Mystery Monday 5/15/23

If you search for [queens of crime] you’ll turn up four names: Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers, Ngaio Marsh, and Margery Allingham. They’re all leading lights from the Golden Age of Detective Fiction.

I’ve known about and read Christie and Sayers since grade and high school, respectively. I’d seen Ngaio Marsh’s name many times over the years but don’t recall ever seeing Allingham’s. Recently I’ve worked through Marsh’s oeuvre. Now I’m exploring Allingham’s.

I’m also working through another queen: Ellery Queen.

The order the four Queens of Crime are listed reflects, I think, their popularity. Christie is well ahead of the pack (and the most prolific by quite a margin). She’s not just one of the best-selling mystery authors of all time, she’s one of the best-selling authors of all time. Her amateur sleuths, Hercule Poirot and Jane Marple, are just as famous as their creator. Her estate has even trademarked her as the “Queen of Crime”. [See my posts Agatha Christie and All the Christie for more.]

Sayers and Marsh are fairly well-known with Sayers perhaps slightly ahead. I’d bet most mystery readers know Sayers’s amateur gentleman detective, Lord Peter Wimsey. Fewer may know Marsh’s professional Chief Inspector Roderick Alleyn. I’ve long been a fan of Wimsey (pun intended). Now I’m an even bigger fan of Alleyn. [See my post Ngaio Marsh for more.]

Allingham seems the least well-known. The Wikipedia pages for all four each mention that the author is one of the four Queens of Crime and — most importantly — also list them. So, I’d seen her name over and over without a clue to who she was and finally got around to checking her out.

[And (because sometimes I’m slow) it just sunk in on me that four Queens of Crime is like the four queens in a deck of cards. Clever!]

I’ve read three of her novels with three more in my queue. My library only has six of her books. She doesn’t seem as popular as the other three Queens. At this point I think I can safely say she’s not as popular with me. I like her work okay but not nearly as much as the other three. Personally, I’d rank them: Christie, Marsh, Sayers, and Allingham.

Interestingly, Allingham’s amateur gentleman sleuth, Albert Campion (star of 18 novels and many short stories), is thought by many to be something of a parody of Sayers’s Lord Peter. Both have a bit of clown in them. Allingham’s stories differ from Sayers’s in being more crime stories than cozy British murder mysteries (although they do contain a murder mystery). From what I’ve read so far, Allingham features career criminals more than typical with the other three (who often feature a singular murder due to circumstance).

Allingham, like Christie, wrote quite a few standalone crime novels. Of the three I’ve read, one was such [The White Cottage Mystery (1928)], and the three in my queue are all such [Blackkerchief Dick (1923), Dance of the Years (1943), and No Love Lost (1954)]. Sadly, my library apparently only has the first two Campion books [The Crime at Black Dudley (1929) and Mystery Mile (1930).]

[It’s an indication of Allingham’s relative popularity that Wikipedia only has pages for the Campion novels. None for her other works or for the collections of Campion short stories.]

I enjoyed the three I read but aren’t in a big hurry to read the three in my queue. I’ll get to them eventually. Blackkerchief Dick will be interesting because it’s her first novel, published when she was 19.


Speaking of age, some stats:

  • Agatha Christie (1890-1976); 85 years; more than 70 books
  • Ngaio Marsh (1895-1982); 86 years; more than 30 books
  • Dorothy L. Sayers (1893-1957); 64 years; more than 16 books
  • Margery Allingham (1904-1966); 62 years; more than 30 books

It’s hard to state exactly how many books each published without more research and explanation than I want to do. All four authors published lots of short stories, most of which are collected in various volumes, and all four had other kinds of writing (plays, poems, nonfiction, and so forth).

What does strike me is how Christie and Marsh both lived more than twenty years longer than Sayers or Allingham. Luck of the draw. Allingham, who had the shortest lifespan, was born later than the other three and died of breast cancer in 1966. (Sayers died suddenly of coronary thrombosis in 1957.)

All four were prominent and active during the 1920s and 1930s — the Golden Age of Detective Fiction. And all four are British mystery authors. (Marsh hails from New Zealand but spent considerable time in England and her Inspector Alleyn works for the UK’s Criminal Investigation Department.)

Because their stories were written almost 100 years ago (in the case of the earliest ones), they can be slightly challenging to read for modern authors. The idioms of language were different back then, and many objects common of the time have sunk out of sight into history. Even basic procedures for daily activities are lost in the time mists. One just has to go with the flow.


Bottom line, if you like Agatha Christie and British murder mysteries, but have never read (or perhaps even heard of) Allingham, I’d say she’s worth checking out. (Obviously, so are Marsh and Sayers if you’ve only ever enjoyed Christie.)

And while she turns out to not be my cuppa, genre fans might also check out another British author, P.D. James (1920-2014) and her police detective (and published poet) Adam Dalgliesh [see this post for details]. James is more recent (and hardier; she lived to be 94). Her work is definitely darker and more psychological. I find her writing bloated and overly descriptive, but that’s a matter of my (lack of?) taste.

