Jun 18, 2017
Most of the fun in reading (or listening to) a detective story is the chance to play detective ourselves. We meet the suspects, process the clues, and weigh the evidence alongside the sleuth, and we have the chance to see if we can reach the same solution to the crime. But rarely do our fictional gumshoes pause mid-narrative to see where we are, to check in on the progress of our own investigation. One notable exception (for young readers, at least) is Encyclopedia Brown. Another is one of the biggest names in crime fiction - Ellery Queen. And like Encyclopedia Brown, Ellery is an amateur sleuth who helps his police detective father crack tough cases.
Queen was the creation of mystery writer cousins Daniel Nathan (alias Frederic Dannay) and Manford Leopofsky (alias Manford Lee). They submitted a story for a contest in 1928, and they won but the magazine folded before the story could be published. The cousins shopped the story around and the first Ellery Queen adventure was published in 1929. That first story, “The Roman Hat Mystery,” set out the elements of the character and the formula for his adventures. Ellery was a bit of a dilettante, an intellectual who solved crimes because their puzzles intrigued him. He was often called upon to assist his father, Inspector Richard Queen of the New York Police Department. Along with the inspector’s irascible Sgt. Velie, Ellery and his father tackled bizarre cases littered with red herrings and multiple suspects. One of the signature elements of the Ellery Queen stories was a “Challenge to the Reader,” a break in the action just before the solution was revealed. It explained that the reader had seen all of the clues, and there was only one possible solution to the crime. The character starred in over 30 novels written by Dannay and Lee, and the two would create the Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine in 1941; Ellery Queen is still being published today.
Ellery Queen first came to radio on CBS in 1939 with Hugh Marlowe in the title role. Though he was featured prominently in promotional photos and press, Marlowe was not credited as Queen during the run. This may have been done to maintain the illusion that “Ellery Queen” was a real figure, detective, writer, and publisher of the magazine. None of the actors who played Ellery on radio got the billing and on-air credit, even as their co-stars were identified by name with the characters they played. The radio series introduced a character who would become fixtures in the Ellery Queen mythology - Nikki Porter, Ellery’s secretary and Girl Friday (played in the first series by Marion Shockley). Nikki would remain in the cast for the rest of the radio runs, and she was incorporated into the Ellery Queen novels in 1943. The radio series retained Ellery’s amateur status, but he was less arrogant and insufferable. It was easy to see why his father would reach out to bring him in on cases. Though he still wasn’t two-fisted, nor did he carry a gun, Ellery Queen was pretty human. He had Sherlock Holmes’ eye for detail but he was less anti-social and aloof.
Like the stories, the radio series offered a challenge to audiences, but the radio series went a step farther and featured a stand-in for the audience during the broadcasts. A guest “armchair detective” would sit in and would discuss the case with “Ellery” and “Nikki” before the solution was revealed. Initially, the “guest detective” was a panel of mystery writers. Later, members of the studio audience were used (that idea was dropped because the audience members were far from adept at the microphone); eventually, one celebrity guest appeared in each show. Gloria Swanson, Mel Blanc, Victor Jory, Orson Welles, and Ed Sullivan are just a few of the guests who appeared and tried their deductive skills against those of Ellery Queen (and his creator - Manfred Lee co-wrote the series with Anthony Boucher for much of the run). Ellery Queen ran in multiple series over NBC, CBS, and ABC from 1942 until 1948. Carleton Young, Sidney Smith, Larry Dobkin (who later played Archie Goodwin on Nero Wolfe), and Howard Culver all starred (uncredited, of course) as Ellery Queen.
There were several TV versions in the 1950s, but the definitive Ellery Queen adaptation came nearly thirty years after the radio series took its final bow. In 1975, producers William Link and Richard Levinson (creators of Columbo and Murder, She Wrote, among others) brought Ellery Queen back to television in a great series that unfortunately lasted only one season. Jim Hutton starred as Ellery for 22 episodes with David Wayne as Inspector Queen. This Queen series was a period piece set in post-World War II New York. The setting allowed the producers to include several references to radio; a recurring character was a radio detective who tried to out-think Queen and position himself as a master detective, and one episode featured threats to the life of a radio soap opera star. Each episode boasted an all-star guest cast and a “challenge to the viewer” where Ellery broke the fourth wall right before the denouement to see if the audience had figured out the solution to that week’s mystery.
In some respects, even though he perhaps wasn’t as famous as some of his more hard-boiled brethren, Ellery Queen may have been the ideal detective for the radio era. Audiences tuned in to detective and mystery shows for the thrill of trying to solve the crime, but none of the other sleuths they followed took the time to ask them “have you figured it out yet?” Ellery Queen, on print, screen, and radio encouraged a spirit of cooperation and involvement in his adventures unlike any of the other detectives who cracked cases during the Golden Age of Radio.