Friday 7 September 2018

three Ellery Queens

For this post I’m going to take a look at a couple of episodes of the excellent 1975-76 Ellery Queen television series which starred Jim Hutton as Ellery and David Wayne as his father Inspector Richard Queen of the NYPD.

The Adventure of the 12th Floor Express is a episode that seems to be generally highly thought of, and with good reason. It features an impossible crime and as a bonus for hardcore Ellery Queen fans it also includes a dying clue.

Newspaper publisher Henry Manners takes the private elevator to his 12th floor office. The elevator opens, it’s empty, it opens again on another floor and there is Henry Manners’ body. The difficulty is that no-one could have gained access to the elevator therefore he must have been shot by somebody in the elevator but there was nobody else in the elevator.

There are plenty of suspects. As Manners’ editor remarks you can judge the worth of a newspaperman by how many enemies he made and Henry Manners was one hell of a newspaperman. A lot of those enemies were in the Daily Examiner office at the time of the murder and none of them have much in the way of alibis.

The bitchiness, the backbiting, the ruthlessness and the amorality of the newspaper world give a nicely cynical background. Just about everybody connected with the Daily Examiner would cheerfully commit a dozen murders if it would further their interests. And they’re all very willing to spill the dirt on each other.

The trouble with impossible crimes is that the solutions do often tend to be just a bit on the far-fetched side. That is definitely not a problem here. The solution is clever but it’s very simple. And it’s very plausible. Ellery’s solving of the case is also entirely plausible - the clues to the killer’s identity are there and puzzling out the mechanism of the murder is just a matter of eliminating fanciful theories and concentrating on explanations that might have actually worked in the real world.

Overall the decision to set the series in the late 1940s works very well. I’m a particular fan of the early Ellery Queens so I guess I’d have preferred a 1930s setting but the important thing is that they realised that a period setting was essential. Setting it in the mid-70s would have been a disastrous mistake. In this particular case the period setting works wonderfully for a story with a newspaper background. A superb episode.

Murder mysteries involving archaeology and ancient civilisation, and especially ancient Egypt, are something I’m inordinately fond of so The Adventure of the Pharaoh's Curse sounded pretty promising.

Wealthy businessman Norris Wentworth has managed to track down and buy a very important Egyptian sarcophagus for a major museum. Naturally he is warned about the curse attached to the mummy, a curse that has already claimed the lives of six men. Sure enough Norris Wentworth becomes the seventh victim. But is it death from natural causes, is it the revenge of the mummy or is it murder? Ellery is inclined to suspect murder but if that’s the case the murder method is puzzling indeed.

This is one of several cases in which Ellery is in competition with radio detective how host  Simon Brimmer but of course we know that Simon will almost certainly come up with a plausible solution which is totally wrong. Which adds some humour. It also adds a bit of interest to a plot which is not, to be brutally honest, one of the more ingenious plots of the series. That’s not to say that it’s a poor episode. It’s just perhaps not quite up to the very high standards of the series as a whole.

It does have its cute moments though with some ingenious clues.

Cult TV fans will be excited by the presence of Ross Martin (from The Wild Wild West) and June Lockhart (from Lost In Space).

The Adventure of the Chinese Dog is an attempt to capture the rustic appeal of the Ellery Queen Wrightsville novels. Ellery and his father head off to Wrightsville on a fishing trip. There’s a surprising amount of drama in the usually sleepy town. There’s a fiercely contested election for Sheriff, and there’s a murder (an event almost unheard of in these parts).

The murder weapon is a gold Chinese temple dog worth a cool half million dollars.

The plotting here is intricate and ingenious, with clues that are obvious enough except that they don’t mean what you expect them to mean.

While the murder is unusual the solution is plausible and it is the only solution that can explain the major oddities of the murder method.

While the murder investigation proceeds Inspector Richard Queen is pursuing a vendetta with an old enemy. The enemy in question is a big old fish in the local river and it’s become Inspector Queen’s White Whale. As is usually the case in the Ellery Queen series the comic relief is handled with discretion and is never allowed to become intrusive or irritating. It’s gently amusing and it serves its purpose.

So overall, out of the three episodes, two turned out to be exceptionally good and the other is still pretty solid. Two of the three incorporate one of the major trademarks of the Ellery Queen novels - the dying clue.

All three episodes involve rather unsympathetic murder victims.

Ellery Queen was one of the most thoroughly enjoyable of all American whodunit TV series  and it was remarkably consistent. Great stuff.

You might also like to check out my reviews of some of the classic Ellery Queen novels such as The French Powder Mystery and The  Chinese Orange Mystery.


  1. "Ellery Queen was one of the most thoroughly enjoyable of all American whodunit TV series and it was remarkably consistent. Great stuff."

    I agree with you completely. The EQ series was an anomaly in American television: more often smarter than it was dumb.

    You've probably heard that when Levinson & Link were developing the MURDER, SHE WROTE program, one of the network's aims was to dumb it down to the Least Common Denominator viewer's level, which reflects poorly on the average network programmer's intelligence, doesn't it? A DIAGNOSIS: MURDER episode did a memorably funny send-up of network programming, probably their best effort (and with a killer fade-out line).

    Speaking of which: Do you plan to survey DIAGNOSIS: MURDER anytime soon (or have you already)?

    Best regards,

    1. Do you plan to survey DIAGNOSIS: MURDER anytime soon

      I don't think I've ever seen a single episode. But perhaps I should give it a go?

  2. After years of waiting to find a copy of this series, we finally found one and just finished watching all the episodes. Enjoyed them very much, sometimes as much for the guest stars as the mysteries. The episodes were a lot of fun.

    1. After years of waiting to find a copy of this series, we finally found one and just finished watching all the episodes.

      It's an enormous shame that only one season was made.

    2. I agree, we could have watched three times as many episodes. I like Jim Hutton and all the other regulars are good too.

    3. I like Jim Hutton and all the other regulars are good too.

      I thought the relationships between the recurring characters were very well done. I particularly like the Ellery-Sergeant Velie dynamic. You know these two men are way too different to ever be actual friends but when they're on a case there's a definite professional warmth and even affection - the genuine respect of two men who each know the other is very good at what he does. It's a surprisingly subtle dynamic. It's a sign of a show that has been made with care.

  3. "I should give it a go?"

    A qualified yes; just don't expect too much. (I replied at length yesterday, but it seems to have been lost in cyberspace.)