SINCEREST FORM OF FLATTERY: Ellery Queen’s There Was an Old Woman

If you want to be a successful author today, you had better be ready to devote some time to self-promotion. This may be especially true for self-published and mid-tier writers, but everyone who wants to be read needs to get on the publicity circuit. Publishers have reduced the effort they will expend to promote books, so signings, personal blogs, joining a panel at conventions and clubs, opening a Twitter account, and pushing for an interview on radio and TV – some or all of these must be part of the modern author’s protocol.

This seems a far cry from yesterday, when a shy woman with a severe antipathy toward the press could rise to be crowned the Queen of Crime. Some mystery authors even tried to hide the fact that they were mystery authors, either by adopting pseudonyms (take that, Nicholas Blake, Henry Wade, and Iolanthe Jerrold!) or by seriously playing down that part of their work (et tu, Dorothy?).

Yet if there’s one classic author who would have felt right at home in today’s market, it was Ellery Queen. Cousins Frederick Dannay and Manfred B. Lee may have started writing together for a lark and to win a cash prize, but they were driven by their success to forge a lasting career. Dannay especially was a savvy publicist (he almost singlehandedly created a renaissance of the American detective short story), and he engaged Lee in some creative promotions, such as having the cousins appear masked in debate before an audience, one of them playing “Ellery Queen” and the other “Barnaby Ross,” the pseudonym Queen took to publish four Drury Lane novels.


In addition, the boys listened to their readers and observed the trends of their genre in order to keep up with the times. That’s why when we talk about Queen, we have to consider the separate periods of work where the books and the detective underwent a complete transformation. And that is why when you talk to a Queen fan, one of the first questions you ask of them is which Period they prefer. Fans tend to opt for Period One (1929 – 1935), which was Queen’s era of pure puzzle, or Period Three (1942 – 1958), the authors’ most mature period, where they used the puzzle plot (in an admittedly looser form) to explore dark social and psychological issues. Period Two (1936 – 1939) is much maligned: Queen only produced five books here due to the cousins’ focus on other media – a successful run on radio, and a disappointing attempt to crack Hollywood. More problematic was the fact that these novels tried to appease readers’ requests for a more human and – dare I say it? – romantic Ellery Queen. In retrospect, there is some good to be found here: Halfway House was all set to be another international mystery and has a good puzzle plot, and The Door Between has a solid mystery and a wonderful solution despite some heavy-handed romantic nonsense involving a rival detective. If you read through the canon in order (if you can make it that far, Ben and JJ!) you can also discern the transformative steps taken by the authors as their work evolved. Characterization becomes deeper as cluing becomes looser. Although never quite abandoning the traditional puzzle plot, Queen’s career may have modeled the inevitable change from the GAD style to that of modern crime fiction.

If you were to pin me down and force me to choose, I would say I was more of a period three fan. This might betray my loyalties to the GAD cause – compared to the pure puzzle of, say, The Greek Coffin Mystery, a book like Calamity Town barely resembles a mystery. But Calamity Town, the first Wrightsville mystery, was possibly the first book I read of its kind, to put it somewhat cheesily, it touched my heart as well as my mind. When Ellery returned to Wrightsville three years later in The Murderer Is a Fox, there exploration into the effects of trauma, both through war and murder, on an individual and his family, was even more powerful. Then came Ten Days Wonder, a tour de force that formed the apotheosis of a certain thematic issue that preoccupied the Queens, followed by Cat of Many Tails, which some may consider the Queens’ masterpiece. The rest of Period Three may be more of a mixed bag – it’s all a matter of taste – but there was no doubt that Dannay had dragged Lee into an exploration of human psychology, with murder, that was fascinating to behold. And that exploration through the 1940’s and into the 50’s was serious indeed, inserting social ills like McCarthyism, fascism, obsessive love, and faith into the mix.

So how do you explain There Was an Old Woman?

