There Was an Old Woman (1943)
Frederic Dannay and Manfred B. Lee were cousins who adopted the eponymous pseudonym Ellery Queen for their beloved detective series. Dannay plotted the books and Lee did most of the writing. Their character Ellery Queen was himself a mystery writer who was continually getting involved in the cases of his father, a New York City police inspector. Queen was a detective in the traditional mold. The stories are driven by the plot, by the mystery itself--as opposed to hard boiled noir, which was all atmosphere and dialogue, or police procedurals, or the great private eye novels of Ross MacDonald, which were largely psychological deconstructions and character driven. Even Queen himself is less distinctive than many of his rivals, with none of the quirks or traits that distinguish a Nero Wolfe or a Charlie Chan.
In this installment of the series, Ellery finds himself mixed up with a horrid millionairess, nicknamed "The Old Woman", because her money comes from the shoe empire that she built. Her children have varying degrees of mental instability and when Queen ends up helping to stage a duel between two of her sons he puts blanks into the guns, but to everyone's astonishment, one of the sons falls dead of a gunshot. The investigation begins and future crimes borrow elements from the Mother Goose rhyme that gives the book its title. Of course, in the end, Ellery Queen summons the principals to the drawing room where he spins out the solution to the crime and everyone lives happily ever after, except for the culprit and his victims.
It all makes for a tidy little mystery and a great deal of fun. I don't think Ellery Queen quite measures up to the real demigods of the mystery (Sherlock Holmes, Nero Wolfe, Sam Spade, Philip Marlowe, Lew Archer, etc.), but he's certainly an enduring American classic and well worth a visit.
-History of the Mystery: Ellery Queen
-Ellery Queen: Mystery Writer and Editor
-Ellery Queen Works
-BIBLIO: (A Guide to Classic Mystery and Detection Home Page)
-Ellery Queen TV Series Companion
-Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine On the Web
-REVIEW: QBI: Queen's Bureau of Investigation Ellery Queen (Mystery Guide)
-ESSAY: Ellery Queen's 'Double Lives' (HERBERT MITGANG, NY Times)
Copyright 1998-2015 Orrin Judd