A Year with Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine: January 1951

As part of my advent calendar last year, I received all 12 issues of the Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine from 1951. I thought it might be fun to read them one a month throughout the year. Having had an initial flick through them it was interesting to see that there was more to the issues than short stories and novelettes, with the editors often including a lot of unusual snippets of information about authors, as well as having review sections. Some of the advertising is also of interest, such as in January’s issue, which begins with an advert which provides a headshot of various creative professionals, alongside a quote from them about why they enjoy Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine so much. There were three names that I recognised: John Dickson Carr, Christopher Morley, and James Hilton, and I would say they are the sort of people you might expect to be promoting the magazine. That might not be said for the remaining three promoters who all come from the field of music: Hazel Scott (concert pianist and jazz improviser), Lauritz Melchior (tenor of the Metropolitan Opera) and Helen Traubel (soprano). I wondered if this gathering of musical talents was deliberate or whether it was something that transpired naturally when gathering the quotes for the advert.

Christmas tree background with hedgehog and squirrel ornaments. On the tree is a copy of a 1951 Ellery Queen magazine.

Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine divides each issue into different subgenres or mystery writing styles, which leads to a contents page which is not in chronological order, unusually. January’s issue begins with…

Detective Stories

‘The Mystery of the Choir Boy’ by T. S. Stribling

Before the story starts, Ellery Queen inform their readers of a letter they received from Stribling in December 1949:

‘Dear EQ:

I am sending you something for a Christmas present – a story which is a literary criticism of the title of your magazine … I take exception to the word “Mystery.” You don’t really publish “mysteries” in your magazine – not in the true sense of the word. You publish – but we’ll let my new Poggioli story settle that…’

Ellery Queen continue by writing that off the back of this letter came this story, and they declared it is ‘the second most unusual Poggioli story Mr. Stribling has ever written.’ They hoped readers will find it ‘not only a moving and mature “mystery” but a deeply philosophical story of the Christmas spirit…’

I think this intro to the short story shows that Ellery Queen certainly had a knack for inflated waffle. They make it sound like we are going to get some epic Tiny Tim story with a dose of Sayers or Christie thrown in for good measure, and all I can say is, is that we must have been reading different stories. We spend so little time with the characters that it is hard to form any connection with them and therefore be moved by their experiences. However, I get ahead of myself.

Professor Poggioli and the narrator receive a visit from the rector of the exceptionally wealthy Church of Tiamara, Dr V. Olin May. The Holmes/Watson dynamic is deployed in the opening scene, with a little tongue in cheek. The narrator, firstly, thinks he is as good as the professor at analysing people, yet in his comic attempts to analyse the rector, we are shown otherwise. However, even the professor whose deductions are sound misunderstands why the rector has come to visit him. It transpires that Dr May is concerned about a proposition put to him by a local racketeer who socially wants to clean up his act. Aside from being seen at his church and giving a donation, the racketeer wants an impoverished boy, like he was, to be chosen for the church choir. The racketeer promises to pay for his schooling and to also adopt him as his son. This conversation takes place on Christmas Eve, but Christmas has very little role in the story other than being a date on a calendar. There is no mention of Christmas decorations, food or presents. We also bizarrely have the professor going to the church on Christmas day to select the boy the racketeer will adopt. There is no reason for this story to be set at Christmas.

Everything seems to go well until the boy’s twin sister is reported as drowned in the newspapers. Professor Poggioli fears reprisals have begun from within the racketeer’s gang, although there really isn’t any evidence to support his suggestion. Moreover, Poggioli thinks investigating the case will only harm the boy’s career and the racketeer’s “rehabilitation.” A point of view which is never going to sit well with a detective fiction reader. Further death follows, but the solution is disappointing in that it requires a high amount of new information. The ending is open as to what will happen to the killer.

