THE QUEENS OF HEARTS: Ellery Queen Episodes 7 and 8


(Written by Robert E. Swanson; original airdate 10/23/75)

The Cast: 

Another cast consisting primarily of television actors, many with a rich pedigree in the medium. I have a special fondness for Rene Auberjonois because, like Paul Shenar from “Miss Aggie’s Farewell,” he was a founding member of San Francisco’s American Conservatory Theatre and a delightful stage actor. He performed in many Broadway musicals, including Coco with Katharine Hepburn, Big River, and City of Angels (a special delight for mystery lovers!) In film, he seemed to be a favorite of director Robert Altmann, who cast him in several films including M*A*S*H, Brewster McCloud and McCabe and Mrs. Miller. His credits on TV were even more extensive than I realized, including popular supporting roles on the series Soap, Benson, and, most notably, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.

Perhaps the most prestigious credits belong to Robert Loggia, whose sixty-year long career spanned films and television, where he seems to have appeared in most hour-long dramas, including The Sopranos. I will always have a soft spot for his performance as the childlike boss in Big. Pernell Roberts also was a favorite of mine, first as moody Adam Cartwright in Bonanza and then as moody Trapper John, M.D.. In between dozens of roles on the small screen, he managed to appear in movies and quite frequently onstage, both on Broadway and in touring musical productions. Lloyd Bochner may be less well-known, but this handsome Canadian had a thriving career, including two iconic (well, sort of) appearances: as the doomed hero in “To Serve Man,” one of my favorite episodes of The Twilight Zone, and as Cecil Colby in Dynasty who had the good/bad misfortune of dying during a sex scene with Joan “Alexis Colby” Collins.

Gretchen Corbett had some success onstage and film but became best known for her role in the first season of The Rockford Files. (She had just left that series when she made this guest starring appearance. Danish singer and actress Nina Van Pallandt was another member of Robert Altmann’s stable of supporting actors, appearing in The Long GoodbyeA Wedding, and Quintet and appeared on American TV for a few years. 


Colonel Alec Nivin (Bochner), a decorated British officer, is in New York peddling the first volume of his Memoirs of a Spy, which more resembles “a Hedda Hopper column” than a legitimate history for all the dirt it flings at various people. Nivin has been making continuous passes at his U.S. literary publicist, Jenny O’Brien, who just so happens to be the latest girlfriend of a certain Mr. Queen. Jenny ropes Ellery into meeting her at Nivin’s club, where he is to give a talk, but when she arrives and is directed to enter Nivins’ private office by the club’s Indian servant Ras Khalil (Roberts – yes . . . Pernell Roberts!) she finds Nivin has been stabbed to death with an antique Kashmiri dagger. 

Because mild suspicion has fallen on Jenny, Ellery assists his father on the case. Making use of the case files Nivin gathered (or maybe stole) for his memoir, Ellery amasses a suspect list, including a Russian diplomat (Loggia), his wife (Van Pallandt), a French photographer (Auberjonois) and an Englishman with a limp (Peter Bromilow), all of whom can be connected with past scandals during the war. It’s up to Ellery to discover which of them murdered the scandal-mongering Colonel.

My Take:

This is a serviceable mystery with a couple of fair clues and nary a dying message in sight! What is more disturbing is the comic tone and the utterly offensive portrayal in brown face by Roberts as an Indian character. Regarding the latter: most people who donned make-up to play a person of color looked like white people wearing make-up, resulting in what we call “suspension of disbelief.” But halfway through this episode, Ras Khalil is revealed to be a con man named Barney Groves. In other words, he’s clearly a white man wearing make-up . . . and neither Ellery nor anyone on the police force recognized this??? This is stuck-in-its-time shamefoolery, and it’s discomfiting from start to finish. 

As for the vaguely comic tone, well . . . only four years had passed since the cancellation of Hogan’s Heroes, which had provided a six-season laugh riot about a Nazi prison camp. I dimly recall a theory that if we can laugh at our enemies, we weaken them. Charlie Chaplin certainly believed this when he made The Great Dictator near the start of the war, before all the carnage and atrocities had been committed. A sitcom created twenty years after the fall of Auschwitz still seems tasteless to me. 

