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Joe R. Christopher

Joe R. ChristopherA Professor emeritus of English at Tarleton State University, Stephenville, Texas, and has published three books on C. S. Lewis (the second, an annotated bibliography of writings about Lewis, was done in collaboration). Christopher has published (he tells me) about a dozen very short short-stories in three types of genre fiction, over a hundred poems, and over a hundred essays and notes. He has edited three books, one of them being The Casebook of Gregory Hood, a collection of fourteen 1946 radio mysteries, written by Anthony Boucher and Denis Green. Joe has been retired since 1991 (but more thoroughly than Richard Queen was); however, he is still actively writing. He continues to publish several essays a year (most of them are listed in the MLA International Bibliography if anyone is academically curious)—and early in 2010 he signed a contract for the publication of a book of poems (some of them serious poems), probably to appear in 2011.   

This essay—“The Retirement of Richard Queen”—was published originally in what is now a long-dead fanzine The Queen Canon Bibliophile 1:1 (October 1968): 3-6.  It was reprinted in a privately printed chapbook—Q.B.I.: Queen’s Books Investigated; or, Queen Is in the Accounting House (Stephenville, Texas: The Carolingian Press, 1983), 29-33—with a minimum of updating.  Since both of the cousins who wrote as Ellery Queen were dead when the chapbook came out, the whole projection at the end of this essay about what was going to be written by Queen in the future was no longer valid, but it still made a nice conclusion.  Indeed, the chapbook, as  a collection of most of Christopher’s writings about Ellery Queen’s books, was put together within a year of Frederic Dannay’s death, as a type of memorial.

The whole of the chapbook combines great knowledge of the Queen canon, love of light verse, and some tongue-in-the-cheek humor to make an excellent tribute.
t struck me that its articles defy the passage of time, and Joe was kind enough to let me “reproduce” this one here, over forty years after it was first published.

Kurt Sercu


After a career which began at least in 1929 (with The Roman Hat Mystery), and in theory earlier, Richard Queen,  Inspector in the Homicide Division, retired from the New York Police Department at the mandatory age of 63 in 1956 – or so it seemed at the time.  Frederic Dannay and Manfred B.  Lee were never too concerned about sequence between their novels (as Anthony Boucher pointed out in his pamphlet,  Ellery Queen: A Double Profile), and so it was not overly surprising to find Inspector Queen back at work in The Player On The Other Side (1963) and some subsequent volumes. Besides, I had a theory about the retirement announced in Inspector Queen’s Own Case: November Song (1956): I suspected that about the time of The King Is Dead (1952) the authors counted up the number of novels starring Ellery Queen and found they had written twenty-two.  At this point they decided that twenty-five would make a nice, satisfying number of mysteries about Ellery Queen, so they deliberately rounded off the sequence at that point. They wrote The Scarlet Letters (1953) to let Nikki Porter have a last novelistic bow (she appeared before in There Was An Old Woman [1943] and in no other novels – if you exclude some juvenile novels); then they wrote Inspector Queen’s Own Case to allow Ellery’s father a moment of glory; and finally they wrote The Finishing Stroke (1958), number twenty-five, which tied together Ellery’s early career and his middle age, and in its title signaled the end.

At which point five years went by. At which point the cousins told each other, “Well, we really didn’t promise we wouldn’t write any more.” Hence, The Player on The Other Side and more recent volumes, in which Inspector Queen is still at work in the building in Central Street.  But most recently (at the time of this writing) Richard Queen is retired again, in The House of Brass (1968). So perhaps it is worth our while to consider the two novels which report this off-again, on-again retirement.  [Addendum: Although ghost-drafters were  involved in several of the late novels, that was not known when the essay was written—nor does it matter for the present purposes.  Dannay plotted all of the novels under consideration here, so they reflect  the intentions of the cousin(s).]

The authors complained once  (in EQMM, 49:6, N° 286 [June 1967], p.61) that only one critic in the country recognized in print that the theme of Inspector Queen’s Own Case is gerontology;  therefore let us recognize it here.  As a matter of fact, the novel has to do with a man’s lifetime, as shown by the chapter headings:

1.       At First the Infant
Creeping Like Snail
3.       And Then the Lover
4.       Even in the Cannon’s Mouth
5.       And Then … Justice

These echo the speech by Jaques in William Shakespeare's As You Like It,  Act II, Scene VII, lines 139-166.





All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players.
They have their exits and their entrances,
And one man in his time plays many parts,
His act being seven ages. At first, the infant
Mewling and puking in the nurse’s arms.
Then the shining schoolboy,  with his satchel
And shining morning face,
creeping like a snail
Unwillingly to school. And then the lover,
Sighing like furnace, with a woful ballad
Made to his mistress’ eyebrow. Then a soldier
Full to strange oaths and bearded like the pard,
Jealous in honour, sudden and quick in quarrel,
Seeking the bubble reputation
Even in the cannon’s mouth. And then the justice,
In fair round belly with good capon lin’d,
With eyes severe and beard of formal cut,
Full of wise saws and modern instances;
And so he plays his part. The sixth age shifts
Into the lean and slipper’d  pantaloon,
With spectacles on the nose and pouch on side;
His youthful hose, well sav’d, a world too wide
For his shrunk shank, and his big manly voice,
Turning again toward childish treble, pipes
And whistles in his sound.  Last  scene of all,
That ends this strange eventful history,
Is second childishness and mere oblivion,
Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.

