Ranking Period One Queen

So let’s get straight into this. As you’re probably aware of, Ellery Queen is rather famous for changing his/their style of writing quite often. For this reason, their oeuvre is often divided into three or four periods which vastly differ from each other. Francis M. Nevins, I believe, was the first to come up with such a division.

The first period (1929-1935) is known for its fiercely complex puzzles, complete lack of characterization, dedication to fair-play and of course, the famous challenges to the reader. It is oft-maligned for being purely an intellectual exercise but I don’t mind this, for detective stories should focus on the puzzle.

I’ve always loved this period, perhaps even more so than the later ones. So for my first post, I shall rank the books belonging to this period in the order of my preference. By the way, I’m excluding Halfway House(1936) from the list as it is historically considered to be period two.

9) The Spanish Cape Mystery (1935)

The last one of the lot, this sees Ellery going to a holiday and befittingly for a great detective, immediately tumbling upon a murder of a philander, found naked apart from the titular cape wrapped around his body. It isn’t a complete waste, but it just feels a bit loose after the pleasingly convoluted plots that preceded it. The transparency is a real problem too, and I think most readers will solve it easily. 

8) The Roman Hat Mystery (1929)

The debut of Ellery Queen, and worth reading for that bit alone. It’s a bit of a duff though. It starts off nicely with the Queens investigating the murder of a notorious blackmailer, found dead in a crowded theatre with his hat missing, but soon gets bogged down by a boring middle full of interviews. The solution has a nice misdirection, though there are some fair-play issues as well. 

7) The Dutch Shoe Mystery (1931)

Ellery goes to hospital to meet his old friend and of course, stumbles upon the dead body of a well-known businesswoman strangled by someone impersonating the doctor who was about to operate on her. I liked this the first time but not so much while re-reading. Like Roman Hat, it suffers from a weaker middle section though the plot keeps moving. The solution, however, is top-notch and anybody who spots the killer deserves a pat on the back. 

6) The Chinese Orange Mystery(1934) 

An unknown man is found dead in a stamp-collector’s office with everything – from the victim’s clothes to the furniture in the room – turned backwards. Very famous for its hook, it’s fun and those who bemoan the earlier titles for being dull will probably enjoy it, but I consider it to be a bit overrated. The solution for the backwardness relies on a very dated concept and the denouement would certainly have benefited from a few maps. 

5) The Egyptian Cross Mystery (1932)

Crucifixions, beheadings, religious lunatics and more! The first case to be set outside New York City as Ellery runs all over America to solve a series of brutal murders. I found this one to be very entertaining. There are some minor caveats such as fate of a missing character but overall, this is a strong one. The reasoning that leads to the murderer is clever too and while the solution is a variation of an old trick, it’s still cunning. 

4) The American Gun Mystery (1933)

Surprised? I feel this one is unfairly vilified. The Queens go to rodeo and obviously, a murder soon transpires but the weapon is nowhere to be found. I found this to be a very compelling read. The characters are lively, the plot develops neatly, and the solution is both surprising and fairly clued. The solution of the impossible disappearance of the gun is often scoffed at, but I really don’t mind it. 

3) The French Powder Mystery (1930)

The French’s department store opens with the dead body of the owner’s wife displayed in a demonstration window for the entire New York to see, and the Queens soon arrive to conduct an exhaustive investigation. Anybody interested in complex plotting will surely enjoy this one. Not much happens between the murder and the reveal, but it still keeps the reader engaged. Also contains one of the most thrilling denouements in the history of the genre in which the murderer’s name is kept hidden until the last two words of the book.

2) The Siamese Twin Mystery (1933)

The Queens seek shelter in a house as forest fire engulfs all around them. Murder and mayhem follow. Those who decry dying messages might have problems with some aspects of the story, but there’s a lot more to it than that. I won’t spoil the plot anymore; this is a classic plain & simple and it contains one of the finest tricks I’ve ever read. 

1) The Greek Coffin Mystery (1932)

Simply speaking, this is one of the greatest, if not the greatest pure-puzzle plot ever written. Starts off with a neat missing-will mini-story and soon evolves into something far more complex as a dead man is found instead of a will. Contains three clever false solutions, many smartly concealed clues including an excellent psychological one, wonderful misdirection and a genuinely surprising killer. I first read it when I was thirteen, and it blew my mind. A must-read. 

So there you have it. If you haven’t read this series, hopefully you’ll feel encouraged to use this list as a starting point. And if you’ve read some of these and given up on the author, hopefully this will make you reconsider your decision. Depending on how this is received (if more than three people like it), I might do another such list on the later periods, though I’ll have to re-read some of them. 

18 thoughts on “Ranking Period One Queen

  1. I think your views conform quite well with my own. I’d probably move “American Gun” down to place number eight, but keep all other novels where they are.

