Ellery Queen's The French Powder Mystery

The name “Ellery Queen” is familiar to readers, even those who have never read a Queen mystery. Most people, however, do not know that a pair of cousins – Frederic Dannay and Manfred B. Lee – are, in fact, the authors. Ellery Queen is also the name of their series detective, a clever marketing strategy to increase name recognition. Indeed readers are more likely to remember the name of the author when it is the same as that of the main character. Dannay and Lee probably adopted the idea from S. S. Van Dine whose narrator is also the author of the novels. This strategy, as Wheat suggests, is “very postmodern” (2005, 87).

Dannay and Lee wrote 35 Ellery Queen novels between 1929 and 1971 but were also involved in a series of related activities. The pair founded the Mystery Writers of America Association, wrote weekly scripts for The Adventures of Ellery Queen radio series, edited a yearly anthology of mystery short stories by new authors, wrote 9 volumes of Ellery Queen short stories, published bibliographic and scholarly articles, and created Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine – a distinguished periodical still in existence today. During Lee's lifetime, he amassed the largest collection of mystery short stories in existence and donated it to the University of Texas.

Dannay and Lee kept their identities as authors secret for many years. In 1932, Ellery Queen was asked to give a lecture on mystery-novel writing at Columbia University’s School of Journalism. The cousins flipped a coin to decide who should go. Lee delivered the lecture in a mask and started appearing at bookstores in this mask to autograph books (Bainbridge 1943, 75).

The authors continually refused to divulge their collaborative working methods but after their deaths, their families claimed that Dannay created the initial ideas and plot outlines while Lee did the actual writing. But it was not quite as straightforward and manageable as it sounds. In 1969 Dannay told The New York Times: “Clash of personalities is good for the ultimate product. . . We fight like hell. We’re not so much collaborators as competitors. It’s produced a sharper edge” (Shenker 1969).

The second Ellery Queen novel, The French Powder Mystery, begins with a dramatic incident. During a demonstration of new furniture in the window of a fashionable Fifth Avenue department store, a wall-bed swings out, exposing the corpse of the store owner’s wife. The daughter goes missing and is suspected of matricide. The story ends as dramatically as it begins with the murderer’s identity withheld until the final two words of the book.

The French Powder Mystery is a classic clue-puzzle novel. Symons points out that the incredible ingenuity of the story rests on “a relentlessly analytical treatment of every possible clue and argument” (1992, 127). At one point during the novel, the author issues a direct challenge to the reader:
I state without reservation that the reader is at this stage in the recounting of The French Powder Mystery fully cognizant of all the facts pertinent to the discovery of the criminal; and that a sufficiently diligent study of what has gone on before should educe a clear understanding of what is to come. (270)
The authors include such an explicit challenge to the reader in most of their novels. These challenges demonstrate their resolve to “play fair” by presenting all the clues necessary for solving the crime.

One of the greatest appeals of The French Powder Mystery is the dynamics of the father/son detective team. Inspector Richard Queen – the seasoned police inspector – and Ellery Queen – the brilliant amateur detective – bring to the case complementary strengths and skills. Their close working and familial relationship is convincingly portrayed by authors who themselves experienced such an alliance.

The character of Ellery Queen was strongly influenced by both Sherlock Holmes and Philo Vance. Erudite, brilliant, and aloof, Ellery “deplored the more unimaginative aspects of his father’s profession. He was the pure logician, with a generous dash of dreamer and artist thrown in” (xii).

The old-world New York setting of the 1920s provides an engaging background for the action. Particularly appealing is the Queens’ Manhattan brownstone with its “odor of old leather and masculinity,” a place described as “a veritable fairyland of easy bachelordom” (207, 208).

Dannay and Lee won the Grand Master of the Mystery Story as well as five Edgar awards for their work. Their wide-ranging contributions to the mystery genre have raised the profile of this popular type of fiction.

Bainbridge, John. “Ellery Queen, Crime Made Him Famous and His Authors Rich.” Life. November 22, 1943, 70-72, 74-76.

Queen, Ellery. The French Powder Mystery. 1930. New York: Otto Penzler Books, 1995.

Shenker, Israel. “Ellery Queen Won’t Tell How It’s Done.” The New York Times. February 22, 1969.

Symons, Julian. Bloody Murder: From the Detective Story to the Crime Novel. New York: Mysterious Press, 1992.

Wheat, Carolyn. “The Last Word: The Real Queen(s) of Crime.” Clues 23, no. 4 (2005): 86-90.