This episode doesn’t go that anywhere near that far, but its mildly farcical take on some pretty serious situations – Russians defecting in fear to America, resistance fighters forced by the Gestapo to betray their friends, the dangers of espionage – all felt jarring to me. Also, Jenny O’Brien makes you appreciate how quickly this version of Ellery ran through girlfriends. I think Corbett or the writer was going for something approaching Nikki Porter, always getting into a different scrape, always believing her idea is the right one when it is soooo wrong. I found her teeth-grindingly irksome. 

Robert Loggia and Nina van Pallandt


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*     *     *     *     *


(Written by Peter S. Fischer, based on the Ellery Queen short story of the same title; original airdate 10/30/75)

The Cast: 

There used to be a million actors out there who seemed to appear in every film, TV show and commercial. They didn’t rock the scandal sheets, you probably never even learned their names, but show you a picture of their face, and you would go, “Oh, yeah, that guy!”

Edward Andrews was one of these guys. I, of course, knew his name, like I knew Claude Gillingwater and Elvia Allman and Eleanor Audley and hundreds more; it’s why I’ve never been very popular. Andrews had a vast stage, screen and TV career, but you probably couldn’t rattle off five of his credits. He could be jovial, he could be smarmy, he could be just about anything you needed for that business client or next door neighbor or wedding guest. 

Most of us who grew up with Jim Backus knew his voice before we met his face. He played the irascibly charming, myopic Mr. Magoo (“Ohhhhh, Magoo . . . you’ve done it again!”) I still hold that he was the best Ebenezer Scrooge ever! Most of us then first saw Backus at the end of a three hour tour (“ . . . a threeeeeee hoooouuurr tooooooouur!”) when, as millionaire Thurston Howell III, he was stranded, along with his wife Lovey and five other castaways, for three seasons of Gilligan’s Island. It’s hard to line these roles up with the uptight father of James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause! I’m happy to say that for most of his lengthy career on radio and the screen, Backus played (and voiced) primarily jaunty, often aristocratic characters with aplomb. 

Larry Hagman has plenty of credits, but some people can so closely identified with one role that that’s all it takes. Hagman was such a man. I’m speaking, of course, of his indelible work as . . . Anthony Nelson, the Air Force officer who meets and eventually mates with Barbara Eden in I Dream of Jeannie

Okay, no, it’s Dallas, but I want you to understand how many of us felt when genial Major Nelson became that onerous bastard J.R. Ewing. It was Hagman’s lovability in the first role that reasserted itself with such twinkly-eyed cunning in the second. And who could help but love a man responsible for one of the most famous whodunnits of the 80’s. (P.S. V xarj vg jnf Xevfgva!) Julius Harris, if I remember correctly, is the first actor of color to receive guest star status on Ellery Queen. His forty-year career included James Bond villain Tee Hee in Live and Let Die and one of the good guys in The Taking of Pelham One Two Three as well as many blaxploitation films, and his television appearances were numerous.

From her first credited screen role as a nymphomaniacal mental patient in Hitchcock’s Spellbound, Rhonda Fleming commanded the screen. David O. Selznick believed in her so much that when he sold his other contract players in 1949, he kept Fleming. (She broke her contract the following year and moved to Paramount.) She was considered one of the most glamorous stars of Hollywood throughout the 50’s, and then she gave it all up and focused her life on the last four of her six husbands, her children, and her businesses. She dabbled in television and even performed in Vegas and lived to a ripe old age. 

Carmen Mathews and Patricia Smith, like so many who appeared on Ellery Queen, had substantial careers as actresses without making a huge splash in their careers. One of them played my favorite murderess on my favorite episode of Perry Mason. Don’t peek to find out which one: just start watching the series from the beginning and you’ll get to it. Julie Sommars appeared in four movies but found her niche in TV where she was highly successful. She is probably best recognized as the ADA in Matlock.


