Tuesday, February 07, 2017


Coachwhip Publications (find them at coachwhipbooks.com) has a wide and diverse array of books available, many of them non-fiction, but they also have a comic reprint series, including a few volumes taken from the wonderful Dell Comics of the late 1950’s and early 1960’s. The volume under review today contains three complete ELLERY QUEEN, DETECTIVE comics published by Dell Four Color in 1960 and 1961 (Four Color #1165, #1243, and #1289

Ellery Queen has had an interesting history. He is both the protagonist of the books and the credited author; however, it was never a secret that the actual authors were the cousin-team of Frederic Dannay and Manfred Lee. There has always been a puzzle-solving aspect to their works in that all the clues are presented in a fair manner to the reader, and we readers are meant to solve the cases along with Ellery. In fact, in most if not all of the novels I’ve read (and in the various TV and radio shows), the narrative stops near the end, and the reader is explicitly challenged to figure out who is the murderer. There are never any cheats in a Queen mystery, and when you re-read one, you see how cleverly yet naturally the clues were presented. Everything is there for you, if you are shrewd enough to find it.

The first Queen novel was published in 1929, and then many others followed as the formula was fresh, the writing fast-moving and entertaining but with a certain elegance, and Ellery himself was an appealing character. He was a mystery novelist (the character, that is), and he often assisted his father, Inspector Richard Queen of the city police force, solve crime by bringing his eye for small details and his outside-the-box perspective on things. He had a sense of humor about himself (always a good way to win audience sympathy), and the father-son relationship was quite well-done....they would tease and joke with each other, and they came from different points of view, but they needed each other and cared for and about each other in a non-sentimental way that was refreshing.

The first film based on a Queen novel was in 1935, The Spanish Cape Mystery, with Donald Cook as Ellery, which I once saw and though was OK, but don’t remember well. The second film, which I do remember well, was from 1936, THE MANDARIN MYSTERY (which is in the public domain, so look for it online), with (of all people) comic actor Eddie Quillan as Ellery. Quillan (see b&w pic) got his start in silent comedy shorts for Mack Sennett in the late 20’s and often was a comic sidekick in serials and B-movies. He also had an amazing series of comedy shorts for Columbia (sadly, never legitimately reissued in any video format) in the early 50’s teamed with rubber-faced comedian Wally Vernon (who was also a comic sidekick, in many westerns). These are among the most violent Columbia comedy shorts, and Quillan is amazing in them. He started in silent films in 1926, yet he was still acting on television in the late 1980’s, appearing on shows like MOONLIGHTING, THE A-TEAM, LITTLE HOUSE ON THE PRAIRIE, and THE JEFFERSONS--he even had an ongoing role on the Robert Blake TV show HELL TOWN in 1985! As his last credit is a 1987 MATLOCK episode, Eddie was appearing on screen in featured roles for 60+ years! His hometown of Philadelphia ought to put up a statute of the man! MANDARIN is an entertaining film, but perhaps a bit more comedic than I’d imagined Ellery.

The character also had success in radio and in television (we’ve reviewed some of the ELLERY QUEEN’S MINUTE MYSTERIES radio show here at BTC), with the best-known and best-loved TV adaptation being the mid-70’s series starring Jim Hutton as Ellery (see color pic) and David Wayne as his father. This is one of my three all-time favorite TV series (the other two being PERRY MASON and GREEN ACRES). Hutton brought a charm and everyman quality to Ellery, and Wayne brought a gruff but lovable characterization to Inspector Queen. Each episode featured at least four or five top-line former movie stars as guests (this was not uncommon with Universal 70’s TV shows, but especially true here), and it was set in the late 1940’s in New York, so it was full of wonderful period settings, clothing, cars, etc. The show’s full run (alas, just one season) is out on DVD, and it’s highly recommended. I’m sure I’ve seen each episode 10 times, and they never get old for me.

Ellery Queen was brought to comic books a few times. I was familiar with the Ziff-Davis comic book from the early 50’s, but these Dell Four Color issues from 1960-61 were new to me until this Coachwhip volume came out, and I can’t praise them highly enough if you enjoy detective comic-books and the early 60’s Dell visual style. Ellery does have glasses and a pipe here, and from a distance he sometimes resembles Rip Kirby, but he’s less of a traditional “hero” than Rip--he’s a mystery author and amateur sleuth.

Each of the three comics reprinted here contains two long and detailed stories, with enough time to develop some depth and present a number of characters/suspects. As usual for the series, you follow Ellery as he uncovers clues and follows certain lines of investigation, and you in a sense participate in the solving of the crimes with him....certain characters try to pull Ellery in to their viewpoint of the crime, some of whom are helpful and well-meaning, some of whom are not at all helpful but well-meaning, and some of whom are trying to deceive him. The plots cover a lot of interesting areas and settings, all of which involve murder: the importing of an ancient mummy to a museum; a suspicious ship which is being used for counterfeiting; a person interested in the occult who is being blamed for various crimes where incriminating occult-related clues are left by the killer; a partner in a business who goes missing; a murder in Haiti which is blamed on Voodoo (so you know it definitely IS NOT related to that); and that favorite of murder mystery plots, the ill-and-dying patriarch whose scavenger relatives are waiting for him to die, but one decides to speed up the process.

All the stories are well-paced, full of interesting characters and clever plot twists, but written in such a way as to provide you, dear reader, with the relevant clues, masquerading as regular details that move the story along but seem at the time to be of no particular significance. Ahhhh, but to Ellery, NOTHING  is of no particular significance.

The artwork and the storytelling here are just like a lean, fast-moving Columbia or Allied Artists B-mystery programmer, but with Ellery and his Dad in charge. Coachwhip’s reproduction of the original comics is excellent. I’m not sure if any re-coloring went on here, as it does in many reprints today (which I’m fine with, if it just deepens and clarifies the original artwork--Dark Horse’s multi-volume reprints of the Jesse Marsh TARZAN comics are a fine example of how that can be done well )--I’d guess not--but the scans of the originals are crisp and all the detail comes through clearly, and with the quality paper on which this volume is reprinted, it probably looks BETTER than the originals.

These original comic books were a fine entry in the Ellery Queen canon, and Coachwhip’s reissue of the comics in this attractive volume is a model of how a small-scale (it just presents three issues) comic-book reprint should be done. I’ve probably read this entire book FIVE times since I got it, and even though I know what happens in each piece, it’s so well done and so full of choice detail and interesting characters, I find myself coming back to it again. If you like comic books and you like murder mysteries, you should treat yourself to this fine collection.

By the way, ELLERY QUEEN’S MYSTERY MAGAZINE is still going strong after 75 (!!!!) years of publication. You can find it at most news-stands and bookstores which sell magazines, and old copies can be found for 50 cents or so at many flea markets or used bookstores which specialize in mysteries. It’s not as if murder mysteries date, so pick up a cheap used copy, pour yourself a glass of wine, and curl up by the fire on a cold and rainy night....and have a date....WITH MURDER!

1 comment:

Bill S. said...

The Ziff-Davis EQ comics from the early 50's that I mentioned have been re-issued by Golden Age Reprints. I may well write about those in some future entry. Speaking of Golden Age Reprints, I just ordered their massive 400+ page collection of JOHN WAYNE ADVENTURE COMICS. Looking forward to the Duke riding the comic book range....