2018-07-23

Killer Queens - A Critical Look at the Established Periods of Ellery Queen

In this post I'm going to discuss the established convention of dividing the works of the Ellery Queen author partnership into four distinct periods. Quick version: There are some changes I would make to this convention.

Generally, there's no spoilers here, so have no fear of reading on even if you haven't read everything by Ellery Queen. On the other hand, this will probably be more appreciated by someone who has a certain familiarity with Queen's works.


As far as I know, it was esteemed EQ expert Francis M. Nevins who came up with the idea to separate the works of Ellery Queen in this way. Though I'm not sure where he did so - in "Royal Bloodline", his original critical work on the career of the EQ cousins, he refers to this division as if it is already established. So possibly it came from some earlier publication that I don't have available to me.

No matter. The four periods of Queen are established as follows.

Period One (1929 - 1935)
Includes all novels from The Roman Hat Mystery to The Spanish Cape Mystery, and all short stories from The Adventures of Ellery Queen and two of the stories from The New Adventures of Ellery Queen ("The Adventure of the House of Darkness" and "The Lamp of God").

Period Two (1936 - 1940)
Includes all novels from Halfway House to The Dragon's Teeth and the remaining short stories from The New Adventures of Ellery Queen.

Period Three (1942 - 1958)
Includes all novels from Calamity Town to The Finishing Stroke, and all short stories from Calendar of Crime and Q.B.I., three stories from Queen's Full ("Diamond's in Paradise", "The Wrightsville Heirs" and "The Case Against Carroll") as well as some stray short stories published in QED and Tragedy of Errors ("The Lonely Bride", "Eve of the Wedding", "Object Lesson", "No Parking", "No Place to Live", "Terror Town", "Miracles Do Happen")

Period Four (1963 - )
Includes all novels from The Player on the Other Side to A Fine and Private Place, as well as the outline Tragedy of Errors and all the remaining short stories from Queen's Full, QED, Best of Ellery Queen and Tragedy of Errors. (To be absolutely correct, it actually leaves out three short stories which were published between 1958 and 1963...)

So, what's my opinion on this division? One early observation is that while the division works fine for the novels, it is already flawed since it rather arbitrarily separates short stories - and doesn't even take into account a couple between Periods Three and Four. But let's do this chronologically and start with Period One.

Period One

Some of the main characteristics of this period, according to Nevins, are - obviously - the similarity of the titles, with their recurring adjectives of nationality. Each of the novels is also described as a Problem in Deduction. In Period One, there is an overpowering, but also over time declining influence from S. S. Van Dine's Philo Vance stories. Ellery the character is academic, spouts classical allusions and wears a pince-nez.


If we take a quick look at the short stories, they also have a common title pattern - all are "The Adventure of the..." - and since all the short stories were written fairly late in the period they already feature some of the later First Period Queen traits, with a somewhat more humanised detective.

As Nevins puts it: "for those who don't like First Period Queen, these novels are sterile, lifeless, relentlessly intellectual exercises, technically excellent but unwarmed by any trace of human character nor by any emotion other than the 'passions of the mind'." Meanwhile, those who are more fond of this period see these books as "splendid tours de force of the artificer's art and are nowhere near totally devoid of interest in human character or concern with fundamental issues".

To be honest, I don't have much to say about this period. I agree almost wholeheartedly with Nevins' classification here. I belong to the second group referred to by Nevins above (those who love Period One), but at the same time I can certainly see some of the problems with these works. There's just one thing I'd like to change here, but we'll leave that for...

Period Two

If we move on to the Second Period of Queen, what will we find here? Well, this is the romantic, "Hollywood" era of Queen. The novels are glossy and shiny, Ellery the character is almost shuffled into the background and could be any faceless detective. In each novel there is a romance, and two of the novels (The Door Between, The Dragon's Teeth) has a second detective who generally gets more of the spotlight than Ellery himself, while the other two novels are actually set in Hollywood with a couple of recurring characters. There are also some elements of screwball comedy.

