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Ellery Queen Easter Eggs

Many books and movies contain “Easter Eggs,” hidden bits of information or clues planted for the sharp eyes of the audience. Some of the strangest Easter Eggs that you will encounter in mystery literature are those found in the novels of Ellery Queen. Most of the hidden messages in the works of Queen are so obscure that you can read the mysteries they are contained in and never realize that they are there. And generally Queen's Easter Eggs are completely unimportant to the underlying mystery story. Usually these references are to dates that have a hidden meaning, and more often than not those dates have something to do with . . . the holiday Easter.

How strange is this?

This fixation on the Easter holiday, and the repeated obscure references to it, occur in books written by Frederic Dannay and Manfred B. Lee, who were born Daniel Nathan and Manford Lepofsky, respectively. Queen scholar Francis M. NevinsWest 87th Irregular in Royal Bloodlines describes the two as follows:

Both were born in 1905, nine months and five blocks apart, of immigrant Jewish stock in a crowded Brooklyn tenement district.

Why would these two Jewish cousins begin hiding references to the holiday Easter in their works? I asked that very question of Richard Dannay, Frederic’s son, at the 2005 Ellery Queen centenary symposium hosted by EQMM in New York City. Richard’s answer was “I have absolutely no idea.” Whatever the reason for the inclusion of these Easter references, their repeated presence in the Queen canon is undeniable.

The Four of Hearts - dust cover Frederick A. Stokes Company, New York, 1938.What is likely the first reference to Easter in an Ellery Queen novel appears in The Four of Hearts, published in 1938. There a character in the mystery dies on April 17, which, in 1938, was Easter. The reference is obscure and, as with virtually all such references in the works of Queen, does not relate to the underlying mystery. Standing alone, the date in The Four of Hearts would likely mean nothing. But, as will be seen, it hardly stands alone.

Four years later, in Calamity Town, published in 1942, the first Ellery Queen mystery to be set in the Queen-created upper New York town of Wrightsville, a culminating episode occurs in chapter 27, which is titled “Easter Sunday: Nora’s Gift.” Interesting, but still, we could be dealing with coincidence.

In 1950 another Wrightsville mystery was published, Double, Double. The chapters in Double, Double are all titled with dates, beginning with April 4, and culminating events occur in the chapter entitled “Weekend, April 8-9.” In 1950 that weekend was Easter.

Dannay and Lee likely intended the Queen saga to end with the publication of The Finishing Stroke in 1958. Easter did not figure into that story, which instead focused on Christmas week. The story also references an important event that occurred on January 11, 1905 -- the date on which Manfred Lee was born.
The Player on the Other Side - cover pocketbook edition, Ballantine Books #28290, October 1979

But by 1963 Ellery arose from his literary death with the publication of
The Player on the Other Side, and the Easter game was again afoot.  During the course of  Player we learn that a central character was born on the 20th of April, 1924.  You guessed it – Easter.
That particular date is cloaked in at least two other obscurities.  First, exactly thirty-five years before, on April 20, 1889, Hitler was born.  Beginning with that reference in 1963 the works of Queen occasionally combine references to Hitler in tandem with Easter.  But second, in the circle of the year April 20 is precisely one half of a year separated from October 20, the day on which Frederic Dannay was born in 1905.  So just as The Finishing Stroke references Lee’s birthday on January 11, so to, The Player on the Other Side references, albeit more obscurely, Dannay’s birthday, and does so by tying the date to Easter.

