The meta of the mystery

Another series I have had my nose into for years is the Ellery Queen collection of mysteries. They are quite cheerily metatextual. The books are published under the byline "Ellery Queen" -- actually a couple of cousins from Brooklyn, working together -- and feature as their protagonist a detective named Ellery Queen. Who is himself a writer, writing detective novels. The concept that the novels were written by the protagonist about things he actually witnessed is threaded through quite nicely; Ellery takes a lot of notes while he pokes his nose into things, and other characters both seek out his help because they know of him through his novels, and sometimes complain about being involved in one of his escapades that they don't especially relish seeing on the shelf someday in written form. Later in the run, when out in the real world "Ellery Queen" the author(s) ended up editing a monthly anthology called Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, the Ellery Queen inside the book did too, plowing through correspondence and reading the slush pile of manuscripts that had accumulated while thinking about his case, and sometimes using it as a slapdash sort of cover.

True to his genre-savvy position as both a writer and a solver of murder mysteries, El also makes it a point to play fair. The reader gets all the same information that Ellery does within the body of the story. In the early novels, there's an interstitial page marking the end of the clue-giving section of the book, challenging the reader to figure it out before going on to read the dénouement; in the later installments, the intermission is implicit but usually fairly obvious. Usually Ellery has some sort of head-smacking epiphany after a coincidental word or event, which gives a hint as to not just what the solution is, but what his reasoning was. Some are more pleasantly surprising than others, but I've never wanted to throw an Ellery Queen book at the wall after getting the explanation of what happened, which is saying something.

The cousins from Brooklyn wrote these things for something like 40 years. Ellery grows up a lot in that time, though he ages more slowly than those of us out here in the real world. In the first few books, El is young, fresh from Harvard, and thinks he knows everything; he would be horribly obnoxious if not for the fact that he's also a very sweet kid, and has a tendency to come falling face-first off his self-built pedestal when someone points out that his solution to the crime is flawless, except for the tiny little detail that it's also completely wrong. It just crushes him, and this is inexplicably adorable. He thinks he's found a way to be insufferably smart and helpful at the same time, and he deflates like a nail-poked tire when he fails at one or the other.

Later on, when Ellery has had a great deal more experience working as a writer both in New York and Hollywood, he finds that he gets much more emotionally involved in his cases, and that this can be a good thing and a terrible thing all at once. Part of it's age, but mostly it's that the shiny newness of being able to solve puzzles wears off, and it starts to dawn on him that he always gets stuck teasing things apart after the fact. Only rarely is he able to put together enough clues to get there before the bad things happen. The evolution was not lost on the series writers, and in fact, the novel The Finishing Stroke makes the contrast explicit -- the original murder takes place over the holidays in 1929-30, and only many years later when he revisits the case can Ellery see how his solution could possibly be so wrong and at the same time so right.

The Ellery Queen name was also used for some time afterwards on books that don't star Ellery; generally, these were published under a house label, and were not by the original authors. The atmosphere is a bit hit-or-miss, so if you're reading the original books specifically because you enjoy the tone you may want to skip the non-Ellery ones. The others in general are less impressive, to the point where now I can't actually recall the titles of most of them -- I tend to put down anything that doesn't have an Ellery in it as well as on it, so for many of them I don't even know if the mystery was any good, because I don't know how they end. I did like The Glass Village all right, even though I don't normally enjoy the sort of depressing commentary on the Cold War that often masqueraded as other genres while it was still going on, so YMMV.

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