As is clear by my underlining, Inspector Queen has reached (the novel suggests) the age of maturity, the age of playing the justice, but has not yet progressed into old age or to the second childhood.

There is delicate symbolism in the first chapter, which parallels the infant’s situation in the world with that of the man who finds himself suddenly retired: both are helpless, both are learning how to live. And I suppose that the suggestion of the book is that a man in retirement has to learn how to live all over again, even though some of the chapter headings seem, in context, to refer more to the detective plot than to Richard Queen’s problems – “And Then the Lover” seems to refer,  for example, to the search for Connie Coy’s lover rather than Richard Queen’s growing love for  Jessie Sherwood. Perhaps it is best to say that the plot and the symbolism reinforce each other. (Let me add parenthetically that I remember admiring the plot structure on my first reading, for each of the first three chapters ended with a murder – and I was rather disappointed when the fourth one did not.)

But the thematic emphasis of this book is rather unusual with the authors. Except for the Americana of Calamity Town (1942) and other works, religious allegory (of sorts) in The King is Dead and in And on the Eight Day (1964), and the anti-McCarthyism of the non-series novel The Glass Village (1954), the cousins lived up to Howard Haycraft’s description of them in Murder for Pleasure as purveyors of pure entertainment.  Even The Glass Village lost much of its point when it was reshaped into the opening show of the second Ellery Queen TV series  (But as a novel it continues to exist, of course. One of these days I expect to see a doctoral dissertation in American Studies treating equally solemnly The Glass Village and Arthur Miller’s The Crucible.)  As entertainers, overcoming their seriousness of the early and mid-fifties – when three of the works I have just mentioned were published – the authors wrote The House of Brass.

Another point which Anthony Boucher made in his pamphlet was that  Dannay and Lee had a way of reflecting the state of the detective story at the time of their writing, from the Van Dine influence in their earliest books through the private eye touches in their Dragon’s Teeth (1939), and so on. Thus it is fitting that The House of Brass should imitate the (then) current fad for the Gothic, with Jessie Queen (née Sherwood) being summoned to the old mansion with its butler like Frankenstein’s monster and its mad, blind owner.  (It is typical of the authors’ American emphases that the antiquity of the house should be tied to the Dutch history of New York, along with Gothic touches from Washington Irving.) But the actual puzzle, besides the family secrets of Gothica, becomes a variant on “which heir murdered the will-maker?” – a traditional mystery structure which the authors used a number of times before, most notably (for my present purposes of comparison) in “Mum is the Word” (EQMM, April 1966). One suspects that the chrysanthemum symbolism of that novella inspired, in some indirect way, the brass of this novel.

As my last phrase is deliberately ambiguous, let me add that the item which took the most brass on the author’s part (beside the last line of the novel) was to allow to Richard Queen deduce the butler did it.   (I am tempted to explain at length to what extent each definition of brass reprinted from some dictionary between the title page and the chapter headings, applies to the novel; but I feel that is a game which each reader should be allowed to play for himself.)  If I have not wandered too far off my thesis for now, my reader should have an idea of the entertainment value of The House of Brass as a set of elaborate variations on standard mystery themes.  Even the chapter titles are invocative not of man’s life but of puzzles and more puzzles:

1.     What?
2.     Where?
3.     Why?
4.     What!
5.     Which?
6.     Who?
7.     And Where Again?
8.     And Why Again?
9.     And What Again?
10.   What and Where?
11.   Wherefore?
12.   Who’s Who?
13.   When, Where, Who, Why
14.   Who and Why?
15.   Who, How and Why Finally

And thus we have the retirement of Richard Queen. In Inspector Queen’s Own Case he is retired, he meets Jessie Sherwood, and at the end of the novel he becomes engaged to her.  Ellery Queen returns from his round-the-world junket (elsewhere described in Ellery Queen’s International Case Book [1964]); and, with Richard Queen unretired, at the start of Face to Face (1967), he is best man at his father’s wedding. Then he leaves again for the world as the couple leaves for Niagara Falls, in The House of Brass. Their Gothic adventures upon their return have been suggested above.

So much for the present (as of the time of writing): what of the future? I conjecture that in five-or-so novels from now (or in a sudden series of short stories), we will meet the West 87th Street Irregulars again (in a book which has something to do with Jessie Queen going back to work), that after that there will be an Ellery Queen novel in which he is alone in the apartment while his parents are off on an European tour, and that finally there will appear the long-delayed Indian Club Mystery, for which Judge J.J. McCue will write a preface explaining that the events therein took place just before Inspector  Richard Queen and his wife Jessie, with their bouncing change-of-life baby boy, christened Djuna, retired to an Italian village they fell in love with on their previous visit, while Ellery and Nikki . . .

I can hardly wait. 

Joe R. Christopher

© Original text 1968, revision 2010 Joe R.Christopher. Used by permission

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Other articles by this West 87nd Street Irregular
(1) “Dorothy L. Sayers Reviews the Early Ellery Queen
      at Something is Going to Happen Dec 2, 2020

Page first published on April 1. 2010 
Last updated April 30. 2021


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