#404: Little Fictions – The Impossibilities of Ellery Queen: ‘The Black Ledger’, a.k.a. ‘The Mysterious Black Ledger’ (1952) and ‘Diamonds in Paradise’ (1954)

QBI & QF

To finish off this month looking at some of the impossible crime short stories of Ellery Queen — which started without an impossibility, went verbosely downhill, and then improved significantly — I’m again looking at two stories since both are pretty darn short.  And so…

What Are They About?

‘The Black Ledger’ concerns the transportation of the eponymous book — “its dimensions were six inches by eight and one-half inches, and it contained fifty-two thick, limp ledger pages” — containing sensitive information regarding those responsible for “the spreading epidemic of dope addiction which was plaguing the forty-eight states”.  Ellery is charged with transporting it, immediately intercepted by those who wish to keep it from the hands of law and order, and despite being subjected to a rigorous and spare-no-quarter search nevertheless has the  ledger upon him and is able to deliver it without its being discovered.

Thematically, then, ‘Diamonds in Paradise’ makes the perfect companion-piece, as it too involves the impossible hiding of something — in this case the fittingly-named Lili Minx’s diamond earrings, removed from her at an illicit casino conveniently raided by Insp. Richard Queen just as she tumbles to the theft.  The thief is captured, “peeled to the buff” and a similar search conducted on “every mother’s son and daughter on the premises” but the diamonds are nowhere.  The thief tries to escape, tumbles to his death, and is able to croak out as his final words “Diamonds…in…Paradise” — not the most helpful direction, given that the casino is called Paradise Gardens.  Nevertheless, Ellery is able to apply to himself to what “if wasn’t his greatest case, it was certainly his shortest” and solve the mystery of the dying words behind the impossible disappearance.

What’s Good About Them?

We are swift approaching the as-yet-undefined point in history past which the puzzle plot lost its sheen, and began courting accusations of possessing an odour not unlike old soup and your grandfather’s favourite past-time.  As such, one feels that the traditional trappings of the detection milieu are somewhat passé, and Dannay and Lee have made a very deliberate effort with ‘The Black Ledger’ to aim for a slightly more grim-faced, flint-edged, steely-eyed, and other such desirable adjective-nouned tone.  This could almost be a minor episode from a James Bond novel, with Ellery suffering through certain untold indignities (the precise actions of the character Doc, for instance, that leave the main antagonist here reflecting that the ledger “wasn’t on you, it wasn’t in you”…imagine away at will!) and admitting his discomfort and fear whilst also coming away triumphant.  All told, it’s a pretty effective telling of a minor trick — usually all reframings of ‘The Purloined Letter’ irritate me with their basic simplicity, but this one pulls it off very well indeed.

‘Diamonds in Paradise’ is one of those one-idea stories where everything is deliberately manufactured so that the central trick will work, and it manages to still feel like a natural and sensible narrative without too much coercion behind it.  If we’re going for comparisons to classic stories I dislike, this is essentially an updating of Chesterton’s ‘The Invisible Man’, though it again manages that deliberate overlooking of a key detail mostly — mostly, see below — very well.  And I have to admit, the solution here did make me chuckle; it’s delightfully Crispin-esque and reveals a impish playfulness that has until now seemed to be lacking from the Queen canon.  Their fun has always been so serious and po-faced in my mind, but here’s they seem to be enjoying the ludicrous nature of what they’ve cooked up.

What’s Bad About Them?

Is it necessary to pull up the first story for its not quite playing fair?  I think the concept of “We’ve searched everywhere and it ain’t here!” is familiar enough that some people might still twig to the eventual solution without really understanding the how until it’s spelled out come the end.  But, in all fairness, I didn’t sigh or roll my eyes come that revelation, so I’m going to say I enjoyed it and let it go at that.

However, as much as ‘The Black Ledger’ juggles its change of tone very neatly, ‘Diamonds in Paradise’ feels horribly out of time, with prose like “Lili Minx’s collection was the natural target of every creep out of the jug” making it feel very much like something trying to ape a popular idiom.  Or maybe it didn’t stand out at the time and has just dated badly both in this context and against the other work Dannay and Lee did.  And the key detail is buried in a…well, in a way of burying something that I’m still not entirely sure of my opinion on.  But, really, it’s another brief and enjoyable blast, and as such difficult to find too much fault with.