Since this happens to be the only series episode that was based on an actual EQ short story, I went back and re-read the source. Story first, episode follows:

This really is one of the best short tales, and that’s saying a lot: Ellery Queen was a master of the short form, both on the page and on the airwaves. He put Agatha Christie to shame – and you know that’s hard for me to say. 

Ellery has been dragged up to Long Island on a dark and stormy night via an invitation from “one of JJ’s questionable friends.” (no, not my pal JJ from The Invisible Event, although his posse is quite . . . no, this is JJ McCabe, EQ’s version of the fictional S.S. Van Dine, through whose friendship readers got access to the first cases – and who quickly became superfluous and was dropped). At the start, Ellery is at the train station, very wet, and less than pleased with the state of affairs:

People were always pushing so. Put him up on exhibition, like a trained seal. Come come come, Rollo; here’s a juicy little fish for you! Got vicarious thrills out of listening to crime yarns. Made a man feel like a curiosity. Well, he’d be drawn and quartered if they got him to mention crime once!”

Mr. and Mrs. Richard Owen have invited Ellery to their new Long Island home to attend the ninth birthday party of their son, Jonathan and to meet Emmy Willowes, a famous actress who is currently starring in Owens’ production of Alice in Wonderland. When Ellery arrives, a rehearsal is in progress for the birthday show, a rendition of the mad tea party from Alice, with Owen playing the Hatter, his wife Laura the Dormouse, his architect and friend Paul Gardner is the March Hare, and, of course, Emmy is Alice. Rounding out the party is Owens’ mother-in-law, Mrs. Mansfield, and Paul’s luscious wife Carolyn. As excited as everyone is about the upcoming performance, Ellery notices a queer tension besetting the group because – well, that’s what detectives notice before foul play ensues!

He lay back, crossing his palms behind his head, and stared into the half-darkness. The mattress was deep and downy, as one had a right to expect of the mattress of a plutocrat, but it did not rest his tired bones. The house was cozy, but it did not comfort him. His hostess was thoughtful, but uncomfortably woebegone. His host was a disturbing force, like the storm. His fellow guests; Master Jonathan snuffling away in his junior bed — Ellery was positive that Master Jonathan snuffled . . .

With all the present-day complaints about Ellery Queen, I had forgotten how fun he could be to read, but this is witty stuff. And the mystery plot itself is laced with wit: the morning dawns, and Mr. Owen has disappeared. Was he kidnapped or killed? If the former, why no message? If the latter, where is his body? Ellery’s previous midnight ramblings yield some interesting clues, like a mysteriously disappearing clock, but as the day progresses, tensions rise and answers are not forthcoming. And then things get murkier: all the guests and the servants are slipped a heavy drug in their evening coffee. To what purpose? 

And then the packages begin to arrive . . . 

It’s an incredibly charming story, maybe lacking a bit in the clever fair-play (sorry, Scott!) clueing for which Queen is known, but a fine knock-off of Lewis Carroll himself. The explanation of the packages is really fun, and the topsy-turvy circumstances resolve into a neat little point – exactly what you want from a short mystery.

Edward Andrews and Larry Hagman

My Take: 

The plot adapts beautifully to TV, making me wish the producers had used more of the original material. Most of the changes are minimal and add little to the production. Here’s where (as Scott Ratner warned us) Peter Fischer decides to be clever by changing everyone’s surname to match that of a classic mystery writer: the Owens (Andrews and Fleming) becomes the Lockridges, Millan the chauffeur Millan becomes Doyle the bodyguard (Harris), Emmy Willowes (Sommars) becomes Emmy Rinehart, and Mrs. Mansfield (Matthews) is Mrs. Allingham. A new character is added – Jim Backus plays Howard Biggars, Spencer Lockridge’s representative – and young Jonny moves from son to nephew, probably because the actors playing his “parents” are too old to have a young son. 

