Frederic Dannay and his cousin Manfred B. Lee, better known by their shared penname of "Ellery Queen," were two of the most important mystery writers, editors and champions of the detective story of the previous century – whose monthly Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine kept the home fire burning during darker times. It's not for nothing, Anthony Boucher proclaimed Ellery Queen to be "the American detective story" incarnate.
There is, however, another reason why Ellery Queen is typically American: the name became one of the earliest examples of a branded franchise in the publishing world.
During the 1960s, Lee's health began to falter and developed a nasty case of writer's block, which forced Dannay to assemble an all-star cast of ghostwriters to continue their work in the sixties and seventies – an assembly that included Avram Davidson, Flora Fletcher, Edward D. Hoch and Theodore Sturgeon. This came on top of the name Ellery Queen branching out in all directions. There was a popular radio-series, a TV show, movies, comic books, a magazine, board games and literal jigsaw puzzles (e.g. The Case of His Headless Highness, 1973). Only thing they missed out on was having their own burger joint in New York. Who wouldn't want to order a Velie Burger with a side of Porter Fries and a Djuna Shake at A Challenge to the Eater?
An EQ venture not as well remembered today is their excursion into the juvenile corner of the genre with the Ellery Queen Junior Mysteries, which produced eleven novels in two (short) series between 1942 and 1966. There also appears to be an unpublished, long-lost twelfth novel, The Mystery of the Golden Butterfly.
Nine of the novels star a recurring side-character from the main series, Djuna, who's the small, gypsy orphan adopted by Inspector Richard Queen when Ellery was attending college. The book-titles of this series follow The [Country] [Noun] Mystery pattern of Queen's early international series, but with colors and animals (e.g. The Black Dog Mystery, 1942). The other two novels are helmed by a specially created character, Gulliver Queen. So I wanted to take a closer look a novel from each of these series.
The Mystery of the Merry Magician (1961) is the first of only two titles in the Gulliver Queen series, but ghostwriters and unauthorized sub-ghostwriters have made determining authorship somewhat of a puzzle – which is discussed by Kurt Sercu on his Ellery Queen website (click on the covers to read more). James Holding was contracted to write the 1960s Ellery Queen Junior novels, but he farmed out the work to sub-ghosts and The Mystery of the Merry Magician was written by the author of the Dig Allen series, Joseph Greene. I understand Lee was not amused.
Gulliver "Gully" Queen is the sixteen-year-old nephew of Ellery and the grandson of Inspector Richard Queen. His father is Ellery's hitherto unknown and nameless brother, an engineer, who's in Europe working on "a long-term United Nations project," which is why Gully is staying an entire year with his uncle and grandfather in New York. The presence of the regular characters from the main series makes the book feel like a crossover and really is what makes it standout as a juvenile mystery. Ellery Queen briefly appears in the opening and closing chapters. Gully is even seen reading one of his uncle's detective novels (The Finishing Stroke, 1958). Nikki Porter is mentioned in passing, but, more importantly, Inspector Queen and my personal favorite side-character from any series, Sergeant Thomas Velie, have supporting roles to play in the story!
I've always been of the opinion it was a gross oversight to never let Inspector Queen and Sergeant Velie solve a case without Ellery helping them out. So it was nice to see them here working together in giving support to Gully.
The Mystery of the Merry Magician begins with Ellery having to break his promise to take Gully on a camping trip to the mountains, because the Treasury Department has asked him to go the New Orleans waterfront to investigate some baffling reports – a "strange creature" has been haunting the docks down there. Ellery notices Gully is trying to mask his disappointment and gives him a leather notebook, which he's to use to write down the names, addresses and the story of anyone who might come to see him. And there's only one rule, Gully is not allowed to "go off trying to solve mysteries." He just has to write down the facts in the notebook.
So, as to be expected, the moment Ellery has gone someone comes knocking at the door of the Queen residence. A boy of Gully's age, named "Fisty" Jones, who has a most astonishing story to tell and Captain Foster, "an old buddy of Inspector Queen," told him to go tell it to the inspector's son, Ellery. Gully has to keep a record for his uncle and asks Fisty to tell him the story.
Fisty was visiting Captain Foster and his granddaughter, Peggy, who live on a barge tied up at Pier A of the New York waterfront. On his way back home, Fisty passed a block of mostly abandoned, boarded-up old houses and peeked into the window of an empty story. Fisty described, what he saw, as "a monster from space." A creature with black, smooth skin, big, floppy feet and "one big, round eye," right in "the middle of his face." So they go to have a second look at the empty shop, but discover that the window has been painted black and are told by a tattooed man to mind their own business or else they might get hurt. The tattooed man has designs on the building next door, which is leased to "an old-time magician," Magnus Merlin, who now makes a living by making magic tricks and always accompanied by his happy little dog, Banjo – who proves to be a huge help to the boys throughout the story.
The central plot-thread is very basic for a juvenile mystery novel and therefore easy to figure out, but there were some nice touches that punched it up a bit.
