Last week I pulled a book with acid-brown pages from my precarious stack of to-be-reads. I had found it at a thrift store earlier this year before the world tilted on its axis and we all fell down a rabbit hole. I grabbed it because it was written by Ellery Queen, a classic whodunnit mystery author I fell in love with as a teenager.
Last week, having whipped through the latest John Sandford crime thriller and at loose ends for something to follow it, I thought, why not? and decided to reacquaint myself with this classic detective story. I remembered the title–TEN DAYS’ WONDER–and vaguely recalled that I hadn’t much cared for it when I read it in the 1970s. But that was all I remembered. I started reading, and nothing about the story came back to me except that the protagonist Ellery is a novelist + amateur detective and his father Inspector Queen works for the NYC police department.
The first two chapters of TEN DAYS’ WONDER (1948) barely held me. They were strange, and the characters seemed talky and static. However, the story quickly got better and better as it went. Before long, I was caught by the smooth, well-written prose. The characters were intricately drawn. No one was a stereotype. Time was taken to set up the crime to come and for me to get to know the players involved. The murder, surprisingly, didn’t occur until the third act of the story.
Reading it as an adult, however, I kept wondering what had drawn me to this kind of writer so long ago. I remember that as a kid I read just about anything and everything, and at that age I thought I had to finish every book I started. I grew up in a pleasant little southern town with an economy based on factories and agriculture. We had no bookstore, and I practically lived in the public library. It stocked only a handful of Queen mysteries. Every few weeks my parents and I would drive twenty miles to a larger, college town, and I would pounce on the spinning paperback racks in search of more Queen. They had semi-lurid covers in the go-go-girl style of the late ’60s/early ’70s. I thought they looked silly, and fortunately no one forbade me reading them.
Because, based on the book I reread this week, Ellery Queen is worthwhile. I think perhaps it’s the characterization that enthralled me so long ago. I know at that age I tried to read Agatha Christie and loathed her because I found her stories to be merely puzzles with next to no characterization. Now, I appreciate Christie very much. I can see past the superficial simplicity to her nuances and layers. And I want to find the rest of Queen’s stories now and read them anew.
Before I sat down to write this post, I looked up the author, who was actually two male cousins–Frederic Dannay and Manfred Bennington Lee–who created Ellery Queen as a series character and decided to write under his name as their pseudonym. The first Ellery Queen mystery appeared in 1929 and the books ran until 1971. The ELLERY QUEEN MYSTERY MAGAZINE–for years a strong competitor to the ALFRED HITCHCOCK MYSTERY MAGAZINE until they became sister publications under the same owner–was founded in 1941. I think it’s incredible that this magazine still continues today. There are over thirty EQ novels plus short story collections written by the cousins. Additionally there are some EQ novels written by hired ghosts, including science fiction authors Jack Vance and Theodore Sturgeon. There are juvenile Ellery Queen books, and the cousins also wrote mysteries under another pen name, Barnaby Ross.
I am intrigued that I no longer have my used copies of EQ mysteries. I remember only two plot events from two different stories. Were they that forgettable? And yet, mysteries from the Golden Age of the 1930s and ’40s so seldom are. Last year, I sat down and read my first Mickey Spillane book, and it was a page-turner. For the past two or three years, I’ve been devouring as many Erle Stanley Gardner books as I can dig out of musty estate sales and antiques stores. Today I started reading a Leslie Ford mystery–the second by this author that I’ve come across. And although she has a very dated style, Mary Roberts Rinehart’s books still give me a tingle every time I stumble across one. Ngaio Marsh and Patricia Wentworth … ah, bliss.
In January, trying to find new mystery authors, I browsed the shelves. My local Barnes & Noble’s mystery section is overrun with cozies. While I’m not adverse to cozies by any means, I find all the punster titles a bit too twee, as the British might say. In desperation, I dug into the small row of offerings at Walmart, only to find the trendy Ruth Ware kind of stories where the protagonist is a hot mess psychologically and is fashionably unreliable. No thank you.
And even if books are currently considered non-essential and slow to ship, I’m still eager to see what EQ offerings Amazon has in stock. It’s time for Mr. Queen and me to resume our former acquaintance.
P.S. If you notice, two of the book covers featured in this post are for the same novel. The first version is a pulp cover, albeit a very tame one. The second version is from the 1960s and slightly more upscale, if that adjective can ever be applied to a paperback mystery. 🙂