A Year with Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine: February 1951

With a matter of days to go until we move into March, I just managed to read February’s issue of Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, in time. If you missed last month’s post, I received all 12 issues for 1951 last December and I planned to read them one a month this year.

The opening advertising for this issue is concerned with Bertrand Russell who is reported as advocating the reading of detective fiction. He is quoted as saying:

‘Anyone who hopes that in time it may be possible to abolish war should give serious thought to the problem of satisfying harmlessly the instincts that we inherit from long generations of savages. For my part I find a sufficient outlet in detective stories, where I alternatively identify myself with the murderer and the huntsman-detective…’

Well, that’s one way to achieve world peace…

Detective Novelette

‘The Darkest Closet’ by Irvin S. Cobb

This story is by a new-to-me author and was originally published in 1936. The mystery is set around the real-life location of Reelfoot Lake, which was formed during the 1811-1812 New Madrid earthquakes. This setting lends itself to being sinister as it is full of unusual objects, such as full-sized trees which were flooded over the top. You might even say it is a great place to dump a body … and funnily enough someone has that idea in Cobb’s mystery. It all begins though with Judge Priest indulging in some amateur dramatics to postpone the filing of a will for probate. There is just something about one of the claimant’s widow, which just does not sit right with him. What that thing is, is not mentioned until the end of the story, but during the middle he and his confederates are busy across multiple states ferreting out information and they are not above a spot of grave robbing! The thing which made this a less engaging read was the Judge’s American dialect, as it sometimes meant I had to read long stretches of dialogue more than once to figure out what he was saying. He also acts a bit too enigmatically for me at times, although his supporters seem to be remarkably trusting. This trust is arguably a little bit misplaced when things go awry simply because the judge forgot to lock his safe, as well as not put his phone back on the hook. With a different lead sleuth I think I would have enjoyed this story more as the puzzle underneath was not a bad one.

Detective Stories

‘Crime Must Stop’ by Anthony Boucher

This is my first experience of Boucher’s short story writing, as I have only read some of his novels: The Case of the Crumpled Knave (1939), The Case of the Baker Street Irregulars (1940), The Case of the Seven Sneezes (1942) and Rocket to the Morgue (1943)). When introducing his story Ellery Queen challenge Boucher’s pessimistic thoughts about the future of mystery writing. They write that:

‘In an article in “The New York Times” of June 11, 1950, Mr Boucher partly ascribed the rise of science fiction to the relative ease with which the public accept new concepts – “and possibly another reason lies in some exhaustion of the mystery novel.” Then later in the same article, Mr Boucher expressed his fear that “mysteries are running out of fresh material.”’

Naturally this is an opinion they refute, but it interesting to see how Boucher’s attention was shifting more to science fiction.

This tale is set in Los Angeles and it kicks off with Lieutenant Macdonald receiving a trophy for a local radio competition for best real detective of the year. He gets chatting to an actress named Lynn Dvorak who is involved in the award ceremony and she goes with him when he says he is going to take the award to the man who really deserves it, Nick Noble. Noble was a framed policeman, who lost his job and his wife died as they couldn’t afford the operation. Consequently, he is now an alcoholic and he is always found in the same bar in this story when Macdonald goes to call on him.

Noble sounds like he has the mental makeup of a “Great Detective”: ‘He had a mind … it’s hard to describe: a mind of mathematical precision, with a screwball offbeat quality – a mind that could see the shape of things, grasp the inherent pattern -” Yet it also seems like circumstances have not necessarily stunted his sleuthing skills, but they have limited his detecting sphere in this story. I found this an interesting variation on the “Great Detective” trope.

But to go back to Macdonald’s intention to meet with Nick. This is a meeting which is ill-fated as it leads to murder a few months later and interestingly, it is murder which Macdonald feared might happen. Yet solving the case once it occurs is far from easy. The choice of victim was surprising as it gets you looking in the wrong direction. There is one very sneaky clue, which is fairly played, but I felt nevertheless, a couple more solid clues would have made the ending feel a little more satisfying. Nick Noble in some ways is quite a minor presence in the story, although I did enjoy his amusing Sherlock Holmes allusion.