After a powerful start to the Third Period with Calamity Town, Ellery Queen backpedaled furiously to his roots, producing a novel that was part pure puzzle plot, part screwball comedy, and seemingly a throwback to an earlier time. Compared to the Wrightsville tales, it could almost seem a trifle, but There Was an Old Woman must not be dismissed. For one thing, it’s a fine mystery and a heck of a lot of fun to read. Secondly, it really has a remarkable history. And it actually prefigures some of the darker themes coming up throughout the next ten years of Queen’s career, although I want to tread lightly here for fear of spoiling a number of Queen’s best titles. Finally, and perhaps most interesting, There Was an Old Woman, a.k.a., The Quick and the Dead, (a really terrible title!) manages to be a wholly original work and a remarkable retread of no less than three classic authors: S.S. Van Dine, Agatha Christie, and Ellery Queen himself!


I compiled the following history from a number of sources, including Francis M. Nevin’s wonderful biography, Ellery Queen: The Art of Detection. Sources disagree over dates and details, but one fascinating fact that appears over and over again is this: around 1939 or 1940, Dannay and Lee were working on an exciting new idea. They had gotten halfway through the writing of this latest novel when one of them picked up The Saturday Evening Post and read the latest serialized work by Agatha Christie. To their shock, they discovered that she had virtually recreated the plot of their newest work; even her title – the American one, at least – was the same as the projected title of their final chapter: “And Then There Were None!” The cousins were crushed! This had not been a particularly prolific period for them, partly because they had made so many commitments to radio and to Hollywood. But they reluctantly put the novel aside.

Then, in late 1940, Fred Dannay was nearly killed in a hit and run by a drunken driver. His recuperation took months, part of which he spent in Florida. He and Lee decided to revive and rework their 1939 idea. Several factors influenced their plotting. One was the recent death of S.S. Van Dine. The author of the Philo Vance novels may have all but faded into obscurity, but he was clearly the classic author upon whom the Queens had fashioned their career at the start. This new novel would be an homage to Van Dine at his best: very New York and very bizarre.

Another factor was that the boys had completed Calamity Town and were feeling a little gun-shy about this fairly radical change in style. They decided to backtrack a bit and return to the classic puzzle mystery. But they were also influenced by their recent sojourn to Hollywood, where the screwball comedy was a favorite genre of movie audiences. This merging of the puzzling and the insane became something Dannay would refer to as “Ellery in Wonderland.” It was present in many of the short stories, but nowhere is it better portrayed than in There Was an Old Woman.


Frankly, Queen must have sanded down the original idea rather than reworked it. I can’t for the life of me find much similarity between this book and Christie’s classic. Yes, several murders are over the course of this novel, but the cast of suspects is neither isolated from society, nor is it decimated. One has to conclude that whatever elements of the plot that mirrored Christie’s existed here have been radically altered or subsumed by new ones.

However, S.S. Van Dine’s influence is dripping from every page. Ellery is drawn into the case of Cornelia Potts, a wealthy and vicious old matriarch, owner of one of the largest shoe companies in the world, who lives in a huge mansion on Riverside Drive with her second husband and her six children, all of whom would be right at home in The Greene or Bishop Murder Case. The three older kids are the product of Cornelia’s first husband, Bacchus Potts, who one day disappeared without a trace. Each of them is bat-guano crazy: Thurlow, a tubby lookalike for The Penguin, lives to sue anyone who casts aspersions on his family; Horatio is a Humpty Dumpty of a man-child; and Louella is the living embodiment of a lady mad scientist. The younger three kids, the progeny of Cornelia’s second husband, are attractive and sane and thus, in typical Cinderella fashion, despised by their mother and siblings. Twins Robert and Mac run the shoe business, and baby Sheila, an attractive redhead, is secretly engaged to Ellery’s friend Charlie.


Ellery is asked by Charlie to help prevent paranoid Thurlow from acting out on some of his more ominous threats against his perceived enemies. Suffice it to say that Ellery fails at this early task and is subsequently charged with solving one death after another before the Potts family is extinguished. Yes, they are Van Dine-ean in nature, but the Potts family most closely resembles another clan of monsters created by no less than Ellery Queen himself, albeit in his guise as Barnaby Ross. The York family of The Tragedy of Y contains one of the most reprehensible group of grotesques to be found in GAD fiction, and like the later novel, it twists and turns to a shocking and satisfying solution. Both novels also share, with some variation, that favorite trick of Queen’s that I alluded to above but can’t go into here without spoilers. It’s one of those things, like Christie’s evil duos, that you want to accuse an author of overusing, except the concept is varied in such fascinating ways that you kind of don’t mind.