    Looking forward to reading your coming posts on EQ.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Replying to myself only because I forgot to mention that I’m happy just to see you bringing Halfway House up here with Period One, even though it’s only to state that you’ll be bringing it up with Period Two instead. 🙂

      If you look at “Spanish Cape” and “Halfway House” in isolation, it’s very hard to see much that distinguish them from each other.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I thought about including ‘Halfway House’, but I felt it wouldn’t fit in with all the Nationality Noun titles. But yeah, stylistically, it is pretty similar to the last books of this period.

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    2. Thanks! I’ve always felt that American Gun is much better than it is made out to be. I especially liked it because I thought I had it all figured out, only to realize I was completely wrong!

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      1. We all have our preferences! 🙂

        I understand leaving out “Halfway House”. As you say, the title itself separates it from Period One, and of course it’s also the way Nevins divided the periods.

        My main argument, and I will repeat it everywhere I can, is that HH is very dissimilar from the other Period 2 novels. The other four Period 2 novels can be paired up quite nicely: There’s the two Hollywood stories, and two stories with Ellery and a sidekick detective, and they are also quite similar in their “magazine slickness”.

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        1. I agree with this. HH is different from the earlier books but it is more like period 1 than it is like the later books, such as Calamity Town, much less The Origin Of Evil. This is one of the reasons I put it with period 1 in my EQ Poll (which is still open, https://kenblogic.blogspot.com/2019/11/ellery-queen-polls.html ).

          I rank the books differently! Chinese Orange is at or near the top. I will make a comment in rot13, because it is a spoiler.

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          Gun and Hat are the worst of these. I like Shoe more than you do as well. I would put Halfway House about third or fourth. Orange and Twin are my top picks.

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      2. I agree with Christian. Halfway House should be period one. It fits the style of period one much more than that of period two despite the romantic subplot.

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  2. I love list posts and this one is no exception. Very nicely done – the type of thing that triggers your imagination and a yearning to read the books.

    I’ll rain a bit on the parade by saying that I’m not a fan of the Period One books that I’ve read – they’re just excruciatingly dull. My view of The Greek Coffin Mystery (which isn’t dull) is probably jaded by the opinion that I had of the three books that came before it. In retrospect I wish I had read it first.

    The logic Queen trots out at the end of these always feels so fragile. “Only the killer could have…(insert something that could have just coincidentally happened)”. Oh, and the first false solution for The Greek Coffin Mystery? Don’t even get me started.

    With my grumpy opinion stated, there are some gems lurking in here.
    – The ending of The French Powder Mystery was thrilling. I was definitely bending the pages of my book back.
    – The solution to The Dutch Shoe Mystery is worthy of John Dickson Carr.

    I’m kind of gun-shy about jumping back into this period, which is a shame, because I have some really nice Pocket and Avon editions of these. I will be reading The Siamese Twin Mystery at some point – everyone makes that sound so good.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I certainly benifitted from reading these books at a very young age and without any expectations. I’ve always maintained that the best way of reading a book is going in completely blank.

      What you say about Ellery’s logic is something that this period is often accused of, and I can understand the problem even if I don’t completely agree with it.

      And I can’t disagree more about Greek Coffin! In my opinion, the first false solution is fabulous. It beats out all of Poisoned Chocolates‘s false solutions because not only is it more suprising, but it also feels better clued. Had the book ended there, it would have made an excellent novella!

      Do read Siamese Twin though. It is very good.

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  3. Picking up on Ben’s experience, I know that many readers insist on taking on a series chronologically, and I can only state with fierce adamance how lucky I was not to have done that. With GAD it isn’t necessary! Christie: And Then There Were None! Brand: Green for Danger! Carr . . . well, with Carr it was either The Arabian Nights Mystery or, more likely, The Mad Hatter Mystery, and while neither counts as the best, I found them both charming enough to continue.

    With Queen, it was Greek Coffin and, like you, Neil, I read it at the age of 13 and was both flummoxed and delighted. The final reveal gave me goose bumps, a very dangerous situation for a young adolescent!!! Next came French Powder, followed by Siamese Twin. My #1 was always Greek Coffin . . . until I re-read it and found it a little . . . tiresome. I think it’s the effect of the modern tech era on me: early Queen seems more verbose than it did when I was a kid. Frankly, Queen is harder to re-read than my other favorites. But Siamese Twin marked a difference, and while I don’t think it’s quite as clever as TGCM, it was the most exciting, atmospheric read of the First Period. Plus, I am one of those who loves dying messages, so it really is up there at the top for me. The denouement is gripping and surprised me completely!

    I think it was Nevins who suggested that Halfway House could have been called The Swedish Match Mystery. I would go so far as to say that it feels more like a bridge between the first and second periods, with elements of both in it. I think the puzzle is good, but the characterization is fuller, especially the female characters.

    I do hope you will continue Neil. I have evolved into a Period Three guy, and it will be fun wrestling with you over these. Plus, you’ve got Martin and TomCat interested, so you are good to go! 🙂

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  4. It’s been a while since I read the third period, so I don’t remember some of them well enough to be able to rank them. But, yeah, this generated quite a bit of interest, so I’ll definitely reread and rank the period at some point!

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