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Wednesday, November  30th 2016


Following my visit to the NYC Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine 75th Anniversary Symposium in September, Janet Hutchings, editor of EQMM, asked if I'd like to contribute an article to the EQMM blog Something is About to Happen. It was easy to answer that question with a "yes!"

As was the case following the Ellery Queen Centenary Symposium back in 2005, this article was written in collaboration with Dale C. Andrews. And this time the subject of the article is this website. It's always hard to figure out how to write about yourself, particularly when there are two of you. Somewhat Caesarian or even JJMcC-ian, if you like, the article is written in the third person even though it is about us. But, after all, that is what Ellery Queen (the author) did when writing about Ellery Queen (the detective).

         (From L to R) Kurt, Dale in conversation with Jeffrey Marks (Symposium reception, Sep 30. 2016)  (Picture from EQMM blog) Joe Goodrich, the thinker who got me thinking...

The article was previously posted on Something is about to Happen as of Wednesday, November 30.

“Ellery Queen—a Website on Deduction”

Since readers will learn about the careers and literary work of Dale Andrews and Kurt Sercu in their own words in the following post, I will simply note that they are among the most dedicated and knowledgeable fans of Ellery Queen, and of EQMM, to be found anywhere in the world. All of us at EQMM salute them, for without such fans it is unimaginable that EQMM would be celebrating a 75th anniversary and looking to the future.—Janet Hutchings

The presidential election has been in the forefront of public discussions this month and it therefore seems apropos that this little article should begin with a political reference, in this case a paraphrase from an unsuccessful vice presidential candidate some years back: Who are we and why are we here?

The “who” part of the question can be answered pretty simply: We are Kurt Sercu, a resident of Sijsele, Belgium, which is near the picturesque city of Brugge, who is the head nurse at AZ Alma hospital in Sijsele, and Dale Andrews, a resident of Washington, D.C., a retired lawyer who was formerly a Deputy General Counsel at the United States Department of Transportation.

Why we are here is a bit more complicated.

It is tempting to answer that question in two words: “Ellery Queen.” It is an interest in the works of Queen that we share, and it is those works that formed the basis of our friendship, and occasional collaboration. Kurt is the proprietor and founder of the website Ellery Queen—a Website on Deduction, and Dale, a lifelong fan of Ellery, is the author of three Ellery Queen pastiches, one of which, “The Book Case,” (EQMM May, 2007) was written in collaboration with Kurt, and each of which has been published in the pages of EQMM. But as the reader may suspect, that simple answer is just shorthand for a story that is a bit more complex.

This story is largely Kurt’s, and so it is with him that we begin. Kurt is a self-styled computer nerd. He bought his first computer back in the 1990s and immersed himself in the then-burgeoning library of shareware programs freely available to those willing to try them. By the late 1990s, armed with what he had learned, Kurt began to think about designing his own website.

It would be tempting, and (again) a simpler story, if Kurt’s intention had always been that his website would be dedicated to the works of Ellery Queen. But such was not the case. In fact, Kurt’s first idea was to design a site focusing on the works of Tolkien. A search of the internet, however, led him to conclude that this subject was already well covered.

So—where else to look? Kurt has always loved mysteries and one might expect that, given his nationality, he might have next explored the possibility of a site dedicated to Agatha Christie’s Belgian hero Hercule Poirot, or perhaps a site exploring the works of Belgian mystery author Simenon. But those of us who frequent this blog can breathe a collective sigh of relief since Kurt, at an early age, discovered, and was entranced by, the mysteries of Ellery Queen.

The Queen mysteries spoke to him. They were structured around puzzles, and these puzzles often revolved around underlying themes—the Bible, Darwinian evolution, McCarthyism. And the books were themselves a puzzle: an author who was also the detective, and who therefore both wrote and confronted all of those baffling situations that were always, in the end, solvable through the application of rigorous logic; where all of the clues were known but where it took Ellery to see where, together, they pointed. Why not build a website dedicated to the works of Ellery Queen?