In the story we hear how the professor’s understanding of the word mystery differs from the dictionary definition:

‘Mystery is really a religious term; it has to do with inscrutable ways of Providence – the Mysteries of Dionysus, the Mysteries of Ishtar, the early Christian Mysteries – until our Western world went consciously or unconsciously materialistic, and true mysteries ceased to be…’

Later he conveys the idea that a mystery you can solve isn’t really a mystery. Regardless, I am not sure how Stribling’s story embodies this alternative meaning of the word mystery, nor do I see a strong connection between his letter and his story. He has neither made his case nor written a good detective story.

‘The Inconspicuous Man’ by Clarence Budington Kelland

Kelland was a new author to me and once more Ellery Queen give him a handsome write up before his story begins:

‘But Clarence Budington Kelland did not always write to formula, slick or otherwise. The story by Mr. Kelland that we now bring to you is altogether different from the kind of story which created the immense Kelland reputation and popularity. Indeed, if we published “The Inconspicuous Man” without an author’s name, we doubt if anyone would dream of attributing it to CBK. For one thing, it is a pure detective story, with no concession whatever, either in plot or in characterisation, to so-called popular taste; for another thing, it is an almost fantastic blend of idealism and melodrama; and last, but decidedly not last, it is as fascinating and as satisfying an example of the bizarre and the outré in detection as we have read in many years.’

The original title for this tale was ‘Alias Scarface’ and it was published in 1927 in Snowden’s Ladies Companion.

The sleuthing figure is Alpin Stone who has been following a man simply because of his excessive ordinariness and indirectness in his normal activities, such as checking the time. Stone thinks as a consequence this man has the potential for evil and the rest of the story sees Stone proven right when he links the most ordinary man with inexplicable jail breaks and murder trials in which the juries freed men who were blatantly guilty. Given the overwhelming lack of evidence Stone goes for the-confronting-the-bad-guy approach and the ending threatens a great deal of violence. Once more I am baffled by the praise bestowed upon it by Ellery Queen and I struggle to see how this mystery is ‘pure detective story’ when really it is a thriller.

‘The Headprint’ by Barry Perowne

Perowne’s experiences of looking through a phrenologist and herbalist’s shopwindow led to him writing this story. It won the third prize in the annual Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine short story contest. Ellery Queen wrote that he wanted to create a criminal case, the solving of which hinged upon a phrenologist’s testimony, which is itself based on their professional knowledge.

The amateur sleuth for our story is 70-year-old phrenologist Digby Gripper, who begins the tale worried about his 18-year-old ward Drusilla. She is determined to dive into all kinds of work so they can live better off, phrenology not really producing much in the way of income. Normally when we have wayward wards in fiction they are up to much more questionable activities, so I think the present-day reader might not share the same anxiety that Gripper has. Nevertheless, one of his reasons for being concerned is the time she spends with Basil Rundle, a much older bald man who has a bad reputation with women.

On leaving a friend’s apartment, Gripper finds the stairway lights have fused, plunging him into darkness and instead of making his way to the lobby he ends up in the basement where Basil lives. He trips over and finds he is feeling a man’s bald head and assumes that it is Basil and that perhaps he has become unconscious through alcohol. Summoning a nearby policeman for help Gripper returns only to find Basil dead, stabbed with a pen knife. Yet Basil’s head is not the head Gripper felt in the dark. He is sure it was the murderer’s. The police do not believe him and he only becomes determined to solve the case himself when Drusilla’s previous love interest is arrested for the crime. The ending is a surprise and open ended in some respects. The finale felt truncated however, and I feel more could have been made of it.

‘The Man from the Death House’ by Frederick Irving Anderson

Anderson’s sister discovered this unpublished story after her brother’s death. Ellery Queen gave it a special posthumous award in their annual contest.

