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Dale C. Andrews

Dale C. AndrewsFor those who do not read every letter on every page of this site, let me introduce you to my friend Dale C. Andrews. What started out as a common interest has turned into a friendship. (So since you ask: yes I'm biased). Our early discussions on Ellery Queen works and themes blossomed into Dale authoring two EQMM publications. Both of them, "The Book Case" and "The Mad Hatter's Riddle" are Ellery Queen pastiches. On occasion Dale also writes for Criminal Brief and to this day I value his thoughts on everything relating to Ellery, including matters addressed on this site. It is my firm belief that Dale has more whodunits in his pen and it's only a matter of time before we all will be able to enjoy them. Even more so since, totally in tune with the concept of the West 87th Street Irregulars, Dale retired from his job as a government attorney last year.
About one year ago Dale wrote an article on the NBC Ellery Queen series, which appeared on-line in Criminal Briefs, to accompany the publication of his story "The Mad Hatter's Riddle," an Ellery Queen pastiche involving the filming of one of the NBC episodes, The Mad Hatter's Tea Party, based on an Ellery Queen short story.  Given his keen interest in the series it came as no surprise to me that Dale's entry into the West 87th Street Irregulars is occasioned by this re-worked article in light of the imminent release of the re-mastered boxed DVD edition of the series.

Like so many of the American Ellery Queen fans, all of whom tend to have reached a somewhat mature age (see also Joseph Goodrich), we all tend to think back with a
deep nostalgic sigh when it comes to the 1975 TV series Ellery Queen. Each of us has been guilty, from time to time, of one or all of the following:
saying they don't make detective shows anymore like they used to
- saying how we appreciated Jim Hutton's take on Ellery in comparison
  to the
 overconfident, know-it-all in the first books
- saying how great Elmer Bernstein’s score for the series was and then
  humming it out loud
(in Dale's case: playing it on the piano!)
buying a dodgy copy of the series on eBay and then groaning through
  the grainy images
- telling each other how great it would be if someone (anyone) would
  arrange for an official release of the whole series (and while they're
  at it
if they could please would not forget the pilot and not cut out
 
anything
, like....)
That will now end shortly... and then all of you (young and old) can attest to the fact that we aging fans of the series were right all along.  Since you're reading this I'm deducing you are already fans or potential fans. So I hope you can help to bring the series to the attention of the youngsters. - Who knows they might even realize there are still a few books lying around waiting to be (re)published.

Kurt Sercu

WHEN ELLERY QUEEN MET NBC -
(The 1975 series)

Satire, it is said, closes on Saturday nights. In an article published some years back in the San Francisco Weekly reflecting on the spotty career of satirist Tom Lehrer, Jack Boulware offered the following explanation of the truth underlying the cliché: “satire never makes any money and people don’t understand it.”

A true corollary to satire’s epitaph is the fate of the televised mystery short story. A smartly written television mystery series, particularly a whodunit, rarely lasts more than a season. And forget about anthologies – other than Alfred Hitchcock and The Twilight Zone they invariably cave in a few weeks. The success of classical mysteries on the airwaves it has been observed, like the success of satire, is directly and inversely correlated to the intellectual effort demanded from the viewers.

I know, I know. You will point to the many CSIs and Law and Orders that seem to grind on forever. Or you will remind me that Murder She Wrote lasted for 12 seasons. But comparing classic mysteries, particularly “fair play” intellectual brain-teasers, to those admittedly successful series is, I would posit, like comparing Milton Berle to Tom Lehrer. It is not Burlesque that closes in a week – it’s satire.

Two paragraphs back I was tempted to state that smartly written television mysteries rarely last more than 13 weeks, but that would have been historically at least a bit unfair. One of the finest whodunits ever developed for television in fact lasted a full season.

"Ellery Queen" MCA TV press Kitt 1975-76

NBC’s 1975-1976 Ellery Queen series was developed for television by Richard Levinson and William Link, of Columbo fame. They approached the series with both a love and an understanding of the Queen oeuvre. Earlier Queen movies and television series simply could not get the tone right. They tended to lessen the intricacy of the Queen plots while at the same time re-inventing Ellery into a humorous or even slapstick foil. An earlier NBC pilot for an Ellery Queen series went so far as to surrealistically and disastrously handed over Ellery’s role to Peter Lawford, who played him as a “mod” Brit. Levinson and Link had been behind that effort originally, but as they watched the pilot develop they insisted that their names be removed from the final version, which aired as a two hour movie on NBC.

