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Reactions to an editorial... Joseph Goodrich

I keep getting reactions to the article we made after attending the Centenary. One was from Joe Goodrich. I didn't know Joe, and he admitted that he missed out on the Symposium itself. Rather apologetically he added that since then had attended the Ellery Queen exhibition at Columbia University. He also sent us an essay which, I believe, clearly complements and amplifies the points we raised in the editorial. The essay also demonstrates that every new creation of a Queen-story can inspire a whole generation to re-discover the treasury of stories... The 'new' medium was set in 1975. And I must admit, as I imagine others will as well, it kindled a fire within...

Joe is a writer and actor from Minnesota. His plays have been produced across the United States. He also worked on comics, opera libretti and a screenplay. He is a member of New Dramatists, the Mystery Writers of America, the Screen Actors' Guild and Actors' Equity Association. Joe is primarily a playwright; his work draws frequently on various crime genre conventions -- noir, especially -- but he has also written mystery fiction and his two most recent plays are thrillers.

A Challenge to the viewer

I first met Ellery Queen in 1975.
I don't mean Ellery Queen the author. Nor do I mean Ellery Queen---here I pause to take a deep breath---the editor, the anthologist, the radio scriptwriter, the lecturer, the collector of mystery fiction and, arguably, the single greatest friend and advocate the mystery genre has ever had.
I'm referring to Ellery Queen the TV star.
'Star' might not be quite the right word, as Ellery Queen only lasted for one season on NBC. But one season was enough for the Queenian magic to take hold---at least for this viewer. I was 12 years old at the time, and my encounter with Queen was as momentous for me as was Queen's encounter with Sherlock Holmes five decades before. The series led me to Ellery Queen's books, and the books led me into the mystery field. My fate, as they say, was sealed. Not even John Dickson Carr could have figured a way out. And I wouldn't have taken it if one had been offered. As a reader and, eventually, a writer, I have dwelt happily in the genre ever since.
Developed by Richard Levinson and William Link, this video incarnation of Queen began life as a TV movie (based on The Fourth Side of the Triangle) which aired in March 1975. Ellery Queen garnered big ratings and, not unnaturally, a series followed. Beginning that fall, Jim Hutton and David Wayne reprised their respective roles as Ellery and Inspector Queen. The series was canceled due to low ratings, the last episode was broadcast in April 1976, and the small-screen adventures of EQ disappeared from sight.
With the exception of a few scattered airings on A&E and The Mystery Channel, Ellery Queen has lingered in limbo for 30 years now, fondly remembered but unseen.

Richard Levinson and William Link

I recently had the opportunity to watch the pilot and all 22 episodes thanks to an assiduous home-taper. I wasn't sure what to expect; how would the series, now viewed through adult eyes, hold up?
As it turned out, Ellery Queen held up just fine.
Certainly nostalgia has something to do with my present-day appreciation, but I find it easy to agree with much of Mike Madrid's 1976 review in the short-lived Mystery Monthly magazine:

"... obvious elements of appeal to mystery buffs, including elegant
surroundings for murder---penthouse apartments and black-tie
nightclubs. Lanky Jim Hutton plays a boyishly unpretentious de-
tective, and veteran actor David Wayne plays a likeably cranky
but ineffective inspector. Moreover, the guest cast is routinely
excellent - and the charm of the Forties sets, costumes and over-
all mileu is a refreshing change from the 'asphalt jungle' of con-
temporary New York and the endless freeways of modern Los
Angeles."

Madrid went on to fault the series for its lack of danger---Ellery goes about his sleuthing with impunity as if he's playing a parlor game after dinner ---and a concomitant lack of suspense, concluding that Ellery Queen was like a gun without bullets. Decorative, perhaps, but hardly effective. Madrid's point is generally valid; all I would say in the show's defense is that it was more of a champagne cocktail than a boilermaker, an exercise in stylish ratiocination that made no claims to 'gritty authenticity'. As such, there's much to enjoy: the period details that Madrid mentions, the byplay between Ellery and Inspector Queen and, more often than not, the twists and turns of the mysteries that Ellery is called upon to solve.
My only real objection stems from certain aspects of the way Ellery's character is handled. Jim Hutton's otherwise-admirable portrayal errs a little too often for my taste on the side of comic absentmindedness. This character trait was obviously chosen to 'humanize' Ellery, to make him more 'appealing' to the audience. Amusing as it can sometimes be, it has little to do with the EQ of the books. Hutton is at his best when he's simply allowed to do what Ellery did best: apply his sympathetic intelligence to the solving of a crime. And how I wish the series had drawn upon so me of the fierce and agonized moral conscience that provides such depth to Cat of Many Tails and Ten Days' Wonder.

But to wish for that is to wish that Ellery Queen had been something other than what it was, to rue a missed possibility rather than appreciate what is there. Though the series is set in 1947, well into the third period of the Queen canon, its format owes more to the golden-age days (and even more to the EQ radio show) than anything else. The game is all, the puzzle takes precedence, and a challenge to the reader---or, in this case, to the viewer---is issued when all the clues to the solution of the crime have been presented. (It's interesting to note that the only Queen story used as the basis for one of the episodes was 1934's 'The Adventure of the Mad Tea Party'.) The crimes themselves are not exceptionally difficult to figure out, but they do require keeping a close eye on the action and a bit of reasoning' A recipe for death in the ratings then as now.

Levinson and Link kept the books' triumvirate of Queen pére, fils, and Sergeant Velie. David Wayne's Inspector Queen, though missing his print counterpart's silvery mustache and given to arresting suspects on less-than-rock-solid evidence, is indeed superb, and Tom Reese's Velie is a stolid addition to a long line of head-scratching, cigar-chewing Man Fridays. Created for the series to provide competition for Ellery and grief for his father are the stylishly fey radio sleuth Simon Brimmer---played with sardonic élan by John Hillerman---and the pugnacious news-hawk Frank Flanagan, brought to brash and bristling life by Ken Swofford. Brimmer and Flanagan can be counted on to provide the wrong answers to whatever case Ellery is involved in, and their comeuppance is a ready source of humor. No Nikki Porter is to be found lurking about the Queens' brownstone, a blessing or a curse depending on how you feel about Nikki. A few women vie for Ellery's attentions in the course of the series, but he remains essentially the world's oldest, tallest and smartest boy. Dashiell Hammett's famous question concerning Ellery's sex life ('---if any') remains unanswered. The emphasis is on deduction, not seduction.

Little more than a year elapsed from the pilot's first showing to the last aired episode. Ellery Queen remains---to date---the last time Dannay and Lee's creation has appeared on the home screen. If only PBS would do for Queen what the BBC has done for his British counterparts. Think of, say, The Roman Hat Mystery done up in all the period trappings of the late 1920s; think of Calamity Town's town square (which was round), the changing seasons of Wrightsville's weather and the changing fates of the Wright family; think of the sweltering claustrophobia of the New York City roamed by the serial killer of Cat of Many Tails; think of And On The Eighth Day's isolated desert Eden that comes to know the greatest sin of them all. The mouth waters at the prospect.
Until this happens, the modest and intelligent pleasures of the Levinson and Link series will serve admirably. It constitutes a relatively minor but charming addition to Queeniana.
I use the word 'relatively', well, relatively. For one 12-year-old boy in a small Minnesota town, Ellery Queen was a major event.
It opened up a world.
No---worlds.

Joseph Goodrich

 
© 2006 Joseph Goodrich - Kurt Sercu 

  

Links
Bio Joseph Goodrich at Playscripts.Inc
More on the 1975 Ellery Queen tv series

 

 

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