Two other things bear mentioning. The first is a bit SPOILER-Y, so beware:


There Was an Old Woman has a wonderful denouement that showcases what a good mystery author can do in terms of trickery and provides a nice dramatic showcase for the final reveal. It worked so well that Queen used it not once, but twice more in later books. This time, I’m not talking about “stretching and changing (something) in fascinating ways.” I’m talking about an almost exact steal of his own material for re-use. I can’t say I didn’t enjoy it either of the subsequent times, but I am a bit floored by this blatant repetition. At least in one case, there is enough of a switch-up to perhaps not ruin the ending for a reader. But in the other, you suddenly realize that Queen has basically gone and rewritten an earlier book!


The second is just an interesting bit of trivia. Part of the change from Period One to Period Two of the Queen’s output was to try and find a girlfriend for Ellery. Fans enjoyed the cases he solved, but many complained that the sleuth’s personality was too off-putting. (I don’t really agree with these people, but maybe Dannay and Lee did some market research.)

The most successful attempt at a lady friend for Ellery actually appeared on the radio show in the form of Miss Nikki Porter, Queen’s girl Friday. Let it be said that Nikki is my least favorite part of the radio shows, but I’ll put up with anything to get a good dying message story. Nikki also appears in some of the movie teleplays that were written by other writers and clearly were based as much, if not more, on the radio show – with its breezy dialogue and over-reliance on gangsters – as on the novels. You’ll find Nikki in some of the short stories, too, since Calendar of Crime is mostly made up of tales based on radio scripts.


As the radio show progressed, Nikki’s biography was sketched in. But it is in There Was an Old Woman that the author finally embraces the character literarily by offering the origin tale of how she met and came to work with Ellery. Curiously, the author would offer a completely different version of the beginnings of this relationship in a later novel, The Scarlet Letters. It’s yet another odd addendum to the remarkably varied bibliography of one of the most fascinating American classic mystery writers.

16 thoughts on “SINCEREST FORM OF FLATTERY: Ellery Queen’s There Was an Old Woman

  1. I think the history of the ‘Queen team’ is fascinating, Brad, and I really like the way you’ve laid it out here. What I find as fascinating as anything else is the way that both the Ellery Queen character and the authors evolved over time. There really are different ‘eras’ in the Queen stories, and it’s interesting to follow them. And thanks for mentioning Calamity Town. I’ve always thought it a really interesting look at the mores of the day, as well as the sort of ‘mob mentality.’


  2. What a super post! Entertaining, informative and, perhaps most important of all, enthusiastic. I think I mentioned before, here or elsewhere, that I try to fit some material from certain authors in every calendar year.
    Of my four big names in 2017 I’ve managed a couple by Christie (A Murder is Announced & Death in the Clouds), a brace of Carr so far (Patrick Butler for the Defense and Till Death Do Us Part) and I’ve just started in on Might As Well Be Dead by Rex Stout. I had been casting round for something by Ellery Queen so this is most welcome.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Many of the Golden Age writers borrowed from themselves and recycled short stories. Carr did it: the murder methods in “The Empty House” and one in The Reader Is Warned are exactly the same. In fact “The Empty House” also begins with a scene that is later duplicated in the opening of TCOT Constant Suicides. Christie did so many times as you know. “The Yellow Iris”/Sparkling Cyanide being the one I always think of first. “The Mystery of the Baghdad Chest” was transformed into the longer “The Mystery of the Spanish Chest.” There are others, too. I’m sure you’d know better than I. Gladys Mitchell was notorious for recycling her plots and murders. Lots of instances of this throughout the early history of the genre.

    There’s one writer you don’t mention who most likely influenced the writing of THERE WAS AN OLD WOMAN — Harry Stephen Keeler. This is the most Keeleresque of the Queen novels. And I’m surprised that Nevins, an avowed Keeler fanatic himself, hasn’t written about it. Is it mentioned at all in the book you have? TWAOW is almost a direct imitation of two of Keeler’s books.

