CRIME SOLVING WITH CANAPES: The Adventures of the Puzzle Club

If you have had the good fortune to dive into honkaku and shin honkaku mysteries, you will be thrilled to learn that, in Japan, high schools and universities have murder societies, whose members are all devotees of the Golden Age of Detection. They meet regularly to wallow in every aspect of classic crime, and then some of them grow up to write best-selling mystery novels . . . and some of these center around high school or university murder societies (see, for example, The Decagon House Murders or Death Among the Undead.) 

I would be jealous of all those Japanese students, except it just so happens that I belonged to just such a group when I went to high school. We were called The Sherlock Holmes Society, and we met to talk about Doyle and Christie and other great authors, to share their books and watch movies based on their stories. As proof, I offer this photograph from my senior yearbook at Lowell High School:

True, you don’t see me there – I had a cold on the day the picture was taken – but can you spot how my fellow club members honored my being a part of this fellowship? (It’s subtle!) And, yes, some of us wore deerstalker caps and capes. THERE WAS NOTHING WRONG WITH THAT!!!

Real life mystery societies read and talk about murders but rarely solve them. That only happens in books, and the sub-sub-genre of Murder Society mysteries, at least Anglophile ones, is small (although, thanks to Richard Osman and Robert Thorogood, they seem to be enjoying a resurgence!) My favorite, as you might imagine, is Agatha Christie’s Tuesday Night Club, which met for a while in the late 20’s, first in Miss Marple’s cottage and later at the more expansive Gossington Hall, home to the Bantrys. (The larger meeting place changed, but did not expand, the membership.) Around the same time, in 1929 specifically, Anthony Berkeley created the Crime Circle, where Roger Sheringham and his fellow members tried to solve a “real life” crime, involving poisoned chocolates, with charming and surprising results. 

I’m no expert on how many of these fictional clubs existed. I know one of the most recent – and most fun – was created by the sci-fi genius Isaac Asimov: the Black Widowers. Like the Tuesday Night Club and the Crime Circle, the Widowers attempted to tackle “real” problems. The St. Mary Mead group dealt with cold cases, but the Black Widowers invited guests to come for dinner and present a current problem for the members to solve. As far as sleuthing was concerned, both these groups ran along the same lines: to showcase the skill of a particular detective. Miss Marple solved every case she heard, and Asimov’s club members were dependent upon Henry the waiter to shine the final light on all sixty-six problems the author presented to us. The great fun about Berkeley’s group is that his series detective Sheringham is thoroughly upstaged (along with the barrister, the detective novelist, the author, and the playwright) by a little old man named Chitterwick.

Between the adventures created by Christie and Berkeley and those penned by Asimov, there briefly existed another murder society called The Puzzle Club, created by Frederick Dannay and Manfred B. Lee and featuring among its illustrious members one Ellery Queen. The cousins wrote only five stories about the Club, two in 1965 and three in 1971, the year that Manny Lee died. (Two of the stories were published after his death in April.) But that is not the end of The Puzzle Club. In 2019, Josh Pachter, one of Queen’s greatest fans and author of many pastiches inspired by him, made a deal with Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine to write five stories, corresponding to the number of original tales, that provide a fitting end to the saga of The Puzzle Club. And now, Crippen & Landru have gathered all ten stories into their latest collection. 

There was a time when classic crime writers wrote a bunch of short stories to wile away the space between novels and to fill their coffers a bit more. For complex puzzle plotters like Christie, Carr, Brand, or Queen, these stories were a breeze, relying on one or two tricks or clues, and placing Poirot or Merrivale or Inspector Cockrill front and center within the pages of popular magazines. Once in a while, someone even produced a classic (“Witness for the Prosecution” and “The House in Goblin Wood” come to mind). Sometimes the author even managed to find inspiration for a future novel in one of their own tales (like Berkeley’s “The Avenging Chance” or Christie’s “Yellow Iris” or “The Plymouth Express,” to name a few.)

No classic crime author did more for the short story than Ellery Queen, not only as in terms of writing them, but in Fred Dannay’s case, acting as editor and cataloguer of short crime fiction. In the Golden Age, Queen’s stories epitomized the ability of a mystery writer to distill a story down to its puzzle elements. If the early Queen novels all contained a “Challenge to the Reader” to solve the case, every story in The Adventures (and New Adventuresof Ellery Queen, Q.B.I, Queen’s Full, and Q.E.D. directly or implicitly issued the same challenge. At the same time, the stories were full of atmosphere and humor. My favorite collection, Calendar of Crime, largely consists of tales adapted from episodes of the old Ellery Queen radio show; thus, their entertainment factor is as high as the mysteries themselves are clever. 