Besides the obligatory dangers and tight corners, there's an attempt to make the role of the merry magician in the plot ambiguous (friend or foe?) and there's an honest-to-god impossible situation witnessed by Gully and Fisty! When they're swimming in the river to find origin of hammering noises heard on the barge, they see "a man walking on water." Solution is not terribly clever, but it fitted the plot. There's also very subtly done "Challenge to the Reader," when Gulliver remarks he has "a strange feeling that all the facts Uncle Ellery will need to solve the case" is in his notebook to which Peggy responds, "well, then, solve it yourself." This made the last chapter, entitled "Gully's Little Notebook," all the better. One of those nice little touches that really helped the plot.
I've to say, though, with all the magicians, magic-tricks, tattooed men and an impossible crime, the story felt more like the junior to Clayton Rawson than Ellery Queen.
All in all, The Mystery of the Merry Magician has pretty decent plot, but it's the characters who stole the show! Gully, Fisty and Peggy can stand with the best teenage detective-characters from the genre's juvenile corner and Inspector Queen and Sergeant Velie shined in their supporting roles. So I can highly recommend it to either readers of these vintage juvenile mysteries and die-hard Ellery Queen fans. Something that'll probably give JJ an existential crisis!
Now that we got the first Gulliver Queen novel out of the way, let's move on to the book that almost closed out the Djuna series.
The Blue Herring Mystery (1954) is the eighth and penultimate installment in the Dunja series, which was supposed to have been written by Samuel McCoy, but he hired a sub-ghost, Harold Montanye, to write the last six books on his contract – which were the titles from The Green Turtle Mystery (1944) to The Blue Herring Mystery. Reportedly, Montanye experienced "some difficulties getting his stake in the half share McCoy had." The Black Dog Mystery (1942), The Golden Eagle Mystery (1942) and the unpublished The Mystery of the Golden Butterfly were written by yet another sub-ghost, Frank Belknap Long. More than a decade later, Holding penned the final book, The Purple Bird Mystery (1966). Well, that's what everyone still hopes. What a goddamn mess! No wonder Lee's heart was playing up.
The Blue Herring Mystery is not as strong as The Mystery of the Merry Magician when it comes to character portrayal, or story-telling, but it found an interesting way to use EQ's signature trope, a dying message, in a detective story belonging to a usually murderless branch of the genre.
Djuna has a week-long holiday ahead of him and has a friend from Florida, Bobby Herrick, who's coming over and, in preparation of his arrival, Miss Annie Ellery takes him to Aunt Candy's house to borrow cinnamon for an apple pie. Aunt Candy is the great-granddaughter of a 19th century merchant mariner, Captain Jonas Beekman, who passed away over seventy years ago and muttered something with his last breath – telling people to "lift th' blue herrin." Some believe this was a clue to where he had hidden a fortune in pears he had brought back from the South Seas. Djuna is allowed to thumb through the captain's old logbook and reads some curious entries as well as discovering a page had been torn out.
Coincidentally, a drugstore owner, Doc Perry, is turning Captain Beekman's old house into a museum and is assisted by a mysterious, disheveled man, Professor Kloop, who has taken over the whole project. Doc Perry has become mighty suspicious of Kloop as he's always "peekin' into dark corners in the cellar" or "tappin' walls." So what is he's exactly up to?
Well, this pretty much sums up the whole plot. A paper-thin, but thickly padded, plot hinging on a single idea. The dying message. Admittedly, the solution to the 70-year-old dying message was delightfully simplistic and as believable as the one from Queen's own short-short "Diamonds in Paradise" (collected in Queen's Full, 1965), which why it drowned in this already short novel. This single idea could easily carry a short-short or a short story, but not a whole novel. And the poor characterization didn't help either.
Djuna is used in the opening chapters to explain things to its young readers and, in combination with constantly uttering "Golly" or "Jeepers," he comes across a little dull-witted. Something that strikes a false note when its time to play detective and correctly interpret the dying message of the old sea captain. Most of what happens between the opening and closing chapters is boring padding or just boring. There was such a lack of any interest in the story that it became very noticeable how much the characters were eating all the time, which ranged from apple pie, pancakes and kippers to egg salad sandwiches, baked potatoes and spaghetti – topped with chocolate nut sundaes. This only represents a small selection from their holiday menu! Just padding at its worst.
So, yeah, The Blue Herring Mystery tried to tackle an interesting concept with a good premise and solution, but it was lost in a deadly dull, overly padded story and I simply can't recommend it. I'll definitely tackle the second Gulliver Queen novel in the future, but don't expect me to return to the Djuna series anytime soon.
A note for the curious: I've already mention a missing, presumably unpublished manuscript in the EQ Jr. franchise, The Mystery of the Golden Butterfly, which reminded me of the unpublished, long-lost last novel in The Three Investigator series. Back in 2016, I put together a small selection of lost detective stories and one of them was M.V. Carey's The Mystery of the Ghost Train, which was completed when the series was canceled in 1986 and the manuscript was presumably lost. A website dedicated to the series posted an update in 2018 reporting that the manuscript is in "the possession of the Carey family," but Random House "has expressed no interest in it." Hopefully, this will change in the future.