In Part One, we looked at the creation of the Ellery Queen mystery books and how they are an important part in the development of the American detective genre. Now let’s take a closer look at the Ellery Queen stories and why they are unique and a must read for mystery lovers.
Golden Age of Mysteries
Keeping with the format of Golden Age Mysteries, Ellery Queen is not always involved in the action. Many of the scenes focus on characters and potential suspects and much of the narration comes from these people as they interact with each. These interactions help to reveal possible clues.
Ellery might be off stage chasing down a detail, but later he reappears to share his discoveries and to learn what others have found. Ellery is a sharp observer and presents everything he discovers to the reader.
In Golden Age mysteries the clues are the most important element in the story because the detective cannot use intuition or guesswork to solve the crime. The clues must provide the answers.
We relate to Ellery because in many ways he is just like us. As readers we are gathering clues and following suspects to find who committed the crime and so is Ellery. Our goal is to figure out who did it before Ellery provides the solution.
A Mystery Jigsaw Puzzle
Ellery Queen mysteries are just like jigsaw puzzles. The books methodically lay out the puzzle pieces (clues) so we can make an informed decision about who did it. Just like a jigsaw puzzle the last piece fits only in one place and all the clues point only to one possible culprit.
The Reader Challenge
Another unique feature of the early Ellery Queen mysteries is the Reader’s Challenge where Ellery asks us to go head to head with him to solve the case. Here is a portion of the Readers Challenge from Halfway House (The Langtail Press, 2011, originally published 1936)
For many years I have been a voice crying in the wilderness—I trust not vainly—beseeching readers to repress heroically their guessing proclivities and play the game scientifically. It’s harder, but immeasurably more fun.
Why not begin with the problem of Joseph Kent Gimball’s murder?
At this point in the story you are in possession of all the facts needed to build up a complete and logical solution of the crime. Your job is to spot the vital clues, assemble them in rational order, and from them deduce the one and only possible criminal. It can be done; it has been done as you will see.
If you fail, of course, you can always fall back on the old reliable guesswork. If
you succeed, let me know about it.
Ellery reminds us that all the clues have been presented and we have been privileged to the same information he has. Therefore as reader’s we should arrive at the correct solution. Later books don’t specifically challenge the reader, but the process is still the same with all the clues pointing to only one possible solution.
All is Revealed
Following his reader’s challenge in Halfway House, Ellery has all the suspects return to the scene of the murder to help recreate the events. As the facts are revealed (don’t worry I won’t reveal who did it) the murderer makes a run for it. However what is interesting is the murderer’s name still isn’t revealed in this chapter. Of course if you have assembled your puzzle pieces in a logical order, as Ellery suggested, you know who did it. But just in case you missed the correct answer, in the next chapter Ellery takes the reader step by step through all of the clues. He explains how each of the possible suspects is gradually eliminated until there is only one person left—the killer.
Don’t Forget Ellery Queen
Ellery Queen mysteries are period books and a little dated but still a great read. If you haven’t read an Ellery Queen book, check out your local book store or jump on Amazon or B&N and order an Ellery Queen. As I mentioned in the last blog when you are finished, think about donating your copy to the local library. We want to make sure Ellery Queen mysteries continue to remain available for our fellow mystery lovers.