queen canon, and writing a book of their own that resembled the ghost-written titles, would help to justify them. If so, it didn't work.
(6) Except for his reference to the ghost-written books, Nevins' attempt to explain why EQ has been "so completely forgotten" is unconvincing (pp. 266-267). Please see my comment to James M. Rawley's post and the subsequent rather lengthy discussion for more about this issue.
These aspects notwithstanding, this is the book to get if you want to know more about Ellery Queen.
As others have stated, painful to read at times, but to the point: this book isn't cruel to its subjects, but we wanted to know, and now we know.
Each man's importance to the history of mystery fiction cannot be overstated, oddly as much separately as together.
Apart from the novels, they had roles to play that changed their genre, and that comes through in the book.
Lee was to radio as Dannay was to the print medium and short fiction: Indispensable.
Dannay's legacy is overall probably deservedly more positive than Lee's, at least partially due to the fact that Dannay's outlook on life was considerably more positive than Lee's. Certainly I don't appreciate Lee's attitude toward mystery fiction, and frankly he was an ass, but I greatly appreciate his good works.
The extended coverage of the radio plays, EQMM, the honest openness on the part of the author about the relationship between Dannay and Lee, and the truth about the paperback originals essentially make Royal Bloodline obsolete.
The bibliography alone is worth the cover price.
As someone who owns virtually everything Queen-related, including all 4 Mystery Leagues, every EQMM from the first issue through 2001 (including the magic trick kit), even the notorious paperback originals and the Barnaby Ross romances, I have to say: These important, fascinating men have finally been given a right accounting and a perspective that will of necessity be the last word on their massive achievements.
We can only say thank you, and may all of us feel like we have done something in our lives as worthwhile and fulfilling as what Mr. Nevins has achieved here.
How it affected their personal lives is fascinating, and at times, sad. The author also goes through a bit-by-bit analysis of every novel, radio play and short story the cousins wrote. But the best parts are the early bits about how the cousins entered a contest, thought up a pen name and went forward with talent and energy to make their creation a success.
If you're a casual EQ reader, you'll probably find this book has too much detail. If you're a dedicated EQ fan, you'll love it.