‘The Monster’ by Vincent Cornier

I have only come across this writer once before, in Bodies from the Library (2018), which was edited by Tony Medawar. In this anthology Medawar says that Cornier’s work was ‘often implausible, sometimes preposterously so’ but ‘nevertheless always entertaining.’ This has partially proven to be the case here. The ending is truly bonkers, a solution which takes one of the hoariest detective mystery solutions and then makes it even more unbelievably bananas! Corner’s story is one of several retrospective stories in this issue and concerns “The Great Travers Case”. The police apparently know who has been committing an array of violent crimes, yet there is some legal loophole which prevents them from making an arrest. Going back over the Travers family history brings to light which this is. If you love the mad and the bizarre then this is the story for you. I might not have been in the right mood for it, and I was less entertained this time. I think a stronger lead character or narrative voice might have made matters more engaging. It perhaps didn’t help that a lot of information was being reported to us second hand.

‘Where Angels Fear to Tread’ by Stuart Palmer

Ellery Queen mention that Stuart Palmer sent them this story with nine other alternative titles they could pick from. They just chose the first one but here are the others they turned down:

  • Bird in Hand
  • Murder Wears a Wig
  • Up the Wrong Tree
  • Repent at Leisure
  • The Riddle of Honeymoon House
  • Miss Withers Smells a Rat
  • End of the Line
  • Crime in her Hair
  • Murder, She Says

Personally, I think the last one applies to the story quite well. But do any of the others take your fancy?

Hildegarde Withers’ surprise visit to her niece and her husband backfires spectacularly. Their house is for sale, and no one seems to be at home. Even worse she has to get bailed out when some snooping leads to her arrest by local police. Naturally, Withers is worried about what might have happened to niece, a poorly cleaned rug attesting to the fact some blood has been split recently. But whose? The case however takes an unexpected change of direction when our attention is focused upon Dr Doan, who runs a fraudulent counselling/therapy type of radio programme. This new tack takes a simple case and makes it far from straight forward. I enjoyed seeing Hildegarde Withers in some awkward situations and overall found this a very enjoyable case to follow. It is one of my favourite stories in this issue.

‘Lord of the Moment’ by F. Tennyson Jesse

This story originally appeared in The Strand and was sent to Ellery Queen in 1947. I am not sure why they held on to it for so long before publishing it. The mystery is set in Cornwall and starts with James Pentreath, who has the misfortune of having to go on a long walk over the moors with his friend, Kit, in the pouring rain. Kit’s sister Evie lost her husband several months ago and this demise is ever present in the story. For a mystery that involves a lot of walking, it also involves a lot of talking, though little results from it. The denouement is easily anticipated, and I felt the story was long for the size of plot that it offered. I was surprised to see this tale was categorised as a detective story by Ellery Queen. In my opinion it only fits that term in the very loosest of ways. To me it is much more of a psychological crime or suspense story. There is little to no emphasis placed on sleuthing, which is something of a peripheral activity in the narrative, which the protagonist picks up as the book unfolds.

‘Who Killed the Mermaid?’ by Q Patrick

This story was originally published in 1949 and takes place on a long-distance train. Lieutenant Timothy Trant is returning from a family reunion, in which he got the unfortunate birthday present of a garishly coloured tie. He assumes that is why he is being stared at by one of his fellow passengers. Having changed his tie and gone for food, he returns to his carriage only to discover that the starer is dead, killed with his own hideous tie – a mermaid themed one. The suspects are referred to in a Cluedo like way – ‘the blue bow’, ‘the scarlet four-in-hand’ and the ‘lavender foulard’. Each of these suspects had time to do the crime at one point or another. However, the solution lies in a missing object, along with another very good early clue, which easily passes you by. It is a clue which other writers have used, including Agatha Christie, and given how short Patrick’s story is, I thought it was used very well here. I was definitely impressed with how neat a plot Patrick manages in just a four-page story.

