Ellery Queen – and Enthusiasm

Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine has played a surprisingly important part in my life – or rather, in my three lives, as reader, writer of fiction, and critic of the genre. I’ve enjoyed reading EQMM since I was a teenager – and from the moment that I fulfilled my ambition to become a published crime writer, EQMM has also exerted a significant influence on my literary career, an influence that continues right up to the present day.

But let me begin at the beginning. I started out as a reader, just as all writers do. Back in the Seventies, those happy days when it was easy to pick up the latest copy of EQMM in a British shop such as W. H. Smith, I devoured every issue that I could lay my hands on. Through EQMM, I encountered fine American writers I’d never read before. The outstanding example was Edward D. Hoch, whose work was a staple of the magazine for so long. Much later, I had the real pleasure of getting to know Ed in person.

I also soon discovered the Ellery Queen anthologies culled from the magazine, and before long I was delving back into those that had been published years earlier. I love the magazine today as much as I ever did. And I’m very glad to be one of the many authors associated with EQMM. But this didn’t come to pass overnight. Although my one and only ambition in life was to become a crime writer, I adopted a rather circuitous route to my goal.

My parents wisely advised that I ought to get myself a “proper job”, and encouraged me to study law at university and then train as a solicitor. I found that I enjoyed the work, but I still wanted to write – and then I discovered that it was possible to write legal books and articles, and get paid for it. Cunningly, I graduated to writing articles about lawyers who wrote fiction (which is how I came to know such splendid authors as Michael Gilbert and Sarah Caudwell) and then persuaded a legal magazine to hire me as a crime fiction reviewer. Reviewing and writing about the genre earned me membership of the Crime Writers’ Association.

Eventually, I completed my first detective novel, All the Lonely People, and found an agent who liked it. I also tried my hand at writing short stories. One of them (not published until several years had passed) was an apprentice effort called “A Job For Life”, which was influenced by my admiration for one of those writers – almost unknown in the UK – whom I’d discovered as a result of EQMM and the anthologies. This was Nedra Tyre, whose story “A Nice Place to Stay” is quite superb. To this day it ranks as one of my all-time favourites.

In the autumn of 1990, I attended a writers’ seminar in the seaside resort of Southport. The organisers ran a short story competition, to be judged by the fiction editor of “Bella”, a very popular magazine which in those days (no longer, alas) had a “five minute fiction” slot on the inside back page every week. And the guest speaker was a leading crime writer whom I’d already go to know through the CWA, Robert Barnard.

I won the competition with a story called “Are You Sitting Comfortably?” This was the first of a number of stories that I’ve written over the years which plays a game with the reader – the sort of trickery that is usually better suited to a short story than to a novel. The prize was publication in “Bella.” After many, many years of dreaming and writing, this was something special: the first piece of fiction of mine that had ever achieved publication. And to put the icing on the cake, Bob Barnard, a very kind man, contacted Eleanor Sullivan of EQMM and urged her to take a look at the story. She duly offered to publish it, and as a result I became a short story writer published on both sides of the Atlantic just before All the Lonely People finally hit the bookshops. It was, to say the least, an exciting time.

It was also the start of a long and very happy relationship with EQMM. I’m quite evangelical about the short story as a literary form, and I love reading and writing them. To date, I’ve produced about sixty, and many of them have appeared in EQMM. Since 1996, I’ve edited the CWA anthology of short stories, and this experience, agreeable as it undoubtedly is, has strengthened my admiration for Fred Dannay and for his successors as editors, Eleanor and Janet Hutchings; they have done such great work in selecting, time and again, just the right blend of stories for the anthologies they have edited. Anthologies are, by definition, a mixed bag, and so getting the balance right is important. Believe me, it is not as easy as it looks!

Among my favourites were Ellery Queen’s Golden 13 and Ellery Queen’s Golden Japanese Dozen. And nobody, surely, can deny the historic significance of 101 Years’ Entertainment: The Great Detective Stories 1841- 1941, an unforgettable collection of fifty stories representing high points of the detective short story. The supplementary volume, To the Queen’s Taste, made equally good reading. From discovering these anthologies, it was a short step to tracking down Queen’s Quorum, a history of the detective-crime short story, and that splendid collection of bits and pieces for crime fans, In the Queen’s Parlour.

Fred Dannay was wise enough to recognise that detective fiction touches on many things, but that first and foremost, its purpose is entertainment – about giving pleasure to the reader. And the pleasure communicated by books such as In the Queen’s Parlour is so real you can almost touch it. It’s a book packed with fun facts and opinions, put together in such a smoothly readable way that, although every page provides evidence of literary skill and deep knowledge, those subtle qualities are easily overlooked.

In the Queen’s Parlour was published at a time when books about the genre were rare. Now, they are plentiful, and I rejoice about that (as Dannay would have done), but occasionally, when I read an academic tome about the genre, crammed with learned terms and joyless footnotes, I am reminded that the best books about crime fiction are written by those who love it for its own sake.

Fred Dannay understood, as well as anyone has ever done, the difference between crime fiction of the highest quality, and lesser work, but it seems to me that his critical discernment was matched by a virtue that is equally important in a commentator, but less common – and that is enthusiasm. As a reader, I like to be encouraged to make new discoveries by someone whose judgement I trust, and whose enthusiasm I find infectious. For decades, I’ve found Ellery Queen’s recommendations to be as consistently reliable as his advocacy of significant yet relatively unfamiliar books (such as Six Problems for Don Isidro Parodi by “H. Bustos Domecq”) is admirable.

This approach to the genre has been a major – and extremely benign – influence on my own forays into crime criticism. I like to think that The Golden Age of Murder, my study of detective fiction in Britain between the wars, with particular reference to the Detection Club’s first ten years, reflects that influence very clearly. I found myself instinctively talking about the books of that era with the same sort of delight which was, to my mind, always a hallmark of Ellery Queen’s discussions about crime fiction, whether in the magazine, the anthologies, or the books about the genre.

Sadly, I never met Fred Dannay, but as well as admiring his achievements, I suspect that we had a few things in common. One of these is a deep interest in signed and inscribed crime novels. Fred was a great collector of signed and inscribed first editions, as anyone who reads the engaging discussion about signed books in In the Queen’s Parlour will know. In recent years, I’ve become fascinated by signed and inscribed books, and – as a lover of mysteries – in the curious stories that lie behind some of the more enigmatic inscriptions that can be found in a number of books. Some of those stories crop up in The Golden Age of Murder, and are taken from cryptic inscriptions in books in my own collection. But there’s one very special book that I am lucky enough to possess, which is not inscribed, but which bears a fascinating double signature. The novel in question is Agatha Christie’s wonderful debut, the book that introduced Hercule Poirot to the world, The Mysterious Affair at Styles. And I’m happy to say that double signature links my collection to Fred Dannay in quite a wonderful way. For the book is signed not only by Ellery Queen – but also by his literary alter ego, Barnaby Ross.

(This article first appeared in EQMM)