Tuesday, February 17, 2004

“…the logical successor to Sherlock Holmes…”

Cousins Frederic Dannay and Manfred Lee created the fictional detective known as Ellery Queen over lunch one day in 1929. Their first collaboration, The Roman Hat Mystery, paved the way for more than forty subsequent novels, a mystery magazine, movies, TV series—and of course, a popular program during the Golden Age of Radio.

Radio’s Ellery Queen was a New York mystery writer with a talent for solving crimes, and because his methods involved the science of deduction he was often compared to an equally famous sleuth who operated out of 221-B Baker Street in London, England. (In the words of old-time radio author Jim Harmon: “The best disguise Sherlock Holmes ever donned is Ellery Queen.”) Since Ellery believed that his sleuthing activities provided essential research for his novels, he generally refused financial compensation for his services. Ellery was assisted in his exploits by his able and capable girl Friday, Nikki Porter—who also moonlighted as his main squeeze.

Traditionally, in many radio detective dramas, private detectives often had a love-hate relationship—with heavy emphasis on the “hate” part—with the police. In The Adventures of Ellery Queen, the titular sleuth sidestepped any potential conflict in a rather ingenuous fashion: his father was the police—Inspector Richard Queen of NYPD. Assisting Queen was his right-hand man was one Sergeant Velie, who often referred to Ellery as “Maestro.” Both men often relied on Ellery’s talents to assist them in cases that were too complicated for the long arm of the law.

Ellery Queen’s foray into radio stemmed from Dannay and Lee’s appearance on a Mutual radio program called Author, Author—a show where literary guests would develop plots from listener-submitted scenarios, matching their story design skills with the resident “plotsmiths.” The show’s producer-director George Zachary approached Dannay and Lee with a proposal to create what became The Adventures of Ellery Queen—the cousins, for the sum of $350 per script, would plot a weekly mystery that would be performed in front of a group of “armchair detectives” consisting of a panel of famous individuals chosen from the entertainment and leisure fields. Before the drama reached its conclusion, the panel would be given the opportunity to guess the solution to the mystery. The series premiered June 18, 1939, and was heard at various times over radio networks CBS, NBC and ABC, ending its nine-year span May 27, 1948.

In the series’ first four months, only one panel member—playwright Lillian Hellman—managed to correctly identify the culprit, so The Adventures of Ellery Queen underwent some fine tuning, and soon the “detectives” were selected from the studio audience. This proved to be an even worse idea—not only were the audience members consistently wrong, they were boring and wrong. Later, the adage of “third time’s a charm” proved correct when the format was revamped yet again to stock the panel with mystery writers, guaranteeing that the audience would not nod off during the conclusion. Though the whole “armchair detective” concept was very unwieldy, it remained a big hit with listeners throughout the series’ run.

The first actor to portray Ellery Queen was Hugh Marlowe, who would later return to the role on television in a 1954-56 syndicated Ellery Queen series (also known as Mystery is My Business). Replacing Marlowe in 1942 was Carleton Young, followed by Sydney Smith, Lawrence Dobkin, and Howard Culver. However, to maintain the illusion that Queen was a real character, none of the actors received on-air credit. Among the various actresses to play Nikki were Marion Shockley, Charlotte Keane, Virginia Gregg, and Kaye Brinker—Brinker, in a small sense, married “Ellery Queen” in real-life; she tied the knot with Manfred Lee in 1942. Radio vets Santos Ortega, Bill Smith, and Herb Butterfield all took turns at the Inspector Queen role, while the various Sergeant Velies on the series included Ted de Corsia, Ed Latimer, and Alan Reed.

I first became familiar with Ellery Queen watching the 1975-76 series on NBC-TV, which featured Jim Hutton as the famous sleuth. The choice of the laid-back actor has been debated back-and-forth by devotees and critics, but he definitely made an indelible impression on me because whenever I’ve listened to the radio version, he’s the person I picture. Last night at work I sampled a pair of episodes, the first being “The Adventures of the World Series Crime,” as originally broadcast over NBC September 30, 1943. Ellery (Sydney Smith) must come to the rescue of a baseball team in the World Series when their star slugger’s “lucky” bat is missing. The guest detectives on this episode were New York Yankees catcher Ken Sears and Art Flynn, business editor of The Sporting News (Flynn ends up fingering the culprit, so a round of applause for him). It’s an okay episode, but I have to admit I had it figured out midway through, and my sleuthing talents are pretty sub-par.

The second episode, “Number 31,” was much, much better; this September 7, 1947 NBC broadcast has Ellery (Larry Dobkin) investigating what at first appears to be two unrelated crimes: the murder of a butler and the investigation of a suspected diamond smuggler. I was pretty impressed with this one, particularly the twist ending, and I can’t believe that this version of the series didn’t last longer than it did (it ran briefly during the summer of 1947, switching to ABC for the 1947-48 season); it sure as heck beats Boston Blackie any day of the week. The “armchair detective” for this broadcast is actor Kent Smith (Cat People, The Spiral Staircase) who was as baffled as I was, solution-wise.

Sadly, The Adventures of Ellery Queen is one of the many series from Radio’s Golden Age that wasn’t fortunate to survive the ravages of time; about eighteen episodes from the entire 1939-48 run are extant today, though some 225 “minute mysteries” exist as well. If you’re interested in reading more about the history of this series, check out a great book called The Sound of Detection: Ellery Queen’s Adventures on Radio, co-written by the one-and-only Martin Grams, Jr.

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