How Are the Impossibilities?

As I say above, the fundamental trick of ‘The Black Ledger’ is familiar to everyone, but it’s done here with a brevity and a very deliberate focus of trying to be a different genre of story, and those two factors go a long way for me.  What’s especially pleasing is the intelligence with which you are misdirected while the solution is hidden: these “search everywhere” stories typically fall down because in failing to find the hidden MacGuffin the author usually fails to obscure the hiding place.  Dannay and Lee throw possibility after possibility at you, giving a situation where a number of possibilities are available and then knocking them down one by one…until there appears to be nothing standing (I didn’t spot it, others will).  That’s difficult to do, and certainly helped by the speed with which this goes past.

The trick isn’t all that different in the second story, and the final line is a lovely little wink to allow the impossible disappearance to cross over with the dying message trope…no mean feat in the comparative brevity of this one.  I think I’ve covered that I generally like this one, there’s not really enough going on to be able to talk about one aspect without covering the central crime and solution.

Anything Else?

I learned that the US has been composed of its full fifty states for a much shorter time that I had supposed — with Alaska and Hawaii being admitted to the union in the January and August of 1959 respectively.  Sure, I didn’t learn this in the story itself, but that mention of 48 states got me scouring the interwebs for an explanation.

Equally in ‘The Black Ledger’ there seems to be a slight melding of Ellery Queen character and Ellery Queen author.  It’s mentioned at one point that Ellery’s pockets contain “a dues receipt from the Mystery Writers of America, five business cards and seven jottings of ideas for stories”.  Given that the novels were “written” by J.J. McQ and the short stories appear to be written in the third person — and to relate actual cases, no less, rather than being framed as stories in which Ellery is a overseer — at what point was Ellery writing fiction?  Is this some sort of radio crossover again?  If there’s an acknowledged point in the canon where Ellery is a published author of his own fiction, I’d be interested to hear about it.

Er, I can’t really think of anything else from ‘Diamonds in Paradise’.

On the whole, the stories from Queen’s Bureau of Investigation have gone some way to help rescue this undertaking.  I definitely think I go for Dannay and Lee in smaller bites — their shorter shorts have found me much more receptive, let’s not deny — and I’ll return to the remainder of that collection at some point in the near future.  And, of course, at some point I have to polish off their remaining impossible short stories, but since there don’t seem to be enough to fill a month of similar posts I don’t know how I’ll go about reporting on those.

Aaah, well, that can be a problem for another day…

36 thoughts on “#404: Little Fictions – The Impossibilities of Ellery Queen: ‘The Black Ledger’, a.k.a. ‘The Mysterious Black Ledger’ (1952) and ‘Diamonds in Paradise’ (1954)

  1. Since there’s only three stories left now, all of them very short, couldn’t you just pack them into an extra bonus post here?

    Otherwise, it’s nice to see that you’re quite enjoying Queen in the shorter form. I like them as well, but I’d argue that it isn’t particularly good to read many of them in a row because it does become a bit formulaic. Also, I think it gets easier to see through them.

    I do think you’ve become a bit confused about EQ the fictional author, because he’s always been just that. JJ is never the author of the early novels, he’s just the literary agent or whatever. And he’s only in Period One (and maybe “Halfway House”, don’t quite remember right now). Just like Djuna, he fades away with the academic EQ. They’re all kinda sorta replaced by Nikki, though she’s not present all that much either.

    To be honest, the continuity in EQ is fairly crazy. In “The King is Dead”, the Queens have a housekeeper who’s never been mentioned before or since. The novel “The House of Brass” follows directly on “Face to Face”, even though there’s no mention of Richard Q being married in the latter. And so on and so forth.

