A Year with Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine: March 1951

So far, I have managed to keep up with my goal to read each magazine from 1951 in its respective month. Of the three I have read to date I think this one is the strongest, with some particularly good stories kicking off the issue. If you have missed my two previous Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine reviews, you can access them here:

N. B. The order in this review follows the order of the contents page. This counterintuitively does not match the chronology of the stories in the magazine itself.

Detective Stories

‘All the way Home’ by Charlotte Armstrong

If the introductory information is correct, then this is the first occasion Armstrong had a story published in this magazine. Ellery Queen seem to have been fans of her work writing that she ‘is going to make detective story history.’ Whilst it is nice to see positive things written about an author whose work I enjoy; it is a shame that she is not so well-known today. When writing at her best her work did expand and update the suspense novel, psychological crime fiction and the inverted mystery, yet unfortunately this is not the legacy she is known for. The over-romanticised covers her books suffered did great harm in this respect. If you are new to her then this is a best to worst list of the ones I have read to date:

  1. The Unsuspected (1947)
  2. The Chocolate Web (1948)
  3. Mischief (1950)
  4. A Dram of Poison (1956)
  5. Catch as Catch Can (1953)
  6. Incident at a Corner (1957)
  7. Night Call and Other Stories of Suspense (2015)
  8. The Better to Eat You (1954)
  9. The Innocent Flower (1945)
  10. A Little Less Than Kind (1964)

Unusually, for an Armstrong story this tale is narrated by a happily married woman. This is unusual as normally female leads are single and their primary aim is not to do with getting down the aisle to the altar (the fact they might snag a man during the course of the mystery is of secondary concern). Moreover, the women who are married in Armstrong’s work are not typically the central character and they are often at odds with their husband, if they are still around.

Yet from the get-go the narrator tells us:

‘I’d dreamed, so many times, how I would save the man I loved. In a dozen wild plots all would depend on me, my nerve, and my wits. And I’d dreamed how I’d win. But what happened wasn’t like my dreams at all – nothing like them.’

Before you fear it gets any more mushy, the narrator fills in some background details: Tom, her husband, was wrongfully imprisoned for embezzlement and whilst he was released after a month, he has become distrustful and bitter towards the police. One night a crisis occurs and Tom fears he will be wrongfully arrested once more. The pair think they have solved the situation until someone walks into the beauty salon the narrator works at. Will she be recognised? What can she do to save Tom? The ending does turn things upside down, but I think Armstrong’s endeavours to conceal the truth for as long as possible, meant there is one section which becomes a confusing rut. I definitely got to the end and felt I had to go back and re-read that section to see if I had missed anything.

‘The Sheriff Went to Cincinnati’ by Henry E Giles

This story was ‘one of the eight “first stories” which won special awards in EQMM’s Fifth Annual Contest.’ My heart sank a little, however, when I read that this story was ‘what might be called a hillbilly-regional-dialect story, and a good one – with the slow drawl of the hills in every sentence and an earthy authenticity in every word.’

Giles’ mystery has the structure of a story within a story and the framing device involves a woman and her husband, Henry, talking to the man surveying the boundaries of the farm they have just bought. The couple are also writers, and these details mirror the writer’s own life to a degree. The surveyor then tells them about a tale from the area’s past. It did not have such a great reputation back then. It was a time of illicit stills and four young men whose friendship is torn apart by the love of a woman. Murder and death inevitably follow. This was not an overly interesting read, and the ending is anticipatable.

‘The Post-Mortem Murder’ (1921) by Sinclair Lewis

Given that Lewis is not known for his mystery fiction writing, I was wondering what his story would be like. I was not encouraged by this statement made by Ellery Queen when introducing the story:

‘You will find the Sinclair Lewis story both provocative and disturbing […] for our purposes, the narrator is a detective – in a curiously literary way – and the crime is that of murder – in a curiously literary way.’

Hmm… nothing suspicious there at all…

The story involves an associate professor who becomes obsessed with tracking the life history of an old rogue, Jason Sanders, whose diaries, and letters came into his possession when Sanders’ son dies near to where the associate professor was holidaying. So impressed is he by the poetry, that the associate professor pens articles and a book about his life, incurring a degree of fame. This turns sour when an academic rival pours cold water on his research. But our narrator is not about to be defeated and will do whatever it takes to find out the truth about Jason.