The bulk of the short stories from Period Two are the four that were originally published in Blue Book (Man Bites Dog, Long Shot, Mind over Matter and The Trojan Horse), all featuring Ellery's romantic partner Paula Paris and each one focusing on a specific sport. All four fit perfectly with Period Two.


But here is where I have one major objection, and it concerns the division between periods One and Two. Nevins has placed it between 1935 and 1936, while I would argue that it's better placed between 1936 and 1937.

And why? Well, take first the novel Halfway House, published in 1936, and therefore belonging to Period Two according to Nevins. In my opinion, there are two things, and two things only, that would place this novel in the Second Period. The first is the obvious one - the title. As anyone can see, it doesn't follow the pattern of "The [nationality] [thing] Mystery". However, in the preface to the novel, even Ellery Queen the character himself argues to good old J. J. McC that the story might has well been called "The Swedish Match Mystery". The second thing that sort of qualifies it for Period Two is the fact that there is a three-way romance, quite similar to the ones that appear in particularly The Door Between but also to some extent in The Four of Hearts.

Everything else about Halfway House, however, would qualify it as a Period One novel, though obviously one belonging to the later stages of this era. This applies both to content, since Ellery is still the main character in the centre of the mystery and there's still a focus on logic and deduction, and to the novel's formal appearance. Halfway House is still called a "Problem in Deduction", it features the usual foreword with J. J. McC and it has the Challenge to the Reader.

But this is not the only advantage of moving the dividing line from 35/36 to 36/37. Another thing is that it better takes into account the short stories of this time. Because moving this dividing line means that we'll get another two stories moved from Period Two to Period One: "The Adventure of the Treasure Hunt" and "The Adventure of the Hollow Dragon". Immediately, you'll see that the naming convention still exists for these two stories - the same "The Adventure of..." of the First Period. They are also both quite Period One like content-wise. In the first, there is full focus on the logical reasoning, while the second might have a certain romantic flair, but in no way as pronounced as in the "true" Second Period stories. And, as pointed out before, EQ does change over time already during Period One, so that we can see a certain transition is not particularly strange.

Admittedly, moving the dividing line still results rather arbitrarily in the short story "The Adventure of the Bleeding Portrait" (as you see, still with the Period One naming convention) ending up in Period Two. However, this story has several elements in common with the Second Period, mainly in the reduction of logic (to be honest, this might be EQ's most illogical story ever) and the played up romantical elements, so I think it's still correct to leave it in Period Two.

Period Three

Nevins describes this era as one with complex deductive puzzles, full characterizations and of course the essence of small-town America, also known as Wrightsville. As he puts it, in this period there was nothing Queen would not dare. If we take a closer look at the novels, there is the Wrightsville quartet (Calamity Town, The Murderer is a Fox, Ten Days' Wonder and Double Double), there's the Cloudcuckootown There Was an Old Woman, a psychological serial killer study (Cat of Many Tails), a return to Hollywood in The Origin of Evil, the experimental phantasmagoria The King is Dead, the Nikki Porter novel The Scarlet Letters, two novels without Ellery the character - the non-series The Glass Village and the kinda-in-series Inspector Queen's Own Case - and finally the bookending The Finishing Stroke with its constant referrals to the time of Period One.

There's also a large amount of short stories - there's everything in Calendar of Crime (based on original radio scripts) and QBI (short "fun-and-games" stories). Then there's also a handful of stories collected elsewhere, most of them similar to QBI's very short stories, and four of them with an internal collective theme of urban problems and decay. As with the novels, the short stories of Period Three are bookended with a very special novella, "The Case Against Carroll" - again one can sense that the Queens were considering finishing their career with these two fine works.

But this is also the main problem with the definition of this period - it's kinda all over the place. There's hardly anything in common between these stories that applies to at least most of the others. Instead, I'd argue that Period Three should be divided into two parts, say Period 3A and 3B.