    • Ah, okay, was much made of Ellery’s writing? I have obviously missed (or, more likely, forgotten) any previous mentions of his own fictional endeavours. Who”ve thought that someone so taken up with solving “real” crimes (in-universe) would have the time to also make up fake ones?! Was it maybe given that he composed the problems for the radio show or something like that? I know that would have a guest detective in each week to “play along”, so were those stories “written by Ellery Queen”?

      Perhaps I could put the remaining three in a post, yeah. Maybe I can do something else with them, or if they’re in QBI just look at the when I (inevitably) come to write about it on here. Watch this space…

      It is nice to be enjoying these more, however, and I’m grateful for your guidance in pointing out ‘Diamonds in Paradise’ to me. Of course, all this good work will be undone when I read The Spanish Cape Mystery next month 🙂

      • “E = Murder” is from Queen’s Full (as was “Diamonds in Paradise”), and “Object Lesson” is from QED so you’ll have to pick each one of those up to get all three…

        I don’t know how much was actually made of Ellery’s being an author. I guess it’s not uncommon in the beginning of the novels or short stories that he’s sitting around thinking about a story he is writing.

        Nor do I remember whether he is fictionalising his own cases or just writing original mystery stories.

        I just know that it was always apparent to me that he was a mystery author. 🙂

        • Nor do I remember whether he is fictionalising his own cases or just writing original mystery stories.

          I think it’s presented from the get-go that’s a writer of fictional mysteries who happens to get drawn into real ones, often because of his dad’s profession. I don’t recall ever being under the impression that he wrote up his own cases.

          • It raises for me the realisation that I never actually knew what Ellery did besides be a detective. Perhaps it’s just the fact that everyone is able to say “Ellery Queen is the name of the author and their detective character…”, you know he’s a detective and you never stop to think what else he could have been doing prior to that.

            And if “presented from the get-go” means “mentioned in The Roman Hat Mystery”…well, no wonder I don’t remember it; I’ve worked hard to expel as much of that book from my memory as possible 🙂

          • At the end of one of his introductions (Chinese Orange?) J.J. McC. speculates on what might have happened if he’d been mixed up in the case, and then says something like “But there I go. After all, this is Ellery’s story. Let him tell it.” So I figured the conceit back in the early days was that Ellery was the author of the books, which were novelized versions of cases he had solved.

            If memory serves, there was also a reference in one Nationality-Object book to something called The Murder of the Marionettes, one of the books Ellery wrote under his “real name”. So he also supposedly wrote books that were pure fiction, but under another (unrevealed) byline.

            • Okay, tha is pretty interesting; the idea that Dannay and Lee were planting the seeds of Ellery as the author…it’d be more obvious were the stories told in first person, obviously, but it’s nice to know there’s some evidence of it at the very least. Full disclosure: I stopped reading the introductions after the life-or-death struggle that was The Dutch Shoe Mystery because, well, the less I had to read the more likely I was to enjoy myself.

              I do vaguely recall some conceit that “Ellery Queen” was a name adopted in order to aid the fictionalising of real cases, now you mention it. Is that in The Roman Hat Mystery? Certainly I seem to think it was something dropped into the pot fairly easrly on…

            • Yes, I just had a look at Roman Hat, and in the introduction, J.J. says that “Ellery Queen” and “Richard Queen” are not their real names. This is a device borrowed from the first Philo Vance novel. The intro also says that Ellery himself wrote Roman Hat but not for publication, and J.J. was the one who insisted it see the light of day.

        • In that case I’ll find a work-around at some future point…though there’s also ‘House of Darkness’, right? That would be four more at one a week for a future month…assuming I can stretch out the shorter ones to a full post…

          My eyes shall be peeled — peeled!, I tell you — for all future mentions of Ellery’s own writing. Expect a report at some future point.

          • That’s true, “The House of Darkness” is also an impossible crime. And you still have “The Lamp of God”, which admittedly is a novella.

            Then there’s “The Case of His Headless Highness”, which might be hard to find since it’s actually a jigsaw puzzle story…

            And if you want to be really really thorough, you should take a look at “Mind over Matter” as well, for an example of an impossible mystery that is never treated as such within the story.