So yes, this is ‘literary’ indeed!

There is some detective work involved in tracking Jason down, but this is not a detective story and criminal activity is tangential. Very few will be surprised by the denouement. This is so often what happens when a “literary” writer tries to write a crime/detective story; the plotting and pacing are not a strong suit. Although arguably you could say that writing a piece of genre fiction was never the writer’s aim and Ellery Queen have just shoehorned the story in, so they could splash a big name on their cover. (He gets second billing after Cornell Woolrich on the cover).

‘The Man with the Sneer’ by Roy Vickers

Vickers’ story is an inverted mystery, which begins with us being told that Rhode Grenwood has murdered Gerald Raffen, and that his best means of avoiding arrest is preventing the police from uncovering his motive. We learn early on that Grenwood felt responsible for the injuries Raffen entailed due to a school dormitory fire, despite the inquiry exonerating him. This guilt leads to a lifelong dysfunctional friendship, and most of the story is concerned with charting this. Whilst it was interesting seeing what finally makes the murder happen, I did still feel there was too a long build up to it and that the story overall lacked drama.

Crime Stories

‘Mr Partridge and the Enemy’ (1937) by Margery Sharp

Sharp is not an author I have come across before. Queen mention two other books by her: The Nutmeg Tree (1937) and Cluny Brown (1944), although both appear to be non-mystery titles. The quality in her work that they hone in on is her ‘blend of crime and comedy in post-war England.’

The tale begins on a Sunday morning with Mr Partridge and Mr Brough doing their usual walk. They have a shared wartime past:

‘It always came as a surprise to Mr Partridge to remember that a man once tried to kill him with a dagger and would indeed have done so but for being shot through the head by Mr Brough. Extraordinary, almost unbelievable occurrence! It happened in the war, of course, and the victim was merely a unit in the vast anonymous mass known as The Enemy; but of late Mr Partridge, whenever the memory reoccurred, thought of him not as an Enemy but simply Another Man.’

I thought this spotlight on how a soldier retrospectively viewed their war interesting, and I think Sharp does make an effort with her characterisation.

Mr Partridge is a civil servant, whilst his friend is a glassware expert for an antiques firm. Yet Mr Brough fears he will be sacked as he bought an antique, not realising it was a fake (his wife was being operated on that day). The money spent was not horrendous, but an important client is coming tomorrow, expecting it to be genuine. His boss will not be pleased, and Mr Brough thinks he will be replaced by the boss’s relation.

With a crisis in the offing, we get the comedy, as Mr Partridge decides to steal and destroy the item to save his friend’s job. The preparations for the crime are well-told and there is gentle amusement as Mr Partridge is no one’s natural burglar:

‘The gesture started a most interesting discussion on the subject of alibis and disguises – whether Mr Brough, in the fictious company of Mr Partridge, should go to the movies or for a long walk, whether Mr Partridge himself should chalk on a moustache or merely turn up his collar. In the end it was decided that he should simply look as inconspicuous as possible; which rather disappointingly entailed no change at all from his normal appearance.’

It was also quite funny that Mr Partridge couldn’t take either the spanner or torch he wanted as his son wanted them that night. You don’t spend long with Mr Partridge but Sharp gets you rooting for him quickly. If this is the kind of plot you like, you might also want to try Donald Henderson’s A Voice Like Velvet (1944).

‘The Honourable Gentleman’ (1919) by Achmed Abdullah

Achmed Abdullah (1881 – 1945) is another new-to-me author and the name was a pseudonym for Alexander Nicholayevitch Romanoff. Ellery Queen write in their introduction that ‘he appeared to be that rare type of writer who first lived his stories, then wrote about them.’ Given the nature of the story, I hope ‘The Honourable Gentleman’ is an exception! The tale is set on Pell Street in New York and the plot is interested in the marriage of Tsing Yu-Ching to a blind 16-year-old called Minnie. He is not a handsome man so finds Minnie’s lack of sight reassuring. But five years into their marriage it seems like an operation will give Minnie her sight. This throws Yu-Ching into despair, as he fears she will loathe him upon sight. How will he get out of that situation? His solution is disturbing to say the least and it is a crime story in the slightest of ways. So, all in all, this was a weak story and from a racial stereotypes point of view I don’t think a publisher today would touch it with a barge pole – and I don’t blame them! Ellery Queen are sad that in 1951, his work was ‘almost forgotten’ but based on this one I can see why it was!

