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Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Good Anthology; Bad Gimmick

Some ideas sound better than they are. Take, for example, the 1938 Ellery Queen anthology, Challenge to the Reader, which sits proudly on my shelves.

This first in a long series of great EQ anthologies begins with a charming sketch "In Which Mr. Ellery Queen Invents a New Kind of Detective Story Anthology."

Queen, the character, invites his old friend J.J. McC. to join him in his library of 8,216 books. "And there was not a detective of note, from Uncle Abner to Prince Zaleski, who did not sit on one of those bristling shelves contemplating his own cleverness."

J.J. tells Ellery that he should do something with all of those books - create an anthology. Ellery balks because all of the great ideas for mystery anthologies have been taken by Dorothy L. Sayers, Willard Huntington Wright, etc. But over the course of a few pages the two cook up a gimmick: An anthology of unfamiliar stories by familiar writers with the names of the detective changed.

The "Challenge to the Reader," a phrase swiped from the early Ellery Queen novels, is to identify the detective in each story. The problem is, it's not much of a challenge to a reader who knows the character, and impossible to the reader who doesn't.

Even Watson could hardly fail to pierce the identity of "Pharaoh Jones" and his assistant Dover in "The Disappearance of Lady Frances Carfax," even though they live on Candle Street. "Carfax" was a good choice of a lesser known tale, although I might have chosen "The Adventure of the Retired Colourman" or "The Adventure of Shoscombe Old Place" as being good detective stories.

And who could fail to identify "Hilary King," especially given the editor of the anthology?

On the other hand, learning (by looking at the end of the story) that the mystical detective "Zodi" is really "Astro" left me less than astonished for the simple reason that I'd never heard of Astro. He does sound intriguing, though, as does his story, "The Stolen Shakespeare." Maybe I should spend some time with this book before I return it to its place on my shelves . . .


  1. I have this book, but I don't bother actually reading any the short stories. What I care about are the small vignettes placed between each story, in which Ellery and J.J. have conversations. This is Canonical EQ material that is often forgotten, overlooked, or ignored by even the true fans. Some of the best scenes from the EQ books take place in the rooms of Ellery and the Inspector in their home at 212A W.87th Street, New York, and here are some more little visits there. It isn't as satisfying as a full-on mystery, but any visit with EQ is a good thing!