Fred Dannay and Manny Lee, a.k.a. Ellery Queen

Which brings us to The Adventures of The Puzzle Club and Other Stories. Even with Pachter’s five additional stories about the club, four additional tales by him about the Griffen family or child detectives, and longer-than-usual introductions to each story, this is the slimmest Crippen & Landru volume in my memory. (The cover art by Gail Cross is splendid.) To me, this reflects the thinness, both literal and literary, of the original Puzzle Club stories themselves. The super-short tales (less than 3000 words) strip the mystery short story to its most essential puzzle elements, kind of like a book of Two-Minute Mysteries. Like those short-shorts, each follows a set formula – Ellery arrives at a club meeting and is either presented with, or himself presents, a manufactured puzzle that must be solved before dinner can be served – and each depends entirely on a single trick, more often than not the meaning behind a dying message, to supply the one-two kick of a whodunnit. 

Not all of those tricks are equally successful. Some of them may prove to be fodder for those of my friends who disdain dying message stories. As for me, I appreciate a good dying message. My favorite here has always been “The President Regrets,” although I’ve re-read it so many times since I first encountered it in Q.E.D. that I’m not sure it would fool any person but my 12-year-old self. Another story relies on an esoteric piece of information available only to a miniscule segment of the population. And two more really do seem to reflect the Austin Ripley style of “if you know this social or scientific fact, then you can solve the case” sort of thing. 

The best original tale is “The Odd Man” because of how it subverts the formula. Essentially, the Puzzle Club is a group of wealthy people (a Texas millionaire, a psychiatrist, a poet laureate, an infamous attorney, and a physicist – except the running joke is that the physicist can never make it to the meetings) who invite Ellery to join their ranks. The meeting consists of a puzzle created by the members for a different one of their number (except all but once it’s Ellery who’s on the hot seat) that must be solved before they can all dine on the feast prepared by the Texas millionaire’s French chef Charlot. The cool thing about “The Odd Man” is that Ellery dashes the smugness of his fellow members by presenting two perfectly fine alternate solutions to this particular case. 

What’s interesting here is that nobody is trying to hide the fact that these five tales comprise some of the weaker examples of author Queen’s prowess as a short story writer. There is a slightly apologetic undercurrent in the introductions to some of the tales and some fascinating theorizing as to why the tales exist and are the way they are. (It has to do with the fact that Dannay and Lee, who wrote about crucified corpses and serial killers with God complexes, actually abhorred violence.) Thus, you might ask yourself if this collection is worth collecting. 

My response? Oh my, yes. 

There are two reasons to pick up Puzzle Club, especially if you are a fan of Ellery Queen. The first is Josh Pachter. Since the age of 16 when he submitted his first Queen pastiche to EQMM, Pachter has more than demonstrated his knowledge of, and love for, the Queen canon. We should be grateful to the magazine’s editor, Janet Hutchings, for agreeing to publish a maximum of five stories by Pachter that continued the adventures of the club and even brought it to a poignant end. As mysteries, Pachter’s stories are just as clever as the originals, if no better. But there is an additional quality – call it nostalgia, call it the special something that happens when a writer of pastiches gets the connection to the source material just right – that elevates this second round of stories to something more emotionally resonant than anything Dannay or Lee themselves intended their stories to be. 

For some reason I cannot fathom, all five tales have titles that parody famous stories by another famous mystery author, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. The first three stories are quite fun, the fourth amounts to nothing more than a joke (except the ensuing conversation and extensive punning included in “The Five Orange Pipes” is lovely), and the final tale, “Their Last Bow,” is more a requiem than a case, although there is a nice bit of deduction that rewards devoted Puzzle Club fans at the end. And the bonus stories, those four adventures of the Griffen family, consisting of Inspector Ross Griffen and his eleven children, all named for famous detectives, with each child emulating his namesake, are actually wonderful, with richer mysteries than those the Puzzle Club solved. I don’t know how many of these Pachter wrote, but I would have bought a complete collection of them. 

The second reason you should buy this book is that the introductions to each story in total create a mini-biography of the cousins who created Queen and provide insight from those who knew more about them than most, including Pachter himself, Queen biographer Francis K. Nevins, Janet Hutchings, Queen parodist Jon L. Breen, playwright and Queen historian Joseph Goodrich, and several more, including one of Fred Dannay’s own sons. 

We learn much about the different periods within the canon, why the stories are what they are, and the complex professional and personal relationship between Dannay and Lee (a lot of which Goodrich opened up to readers with his fascinating collection of correspondence between the cousins in Blood Relations: The Selected Letters of Ellery Queen.) People who complain about the artificiality of classic mysteries – and of Queen’s fiction in particular – will be interested to discover here how it affected the creators themselves. There is so much to learn at the beginning of each story that it would be a shame to spoil this newfound knowledge – real life history can contain spoilers, and I suggest you order your copy from Crippen & Landru or Amazon today and enjoy some lighthearted puzzle tales and the biographical surprises that await you.

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