The pseudonym of writers Manfred B. Lee (1905-1971) and his cousin Frederic Dannay (1905-1982), and the name of the main character of their popular mystery novel series, Ellery Queen was probably the most popular American mystery novelist of the Golden Era of detective fiction, from the 1920s to the 1940s. The cousins (particularly Dannay) also did much to preserve and promote the mystery short-story form. They produced the long-running Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, edited short story anthologies that promoted short fiction as a viable mystery vehicle, and avidly collected short-form mystery fiction. As fellow mystery writer Anthony Boucher is often quoted as saying, "Ellery Queen is the American Detective Novel."
The cousins grew up together in New York and tried their hands at various careers in adulthood. In the late 1920s, Lee and Dannay (real names Manford Lepofsky and Daniel Nathan) decided to try writing a mystery novel in response to a contest cosponsored by McClure's magazine and Frederick A. Stokes's Publishing. They chose the name Ellery Queen for their author and, reasoning that mystery readers are better at remembering the names of characters than names of authors, they decided to give their detective the same name. They submitted their story and were told they had won the contest, but the magazine went bankrupt and changed hands, after which the prize was awarded to someone else. Stokes still wanted to publish the book, however, and The Roman Hat Mystery (1929) was the first Ellery Queen novel. Queen's career is often divided into three distinct periods: 1929-1935, 1936-1941, and 1942-1970. This first period is notable for titles that all follow the same formula—"The Adjective-of-Nationality Noun Mystery"—such as The Chinese Orange Mystery.
After several successful Queen novels, the cousins decided to create another character and pseudonym, and the Barnaby Ross series was born. The detective in this series was a deaf former Shakespearean actor named Drury Lane. This series survived through four books, the first of which was The Tragedy of X.
In 1939 they launched the first Ellery Queen radio series. The Queen mystery shows became a popular fixture on the radio and, subsequently, three different television series were produced from 1950-1959, none very successfully. More recently, a critically acclaimed series starring Jim Hutton premiered in 1975. Unfortunately, the ratings were not good and the show was canceled. The show's producers later had more success as the creators of the long-running show, Murder, She Wrote, starring Angela Lansbury.
Queen was not any more successful as a motion picture character. There were several Ellery Queen films beginning in 1935 and continuing with a series of films in the 1940s, starring Ralph Bellamy as Ellery. Other motion pictures were made in the 1960s and 1970s, all of them forgettable. None of the films were very good, although the Bellamy series did have a following.
In 1938 Dannay started Challenge to the Reader, the first of many anthologies edited as Ellery Queen. In 1941 Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine was launched and it remains the most successful magazine of its type. Also in 1941, Dannay published the anthology, 101 Year's Entertainment, considered as the definitive anthology of short mystery fiction of its time. Dannay was principally responsible for the magazine and the anthologies while Lee devoted more of his time to the radio show.
The cousins were also among the founding members of the Mystery Writers of America, the organization that annually presents the Edgar Allan Poe awards. They themselves won Edgars in 1945 for Best Radio Play, in 1947 and 1959 for Best Short Story, and in 1960 they were given the Grand Master Award.
Ellery Queen continued to produce novels and short stories throughout the 1950s and 1960s, with the last book, The Last Woman in His Life, appearing in 1970. Manfred Lee died in 1971 and Dannay briefly considered continuing with the series with another writing partner, but he later rejected the idea. Dannay did, however continue to produce anthologies and personally edited the magazine until his death in 1982.
Ellery Queen novels are still widely read by fans of older mystery fiction and certainly influenced many mystery writers of today. However, it is probably from the Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine that most people recognize the name. The magazine continues to be the most popular and enduring of its kind and is considered a valuable training ground for future mystery novelists.
—Jill A. Gregg
Nevins, Francis M. Royal Bloodline: Ellery Queen, Author and Detective. Ohio, Bowling Green University Popular Press, 1974.
Nevins, Francis M., and Ray Stannich. The Sound of Detection. Indiana, Brownstone Books, 1983.