‘The Shadow and the Shadowed’ by Will Oursler

Ellery Queen share William Oursler’s nightclub anecdote of how he came to create his Irish private eye detective, Mike O’Shaunessey. Like other stories in this issue, it is a first-person narration, from Mike as he recounts a failed case of his involving Vashti Evie, who is now dead. In true hardboiled fashion O’Shaunessey is given a dubious new job, in exchange for very good money. All he has to do is watch someone’s fiancée to ensure that they do not commit suicide before their marriage in three days’ time. I think the ending is supposed to be a surprise, but I think most readers will have it sussed before they reach the conclusion.

EQMM First

‘The Pipes are Calling’ by Dan Sontup

The author was ‘one of the eight “first stories” which won special awards in EQMM’s Fifth Annual Contest.’ This mystery is narrated by a police officer who is on the run due to murdering a man. The story is stereotypical in its use of hardboiled language and sentence syntax, and it goes back over the intervening months, so we see why the murder was committed. The plot is very cinematic and arguably I think a visual medium would have carried this story better. On paper it becomes a rather predictable narrative arc.

Suspense Story

‘The Police are on the Stairs’ by Thomas Narcejac. Translated by Anthony Boucher.

When introducing this story Ellery Queen include some of Narcejac’s thoughts on the detective novel, as previously in 1947 he published Esthetique Du Roman Policier. They mention that ‘his definition of the ferreting form is interesting: a detective story, he says, is a narrative in which reasoning creates terror – and then is obliged to allay it…’. I found this an intriguing narrative arc and in terms of the story offered I think it is a pattern Narcejac achieves. Not all detective stories do, though I would not say that is a bad thing.

Narcejac’s mystery is constructed of diary entries written by a killer. He relates how he feels after the murder; a crime committed out of revenge for a wrong which occurred 15 years ago. He starts out exultant yet as the days pass his state of mind deteriorates. He is initially annoyed by the lack of newspaper coverage, but then is eaten alive by fear as he thinks the police are closing in on him. Again, this is another story in this collection which I think the reader can predict the ending of. There are not many twists available given the initial setup.

The Biter Bit

‘Margin of Safety’ by Cyril Hare

Hare begins with an intriguing couple of sentences:

‘It takes two to murder. The psychology of the murderer has been analysed often enough; what qualifies a man to be murdered is a subject less frequently discussed, though sometimes, perhaps, more interesting.’

I like how this turns things on its head and Hare achieves this at a plot level as well as a philosophical one. The crime that is described to us, in this tale, is committed by Ted Brackley and his murder victim is Derek Walton. The motive is the diamonds carried upon his person. I do not wish to say any more as it is a short tale, but it has a fantastic ending, and the writer beautifully keeps your attention elsewhere. I would class this as an inverted mystery. This is not a subgenre you would necessarily associate with Hare, if you have just read his novels, but it is a style which crops up quite a bit in his short fiction. This was my other favourite story of the issue.

Rating: 3/5 (This issue had two knockout reads with Palmer and Hare, but I felt the others were rather predictable.)

Coming up in March’s issue are:

  • Cornell Woolrich
  • Sinclair Lewis
  • Charlotte Armstrong
  • Margery Sharp
  • Achmed Abdullah
  • Roy Vickers
  • Edmund Crispin
  • Peter Godfrey
  • Lord Dunsany
  • Henry E. Giles

Are any favourite authors listed here? I know I am particularly looking forward to reading the stories by Woolrich, Armstrong and Crispin.


  1. Roy Vickers “Department of Dead Ends” stories are a personal favourite of mine. And in addition to the authors you mentioned, I think of Achmed Abdullah as more of a Pulp writer, Lord Dunsany as a fantasy writer and Sinclair Lewis of course is the first American to win the Nobel Prize in Literature, so quite a wide variety of top talent and literary approaches. The consistent level of talent Ellery Queen Magazine prints is unsurpassed.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Seconding the Roy Vickers recommendation; his Department of Dead Ends stories are often very good, though the quality can be variable. Peter Godfrey may be interesting too. Early EQMMs seem almost sure to have a great story, and they do also vary the type of stories they run. The older or more literary authors usually seem to be an existing story that the editors have viewed retrospectively as a mystery, but that works decently well. I would like to read more of these classic EQMM myself.

    Liked by 1 person

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