‘Painless’ (1948) by MacKinlay Kantor

This is a very short story, only two pages long. It hinges upon a dentist who is confronted by an escaped convict who needs several fillings attended to. What will the dentist do? These stories rely on having a sting in their tale, but I think the story was too narrow here to prevent the reader from knowing what that sting would be.

Suspense Story

‘Through a Dead Man’s Eye’ (1939) by Cornell Woolrich

Before the story commences, the magazine includes a bibliography of the collected short stories by Cornell Woolrich to date, which I imagine was helpful in a pre-internet age. I have enjoyed the two novels I have read by him so far: Deadline at Dawn (1944) and The Bride Wore Black (1940). Both books are worth picking up pronto.

Those who have read more by Woolrich may say it was quite common, but I thought it was unusual for this writer to adopt a child first person narrator. The mystery opens as follows:

‘The idea in swapping is to start out with nothing much and run it up to something. I started out with a buckle without a tongue and a carved peach pit, that day, and swapped it to a kid named Miller for a harmonica that somebody had stepped on. Then I swapped that to another kid for a penknife with one blade missing. By an hour after dark, I had run my original capital up to a baseball with its outside cover worn off, so I figured I’d put in a pretty good afternoon. Of course, I should have been indoors long before then, but swapping takes time and makes you cover a lot of ground.’

This is a small incident, but firstly it gives a real sense of the narrator’s character indirectly, and secondly it is made absolutely relevant to the plot. Shortly after this opening scene, our 12-year-old narrator, Frankie, gets hauled back home by his dad who is unhappy because he is due to be demoted at work through no fault of his own. He is a police officer, and the reduced pay means they will have to move. Frankie is desperate to stop this from happening and is therefore determined to find a murder case before anyone else knows about it, so his father can swoop in and solve it first. His attention turns to the glass eye he got out of the swap: Who did it originally belong to? So, naturally he must trail the eye through the swaps, which is a wonderful way of obscuring the investigative waters. It definitely feels like a proper hunt, with stake outs and shadowing involved too. Woolrich makes this an intriguing and tense investigation to follow. Frankie acts normally and responds to a corpse like you think he would, but he is also brave. So, in summary this is a great story, in terms of plotting, pacing, characters and Woolrich’s choice of ending.

The Golden Twenty

‘Two Bottles of Relish’ by Lord Dunsany

I reviewed this story when I looked at Two Bottles of Relish: The Little Tales of Smethers and Other Stories (1952) by Lord Dunsany. Ellery Queen refer to it as ‘the finest example of a pure-detective-horror short story we know – a classic.’

Locked Room Stories

‘A Dagger of the Mind’ by Peter Godfrey

Peter Godfrey was the creator of South African detective Rolf le Roux, not a fictional sleuth I have encountered before. This is his first case and Ellery Queen describe is as ‘one-part “miracle problem,” one-part “impossible crime,” and one-part “locked room” […]’. Reflecting on the mystery, I think it is more of an abstract case to be solved, although there are a couple of in text clues. It operates a bit like an inverted mystery in that we see Cording murder Snyder. Yet before he can escape the office crime scene, the caretaker locks him in with the corpse before going for the police. His only way to bluff it out is for the police to not find the weapon. They have a three hour deadline so he doesn’t miss his boat (and cause a big stink about it). So, they call in Le Roux, whose rural background helps him solve the case, due to his life experiences just putting an idea in his head. The tale is a bit short to have much plot development, but it works well enough. Le Roux is an appealing character from what I saw and I would be interested to read a longer story with him in.

‘‘Nine Minus Nine Equals One’ by Edmund Crispin

Ellery Queen sum up the story this way:

‘Nothing erudite or academic this time – just the little matter of a train engineer who simply vanished into thin air while the train itself stood in the station at Clough, impatient to move on – just the little matter of Fate performing a conjuring trick in the shape of an outdoor locked-room.’

The police had surrounded the station previously, waiting for a burglar who was supposed to be on the train, so that is why the engineer could not have left the train at the station. This is an okay story, but I did not think there were enough opportunities for Gervase Fen to shine and it felt like the mystery told rather than showed you things. Given how much I enjoy the Fen novels, I found this story not as good as I was expecting.

