"The whole world is a tragedy of errors..."- Ellery Queen
When Manfred Lee passed away on April 3, 1971 he had been unable to expand and flesh out the 50-page manuscript, comprising the detailed plot outline for a brand new Ellery Queen novel, entitled The Tragedy of Errors, that was remitted to him by his cousin, and longtime partner in crime, Frederic Dannay. Despite numerous attempts to get the book completed, it never amounted to anything and the story was never developed into a full-fledged novel.
In commemoration of the seventieth anniversary of the publication of the first Ellery Queen novel, The Roman Hat Mystery (1929), Douglas Greene, of the exquisite Crippen and Landru, published an anniversary collection that contained this comprehensive plot outline – combined with a small, but excellent, selection of mainly short-shorts, insightful essays and touching personal reminiscences, makes this a valued addition to my personal library of mystery and imagination.
The stories, from the bare outline of the titular story to the handful of briefly-told tales, are exactly what you'd might expect from mysteries written and plotted in the grand tradition by the champions of the puzzle plot approach – and the essays and personal recollections added a whole new dimension to my perception of the human beings behind the "Ellery Queen" byline.
I was especially glad to finally learn a little bit more of Manfred Lee, who quite literarily filled the role of silent partner, and at long last become more than just a name on paper. It wasn't all pleasant reading, of course, notably the descriptive passages of his death (hey, these people are, what you might call, heroes to me!), but there were also neat little anecdotes that put a big grin on my face – like him being mistaken for Ernest Hemmingway and his failure to elicit a response from a crowd of morticians during one of his lectures, but was assured afterwards that they were positively thrilled.
But they also drove home the fact that most of them have been gone longer than I have been alive, and that I will never have an opportunity to personally tell Ellery Queen, John Dickson Carr, Kelley Roos, Anthony Boucher, Stuart Palmer, Craig Rice and Rex Stout how much pleasure their books and stories have brought me – which is slightly depressing if anything.
However, we're not here to mourn the passing of giants, but to celebrate them and marvel at the footprints they've left behind on the literary landscape!
The Last Adventure of Ellery Queen:
The Tragedy of Errors
This is only an extensive plot summery, but it's enough to justify the claim that upon its completion it would've unquestionable been one of their finest works from their late period – a return, in fact, to the complexity and multi-layered plots of the early years, but with the matured Ellery Queen of the midde, character-driven books. And the outline suggests that Frederic Dannay felt rejuvenated as a plotter.
The plot describes the successful, but ultimately sad, life story of a faded Hollywood starlet who dies a violent death, not very convincingly dressed up as a suicide, and evidence pertains the involvement of her young lover – a no good, two-bit actor. Even though Dannay only employed a small cast of characters, to throw suspicious glances at, it's a genuinely baffling and difficult problem that even succeeded in throwing me off balance with a smashing false solution. It was exactly the answer I had pieced together and felt very smug about it. Oh well...
But the best plot thread was perhaps the legal rigmarole concerning the will, which was dexterous in its technical execution and it's no mean feat to come up with a dazzling clever and fresh twist on an old gag like that in the 1960s – and the best part was that it was designed to collapse. I know that I tend to overuse the word brilliant for stories that I really like, but no other word suffice. It's brilliant, brilliant, brilliant! I wanted to start a slow clap at that point.
It's a pity and a lost to the genre that the estate was unable to work out a deal to turn the manuscript into a novel, but I'm glad that a publisher like C&L at least gave us a glimpse at what might have been. Thanks, Doug! :)
The Short Stories:
The disappearance of Tom Cooley was one those baffling, unsold mysteries that lingered on in the minds of the towns people, until, a few months later, his decomposed remains are uncovered in a roadside ditch – and the mud-caked skeleton heralds a series of brutal murders that nearly threw the town into a frenzy. Engagingly written and plotted, and understandable why some people nominate this as one of their best short stories.
Uncle from Australia
Ellery Queen is approached by the quintessential Australian uncle, who made a small fortune down under and has returned to America to bequeath his riches on either one of his two nephews or his only niece. The latter turns out to be picked as the lucky heir, but the man is having second thoughts, afraid that the prospects of all that money might proof to be temping, and the brassy-looking Oriental paperknife in his back confirms his fears. The solution is a clever variation on a very famous whodunit novel and has the added bonus of a simple, and believable, dying message.
Note that all the stories from this point on throws a gauntlet at the readers and challenges them to solve the mystery themselves.
The Three Students
The next three short-shorts are Puzzle Club stories, in which Ellery Queen is challenged by his fellow members to make sense of complicated problems they cooked up for him – and the first one involves a ring that was purloined from the office of a college president and the only clue is a folded slip of paper with some gibberish scrawled on it. Not a bad story, but not every reader will have the special knowledge required to solve it themselves.
The Odd Man
Members of the Puzzle Club take another shot at throwing an insoluble problem at Ellery Queen, but he turns the tables on them – and offers no less than three different solutions that perfectly fit the given evidence. Bravo, Mr. Queen! Bravo!
The Honest Swindler
A neat little brain teaser, in which Ellery Queen has to figure out how a dirt-poor desert dweller could've have coughed up $50,000 to pay back outstanding loans. I think this is the most solvable one of the bunch.
The Reindeer Clue (ghost written by Edward D. Hoch)
Ellery Queen and his father, Inspector Richard Queen, look into the murder of an ex-columnist and blackmailer at the zoo – and the only clue is a blood smeared dying message that was obliterated by the murderer. This is as good a story as anything written and plotted by Lee and Dannay themselves.