            • Dammit, that’s five more in that case — six, if you include Headless Highness. Now we’re effectively back where we started: I have too many for the possible Tuesdays in a month. This is not going well at all… 🙂

            • Since all bibliographies mention “Headless Highness” as an EQ story, it’d surprise me if they didn’t write it.

            • Here are the first few paragraphs, which are representative of the rest of the story. To me, it seems to lack that Lee touch.

              “Well, that proves it,” Ellery Queen was heard to mutter, as he looked at the headless body of His Royal Ex-Highness King Musaka of Zharkan, on the floor of the dingy rooming house. Inspector Jiggs, irritated enough by the baffling crime, whirled angrily.

              “Proves what, Mr. Queen?”

              “That royal blood isn’t blue,” Ellery said apologetically.

              Inspector Jiggs turned to Igor, the sparrow-frail servant who had discovered the body, and asked for the third time: “Are you sure the King never admitted anyone to this room?”

            • I don’t think that example’s all that far away from many other such short-shorts.

              Still, I do wonder how much of a hand Lee had in most of these short-shorts, they’re all fairly indistinct as far as an authorial voice goes.

            • The later ones over this last month did feel to me like they veered rather into a less distinct voice, for sure. They’re light and fun, but rename the character of Ellery Queen and they could almost be Edmund Crispin or Leo Bruce stories.

            • Well, let me give some specifics as to why I doubt Dannay/Lee wrote “Headless Highness”.

              When our hero is first mentioned, he’s referred to as “Ellery Queen”. In the canonical short-shorts, it’s just “Ellery”, even when he first appears.

              I don’t think the cousins would have introduced an “Inspector Jiggs” when they used Inspector Queen as the cop (unless the story was set outside New York, or involved the FBI, or something). Plus the wordplay (Jiggs/jigsaw) seems a bit primitive.

              The first thing out of Ellery’s mouth is a bad joke – out of character for him.

              Lee took his writing seriously, and an awful cliche like “the baffling crime” is exactly the sort of thing he wouldn’t have written.

              None of this is conclusive proof, but my money is on a ghost writer.

              Still, it’s possible all the stuff I mention was added by someone at the puzzle company who thought he was improving on the master. Or, since “Headless Highness” was published two years after Lee died, maybe Dannay wrote an outline and someone else expanded it into a story.

    • There’s no point in trying to make sense of the chronology of the Queen novels, what with Ellery not aging realistically. My rationalization is that (since Ellery was born in 1905, per The Finishing Stroke), all the books from Greek Coffin (the first according to internal chronology) to Stroke “really happened,” taking Ellery from his early 20s to his early 50s. The books from Player on the Other Side on? They’re fiction, with a de-aged Ellery and Inspector. Mind you, the Inspector would still have to have retired a lot earlier than the time of Inspector Queen’s Own Case, but I never said my rationalization was perfect!

      Mrs. Fabrikant the housekeeper does pop up again in A Fine and Private Place.

      • I love this idea, though. Given that the later novels are widely accepted to represent a decline in quality, this would also make Ellery a better detective than he is a writer…!

  2. I believe the wrap-around for the nationalities series — JJ McC., and Ellery’s wife and child and residence in Italy — vanished in a great whack of retcon (retroactive continuity). They were retconned out of existence.
    It’s maddening that I recall tracking this down before but now cannot find the reference in my own blog. But Ellery is said to be the editor of EQMM in a couple of books — I believe The Player on the Other Side is one. In The Scarlet Letters, Ellery and Nikki go to the EQMM offices and catch up on correspondence. As an author: in the framing story for A Study In Terror, Ellery is unable to write his book and diverts himself with the Holmesian manuscript; later in Chapter 1 he is said to quote himself from The Player on the Other Side (which is VERY meta since the cousins didn’t write it LOL). And I can certainly say that in The Finishing Stroke, Ellery is specifically mentioned as the author of The Roman Hat Mystery. From Chapter II:
    “How young Ellery was may be judged by the fact that he took his reviews seriously. The sweet ones puffed him to the point of bloat; the sour positively shriveled him. The reviews of The Roman Hat Mystery had been, on the whole, nourishing. The touch of acidity in The Saturday Review of Literature notice, however, infected him deeply. To be accused of mere competence was galling; to be called a “philovancish bookworm” etched itself into his soul; to be charged with coyness revolted him. There is an innocence and wonder about a young author’s first-born; to call it names is to commit a crime against nature. Ellery writhed.”