Hospitalised Veterans Prize Story

‘The Miracle’ by Charles A. Shea

Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine sponsored a mystery-story category for the Hospitalised Veterans Writing Project competition. They chose Shea’s story as the winner. They write that he sent ‘his story from Ward 1-B, Room 233, V A Hospital, Albuquerque, New Mexico, where has been hospitalised since 1947’ and that he had ‘served in the U. S. Navy, on destroyer duty in the Pacific.’ The setting for Shea’s story is El Sombrero and the narrator tells us what happened when Father Quinn, new to area, enters his boss’s drinking and gambling joint. In some ways I think crime is more a background to the story rather than something which is up front and centre in the plot. The ending is a little predictable but the story is told well and does not outstay its welcome.

Rating: 3.75/5

In April’s issue the focus is on stories by ‘the eight best mystery writers of all time, as ranked by the Gallup Poll.’ These authors are:

  • Erle Stanley Gardner
  • Arthur Conan Doyle
  • Ellery Queen
  • Edgar Allan Poe
  • Agatha Christie
  • Mary Roberts Rinehart
  • Rex Stout
  • Dashiell Hammett

If you could go only pick 8 authors, which would you say were the eight best at writing mysteries?


  1. The Sinclair Lewis does sound like an interesting story after all, not a especially good mystery story, but definitely worth reading as a short story. Sorry to hear the Crispin was a disappointment though, I usually enjoy his Gervase Fen novels.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Manfred Lee famously had little to do with EQMM; it was essentially Frederic Dannay’s baby as an editorial project (and he had a string of managing editors, some better than others, Robert P. Mills being a particularly acute one, who also edited BESTSELLER MYSTERY and MERCURY MYSTERY BOOK/MAGAZINE during EQMM’s last years, and a bit after, at Mercury Press, before being bought by B. G. Davis to help him launch his Davis Publications.

    He did, as you note, tend to reach for maintaining the biggest tent he could, and include as much borderline crime reprints by writers who interested him as he could cram. Some of them even good or better!

    Most of the Woolrich protagonist narrators I recall are often women dealing with the tragic results of what-have-you, including taking active revenge…a fair amount of men in similar circumstances, not so very many children. But I haven’t read the majority of his copious output yet, as Dannay certain seems to have done. EQMM was launched in part as a Popular Money Raiser for Mercury Press, which was publishing AMERICAN MERCURY at the time, edited by H. L. Mencken initially with help from his old editing partner George Jean Nathan…AM was a somewhat more sobersided and more blatantly politically conservative heir to their previous magazine together, THE SMART SET, the first or certainly one of the first markets for Dashiell Hammett and Cornell Woolrich, Not writing hardboiled nor noir fiction…but TSS’s relatively limited audience led the publisher to seek something which would mint money, and a pulp they called THE BLACK MASK (from the masquerade mask in THE SMART SET’s logo) began publishing as a wide-ranging adventure pulp, and would slowly narrow its focus to crime fiction and become the most influential of magazines in that field for some years, picking up Hammett and Woolrich as contributors of what we are likely to remember them for the most. Albeit its best years, and later, were simply as BLACK MASK. (I was very fond of the 1980s revival periodical book.) Hence the arguably weak justification for EQMM laying claim to the BLACK MASK title at midcentury, and in tribute bringing it back again in the last decade, since the two magazines, otherwise rather different, were both founded to help sibling magazines keep afloat, and did well for themselves beyond that.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. My 8 favorites might run to Marcia Muller, Sara Paretsky, Dashiell Hammett, Lawrence Block, Donald Westlake, Bill Pronzini, Joe R. Lansdale and Ed Gorman, but there are dozens who could challenge any of them in my affection for their work. Can you cite an obvious 8 yourself?


    • ooh that’s a difficult question (which is why I asked it rather than answered it in my blog post lol). I feel like Christie would be in my top 8, but as to the other 7, that’s a tricky decision. Depends what your criteria is. Contribution to the genre as a whole, consistent quality over whole output (but what if their output was only 3 or 4 books)… yes a lot to think about. Tempted to suggest Alice Tilton as of her 8 Leonidas Witherall books, the lowest rating I gave was 4/5, but even so I don’t know if I could she was one of the 8 greatest crime/mystery writers.

      Liked by 1 person

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