Tuesday, April 12, 2005

The 'Q' with two tails*

*Frederick Dannay and Manfred Lee used the letter 'Q' with two tails to signify their partnership.

The annals of crime fiction have known many partnerships, but none so fruitful or enduring as that of Frederick Dannay and Manfred B Lee. The composite of those two is better known to us as Ellery Queen, and under that name were produced some of the most intelligent and inventive yarns ever. There was considerable ingenuity even in the form: the stories were written by ‘Ellery Queen’, and featured a detective so named who, far from being a professional sleuth, was actually a writer of detective stories! The fortune cookie came full circle.

Arguably, Queen is the first instance of a ‘cerebral’ detective in the American form of the genre (we shall forget Poe’s Dupin here, since he was too improbably bizarre to be real). He is a scholar, within reason; a man remarkably well informed on the arcane and the abstruse, without the epigrammatic airs of Holmes. He’s an acute observer of minutiae. He’s also sufficiently human to have a father, Inspector Richard Queen, a policeman in the New York Crime Branch, and with whom he enjoys a most affectionate and endearing relationship.

We do not know very much about his personal life, except that he is ‘young’, whatever that means. Like Holmes, he is timeless.

The stories themselves are encyclopedic in plot and sweep – as indeed one would expect, given the detective’s unusual abilities. The names are intriguing to say the least: The Roman Hat Mystery, The French Powder Mystery, The Dutch Shoe Mystery, The Greek Coffin Mystery, The Chinese Orange Mystery, The Egyptian Cross Mystery…

It wasn’t long before the partners in this delightful enterprise realised that they had spawned something of an industry; the seal on this fact was finally set by their founding, in 1941, of what is perhaps the most famous magazine in the world devoted to crime writing, Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, or EQMM as it is now familiarly abbreviated. In more than six decades of flourishing existence (even after the demise of the original founders) the journal has elevated the genre to levels that even mainstream literature has seldom seen. It was the first magazine to encourage new talent through the ingenious medium of the writing contest and competition, has played host to some of the greatest names in detective fiction, and carried learned critiques on the form by eminent commentators.

It has had a fanatically devoted, and exponentially increasing following among cognoscenti – the kind probably last seen when Sherlock Holmes was the mascot of the Strand Magazine in the last decade of the nineteenth century. And in much the same way, collectors prize its old issues.

This year America celebrates the Ellery Queen centenary.



Pragya said...

One of my first tasks, in my very first job, as a newsstand distribution analyst in the US, was the preparation of a newsstand distribution for Ellery Queen. You brought back some memories!

Dan Husain said...

So what partnership will you seek JJ and how will you symbolize it for posterity? I am curious! ;-)