Thursday, January 10, 2013

Ellery Queen: The Art of Detection by Francis M. Nevins

 Ellery Queen: The Art of Detection: The story of how two fractious cousins reshaped the modern detective novel.

Ellery Queen: The Art of Detection by Francis M. Nevins
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Ellery Queen: The Art of Detection by Francis M. Nevins

Francis M. Nevins has been a legal aid lawyer, 
a law school professor,  an enthusiastic scholar
 of classic mystery fiction (particularly the work
 of Cornell Woolrich), and—for almost forty years—an
 accomplished author of short stories and novels. He has won 
an Edgar award twice from the Mystery Writers of America,
 for scholarly books on Ellery Queen and Woolrich.
 A collection of Mr. Nevins’s nonfiction, Cornucopia of Crime, 
was published in 2010. 

Here Nevins delivers his definitive work on "all things Queen." With an extensive bibliography, detailed histories of Ellery Queen in books, movies, radio and television, and reminiscences by both Fred Dannay and Manfred B. Lee who formed the writing partnership that created Ellery Queen, the book provides the most complete account available of how two Brooklyn cousins reshaped the modern detective novel. With 12 pages of photos and an index.

Let's start with the sub-title of your biography: "The story of how two fractious cousins reshaped the modern detective novel."

1. Give us some background on the cousins.

          1. The first cousins who called themselves Frederic Dannay and Manfred B. Lee and used the name Ellery Queen for their detective character and their joint byline were born in 1905, nine months and five blocks apart, in Brooklyn's Brownsville district. Fred's family moved upstate to Elmira soon after his birth but returned to the old neighborhood when he was 12. The cousins attended Boys' High together and fell in love with detective fiction together.   
2. When did they decide to write mystery stories?

           2. In 1928 they were holding down jobs in the advertising and publicity fields when they read about a detective novel writing contest with a huge first prize and decided to enter it, using the name Ellery Queen for both their joint byline and their detective character, who was clearly modeled on S.S. Van Dine's Philo Vance. A few months later they were told unofficially that their novel, The Roman Hat Mystery, had won. Shortly afterwards the magazine co-sponsoring the contest went bankrupt and was bought by another magazine that awarded the prize to someone else. But the other contest sponsor, the Stokes publishing house, agreed to publish Roman Hat anyway.
It came out in 1929.
3. What was the most important innovation they brought to the detective genre? 
          3.  Fair play. They took infinite pains to structure their early novels so that the reader---at least if he or she were a genius---could solve the mystery ahead of Ellery. At a certain point in each of those novels, after all the clues had been presented, there appeared a formal "Challenge to the Reader" to figure out "what really happened" before Ellery explained. 

4. At what point did the Ellery Queen novels begin to be successful?
         4. Fred and Manny kept their day jobs as they wrote the second and third Ellery Queen novels---The French Powder Mystery(1930) and The Dutch Shoe Mystery (1931)---but then, in one of the worst years of the Great Depression, decided to become full-time writers, turning out a new novel every 90 days or so. What guts what decision must have taken!

  5. The Queen character was an early version of multi-media, correct?

         5. I'm not sure what you mean by multi-media. The first EQ movies came out in 1935 and 1936 but they were terrible and only remotely related to the Queen novels. The Queen radio series debuted in 1939 and, with one long hiatus and a few brief ones, stayed on the air till 1948. Until Fred's first wife was diagnosed with cancer that eventually took her life,  he and Manny wrote every weekly drama for the series, with Fred devising the plots and Manny turning them into scripts. The second series of movies (1940-42) was just as bad as the first but the cousins had nothing to do with them. After World War II radio was displaced by television and there were several Queen series but, as with the movies, Fred and Manny had nothing to do with them.  

6. When did their "factitiousness" begin to destroy their working relationship?
         6. I assume you mean fractious, not factitious. Actually they fought constantly over the Queen novels and short stories but the fights never did destroy their working relationship. They were making a great deal of money and each of them was convinced he couldn't complete a novel without the other. Besides, underneath all the fighting those cousins were as close as brothers and really cared about one another.

7. Which of the partners essentially left the collaboration? 8. How did the Queen "brand" play out after that?

        7 and 8. For several years during the late Fifties and the Sixties, Manny developed writer's block and other writers took over his function on the Queen novels. He overcame his problem later in the Sixties and resumed his collaboration with Fred until his death in 1971. He never lived to see a copy of the last finished Queen novel, A Fine and Private Place, or to start work on Fred's synopsis for the next novel, The Tragedy of Errors. Fred, who was 65 when Manny died, decided not to break in a new collaborator.


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