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CARPE LIBRUM: Ellery Queen’s mystery novel takes us to Wrightsville

Ellery Queen, as a character and a pen name for almost 100 years, in and of itself, deserves acknowledgment.

Wilmington’s literary community keeps gaining accolades (two National Book Awards nominees in 2015) and attention in the press. With multiple established publishers in the state (Algonquin, Blair) and new smaller presses gaining traction (Eno, Bull City), it is timely to shine a light on discussions around literature, publishing and the importance of communicating a truthful story in our present world.

Welcome to Carpe Librum, encore’s biweekly book column, wherein I will dissect a current title with an old book—because literature does not exist in a vacuum but emerges to participate in a larger, cultural conversation. I will feature many NC writers; however, the hope is to place the discussion in a larger context and therefore examine works around the world.

doubleDouble, Double
By Ellery Queen
Little, Brown, 1950
“The Wrightsville Murders” caught my attention. The headline was splashed across the front on a very 1950’s-looking omnibus edition of Ellery Queen’s mysteries. Obviously I picked it up. Imagine my surprise to discover there is actually another place in America named “Wrightsville”—not just our beloved Wrightsville Beach (re: sarcasm). Admittedly, though the fictional town of Wrightsville is set in New England, in my mind the entire book took place on Wrightsville Beach.

Ellery Queen is no longer the household name he once was. His moniker and character had books, radio and TV shows, films, comic books, board games, and Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine is the longest-running fiction digest mystery magazine still published in America.

“So who wrote the Ellery Queen books?” Jock asked me.

“Ellery Queen was like four or five different people,” I answered.

“Ah…”

“A shared nom de plume, as it were,” I explained.

“Got it.” Jock paused. “Then what is the name of the sleuth?”

“Ellery Queen.”

“Hold on, you just said that was the author.”

“Yeah, it’s like Kinky Friedman writes detective stories about a man named Kinky Friedman solving crimes. It’s the same thing: the author known as Ellery Queen, who can be any combination of four or five people, writes a mystery solved by a sleuth named ‘Ellery Queen.’”

“OK, got it…” Jock sipped his beer and went back to his email.

So, yes, several people wrote under the name “Ellery Queen.” It began with two cousins, Frederic Dannay and Manfred Bennington Lee. Queen made his first appearance at the end of the 1920s. At different times, he has lived in New York City, traveled around the country, and solved crimes of small and great import. Sometimes he is more of a Sam Spade character. Sometimes he has a secretary who helps/gets him into all kinds of scrapes. Sometimes he helps his father, Inspector Queen, solve cases. Different writers respond to evolving markets that made changes to the world of Ellery Queen. But it is his books set in  Wrightsville that I like best.

“Double, Double,” like many of Agatha Christie’s mysteries, follows an old children’s rhyme, “Tinker, Tailor”: “Rich man, poor man, beggar man, thief…” So the book begins with the death of a rich man and makes it through six more murders before Ellery Queen apprehends the killer.

Set in a small New England village, at the end of the 1940s, we meet a toughened, world-weary detective with a certain level of cynicism—but it is hiding a very soft heart. Queen has an inner sense of honor that drives him, even when common sense would advise giving up. In “Double, Double,” his soft heart is melted by a young lady who appears to have stepped out of the pages of “Green Mansions” by William Hudson. Perhaps it is part of why I enjoy the book so much. It is filled with references and homages to great literature.

The premise is the young lady (who is actually named Rima, like the character in “Green Mansions”) was the only child of a frustrated poet who turned to teaching literature. As a result her world is viewed largely through the lens of the classics—until Ellery Queen buys her a hard-boiled detective story to read. The plotting is incredibly intricate; I didn’t come close to guessing the solution on my own—and there is a surprise at every turn.

Repeatedly, I was surprised my suspect turned out to be the next victim. But I think, more than anything, with the multi-dimensionality of many of the characters, it would be easier to make them into simple one- or two-dimensional caricatures. In surprising and unexpected ways, the Queen Team deepen and flesh out a story that could be nothing more than a pot-boiler.

The book could and should be regarded with the same admiration as Conan Doyle’s work and Agatha Christie’s. It is smart, well-written, clever, and steeped in a knowledge of literature. Of course, part of why I like it so much is the use of Wrightsville and an image that conjures up very much what life on the island was like when I was little.

But the sheer enduring legacy of a name—Ellery Queen—as a character and a pen name for almost 100 years, in and of itself, deserves acknowledgment. Once folks read this particular book, they will understand exactly why. What writer would not want to create a character (both on the page and even off in this case) that would outlast the creator? Isn’t it the aim of art? Something that transcends generations? Dannay and Lee passed in 1982 and 1971 respectively, but Ellery Queen, and Wrightsville, well, they are immortal.

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