3A would consist of the four main Wrightsville novels - there's a section of The King is Dead (as well as the much later The Last Woman of His Life) set in Wrightsville, but I do not think they belong to the main Wrightsville narrative. (There's also quite a few short stories set in that very same town, and these fit in much better with recurring characters and at least vague referrals to previous stories set in Wrightsville.) To those four novels, I would also add Cat of Many Tails, which while it does not take place in Wrightsville exists very much in the same universe. Events in Ten Days' Wonder affect the content of Cat of Many Tails profoundly.

3B would then be everything else. It does create a chronological problem with There Was an Old Woman, which appeared quite out of context between books one and two of the Wrightsville chronicle. However, it has nothing at all in common with those books and doesn't really seem to exist in the same continuity. These other stories still don't have much in common with each other, except maybe for the fact that they are out of continuity with everything else.


If we for instance take a look at the Nikki Porter stories (There Was an Old Woman, The Scarlet Letters and all twelve tales from Calendar of Crime), it's quite obvious that there is no inner continuity between them. In fact, Nikki's origin story varies between them. As for The Origin of Evil and The Finishing Stroke, both of which take an earlier part of Ellery's life and makes it an important part of their own story (the former being a return to the Hollywood of Period Two and the latter being the story of a case set in the very earliest parts of Ellery's career), they are not consistent with those earlier stories. I think there might be one recurring Hollywood character in The Origin of Evil.

By the way, I mentioned above that the final two stories of the Third Period (The Finishing Stroke and "The Case Against Carroll") could be seen as the end of EQs career. This is also indicated by the fact that it took five years before the next novel was published. I'd also posit that it's quite possible that the Queens (or at least one of them) might have tired of writing about Ellery the character, since there are three stories from just before these two final Period Three stories that do not feature Ellery at all - apart from the two novels mentioned above, there's also the short story "Terror Town" (which has several similarities to the novel The Glass Village).

Period Four

Characterised by Nevins as continuing the radical experimentation of Period Three while retreating from naturalistic plausibility, and using repetition and references to earlier motifs and plots, this is also quite a sprawling era for the Queens. Personally, I'd also add the fact that several of the novels here feature other authors than the Queen cousins. (I won't use the term "ghost writer", because I don't think it fits when one of the cousins was still responsible for the entire plot, and both of them were responsible for the final editing of the whole thing into a published work).

One good thing about splitting Period 3 into two different parts is that the Fourth Period becomes more of an extension of 3B. Because these stories are almost as diverse as that bunch. There's the megalomaniacal character studies (The Player on the Other Side, A Fine and Private Place), the religious phantasmagoria And on the Eighth Day, the film tie-in A Study in Terror, two more straightforward GA style mysteries (The Fourth Side of the Triangle and Face to Face), an attempt at bringing Wrightsville back in The Last Woman in His Life, and an attempt to retcon Inspector Queen's Own Case into the Ellery canon with The House of Brass. Oh, and then there's the hard-boiled, non-Ellery Cop Out.

The short stories of Period Four (and let's add those stray three stories that appeared between 1958 and 1963 to this period, shall we?) are also all over the place. There's a further dozen of the "fun-and-games" type stories we got in QBI, some of which feature the Mystery Club, and also a couple of longer stories set in Wrightsville.


You know what, if it weren't for the five year break for the novels, I don't think it's possible to see any big distinction between the later parts of the Third Period and the whole Fourth Period. Perhaps we should keep four periods, but instead move everything that I classified as Period 3B into Period 4. Because they actually have more in common with each other (by not having anything in common with each other) than 3B has with 3A - the latter of which actually has an internal continuity and a clear progress between each novel.

If we want we can also separate the short stories - the "fun-and-games" short shorts, with their lack of characterisation and complete focus on a single problem that needs to be solved, could go into Period 4, while the longer stories, several of which are set in Wrightsville, could be shuffled into what I called Period 3A. Yes, this would mean that the division isn't based on chronology anymore, which might make it less convenient, but on the other hand I hope I've shown that Nevins old chronological divisions don't really work all that well either.

Opinions?

If you've made it this far, I'd like to hear your opinions. Do you prefer Nevins' original four periods, or am I actually on to something here? Or perhaps you have your own preferred way of separating EQs works in separate parts?

No comments:

Post a Comment