Ellery Queen mysteries and breaking the fourth wall

Magnifying glass

The basic tool for many literary detectives: the magnifying glass! Image courtesy of Jusben, Morguefile.

If you had to gather the world’s best-known literary detectives in one room, who would you pick? Hercules Poirot? Miss Marple? Sherlock Holmes? Jessica Fletcher? Nancy Drew? Albert Campion?

There’s quite a few literary detectives out there for making your choices. Some of them come from children’s literature, such as Nancy Drew or Encyclopedia Brown. Other detectives for an older audience come from various countries and cultures.

But there is one “whodunit” detective who belongs in that room of literary detectives too: Mr. Ellery Queen.

Ellery Queen was an amateur New York detective and mystery writer created by writers Daniel Nathan (alias Frederic Dannay) and Manford Lepovsky (Manfred Bennington Lee). Ellery’s father was a New York City police detective who would often seek the help of his son’s keen mind in order to solve mysterious crimes.

Although a bit on the obscure side now, Ellery was a busy guy. There’s books, short stories, movies, a magazine, radio shows, comic books, graphic novels, board games, jigsaw puzzles and a website about him.

And Ellery keeps up with social media too. I saw sites about him or that mentioned him on Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest.

The books are sometimes hard to find, but good to read when you get them. My favorite Ellery Queen story is The Lamp of God,  where the house next door disappears as if it’s never existed and Ellery has to figure out what happened.

There was also an Ellery Queen TV show, which ran on NBC from 1975 to 1976. I used to watch reruns of the show, which featured Jim Hutton (yep, Timothy’s dad; you can really see the family resemblance) as Ellery Queen.

My favorite feature of the show: Toward the end of the show, Jim Hutton would face the camera and give a short but challenging speech directly to TV viewers. The gist of the speech was, “Well, you have all the pieces of this mystery now. Have you figured out the solution yet?” (My unheard answer was usually: “I think so but let’s see.”)

Theater people call this action “breaking the fourth wall” when an actor directly addresses an audience. It’s rare for TV or theatrical actors to do this (unless they’re making a public service announcement) but it’s popped up in other shows such as “Moonlighting”, “Two and a Half Men” and “How I Met Your Mother”.

I wish they’d bring “breaking the fourth wall” back to a TV mystery. It would be fun to see it on “Castle” or some other TV show some day.

So here’s a short “Ellery Queen” so you can see Jim Hutton for yourselves. There’s some famous actors in the clip; see how many you can identify!



Filed under Writing

14 responses to “Ellery Queen mysteries and breaking the fourth wall

  1. Ellery Queen. Legendary. Current TV producers might do well watching vintage TV series – even with the primitive special effects/scenery people were glued to the stories – several used that aside to the audience technique…got the viewers engaged (and current media is always trying to do that, right? Oh for the days of great plots, characterization, and mysteries.)
    Great post

  2. Jaclyn

    I’ve never read any Ellery Queen mysteries, but I’ve always wanted to. “The Greek Coffin Mystery” is slated to be the “Q” entry in the Penguin Drop Caps collection, so I’m certainly planning to get that (I’m slowly bringing those gorgeous books home).

    My favorite literary detectives: Herclue Poirot and Miss Marple, of course; Lord Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane; Flavia de Luce; Precious Ramotswe. 🙂

  3. These actors are mostly dead, alas (not Betty White, of course). For a long time I was excessively fond of British mysteries which I began readng while Agatha Christie was still alive and writing and I was a teenager. Miss Marple is an all-time favorite, but I preferred Joan Hickson in the role dramatized.

    Lately, I am entranced with Italian detectives. I like Donna Leon’s Brunetti on the TV screen, but find her books a bit dull. David Hewson writes a great mystery…his cops are in Rome. The Montalbano series has been translated so books and drama are both available. PBS aired 3 episodes of Zen..can we ask for more? Sherlock both old and new is grand.

    Tatort is a German series and another favorite, but I have not seen it in a while, although friends in Europe say new ones have been shown there.

    I am crazy about Vera…copper extraordinaire working in Northumberland, England. I could go on, but by now, you know I like mysteries. Good post. Dianne

  4. I looked at the previous comment. Lord Peter Wimsey and Harriett Vane are great, and dramatized too…the nine tailors is wonderful for holiday viewing.. Precious Ramotswe…African cool. Flavia de Luce..ancient Rome and I have in my ‘to read’ list on my Kindle. The author of the Lord Peter Wimsey series turned to writing theological tracts in later life, as did P.D. James. Which reminds me…Cadfael is grand…only 20 episodes there, but the writer was an antiquarian (amateur historian) and knew the period and place quite well.

  5. ZZMike

    I remember that “4th wall” ending (now that you mention it).

    Let’s not forget Nero Wolfe, orchid fancier and stationary mystery solver. (I found an early Wolfe story in a library in which he and Archie travel to Europe. One commenter describes Wolfe as “unswashbuckling”.)

    I recently came across another detective with an unusual occupation: Economist.


    “Murder at the Margin”, written by two economists under the pseudonym Marshall Jevons (taken from two early prominent economists). It’s the first of a series of three. All are laden with economic theory, and would make good reading by anyone in the middle of an economics course.

    How many other professions have yielded detectives? Surely there must be at least one doctor (M.D.).

    • Good question; I’ll have to ponder that. The first literary detectives who come to mind are Dr. Alex Cross of the James Patterson novels and Dr. Temperance Brennan of Kathy Reich’s books. Both have been made into TV/movie characters.

  6. ZZMike

    PS: THe Web did that!!! (Put in the cover, with a link.) Uppity kids….

    Now I remember Cadfael as well – monk, herbalist, Crusader, detective. And Derek Jacobi is perfect in the part.

    Which leads to another thread: detectives portrayed on the screen (and in radio): Leo McKern was born to play Rumpole, and Mortimer was born to write him. The best Holmes: Jeremy Brett. At the top of any list, David Suchet’s Poirot. Ian Carmichael way up there as Lord Peter D.B. Wimsey.


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