Add for NBC's Ellery Queen NBC's Sunday Mystery MovieBut, for whatever reason, the fates shown kindly on Levinson and Link and their persistence was rewarded with one more chance.  In NBC’s 1975-1976 Ellery Queen series, amazingly, they made everything click. The result was a series that was true to the literary Queen and that delivered wonderful “fair play” mysteries to viewers every week.

Levinson and Link, by all accounts lifelong Queen fans, were given free hand that time by NBC to do Ellery Queen the way they wanted.  The producers anchored the series in 1947 and set a stylistic tone in keeping with the Queen works of the 1940s. The late Jim Hutton captured Ellery magnificently as a good-natured, absent-minded young man – a character who more neatly matched the Ellery of the 1940s heyday of the series (as contrasted to the pince-nez dandy from the earlier Queen volumes).

While the absent minded nature of Ellery was in many respects itself re-invention, it was re-invention that worked because it did not stray impermissibly from the original. In an earlier article that I wrote for Criminal Briefs I addressed the problems faced by someone trying to write about a character created by others.  (I wrestle with these problems myself whenever I get the opportunity to write Ellery Queen pastiches, as I did with Kurt in “The Book Case” and then again on my own in “The Mad Hatter’s Riddle”.)  In that earlier article I offered the following rule that I apply when utilizing a character created by others – like the physician, I “try first to do no harm.” There are leeways that can be taken with an existing character, but at the end of the story the character should remain recognizable. The pastiche writer owes this, I believe, to the original character and author.  The befuddled and clumsy Ellery of the movies failed this test, I believe –  the character was played too broadly; Ellery was transformed into a burlesque of the original. But, by contrast, the absent minded Ellery created by Mr. Hutton, and as envisioned by Levinson and Link, evolved a bit but still rang completely true.

In the 11 October 1975 issue of TV Guide, published the week that the NBC series premiered, Rand Lee, a son of Manfred B. Lee who was half of the duo behind the Queen volumes, made precisely this point:
"...In many ways, Ellery is a lot like his creators. The NBC Ellery Queen pilot film captured the "authentic" Ellery nearly as he has ever been captured; after watching that film . . . Cousin Fred [Dannay] remarked it was like seeing himself as a young man. Had Dad lived to see the pilot (he died in 1971 of a heart attack), he might have said the same thing about himself. One can imagine the NBC Ellery being cornered at a party by an enthusiastic fan and falling asleep in his chair while she gushes at him; chopping up redwood patio furniture to use in building bird cages; finally succumbing to the charms of some pretty girl but forgetting to formally propose to her until their wedding day. My father actually did all those things. ..."

So, too, the show captured the Inspector, even though it dropped the “Old Man’s” trademark mustache. Hutton’s charm and natural manner played perfectly against David Wayne’s crusty Richard Queen, and a more perfect Sergeant Velie than that delivered by Tom Reese is hard to imagine.

But while each of these ingredients was necessary to the show’s critical (if not commercial) success, it was the caliber of the whodunit mysteries that were the hallmark of the series. Though the episodes varied in quality, each was ultimately redeemed by its plot, the production values, and the marvelous cast.    The stories were also perhaps the best televised approach to classic “fair play” detective short stories ever brought to the television screen. All of the clues were meticulously displayed for the viewer – the camera, in fact, would often linger on the critical clue for a long moment, daring us to figure out its significance – and when Ellery invariably turned to the screen three-quarters of the way through each episode to offer up his “challenge to the reader” we had only ourselves to blame if (when!) we still could not decipher the truth that Mr. Queen had just gleaned.

So why did this erudite, stylistic and highly praised series last but one year? Hearkening back to the beginning of this discussion, I think it is the same reason that satire closes in a week. The show was, too good, it demanded more than the television audience was willing to commit.

