This inductee in the West 87th Street Irregulars is someone very familiar to Ellery Queen fans and to those who have explored the nooks and crannies of this website. Joe is a long time Ellery Queen fan, who discovered our favorite mystery writer (and detective) when he was a child. Some years back, right after the Ellery Queen Centenary symposium in New York City, Joe contributed an essay discussing his early and life long affection for the works of Ellery Queen. As a new inductee into the West 87th Street Irregulars Joe has contributed a new essay, set forth below, exploring the subject he has addressed in his recent book Blood Relations – the correspondence between Frederic Dannay and Manfred B. Lee that chronicled their creative throes that were an integral part of the drafting of Ellery Queen mysteries.
Joe Goodrich is not only an author, he is also a dramatist whose plays have been produced across the United States and are published by Samuel French, Playscripts, the Padua Hills Press and Applause Books, among others. Panic received the 2008 Edgar Award for Best Play. He is the editor of Blood Relations: The Selected Letters of Ellery Queen, 1947-1950 (Perfect Crime Books, 2012). His short story “Dear Mr. Queen” will be included in the MWA anthology The Mystery Box, edited by Brad Meltzer, which will be published in the spring of 2013. “Murder in the Sixth” appeared in The Rich and the Dead, the 2011 MWA anthology edited by Nelson DeMille. His nonfiction has appeared in Mystery Scene and Crimespree. He is an alumnus of New Dramatists, and a former Calderwood Fellow at the MacDowell Colony. He lives in New York City.
A KIND OF TRIUMPH
William Butler Yeats once observed: “Out of the quarrel with others we make rhetoric; out of the quarrel with ourselves we make poetry.”
He might have added: “Out of the quarrel with our cousins, we make mysteries.” But Yeats never met Frederic Dannay or Manfred B. Lee, the notoriously fractious first cousins from Brooklyn who created Ellery Queen. Known for their legendary differences of opinion on just about any subject under the sun, Dannay and Lee were proof that conflict is not only the essence of fiction but also the very nature of collaboration.
Or, should I say, of their collaboration. Ample evidence of the Sturm und Drang that animated their professional and familial relationships can be found in Blood Relations: The Selected Letters of Ellery Queen, 1947-1950.
Blood Relations covers the years when Lee was living in Los Angeles, where he was writing the Ellery Queen radio show, and Dannay was living in Larchmont, NY. For the better part of their careers, the two collaborated at a distance, communicating through letters and telephone calls. The letters afford us the chance to watch Dannay and Lee at work---a rare opportunity to see some of their greatest novels forged in the fire of their disputes and debates.
Ellery Queen the author has been my favorite mystery writer since I discovered him when I was 12 years old; Ellery Queen the character, my favorite fictional detective. A portion of my affection for Dannay and Lee’s creation stems from that youthful fascination, but I’ve re-read the books many times since then and they hold up marvelously well. My enthusiasm was warranted.
In the summer of 2008 that enthusiasm led me to approach Richard Dannay, one of Frederic’s sons, about an obscure piece of Queeniana: the stage play Danger, Men Working. Written with Lowell Brentano in 1935, the play closed out of town and was subsequently forgotten. Richard Dannay was kind enough to pass along a copy of the play. I arranged a staged reading of it at the New York Conservatory for Dramatic Arts in January of 2009.
Richard mentioned that the correspondence between his father and Lee---housed at Columbia University---offers a unique view of their collaboration. A trip to the Butler Library’s Rare Book and Manuscript Room proved that he was absolutely right. I spent the next six months transcribing those letters. By the time I’d finished, I’d amassed almost a quarter-of-a-million words. I assembled and edited a selection of letters that illustrates how Dannay and Lee wrote Ten Days’ Wonder, Cat of Many Tails, The Origin of Evil, and provides a glimpse into their troubled private lives. Both men suffered psychic and physical distress; both desperately needed the money that Queen made for them; both were sensitive to the point of morbidity and felt undervalued by and resentful of the other.
Dannay did the plotting, Lee the actual writing. But these strictly demarcated tasks were never wholly separable, and each felt the other was poaching on his terrain. Dannay thought Lee didn’t treat his plots with enough care. Lee chafed at the constraints of Dannay’s storylines. They needed each other to make their books, and bitterly resented it.
How bitterly, I came to discover as I worked my way through their letters. I had no idea that these vital and complex works were born out of such struggle, such anger and doubt.
For all the sorrow and sadness in
Dannay and Lee’s lives, their story is a kind of triumph.
Against the odds they managed to collaborate successfully
for over 40 years, merging their separate strengths into a
cohesive, meaningful whole. They played a vital part in the
creation of the Golden Age of mystery fiction. They
responded intelligently and creatively to the challenges of
the post-Golden-Age world, a world wracked by the chaos of
war and the madness of genocide, and created their finest
work. No matter what external or internal catastrophes
befell them, like Samuel Beckett’s wanderers they kept
Quotes from Blood Relations: The Selected Letters of Ellery Queen
"What began as a friendly competition wound up as active and bitter hostility. The whole set-up was packed with dynamite; and our whole history as a "team" is a series of explosions." (Manfred B. Lee to Fred Dannay, July 5, 1948)
"...I wish you would seriously consider the following suggestion: underdo rather than even risk the possibility of overdoing. Specifally, as to the Christmas story: in all honesty, Man, I think the story is almost buried under the whimsy." (Fred Dannay to Manfred B. Lee, July 29. 1948)
"Whimsy is one man's meat and another man's poison. For the most part I have found the whimsy in these stories nourishing; for the most part, apparently, you have found it toxic. So there we are. ..." (Manfred B. Lee to Fred Dannay, July 31, 1948)
"I now take my oath once more: never again will I enter into a personal discussion of our differences or attitudes or beliefs or hurts or successes or failures - from now on, so help me, my letter will be pure, impersonal business, and nothing else." (Fred Dannay to Manfred B. Lee, May 29. 1949)
"I have no heart or mind, almost no body, to answer your letter; still, it has to be answered.
Nobody really understands anyone else's troubles. ... So it is with you and me. I appreciate and sympathize with your troubles, but I am preoccupied with my own. You appreciate and sympathize with mine, but are preoccupied with yours." (Manfred B. Lee to Fred Dannay, February 24, 1950)
© 2012 by Joseph Goodrich
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© Original text 2012 Joseph Goodrich Used by permission