Confusing syntax made the opening paragraph of this tale hard work to read. However, I eventually pieced together that a crowd had formed outside a house in which a famous pianist had been asked to play. A criminal lawyer and murderer, Isidore Carmen, who was freed hours before his intended execution, goes to the concert. Naturally within an hour of arriving Carmen is found dead, murdered in the same room another person was killed in years ago. The killer for that crime got away with it due to Carman’s defence. A dummy newspaper seems to be doing the rounds locally which details the murder so accurately that the police assume the killer put it together themselves ahead of time. We also have a shifty footman who knows a lot about the medical based murder method used. The denouement is open ended as police do not have sufficient evidence at that time to arrest the guilty party. There is not much of a mystery in this one, although it had the potential to be, as there is a lot of telling rather than showing.

Roman Policier

‘The Stronger Vessel’ by Georges Simenon (Trans. Anthony Boucher)

This story was originally published in 1944 and before it begins Ellery Queen include this anecdote that Georges Simenon personally vouches for as being true:

‘A little before the War-to-End-Wars, Claude Farrère (the novelist, member of the French academy, author of La Bataille, etc.) who read all the Inspector Maigret stories as they came out, telegraphed from the Spanish border to a friend living in Strasbourg (a city very much watched by the police because it is on the German border) about a Maigret novel which both had been following in serial form and which had been the subject of an exchange of letters between them. The telegram read: INSPECTOR VANISHED. WE SUSPECT DIRTY WORK. WIRE ME TRUTH IN CIPHER. FARRÈRE. Immediately the officials got busy and both Farrère and his friend were almost arrested for counter-espionage.’

The story commences with Inspector Maigret’s wife telling her husband about an older gentleman who most days, at the same time, circles the area twice before sitting on a nearby bench. He does not move a muscle for hours and it looks like he is staring at Maigret’s house. Maigret teases her that she has an admirer, and wonders if the pretty maid who sits in the park might be another reason for the man’s regular visits. One day Maigret is home early for once and gets an evening with his wife. However, the mystery man is on his bench, way past his usual time for sitting there. Maigret naturally discovers why – he is dead, shot. It is soon revealed that the victim was really a young man disguised in a fake wig and moustache etc. The main interest of this story is the interaction between Maigret and his wife and his struggles with her, for once, being able to arrive at the same conclusions that he does, but quicker.

The Golden Twenty

When I shared the covers and contents pages of the 1951 Ellery Queen Mystery Magazines during December on Twitter and Instagram there were some queries about what “The Golden Twenty’ was, with followers being more familiar with “The Golden Dozen” instead. Fortunately, Ellery Queen explain matters in this issue:

‘In the issues of EQMM from January 1950 through December 1950 we brought you the twelve best detective short stories ever written – in the combined opinion of a Blue Ribbon Jury which consisted of James Hilton, Howard Haycraft, John Dickson Carr, Anthony Boucher, Vincent Starrett, James Sandoe, August Derleth, Viola Brothers Shore, Lee Wright, Lew D. Feldman, Charles Honce and […] Ellery Queen.’

“The Golden Dozen” proved so popular that readers asked them ‘to reprint other stories from the 83 nominated by’ the Blue Ribbon Jury. Ellery Queen picked eight more to make ‘The Golden Twenty’. The story that follows is one of the eight and the remaining seven which were to appear at intervals across the next two years are:

  • Two Bottles of Relish’ by Lord Dunsany
  • Philomel Cottage’ by Agatha Christie
  • ‘The Perfect Crime’ by Ben Ray Redman
  • ‘Tragedy at Brookend Cottage’ by Ernest Bramah
  • ‘The Red Silk Scarf’ by Maurice Leblanc
  • ‘The Door Key’ by Frederick Irving Anderson
  • ‘Faith, Hope and Charity’ by Irvin S. Cobb

‘Back for Christmas’ by John Collier

This short story was originally published in 1939 and according to Ellery Queen was a favourite of critic Clifton Fadiman. He included it in an anthology he edited called The Three Readers (1943) and Queen asserted that it was the only crime story included under the heading of ‘reading that I would like to persuade other people to read.’ They also include further quotes from Fadiman about the story, noting that he found it to be a ‘shivery trick of a tale’ and that the story ‘at one time or another aroused [his] admiration to a pitch of fervency sufficient to turn [him] into a literary evangelist’. Fadiman also described the tale ‘a piece of pure, devilishly ingenious manipulation’. Personally, I feel Fadiman just didn’t read much crime fiction – I can’t see anything in this very short story to raise it to such lofty heights. If you have read anything by Francis Iles or Richard Hull then you won’t be surprised, heck even if you haven’t, I still doubt you will be surprised by it!