In a 2002 article ”Confessions of a Mystery Writer" William Link concluded as much. "Thinking back,” he wrote, “the Queen series was too complicated for its own good. I remember spending an entire afternoon with Dick [Levinson] trying to figure how keys on a keychain would fall into what configuration in one’s pocket when placed there. When audiences didn’t respond the lesson was learned: "[o]ur failure with Ellery Queen was our template” for future efforts, Levinson observed.  We deliberately made the clues on Murder She Wrote easier to decipher, including a very guessable murderer now and then. Part of our psychology was to reward the focused viewers because they might then be motivated to return the following week. Another unexpressed reason was that it was far easier to come up with facile clues than sweating bullets over keys in a pocket… The upshot was that ‘Murder She Wrote‘ thrived for 12 seasons, Ellery Queen [only] one."

In short, the Queen show simply refused to write to a least common denominator. It played to a higher appreciation level.  And like good satire, which closes on Saturday night, that ultimately proved its undoing.  The series closed in 1976.

Cover art for DVD pack  Ellery QueenShort of catching an errant re-run of Ellery Queen, the series, like much of Queen’s written work, has in recent years been largely unavailable. But all of that is about to change!  The explosion of the DVD market has provided an outlet for many short-lived but highly commendable series.  And, by the same token, these series have proven commercially feasible even if they do not play to a lowest denominator.  The DVD and the array of cable networks now available have changed entertainment marketing.  A series, to sell successfully, can now appeal to a niche market in a way that could have never happened in the mid-1970s. 

And so, thankfully and at long last, it is not Mr. Queen’s turn to step up to the plate.  As Kurt has noted in recent posts, and in the introduction to this piece, the entire 1975-1976 NBC Ellery Queen series will be available as of the end of September in a boxed set of DVDs.

Carmen Mathews, Jim Hutton, Julie Sommars, Rhonda Fleming and David Wayne during the episode 'The Adventure Of The Mad Tea Party'. While all of the episodes of this wonderful little series are praiseworthy, a particular joy of the collection is that it includes one episode actually based on a 1935 Queen story – "The Adventure of the Mad Tea Party", which aired on October 30, 1975. That episode has been recognized as perhaps the best screen treatment ever of a Queen work. It also provided a basis for my Ellery Queen pastiche, “The Mad Hatter’s Riddle,” which was published in the September-October, 2009 double issue of Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine.  My story was prompted directly by that episode:  What if, I wondered, Ellery had been called to Hollywood as a consultant on the Tea Party episode? And what if something then had gone terribly wrong during the filming?  If you happen to have a copy of that particular EQMM you might want to read the story in advance of watching the episode – that’s sort of how I intended it to work.  Although I never suspected, even a short year ago, that we would actually be able to accomplish this with digitally-remastered episodes of Ellery Queen.

The series is a wonderful collection of tightly produced who-dunnits.  Highly anticipated, and highly commended to all!

Dale C. Andrews

Other articles by this West 87nd Street Irregular
(1)
Ellery Queen in the Village of Good and Evil at SleuthSayers (10-29-2015)
(2) Queen's Quorum at SleuthSayers (09-27-2015)
(3) The 8th of November, 1951 at SleuthSayers (12-11-2014)

(4)
Ellery Queen and The Mystery of the Hidden Name (02-04-2014)
(5)
Show and Tell at SleuthSayers (07-30-2013)
(6) Numbers at SleuthSayers (01-15-2013)
(7) Ellery Queen's Backstory at SleuthSayers (08-28-2012)
(8) "The Misadventures of Ellery Queen at Something is going to Happen
      (06-13-2012)
(9) Easter Eggs - The Sequel at SleuthSayers (04-10-2012)
(10) Bloodrelations at SleuthSayers (03-13-2012)
(11) Valentine's Day - Love Among the Clues at SleuthSayers (02-14-2012)
(12) Oops! at SleuthSayers (12-06-2011)
(13) If It's Tuesday This Must Be Belgium ...  at SleuthSayers (11-08-2011)
(14) Fair Play Mysteries and the Land of the Rising Sun  at SleuthSayers (10-25-2011)

Page first published on Sep 1. 2010 
Last updated Jul 17, 201
7
 

© Original text 2009, revision 2010 Dale C. Andrews. Used by permission

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