Wednesday 2 October 2019

three more TV Ellery Queens

Some remarks on a further three episodes of the 1975-76 Ellery Queen TV series.

The Adventure of the Blunt Instrument is interesting for its subject matter. Ellery Queen is a series about a writer of murder mysteries who enjoys success as an amateur detective. in this episode a popular writer of detective stories is murdered (having just been awarded the coveted Blunt Instrument Award). So we not only have a mystery writer as hero, but a mystery writer as victim as well. And one of the suspects is a rival mystery writer! It’s like an extended mystery fiction in-joke.

This is a story in which the decision of the producers to set the series in 1947 becomes somewhat significant. At this time the traditional puzzle-plot detective novel was falling out of favour with critics and publishers who were increasingly enthusiastic about suspense stories and hardboiled crime thrillers (although it’s worth pointing out that the reading public did not necessarily go along with this change in tastes). In the story the murder victim, Edgar Manning, is a writer of traditional puzzle-plot mystery novels. His rival, Nick McVey, is a writer of hardboiled crime fiction - a genre that Manning considers to be no better than thinly disguised pornography. In fact 1947 was the year that Mickey Spillane’s first novel I, the Jury was published. And many writers and fans of traditional mysteries certainly considered Spillane’s books to be pretty much thinly disguised pornography.

And while Ellery (the Ellery Queen of the TV series that is) does not give an explicit opinion on the matter from everything we know about him as a character it’s fair to assume that he’s likely to be more sympathetic to Manning’s traditionalist view of the genre.

None of this really has any relevance to the plot but it does add an interesting extra layer to the story.

The Adventure of the Blunt Instrument deals not just with mystery writers but with their publishers as well. If the rivalries between writers are fierce the rivalries between publishers are positively brutal.

The two rival publishers both have motives for murdering Edgar Manning. His secretary, his mistress and his research assistant all have motives as well. That rival author, Nick McVey, has a motive too. And most of the motives have something to do with the fact that Manning was a mystery writer, which is another fun touch.

The clues are certainly there and in this case I actually spotted the clue that mattered, although to be honest I think it was just a little bit obvious.

As usual with this series the guest cast is very strong.

A very strong episode.

The Adventure of the Lover's Leap is another episode in which the fact that Ellery is a writer of mysteries is important, indeed vital. A woman dies after apparently jumping from a balcony. She has been reading one of Ellery Queen’s novels. And there is reason to suppose that in some way she was reliving a crucial scene from the novel.

The guest cast is extremely impressive, with Ida Lupino as the murdered woman, Susan Strasberg as her stepdaughter, Craig Stevens as her failed actor husband, Don Ameche as her psychiatrist, Jack Kelly as her lawyer and the wonderful Anne Francis as her nurse.

The rivalry between Ellery and Simon Brimmer becomes a kind of running gag in the series. Brimmer (John Hillerman) is a radio personality who hosts a murder mystery radio series (so we have yet another character who could be considered to be in the detective fiction business). Brimmer is always trying to beat Ellery and his father Inspector Richard Queen to the solution of murder cases. If he could actually solve such a case it would of course be fantastic publicity for his radio show. Unfortunately while Simon tries very hard his solutions always turn out to be wrong. That’s not to say that his solutions are foolish. They’re often very clever and very well thought out. They’re just wrong, because there is always some detail he has overlooked and much to Simon’s chagrin Ellery always spots that missing detail. In this instance Simon Brimmer’s solution is extremely clever indeed and it’s tantalisingly close to the truth, but once again it’s wrong.

Ellery Queen is a series that aims to adhere to the conventions of the puzzle-plot mysteries of the golden age of detective fiction and one of those conventions is that the mystery must be fairly clued so that the reader (or in this case the viewer) has a genuine chance of finding the solution. In this episode the vital clue is certainly there in plain view.

The Adventure of the Lover's Leap is another strong episode.

The Adventure of Veronica's Veils is a theatrical murder mystery. Theatrical impresario Sam Packer’s new burlesque show is about to open when Sam (played by George Burns) dies suddenly of a heart attack. At his funeral he springs a surprise - a film made before his death in which he claims that someone was going to murder him. He goes on to name four suspects - his wife Jennifer, his financial backer Gregory Layton, comic Risky Ross and burlesque dancer Veronica Vale (Barbara Rhoades). He also leaves instructions for Simon Brimmer to investigate his murder.

It’s all very embarrassing for the police since the autopsy indicated that Sam’s death was due to natural causes.However a second more thorough autopsy reveals that Sam Packer died of cyanide poisoning.

There is a slight problem, since for various reasons there doesn’t seem to be any way the poison could have been administered. In this story the howdunit is as important as the whodunit. It is in fact a simple but clever murder method. And the script plays pretty fair with the audience.

One of the strong points of this series is the settings which always turn out to be ideally suited to murder. That was also a definite strength of the early Ellery Queen novels back in the 1930s.

The Adventure of Veronica's Veils works very satisfactorily.

So three episodes and they’re all good. This was an extraordinarily consistent series. I don’t think there’s a single episode that could be described as a dud.


  1. Simply one of the formative experiences of my boyhood.

    I was obsessed by this show during its too (too!) brief run, and it put on track for a lifelong love affair with detective fiction.

    Many years later I met Levinison and Link, and thanked them (?) for Simon Brimmer, who I thought one of the wittiest, and most delightful of their creations. Link told me that the Brimmer's were his favorites, but the hardest to write -- he had to come up with two solutions and both had to be plausible.

    I wonder how much this series owed to Hillerman getting the role of Higgins on Magnum?

    1. Link told me that the Brimmer's were his favorites, but the hardest to write -- he had to come up with two solutions and both had to be plausible.

      Yes, good point. The neat clever solution that turns out to be wrong was a device that quite a few of the great writers of the golden age of detective fiction liked to play around with. The use of this device is one of the reasons this series captures the spirit of that golden age so beautifully.

  2. This may be a bit nebulous, but I think that Simon Brimmer works brilliantly because the actor, John Hillerman, plays him as though he's starring in "The Simon Brimmer Show." He's not a guest star in Ellery's program; they're the interlopers in his. I really enjoy the whole series, but the Brimmer episodes are my favorite.

    1. I think that Simon Brimmer works brilliantly because the actor, John Hillerman, plays him as though he's starring in "The Simon Brimmer Show." He's not a guest star in Ellery's program; they're the interlopers in his.

      Agreed. And Hillerman does much the same thing in Magnum - he plays it as if Higgins is the hero and Magnum is his sidekick. In both cases it works and makes the series more fun.

  3. This is a great series. So much fun to watch and rewatch.