Invisible Ink: No 154 - Ellery Queen

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The Independent Culture

Attention please, this quickly gets complicated! For here's an author unique in these columns, in that he is pseudonymous, real, fictional and plural. Manfred Lee and Frederic Dannay were two Brooklyn cousins, both born in 1905. They set out to win a writing contest by producing detective fiction, and created a character under which to do so. But they also used the name as a character who is, in turn, a mystery writer. The fictional Ellery Queen helps his father, a New York City police inspector, solving strange crimes across more than 30 novels. Dannay came up with the plots and clues, then Lee wrote up the ideas into finished stories, which were of the fair-play type we now regard as Golden Age stories. In doing so, they created America's best-known detective, and soon Queen was branching out into radio shows, films and TV series.

By this time, Queen had come a long way from his first outing in The Roman Hat Mystery. Indeed, he had become more than simply a pseudonym or a fictional character; he had been transformed into a brand. The cousins were steeped in the lore of the genre, and co-founded Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine in 1941. The best-known magazine of its type in the world, it continues in the present day. Because the cousins were bibliophiles, they gathered together and edited a huge number of anthologies, producing a vast volume covering 100 years of great detective stories that sat on the reference shelf of many a future crime writer.

They also allowed other novelists to write as Ellery Queen, thus the brand's visibility remained through the decades. The name also cropped up in board games, jigsaw puzzles, comics, minute-long radio mysteries, films and short stories. The mystery expert Otto Penzler says: "Queen clearly is, after Poe, the most important American in mystery fiction." Dannay outlived his cousin by 10 years but he stopped using their detective, and their last volume, A Fine and Private Place, appeared in 1971.

The biggest mystery to me is why, when Queen became such a benchmark for high quality mystery stories, he is less well-known in the UK. Although he is not out of print, with some editions appearing now as ebooks, it seems that only other mystery writers are really aware of him. A possible reason is that the sheer complexity of the brand prevented it from establishing a foothold here. Yet another reason why authors get forgotten.

Christopher Fowler's 'Invisible Ink: How 100 Great Authors Disappeared' is out now, £9.99, from Strange Attractor Press