§ §

“Ellery Queen”

Ellery Queen isn’t British, isn’t female, and isn’t even a real person. He’s the creation of American crime fiction writers (and cousins) Frederic Dannay and Manfred Bennington Lee (who don’t even rate their own Wikipedia pages).

Ellery Queen is a fictional amateur detective who is also the (fictional) author of his own murder mysteries. Each story is supposedly a publication by Queen of one of his cases. The stories are told in third person but generally stick with Ellery as the narrative focal point.

Most fictional detectives honor the Sherlock Holmes mode of having a Watson, a stand-in for the reader — an excuse for the detective to explain things. For examples, Poirot had Captain Hastings and Lord Peter had Bunter. Police detectives (such as Alleyn or Dalgliesh) usually have another police officer they usually work with. (Although I’ve only read two of Allingham’s Campion stories, he seems to not have a Watson.)

Ellery Queen has his father, Inspector Richard Queen of the New York police. In many of the novels, Ellery helps his father solve difficult murders. Being his father’s son also gives him access to cases that catch his eye. In others, Ellery (or sometimes both Ellery and his father) stumble onto a crime that occurs while they’re on vacation or traveling on business.

Dannay and Lee published their first “Ellery Queen” novel in 1929. The first nine (of at least 50) comprise the “nationality” mysteries. Each title has the name of a country in it:

  1. The Roman Hat Mystery (1929)
  2. The French Powder Mystery (1930)
  3. The Dutch Shoe Mystery (1931)
  4. The Greek Coffin Mystery (1932)
  5. The Egyptian Cross Mystery (1932)
  6. The American Gun Mystery (1933)
  7. The Siamese Twin Mystery (1933)
  8. The Chinese Orange Mystery (1934)
  9. The Spanish Cape Mystery (1935)

All of which take place in New York city (where Ellery and his father live) or in locations more or less within driving distance (albeit in some cases a long drive). The “nationality” mysteries do not take place in any of the countries referenced by the title. (Two of the latter books, The Devil to Pay (1938) and The Four of Hearts (1938) take place in Hollywood where Ellery is working on a movie script.)

These first nine also contain two elements only present in these and not considered part of the Ellery Queen canon. Firstly, an introduction by Ellery Queen’s friend, the anonymous “J.J. McC.” (A fictional friend of a fictional detective.) Secondly, near the end of these books is a “Challenge to the Reader” that states that all the clues are at this point known, so it should be possible for the reader to solve the case.

I’ve never been good at solving murder mysteries (putting it mildly there). Very rarely I have a flash of intuition about whodunit that turns out to be right. Usually, I’m way off and generally don’t even try. I just follow along like a half-wit Watson.

The Queen stories are perhaps a little easier for American readers because they lack the British idioms, customs, and objects. They’re also slightly more hard-bitten in terms of the murders — some are on the gruesome side. (Ellery is a gentle intellectual gent, not a fighter.) And as with all fiction written so long ago, there are inappropriate racial references that reflect the era.


The team of Dannay and Lee, under the pseudonym of Ellery Queen, also published many crime anthologies and they founded Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine. The Ellery Queen lineup was huge at the time, one of the most popular in America. The character (and authorship) ended when Lee died in 1971. Dannay outlived his cousin by eleven years but never published under the Queen name again.

Ellery is a little bit like Lord Peter or Albert Campion in being at times whimsical, even foppish. But he was inspired by the Philo Vance novels by S.S. Van Dine (yet another author on my list of authors to check out).

I like the Queen novels quite a lot. They’re fun reads, and I recommend them for any murder mystery fan. I read a few back in the day, but lately I’ve been using the library to work my way through the entire catalog (more or less in order published).

Stay queenly, my friends! Go forth and spread beauty and light.

About Wyrd Smythe

The canonical fool on the hill watching the sunset and the rotation of the planet and thinking what he imagines are large thoughts. View all posts by Wyrd Smythe

5 responses to “Mystery Monday 5/15/23

  • Wyrd Smythe

    When I was in grade and high school, I visited the library at least once a week (usually walking out with an armful of books). Adulthood kind of pulled me away from libraries and, initially, into bookstores (again, usually walking out with an armful of books) and, later, into ebooks from Apple Books and Amazon Kindle. (And some public domain books from

    That Libby app has brought me back to libraries again, and I am loving it! 390 books (so far) in under three years. (Not to mention some freebies from Amazon Prime reading.)

    Viva la reading!

    • Wyrd Smythe

      Went in for my first shingles vaccine this morning, dropped off a letter, contacted a lawyer for a will, a company to clean my furnace ducts and dryer vent (tomorrow!), and got this post out. I’m feeling very productive!

      Now to relax on the couch with the tenth Ellery Queen novel, Halfway House (1936). [Or eleventh novel if you count the novella The Lamp of God (1935), which the library doesn’t have, as number ten.]

  • Mark Edward Jabbour

    “Luck of the draw.” is the greatest mystery. I’m glad for you. Feeling productive is a GREAT feeling!

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