It all begins with a send-off for Dr and Mrs Carpenter, as Dr Carpenter has secured a lecturing job in America for 3 months. All their friends are keen that the couple must return in time for Christmas and Mrs Carpenter promises that it will be so. It is here that we get hints, oh so not subtle, from her husband that suggest this might not be likely. Before they depart he murders her, Cluedo-style with a lead pipe to the head in the bathroom. This story therefore declares itself early on as an inverted mystery and the trajectory for the remainder of the story follows the well-trodden paths of this subgenre. Whilst the writer has some skill in writing in an entertaining fashion, the plot itself is not overly original.

Crime Story

‘The Confession’ by Maurice Level

This story was originally published in 1920 and relates the experiences of Monsieur Gernou, a lawyer, when he is asked to a sick man’s house. The man wishes to make a confession and begins with telling Gernou that he had many years ago been a public prosecutor for the Republic. He talks about one case where he secured the conviction of a man being tried for murder and how he went along to the execution. It is there that the condemned man tells the prosecutor that he was innocent, and we learn what consequences this had on the prosecutor. The ending is supposed to have something of a twist, but I found the tale very dull, and I think it would only play on the heart strings of someone who is extremely sentimental.

Mystery

‘The Blue Wash’ by ?

This next story was brought to the attention of Ellery Queen when Catherine Rawson, wife of Clayton Rawson (magician and crime writer) showed them an old book called Wide Awake Pleasure (1889). One section of the book is called ‘An Entertainment of Mysteries’ which is by a famous detective fiction author and in this issue of Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine there is an excerpt included which is called ‘The Blue Wash Mystery’. Ellery Queen wrote that they challenge the reader ‘after reading this museum-piece, to identify the author.’ There was a $10 prize for the first correct answer.

A gentleman bumps into a friend who owns a painting and decorating business and asks if he has any workers available to paint his house whilst he and his wife are away on holiday, going away in fact on that very day. He wants it to be a surprise for his wife. Yet he doesn’t have a key to give them as it he gave it someone else, and for some reason he can’t go and get another one. He says they can get in through an open upper window. From here we see what pickle the decorators get into. One would have to use a very elastic definition of ‘mystery’ to consider this as a mystery story.

In terms of identifying the author I was quite chuffed that I guessed it correctly (having checked my answer through the power of Google). I think the passage which helped me to solve that mystery was this one:

‘Now to you lady readers, the mystery will be that any man in his sane mind would dare to order his parlor furniture removed and the ceiling torn over a first-class axminster carpet without warning his wife of the destruction that loomed over her favourite property. But that is not the mystery of this tale.’

To me this indicated a female author.

Detective Novelette

‘Another Man’s Poison’ by Q. Patrick

Before launching into the story, Ellery Queen mention a conversation they had with the writers behind the penname Q Patrick. In this conversation:

‘[…] the Q. Patricks remarked that sooner or later every mystery novelist takes a whack at murder-in-a-hospital – another traditional ‘tec springboard. According to the Q. Patricks, the irresistible appeal of killing someone in a hospital is psychological: the contrast between life-saving and life-taking is too dramatic for any mystery writer to resist, and the variations of plot-device are almost so infinite that the basic situation need never grow stale. Then, too, the hospital locale offers an equally irresistible heroine – the beautiful nurse who inevitably finds herself being pursued down midnight corridors, or trapped in a surgical amphitheatre, or in even more hair-raising, goose-fleshing predicaments.’