There are other mild changes to character and motivation, some more effective than others, but all in all this is completely faithful to the original and that fidelity pays well. I still have fourteen episodes to watch and remember, but I’m calling this one as the best of the lot!

SPOILERS: Gur qrqhpgvbaf bss gur Purfuver Png pybpx, jubfr yhzvabhf fzvyr inavfurf naq ernccrnef, vf n jbaqreshy pyhr. Ryyrel’f hfr bs gur zlfgrevbhf tvsgf gb guebj gur zheqrere bss xvygre vf nyfb n terng ehfr. V guvax vg’f dhvgr snve bs Svfpure gung jura Ryyrel gheaf gb gur nhqvrapr gb vffhr uvf punyyratr guvf gvzr, gurer vf ab fhqqra zbzrag bs vyyhzvangvba cerprqvat vg. Guvf vf gur bayl cebcre jnl, fvapr Ryyrel unf xabja jub gur xvyyre vf sbe n qnl. Naq gur hfr bs n snxr “qrnq obql” gb qenj bhg Tneqare’f pbasrffvba (n uverq npgbe va gur fgbel, Iryvr va gur fubj) znxrf sbe bar bs gur orfg qrabhrzragf.

16 thoughts on “THE QUEENS OF HEARTS: Ellery Queen Episodes 7 and 8

  1. “…but when she arrives and is directed to enter Nivins’ private office by the club’s Indian servant Ras Khalil ”
    Actually she is prohibited from entering but enters surreptitiously when the Indian servant is away for a moment.


  2. I agree that episode 8 is one of the best. However, one should have read the concerned poem in Alice Through The Looking Glass to understand it better.


    • I think it’s one of those things that lurks deep in the minds of well-read children everywhere. Certainly, if one DOES read, there’s a better chance of putting together the clue. Point goes to education!


  3. Yup, the blacking up in NIVIN is hard to take now – it’s one of the few missteps in the show that I would warn a newbie about, though I guess they figured with the overall light tone it was OK for 1975 audiences … ( I was watching TV then but in Italy so a bit hard to gauge). MAD TEA is a wonderful episode, you’ll get no argument from me. The nods to celebrated mystery author names has never bugged me (and it’s certainly less obvious when it’s heard rather than seen on a cast list). Fleming really does look fab considering it had been 30 years since SPELLBOUND and Hagman is really good (though I never understood the appeal of JEANNIE, as cute as Eden was. I do remember Groucho Marx turning up in one episode though …). It does seem a bit odd that they didn’t adapt more Queen material. But we can get into that when you get to the end of the series perhaps.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. “Mad Tea Party” is one of the best of the series – one of my two favorites I alluded to in an earlier comment – and you can sense the strength behind the plot in the original story. I wish that it didn’t feel like such an outlier in the series just because its so superlative and I agree that it would have been great had the show adapted other Queen works.

    We’re still a ways away from me gushing about another one of my favorite ones, but if you know how much I love old horror films, then it really come as any surprise who the big name of that particular one is…


  5. I heartily agree with your appraisals of both episodes. One small correction: Gretchen Corbett appeared in four seasons of The Rockford Files. Her departure from that series took place in 1978, two years after Ellery Queen was cancelled.

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  6. There’s not all that much to say about Colonel Nivin’s memoirs, is there? As you say, a serviceable mystery, but not particularly memorable episode. The key clues (the boat and the book) are the kind of thing that would be used as supplementary clues in a great GAD novel, but admittedly better than average as the core of detection for a TV mystery (even this show). The Pernell Roberts character is of course problematic, but perhaps it’s offensiveness was diffused for me by my fondness for him (more on that below).

    While I grant that it is among the better episodes, I find Mad Tea Party rather overrated. The cast is fine, and the marriage of mystery and Lewis Carroll is ideal (which is why it’s been used so often by mystery writers— Carroll’s blend of the childlike and the cerebral is ideal for the mystery genre, as it deals with the control of mind over our base passions; the battle of the is and superego, so to speak). But this isn’t really much of a mystery story, IMO.