    • I think you’re wrong in saying that “The Player on the Other Side” wasn’t written by the cousins, since Fred Dannay most definitely wrote the plot. Even if Manfred Lee

    • (Got cut off there…)
      Even if Manfred Lee had writer’s block and Avram Davidson formed Dannay’s plot into a novel, I still think it’s rather disingenuous to say that they didn’t write it.

    • I figured the wife, child, and life in Italy would have been well and truly vanished — it seemed a weird conceit with which to open, and clearly not something you’d do had you known your series was going to span multiple media for multiple decades.

      Honestly, the lack of foresight of these two… 😀

      • It’s called “Contest Losers’ Remorse.” Had they won that contest, the cousins would have exorcised their desire to prove they could out-Van Dine Van Dine and gone back to their humdrum lives. But after losing the contest and then getting published anyway, they realized they would have to figure out how to do their own version of this thing.

        But Ellery was always a writer. You’ll see it a lot in the Hollywood stories, and it’s the reason he went to Wrightsville in the first place. I do think that Noah’s information centers around the final period because in the earlier years I didn’t get the sense he was chronicling his own adventures. I can’t imagine after the heartache he experiences in the 1940’s that Ellery the character would then pen Calamity Town, <Ten Days Wonder, and Cat of Many Tails!!

        Incidentally, I’m excited to inform you that I myself just won a prize. All American bridge players took part in a raffle to raise funds to combat Alzheimer’s disease, and one of my tickets got pulled! I’m really thrilled.

        I won cheese. Evidently quite a bit of cheese.

        • In at least one of the novels, and I think more than one, he’s busting to meet a deadline on the current novel, way behind on the writring of it, but then along comes a case . . .

          I won cheese. Evidently quite a bit of cheese.

          If you stick your head out the window, that very distant bubbling noise you hear is me seething with jealousy.

          • It’s interesting how much that would go on to become a trope of the genre, isn’t it? Writer With a Deadline, or Writer Who Researches Something and Uncovers Murder, or Writer Who Is Hired for a Simple Job and It Turns Out etc. I’m not sure whether to commend Dannay and Lee for side-stepping it so neatly or to lambast them for Ellery’s writing career being such an after-thought in the novels overall.

            • Actually, I believe they thought long and hard about this – about making the detective have the same name as the author, and the detective be an author. When they created Barnaby Ross – for much the same reason Carr created Carter Dickson – they would journey around college campuses, wearing masks and pretending to be BOTH authors – which they were – and have debates and stuff. It was Early Meta, and you shouldn’t denigrate it. You may not like these guys, but I never meta meta-author I didn’t like.

            • Who’s denigrating? I was making a legitimate point — that the deliberate conflation of author and character tends to draw to focus onto the nature of the game and away from any considerations about the function of that character in-universe. Denigrating? Pah, people have written PhDs on this sort of thing…

        • …are you suggesting that had you not won the cheese you would have gone on to write the Great American Dairy Detective novel? There’s still time, Brad; I believe in you!

  3. I am happy to hear you have found last week and this week’s stories to be more satisfying than the first batch. I do wonder if I might find short form Ellery more appealing than some of the thick nationalities titles I was grinding through.

    • Man, you have no idea how alone I felt when I was fighting my way through those first three books — everyone loved Ellery Queen, what was wrong with me?! Just the idea that others people — repsectable, decent people living good, normal lives — would also have found them challenging and a chore was thoroughly outside the realm of possibility. And now look at us…

      • Okay; we have enough for another month, then! I’m tempted to just carry this series on for the Tuesday in July, in fact (especially as ‘Snowball in July’ is one of the stories…), but I’ll see how the spirit takes me over the weekend.

        Don’t want anyone thinking I plan this out in advance or anything…

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