I found this an interesting statement as I think whilst some classic crime writers wrote hospital set mysteries such as Mignon G. Eberhart, Mary Roberts Rinehart and Josephine Bell, there were a lot of big names which did not write a hospital murder mystery novel. In some ways I tend to associate hospital mysteries with the HIBK style of mystery writing, although there were multitudes of exceptions.

This novelette starts in the operating theatre of the College Hospital and our protagonist is Nurse Rona Heath. Everyone is waiting for Dr Knudsen to appear so afternoon surgery can begin. However, he is uncharacteristically late, and Rona discovers Dr Knudsen arguing with his sister who is being blackmailed. Dr Knudsen wants to expose it all at the hospital board meeting later that day. So, from the first couple of pages the authors have quickly established the mystery in terms of who is likely to die and what the motives might be for their death. Dr Knudsen unsurprisingly keels over mid-operation and dies from hyoscine poisoning. Rona conveniently has a brother called Jim on the police force, so he gets to come investigate.

The puzzle angle of this story becomes more impressive the more you read, as the writers are good at giving you many jigsaw pieces of information, yet it will be revealed that not all of the pieces go into the final picture. The blackmail angle, for example, is more complicated than it initially appears to be. Furthermore, their good use of red herrings means that the reader is confident that they have sidestepped the trap and cottoned on to the truth, when in fact the authors have slipped a sneakier red herring past them.

The elucidator of this mystery is one of the medical staff at the hospital rather than Jim or Rona. The latter of this pair whilst good at finding out information, is very poor at exhibiting common sense. Her foolish behaviour is a direct contributor to another person’s death and oh yes, we go to the isolated and darkened operating theatre late at night! I identified the killer although not necessarily the same way as the character does in the story.

This was by far the most enjoyable story in the issue, and despite being the longest it is one that I zipped through. The characterisation works well for the length of the piece and I felt like we got to spend time with many of the characters and become more involved with what was going on.

Rating: 3/5 (Although there were some bright spots in this issue such as the Q. Patrick novelette, many of the stories were so-so or a bit dull to be honest. I wonder if this is because it is an issue which relied on reprinting a lot of older stories.)

Coming up in February’s issue are stories by…

  • Irvin S. Cobb
  • Anthony Boucher
  • Stuart Palmer
  • Will Oursler
  • F. Tennyson Jesse
  • Q. Patrick
  • Cyril Hare
  • Thomas Narcejac
  • Dan Sontup

Are any of these favourite authors of yours? Any new names to you?

13 comments

    • Thank you! Just hope I am organised enough to keep up with reading them one a month. It’s weird but reading a collection of short stories takes longer than reading one novel, even if the novel is longer.

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  1. I checked the February issue online to see which Stuart Palmer story it contains and it’s “Where Angels Fear to Tread,” which I thought was one of the better stories collected in Hildegarde Withers: Final Riddles?. Palmer’s short stories from the 1950s and ’60s tended to focus more on character-driven storytelling than intricate, Golden Age-style plotting, but “Where Angels Fear to Tread” has multiple plot-threads and a very good, satisfying solution. It also has a great clue you should be able to spot, but correctly interpreting that clue is not as easy as spotting it. You’ll probably like it and highly recommend the two Hildegarde Withers collections from Crippen & Landru.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Helen Traubel is credited as the author of “The Metropolitan Opera Murders” which was originally published in 1951. I *assume* it was actually ghostwritten by somebody else, and her name was used to get some celebrity press.
    However, a new edition of the book came out in 2022 from Poisoned Pen Press / Library of Congress Crime Classics — so who knows what the story is.

    Not me. I haven’t read it.

    Liked by 1 person

    • The Traubel book was indeed ghosted. The real author was Harold Q. Masur, a lawyer turned mystery novelist whose own books fall into the “semi hard-boiled” crime category and feature his lawyer detective Scott Jordan. The only mystery novels from the Golden Age truly written by an opera singer were those penned by Queena Mario. Of the trio of books she wrote only the first one is worth anyone’s time.

      Liked by 1 person

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