    The great clues of the genre (e.g. Louise Bourget’s use of the conditional tense, the tossing of Isabel Drew over the balcony, “Everything tastes foul today,” the bludgeoning of the old woman with the mandolin, etc…) consist of inadvertent traces of truth showing through the wall of deception created by the culprit. Inadvertent is the key word here. There’s a bit of that here with the Cheshire Cat clock, though to me it’s too reminiscent of a classic device in Mason’s The House of the Arrow (here, it seems to me like having a question of why the duck didn’t quack in the night). And all the “clues” of the packages aren’t really clues at all in the proper sense— as consciously devised ploys by a character (in this case the detective) they are anything but inadvertent traces of the truth. They are more like the three so-called “clues” offered by U.N. Owen or the Mother Goose/Ibsen/chess stuff in The Bishop Murder Case (again very Carroll-like in its mix of childhood and academics). For me, there are two problems with this stuff.

    First of all, I don’t consider them to be nearly as clever as they are treated— it’s again, like many of the dying message clues, pretty easy to consciously create simple puns, which is all that’s really happening here (just as I’d be more impressed by “Who’s On First?” if “Who” “What” and “I Don’t Know” were real names people were likely to have, rather than artificial unlikelihood’s employed because necessary). Once again, I find the less showy behavioral discrepancy of not using the poker in Chinese Dog, or even the book signing chronology clue in Colonel Nivin’s Memoirs far more clever.

    And secondly, I don’t think they’re really in the service of a plan that would be all that likely to work, anyway. I think once the packages started showing up, the culprit would be likely to suspect that someone was attempting to screw with his brain, and would be on the alert and prepared for a dramatic effort to elicit a confession from him. It works for me in the more otherworldly and archaic atmosphere of “Thou Art the Man!” but not really here (I’ve a feeling the plan of the doctor and the judge might have the same “alerting” affect on U. N. Owen, had he really been a character outside of them).

    Thus, though I like the look and feel of the show, I find it neither or that clever or believable. I also wish that, with all the talk of Broadway in this episode, someone had mentioned Finian’s Rainbow, which David Wayne was starring in when this series was set. I can only assume that Wayne himself objected to such a reference.

    Incidentally, I have “professional” connections with both of these episodes. A year after Colonel Nivin’s memoirs aired, I appeared as Winthrop to Pernell Roberts Professor Harold Hill in a production of, well, you know. He wasn’t musically all that great, but he was very nice to me, and I thought he did an excellent job with the character (and a more appropriately masculine figure than Robert Preston— blasphemous as it may sound, I’ve always thought that Preston had already reached that age at which some older men start turning into old women [cf Tony Curtis]).

    I also once did a table read as the lead character of a screenplay by Julie Sommars (she was very nice, but I don’t think anything ever became of the project). And in 1978, I appeared in an excellent TV movie When Every Day Was the Fourth of July (I wasn’t good in it, but the show itself was great). Also in that cast— though I don’t remember working with him— was another child actor, George Janek, whose first TV credit was as Johnny Lockridge in Mad Tea Party. I’ve always envied his luck to be in this series, though I suppose I shouldn’t be all that envious, as apparently passed away last year.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I don’t disagree with anything you say here, but I still rate “The Mad Tea Party” much more highly. The same thing happens in the short story collection, where it is the final tale. After one clever puzzle after another, couched in rather dry stories, this one shows up with a looser puzzle but a much more entertaining framework.

      As to whether EQ’s trick of using the packages to terrify the killer into a confession would work – sure, it’s problematical. But the gifts led to the rhyme which led to the opening of the mirror, and, to my mind, it was seeing the “victim” there that really threw the killer off.

      I love your theatre tales. I played Ewart Dunlop in a community production where our Harold Hill, whether through alcohol or stupidity, could not remember any of his patter. I remember especially a rehearsal where he grabbed me by the shoulder and yelled, “Friend – !!!” and then froze. I had to feed him the first few lines of “Trouble” to get the ball rolling.

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