There were already Ellery Queen websites, but unlike Tolkien, there were few such sites. Also, the sites that already existed were in many cases no more than listings and brief discussions of the Ellery Queen novels. Kurt envisioned much more—an in-depth site that would explore all aspects of the Queen canon. The Queen library, together with various articles Kurt had collected concerning Ellery Queen, formed the early foundation for Ellery Queen—A Website on Deduction. What followed was research and the gathering of information, both pictorial and narrative, from which Kurt could begin to build the type of website he envisioned. This process, and its vision, is explained by Kurt on the website:

[At first I] tried to “cut and paste” my way through what grew into a large volume of information. Too few sites, in my opinion, do justice to [Queen], who started off in the late twenties and [continued to write] into the seventies. He made maximum use of the media at that time and is now, I feel, grossly neglected. I hoped the site [would] fire up more interest in the Ellery Queen stories.

Building the website was no easy task. What Kurt envisioned was a site that would immerse the reader in details and pictures. And like the Queen books themselves, there should be mysteries woven into the fabric of the website—clickable words and icons that whisk the reader to completely different sections of the site.

So the goal from the outset was that the website should be as intricate, as Byzantine, as the Ellery Queen mysteries which it honored. There the reader should find information concerning Ellery Queen—the lives of Frederic Dannay and Manfred B. Lee, who were Ellery Queen, the recurring characters, the novels themselves, the Ellery Queen movies and television shows, the comic books, even the board games. If it had to do with Ellery, well, it needed to be covered in depth by the website.

Early on Kurt decided to name the site Ellery Queen—a Website on Deduction as a tribute to the early Queen mysteries, which each contained the phrase “a problem in deduction” under the respective titles. Another early decision was that there would be two identical platforms for the site—one in Dutch and one in English. The Queen mysteries were, of course, written in English, so having an English-language site made a lot of sense. But building the English language site presented a challenge—Kurt’s native language is Dutch. Luckily, however, he is fluent in English, but still—writing extensively in one’s second language is a huge challenge.

And “extensive” is in all respects the proper word. Since its debut, on April 18, 1999, Ellery Queen—a Website on Deduction has grown to include approximately 237 pages of Queen-related information, or (collectively) 474 total pages when one includes both the English and Dutch language sites.

When the reader first enters the website it is obvious that it is in all respects an homage to Ellery Queen. And as such, it contains much information but also many surprises—lots of hidden clues that will propel the reader into different (and at times unsuspected) topics. Since our subject here is premised on the mysteries of Ellery Queen the last thing we want to do is offer up “spoilers.” That said, a “user’s guide” to the various sections contained in the site would look something like this:

List of Suspects” takes you to detailed essays on recurring characters in the Queen library—Ellery, the Inspector, Sergeant Velie and, among others, Ellery’s infrequent secretary and near, but not quite, love interest, Nikki Porter. The reader will also find essays on Djuna, a character in early Queen mysteries, and lesser luminaries—such as coroner Dr. Samuel Prouty.

QBI” unlocks sixteen pages in which every Ellery Queen novel and short story is discussed in detail. Kurt even provides the history of those infamous works that Dannay and Lee “farmed out” to other writers in a perhaps ill conceived attempt to keep the Queen name before the reading public. While perusing these essays be sure to click on the covers of the various volumes—this will take you to even more in-depth discussions of each work, and to the website’s ever-growing collection of international book covers.

Kill as Directed” contains essays on every Ellery Queen movie, comic book, board game and television series. Clicking through the list of episodes of the first EQ television series, which aired on the ancient and largely forgotten Dumont television network, will lead the reader to a select few episodes that Kurt has uncovered that are available online and that can be watched, in their entirety, through the website. The section also contains a detailed and affectionate guide to the 1975 NBC Ellery Queen series, the quintessential Ellery Queen series, which (thankfully!) is now available in a re-mastered DVD collection.

Whodunit” chronicles the lives of Frederic Dannay and Manfred B. Lee. There the reader will also find shorter biographies of every other writer who ever authored a Queen work as a ghost writer. These comprise those farmed-out volumes, the Ellery Queen, Jr. juvenile mystery series, and some later Ellery works that, while outlined by Dannay, were written by others during the period in which Manfred B. Lee famously suffered from writer’s block. This section also contains information on authors who have written Ellery Queen pastiches.