An On the Eighth Day - stofkaft Random House uitgave, 1964 (1st). (Jacket design Arthur Hawkins)Were there to be any doubt as to the recurrent Easter themes (as well as references to Hitler) in the works of Dannay and Lee, those doubts would be dispelled by And on the Eighth Day, published in 1964.  While this mystery is one of my favorites, many Queen fans do not like it at all.  The book is unlike any other Queen novel, much more of an allegory -- an Easter allegory -- than a mystery.  Although written in 1964, And on the Eighth Day recounts Ellery’s visit to a hidden southwest religious community twenty years earlier, in 1944.  As was the case in Double Double, the chapter headings in Eighth Day are dates, beginning with April 2 and ending, on April 9.  You guessed it – in 1944 this was Easter week.  Moreover, the story revolves around a book, thought to be a recovered religious tract long lost by the community, that had been re-discovered and purchased by the leader of the community on April 8, 1939 – yet another Easter.
One of the strangest aspects of And on the Eighth Day is the fact that there are many “clues” in the book that are never in fact dealt with or even addressed during the narrative.  These include a very significant (and Easter-related) anagram, which (because I hate spoilers) I will leave unexplained, just as Ellery did.

And what does the title of the mystery itself mean?  An obvious answer is the fact that the story unfolds over an eight day period.  But, as always with Queen, there is more to it than that.  The book of Luke, 1:59, suggests that the Eighth Day was the “naming day,” or day of circumcision for Jesus. (“And on the eighth day they came to circumcise the child. And they would have called him Zechariah after his father.”)  Readers of
And on the Eighth Day  will note that there is, indeed, a naming of sorts on the eighth day of the narrative.

There are also repeated and unexplained references to the number “50,” in
And on the Eighth Day – as an example, the number “50” appears on the buttons of the leader of the community’s robe.  While the significance of this is never explained by Queen (the authors) or Queen (the detective),  there is one, and only one, book in the Bible containing precisely 50 chapters – the Book of Genesis; the book that begins with a recounting of what transpired beginning "on the first day.”

Finally, and I think most intriguing, is the fact that the Jewish “Eighth Day” holiday is Shemini Atzeret, a holiday that occurs on the eighth day of the Festival of Sukkot.  And why is that interesting?  In 1905 Sukkot began at sundown on October 20 – the day that Frederic Dannay was born.  So which of the foregoing oddities explains the title of the mystery?  My bet, knowing Ellery Queen, is “all of the above.”
Face to Face - dust cover New American Library (NAL), 1967 (Exists in "regular" and Book Club Edition, the latter only differs with a small "Book Club Edition" notice on the inside flap of the dust cover) (Jacket design Lawrence Ratzkin)From the obvious Easter motifs in And on the Eighth Day Queen brings us back to Easter by way of obscurity.  In Face to Face, published in 1967, there is absolutely no reference to Easter.  However, near the end of the mystery Ellery is called upon to help find  someone to officiate at a wedding, that, contrary to Christian tradition, is planned for Palm Sunday.   Face to Face concludes the next day at a New York airport.
The Last Woman in his Life - dust cover World Publishing Co., New York and Cleveland, 1969.In 1970 – fully three years after Face to Face The Last Woman in his Life, begins just minutes after Face to Face concluded -- on the same day and at the same New York airport. The Last Woman in his Life also nowhere uses the word “Easter,” but if you start with the date of the Palm Sunday wedding in Face to Face, count the additional day in that book, which is also the day on which The Last Woman in his Life begins, and then calculate out the days that transpire in Last Woman it becomes apparent that the victim in Last Woman, who is the son of a carpenter, was murdered on – Easter Sunday.
So, there you have it.
Given all of this, Kurt and I made sure that in The Book Case, an Ellery Queen pastiche in which a 100-year-old Ellery solves one last murder, the reader could calculate from clues in the story that the murder, in fact, took place on Easter. This seemed the right thing to do. But if you asked me why it was the right thing to do, I still would have to shrug and give Richard Dannay’s answer – I have absolutely no idea!

Dale C. AndrewsWest 87th Irregular

Dale C. AndrewsWest 87th Irregularposted this article originally at SleuthSayers, the mystery short story writers' blog on April 12. 2012. This version is based on the republication in Arthur Vidro's West 87th Irregular (Give me that)Old-Time Detection  in 2018.


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