    I love this Queen mystery. It’s just plain bonkers. I’m reminded of Michael Innes’ insane family and their antics in APPLEBY’S END. TWAOW is also one of Queen’s funniest books. This is the Queen novel I heartily recommend to those who are turned off by the dullness and excessive pedantry of his early mysteries.

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    • Could you please give examples of Mitchell recycling her plots and murderers? She does, I acknowledge, reuse settings in the post-1971 books, starting with Lament for Leto, a sequel to Come Away, Death. Her handling of convents, pagan villages, coaches, or childhood narrators, though, is quite different from two or four decades before!


      • Using “notorious” is another example of my hyperbolic language. Let me quote someone you know very well:

        “Nest of Vipers (the best 1970s GM, but it’s a rewrite of Merlin’s Furlong!)”
        “Lament for Leto (rewrite of Come Away, Death; characters different; enjoyable, but minor)”
        “Convent on Styx (rewrite of St Peter – Monty Python solution)”

        Yes, those are your own words.


        • Oh, I wouldn’t listen to anything he says. I never do.

          “Rewrite” isn’t quite the word. Two of those novels REVISIT earlier settings: Greek ruins in LAMENT, a convent in STYX. The actual plots – victim, suspects, murderer, motive – are different in both, as they are in LATE, LATE IN THE EVENING (childhood narrator like THE RISING OF THE MOON).

          NEST OF VIPERS and MERLIN’S FURLONG both involve witchcraft, and the solutions are structurally similar. (SPOILER: A kills B, C kills A.) Otherwise, though, the stories are quite different.


      • I’ve always thought, with precisely zero corroborating evidence LOL, that TWAOW was a script idea that the cousins couldn’t sell in Hollywood and that they reworked it into a screwball version of The Tragedy of Y. (The children having “poisoned heredity” part.). I’ve never cared for it, I don’t think it’s funny … usually screwball comedy depends on making fun of people with mental problems, AFAIK, and that’s what I see here. And the origin of Nikki Porter is just cold-blooded retcon.
        Harry Stephen Keeler — good luck with that. I would describe him as the Florence Foster Jenkins of GAD. He’s so astoundingly atrociously AWFUL that he’s funny. The experience of your first Keeler novel is an indescribable one so I won’t spoil it for you. As Salvador Dali once said, “I don’t use drugs — I AM drugs.” Keeler is drugs!


    • Checked Harry Stephen Keeler online, John. He sure was a prolific writer. Wow. And I’d never heard of him until your mention of his name. (Why am I not surprised.) LOVE the various loony titles of his books. I will try and find one if I can. I am intrigued.


  4. I’ll probably skip Keeler then!

    I said TWaOW was part screwball; I didn’t say it was funny! Queen never made me laugh. I do like the puzzle, though, and since this is the first use of the ending, it’s the only time I was surprised.


  5. Loved reading your post and learning all about the creators of Ellery Queen. I’ve read the books off and on over the years and though I can’t remember much about them (I have old lady memory) I know I enjoyed them. I read THERE WAS AN OLD WOMAN – sometime last year or the year before and thought it so bizarre as to be almost unrecognizable as an Ellery Queen novel, but still I enjoyed it. Nice to learn some background on its creation. Just recently ordered CALAMITY TOWN and another of the Wrighsville books from Abe and am eagerly awaiting delivery. Thanks for a terrific post, Brad.


  6. I’d like to take issue with one thing here, Brad. You say: “Period Two (1936 – 1939) is much maligned: Queen only produced five books here due to the cousins’ focus on other media – a successful run on radio, and a disappointing attempt to crack Hollywood.”

    I’m not going to take issue with the word “maligned”, it’s the word “only” that sticks in my craw a bit. 🙂

    Period two is 1936-39 – four years. In these four years the cousins produced five novels and at least six short stories. And, as you point out, wrote for the radio and worked in Hollywood.

    Four years – 11 EQ stories. How you can use the word “only” is beyond me. The only time they were more prolific was in their most productive Period One years, 1932-34, when they wrote all 11 of the short stories in “Adventures” as well as nine novels.

    Liked by 1 person

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