The website has grown over the years, first with a section devoted to “J.J. McC,” the mysterious figure who provided the introductions to the early Queen mysteries, and more recently with the addition of the “West Eighty Seventh Street Irregulars” section, which contains essays by individuals who have been active in keeping alive the Queen name. There you will find Queen related musings by the likes of Arthur Vidro, author and publisher of the newsletter (Give me That) Old Time Detection, preeminent Queen scholar and author Professor Francis M. Nevins, Edgar-winning playwright Joseph Goodrich (author of the recent and award-winning theatrical production of Ellery Queen’s Calamity Town), critic and author Jon L. Breen, Editor Janet Hutchings (who needs no introduction), Professor Joe Christopher, and Dale Andrews.

Oh. That’s right. We should mention Dale at this stage.

Kurt and Dale met online in 2002 when Dale stumbled onto Kurt’s website. After three years of Queen-related emails between the two, Kurt and Dale finally met in 2005, when Kurt flew across the Atlantic for the first time to attend EQMM’s symposium saluting the centenary of the births of Dannay, Lee, and (consistent with the chronology set forth in Ellery’s The Finishing Stroke) Ellery himself.

And this leads us to one of the paradoxes of the internet and, by extension, Kurt’s website. Fans of Ellery Queen may be a narrow subset but they are also a deep one. They are everywhere, all over the world. But until there was a global way to reach out to each other, there was no way for any of those fans readily to connect. The virtual world Kurt has created in his website shatters that barrier. It allows Ellery Queen fans to find each other and to share their knowledge. Ellery Queen—a Website on Deduction, reflecting this, has grown, over the years, with input from interested readers all over the world.

But the internet does more than provide a basis for virtual friendships. It also sometimes provides the first stepping stone to move from the virtual to the real world. And this, in turn, can provide a catalyst for literary rebirth. The ability to download books has provided the onus for the reissuance of the Queen library by Otto Penzler. And, Kurt and Dale’s friendship, first virtual, then in the real world following the 2005 Ellery Queen Symposium, resulted in their collaboration in “The Book Case” (EQMM 2007), a pastiche that brings Ellery back, at the ripe old age of 102, for one more adventure. Kurt and Dale (we!) have also collaborated on analytic pieces available on Kurt’s website, and with this little article they (we, again!) are doing so once more.

Kurt’s website has also facilitated friendships among other fans of Ellery. Just this past September Kurt flew across the Atlantic and he and Dale attended the EQMM 75th Anniversary Symposium at Columbia University. Also attending were when four of those “West Eighty Seventh Street Irregulars,” as well as Jeffrey Marks, another virtual, and now real-world friend, who led a panel, and is the author of the upcoming biography of Frederic Dannay and Manfred B. Lee. And Kurt finally had the opportunity to converse in Flemish with EQMM author and Queen fan Josh Pachter. So, in many respects, the fire is being rekindled, thanks to a virtual world that encourages those of similar interests in Ellery Queen to reach out and find each other.

At the close of that symposium, not ready, yet, to move on, Kurt, Dale and Joe Goodrich lit out together for dinner. What ensued was an evening of drinks, food, Queen-related trivia and merriment, including the travails involved when those three fans of Ellery’s adventures attempted, from memory, to list in chronological order all of the Ellery Queen books on the back of a napkin. (All of this after several Cosmopolitans had been imbibed!) We may not each remember all of the details of that evening, but we do remember enough to solemnly attest that, the value of the internet aside, that time our final list was created without resort to Google!

At the close of that wonderful evening Joe posed a question. If there were one thing out there, just one, involving Ellery that Kurt would like to have or see transpire, what would it be? Kurt had to think long and hard on this. But ultimately his answer was a pretty grand one—he wished there could be a museum, or at the least an extensive exhibition dedicated to the works of Dannay and Lee, a place where visitors could experience first hand all there is to know about the mysteries of Ellery Queen.

Dale’s response? In the real world that is simply too much to wish for. But not so in the virtual world. It’s already there. Just visit Ellery Queen—a Website on Deduction. And in the real world? Well, the closest thing you will find right now is the excellent Ellery Queen exhibit assembled in honor of the 75th Anniversary of Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine. It is open to the public at Columbia University’s Butler Library through December 23. Given that we are focused here on mysteries it only makes sense that it was the “Butler” that did it, right?

Kurt Sercu/Dale C. Andrews

 

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Introduction | Floor Plan | Q.B.I. | List of Suspects | Whodunit?  | Q.E.D. | Kill as directed | New  | Copyright

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