Fri 7 Dec 2012
by Francis M. Nevins
While working on the last tedious chores in connection with ELLERY QUEEN: THE ART OF DETECTION, which will come out in January, I expected to devote my final column of the year to someone besides EQ. Almost anyone. But back in October Joseph Goodrich — a name you’re familiar with if you read this column regularly — emailed me a long document consisting of a large number of letters from Manny Lee to Fred Dannay that for space and other reasons he hadn’t included in BLOOD RELATIONS, his collection of the correspondence between the cousins whose byline was Ellery Queen.
Many of these letters were undated, those that had dates were often out of chronological order, typos abounded, but — Wow! For the next few weeks I alternated between slogging away at the ART OF DETECTION index and working on the Lee document: reorganizing, trying to date the letters that were dateless, adding material in brackets to explain (where I could) who or what Manny was talking about, doing pretty much the same things Joe Goodrich himself had done so well in BLOOD RELATIONS.
One item I discovered I was able to work into the text of my book at the last minute. The earliest letter in the document dates from very late 1940. Fred Dannay had recently been discharged from the hospital after suffering serious injuries in an auto accident. Manny’s letter mentions that among the people who had called asking about Fred was one Laurence Smith, whom he identifies as the ghost writer behind the then recently published novelization based on the movie ELLERY QUEEN, MASTER DETECTIVE (1940).
Laurence Dwight Smith (1895-1952) has long been forgotten but a few minutes with Google brings him back to life. Under his own name he wrote four or five whodunits, several mystery/adventure books for young adults, and a few nonfiction books like CRYPTOGRAPHY: THE SCIENCE OF SECRET WRITING (1943) and COUNTERFEITING: CRIME AGAINST THE PEOPLE (1944). His short story “Seesaw” was one of the first originals to be published in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine (July 1942). What else he may have written under other bylines, or even whether he ghosted the other EQ movie novelizations, THE PENTHOUSE MYSTERY (1941) and THE PERFECT CRIME (1942), remains unknown.
It’s long been known that Fred Dannay devised the plots for the Ellery Queen novels, stories and radio dramas and Manny Lee did the actual writing — and also that at a certain point in the nine-year life of the radio series Fred, whose wife had been diagnosed with cancer that eventually (on July 4, 1945) killed her, couldn’t perform his function any longer.
Exactly when that happened would remain unclear today except for the Lee document. In a letter written on June 30, 1948, shortly after the Queen radio program was cancelled, Manny mentions that he had taken over the series “in January of 1944, when you dropped out of active work.” For most of that year, Manny reminds Fred, he made do by recycling 30-minute scripts from earlier seasons and condensing some of the original 60-minute scripts (1939-40) to half-hour length.
Eventually, Manny says, he “began doing originals from bought material.” When? In October 1944, at the start of the program’s fifth season. Does this mean that every new weekly episode from then on was based on a plot synopsis by someone other than Fred? Not at all! Manny’s correspondence with Anthony Boucher informs us that Fred was several synopses ahead of schedule at the time he dropped out.
These Manny squirreled away and fleshed out into scripts over the next two years, the last one (“The Doomed Man”) being broadcast late in August 1946. But most if not all of the new scripts for the fifth season were probably based on “bought material.”
Bought from whom? For the first several months of the new regime, the plots were devised by a long forgotten scribe named Tom Everitt. Even in the age of the Internet almost nothing is known about this man, but we know a great deal about what Manny thought of him because his letters to Boucher are full of snarky remarks about Everitt’s competence and character. On May 24, 1945, he described himself as “hating [Everitt’s] smug, treacherous guts” and Everitt’s recent plot synopses as “sloppier…even than usual….”
His letters to Fred Dannay in the Lee document offer more of the same. On November 4, 1947, he called Everitt “a son-of-a-bitch” who at the rate of $400 per synopsis got “tremendously overpaid” even though “the bulk of the creative work was done by me, out of sheer necessity….[Y]ou don’t know the things…that bastard has been saying and is still saying in the advertising business about his ‘part’ in the Queen show. There is no protection against his kind of conscienceless and unscrupulously shrewd self-propaganda….”
Manny would love to have worked exclusively with Boucher but Tony was unable to come up with complex Ellery Queen plots on a one-a-week basis and Manny had no choice but to continue buying from Everitt until late in the program’s radio life.
At least 33 of the Queen scripts between January 1945 and September 1947 came from Everitt raw material and are identified as such in my book THE SOUND OF DETECTION (2002). Most of the scripts between October 1944 and mid-June 1945, when the first episode based on a Boucher plot was broadcast, were probably derived from Everitt too. “Cleopatra’s Snake” (October 12 and 14, 1944) finds Ellery as backstage observer at a live production of ANTONY AND CLEOPATRA for experimental TV when the genuine poisonous snake being used in the death scene (yeah, right) bites to death the actress playing Cleopatra.
In “The Glass Sword” (November 30 and December 2, 1944) Ellery tackles the case of the circus sword swallower who died when the sword in his stomach broke while the lights were out. These concepts strike me as way too wacko to have come from the mind of Fred Dannay. Therefore they almost certainly came from Everitt.
The vast majority of Everitt-based EQ episodes have never been published as scripts and don’t survive on audio. But it now seems quite possible that one of them was mistaken for a Dannay-based episode and published a few years ago — as the title story in the collection THE ADVENTURE OF THE MURDERED MOTHS (Crippen & Landru, 2005). The episode with that title was broadcast on May 9, 1945. The plot is nowhere near as off-the-wall as those of “Cleopatra’s Snake” or “The Glass Sword” and therefore might be one of those Fred completed before he left the series. We just don’t know. Maybe we never will.