Ellery Queen Mysteries Review

Each episode of Ellery Queen Mysteries opens with a narration: in a few minutes, this man (or woman) will be murdered, or some variation of that, and then proceeds to list off virtually all of the potential suspects. Each listing is accompanied by a quick clip from the episode, in which the suspect says something incriminating. This is a clean and deliberate evocation of old-time radio, in which the narrator was key to holding the story together, as there were no visuals for the scriptwriters to rely upon. It sets the tone for the rest of the series, which, even though it aired in the middle of the 1970s, feels deliberately quaint even for that time period, evoking as it does not merely the days of radio, but also the long-since-gone days of the British crime novel (even though this is set in New York) . It would be a mistake, though, to think that this show was too late, as the world it depicts in which homicide is odd and charming rather than horrific probably never really existed.

Ellery Queen (Jim Hutton) is a writer of mystery novels whose father, Inspector Queen (David Wayne), just happens to be on the police force. Ellery uses this at every opportunity to follow along on investigations and butt into crime scenes, essentially coming and going as he pleases (another thing that probably never really happened). This would probably be a bigger problem if Ellery wasn’t so good at solving mysteries, but he is, as his creative mindset leads him to clues and possibilities that more serious and fact-based police officers never seemed to consider. In the course of an episode, Ellery will sort through the suspects, pieces together clues, and come to conclusions that apparently no one in a recognized law enforcement body could be entrusted to do (he’s sort of like an adult version of Encyclopedia Brown who doesn’t rely solely on arcane facts). Moreover, the show challenges the viewer to do the same, with Ellery occasionally looking to the audience and asking who they think did it. It’s kind of a goofy device, to be sure, but it adds a note of clarity for viewers (like myself) used to more violent fare and a little unsure of how to approach something like this.

Even if you’ve never read an Agatha Christie novel, or aren’t even familiar with the mystery genre that was so prevalent in the 40s and 50s (Ten Little Indians, published in 1939, sold over a hundred million copies), you probably won’t have any trouble figuring out Ellery Queen. Obviously, he always solves the crime, and you might even be able to figure it out before he does. But the appeal of the genre never really lay in its sense of adventure (even if every episode title begins with the phrase “the adventure of”), but in its personality, and Hutton makes for an appealing enough protagonist. He’s bumbling without being stupid, gawky without being obnoxious, and smart without being unapproachable. His interest in homicide may strike some modern viewers as a little bothersome, but that is more a function of the genre itself, as well as a reflection on the time it was produced.
In this kind of fiction, murder was typically a result of bad blood, financial greed, or some other vaguely relatable instinct that most well-adjusted people can relate to. It’s rarely ever because of mental illness, gang violence, or drug deals going sour. In a way, this feels hopelessly naïve and detached from reality, but it also appeals to an admittedly somewhat higher brain function that is no longer really utilized in television. Sure, it’s nice that our media has gotten a little more in touch with the way the world works (to the extent that it has), but it’s a little sad that this transformation has left little place for shows that work primarily as an exhibit for structure and form.

For those left wanting, Ellery Queen Mysteries may not fill the void entirely, but it’s certainly a nice diversion for those who have had enough CSI for a lifetime. It may appeal to increasingly out-of-fashion belief that most crimes can be solved by good, old-fashioned sleuthing, but it wisely provides Ellery with a world more than willing to support this apparent delusion, and it does so with a detail that’s convincing enough that the whole conceit seems entirely reasonable.

DVD Bonus Features

In addition to the entire series on DVD, this set also contains an interview with co-creator William Link and a collectible booklet with episode descriptions and essays.

"Ellery Queen Mysteries" is on sale September 28, 2010 and is not rated. Mystery. Directed by David Greene, Charles S Dubin, Ernest Pintoff, Peter Hunt, Jack Arnold, Seymour Robbie, Walter Doniger, Edward Abroms. Written by Richard Levinson, William Link, Peter S. Fischer, Robert Pirosh, Robert Van Scoyk, David H. Balkan, Alan Folsom, Robert E. Swanson, Marc B. Ray, David P. Lewis, Booker Bradshaw, Rudolph Borchert, Marty Roth . Starring Jim Hutton, David Wayne.

Anders Nelson • Associate Editor


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