FROM THE PEN OF LEVINSON AND LINK (and Queen)

If I had had a little bit of luck, on my first day of junior high school a group of my friends might have introduced me to the fellow they had been talking about since 5th grade – the kid who, like me, loved magic tricks and puzzles and a mystery writer named Ellery Queen. That would have earned me a BFF and a professional partner that would make us the kings of the TV mystery. Maybe I was born too late, but this actually happened, in the halcyon days of 1946, to two lads named Richard Levinson and William Link. 

Levinson and Link deserve the attention of all lovers of GAD stories, and they’re going to get some here this year. They began by writing episodes of hit mystery series like Burke’s Law and Honey West and went on to fourteen television series together, including the long-running classics Mannix, Columbo and Murder She Wrote. They also produced some of my favorite mystery films for the small screen, including Murder by Natural Causes (1979), Rehearsal for Murder (1982) and Vanishing Act (1986) (well, this last is actually based on a wonderful 1976 movie called One of My Wives Is Missing, in which L&L were not involved.) What sets the pair apart from other writers of crime series is their shared love of the classic mystery, especially as embodied by their favorite author, Ellery Queen. They weren’t afraid to apply logic and rational clueing to their stories, creating films that invited audiences to solve along with the detective, as was the case with the early EQ novels and the classic Ellery Queen radio series.

As boys, L&L read all the Queen novels and Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, and they adored the radio show. They were fascinated to learn that “Ellery Queen” was the pseudonym for a pair of cousins and that, in the early days, Fred Dannay and Manny Lee would travel the literary circuit, wearing masks and calling themselves “Ellery Queen” and “Barnaby Ross” (the alias they used to write the four Drury Lane novels), talk about writing and challenge each other to solve puzzles. Unlike the Queen working style, where Dannay came up with the ideas and Lee wrote them, Levinson and Link wrote all their scripts together: Levinson sat at the typewriter (and, later, the computer) while Link paced until, as he tells it, he was too old to pace and then just sat. While the relationship between Dannay and Lee became more and more vitriolic, Link says that once they grew successful, he and Levinson never argued. 

Throughout their professional partnership, the two friends held Ellery Queen up as their gold standard and vowed that one day they would adapt him for TV; after three misguided series that, like the movie treatment of the 30’s, pretty much got the character and the series wrong, Levinson and Link vowed to do right by Queen. They got their chance in 1971, picking one of the best EQ novels (Cat of Many Tails) for adaptation. After they wrote a script that truly pleased them, they submitted it to Universal. The studio then sent the two men with their wives on an expensive European vacation as an expression of gratitude for the amazing work they had done for television. 

Ellery swings like a pendulum do (Peter Lawford)

Sadly, this was a ruse reminiscent of RKO’s manipulation of Orson Welles: when the screenwriters returned to America, they discovered their script had been mangled, most egregiously in the depiction of Ellery himself who, as played by Peter Lawford, was now a “mod” ladies’ man, tooling around in his sports car and pestering his policeman uncle (for what swinging daddy would live with his daddy?) When Ellery Queen: Don’t Look Behind You premiered to tanking numbers on NBC, it bore a pseudonym for the screenwriters, who wanted to disavow their association with this travesty. The film is pretty bad, but not that bad. The rest of the cast was good, and the plot hewed pretty close to the novel’s; unfortunately, Lawford and the inclusion of action movie shenanigans provided unwelcome distractions to the whole. 

Levinson and Link got another chance to do it right in 1975, and this time, they vowed to take no more trips to Europe. They were invited to write a pilot that would appear on the rotating NBC Mystery of the Week series. This time they picked a lesser title, one that had actually been ghost-written by Avram Davidson as part of the final Period of Queen novels.  The Fourth Side of the Triangle is one of my favorites of these in its hearkening back to the small-cast, highly emotional puzzle problems of the 1940’s. In it, a dress designer named Sheila Grey is murdered, and Inspector Queen’s investigation exposes her involvement with the McKell family: father Ashton, who appears to have become emotionally involved with Sheila, his shy, jealous wife Lutecia, and his sensitive son Dane. One of them must have murdered her, and the suspicion jumps back and forth between them, leading to one mistaken arrest after another. Can Ellery sort out the truth? You bet he can, especially when he learns that Sheila loved puzzles!!

The resulting film, Too Many Suspects, does get a great deal right, especially in terms of establishing Ellery and Company as a potentially successful series by embracing, rather than avoiding, the things that made the classic Queen novels special. First, Levinson and Link set the film in 1947, and the period flavor is a rich asset, with wonderful theme music by the great Elmer Bernstein. Next, they cast the roles of Ellery and his father well. NBC had wanted to find a project for successful film actor Jim Hutton, and he took to the role of Ellery right away. Hutton lived on the set in a trailer, studying scripts and inhabiting the Link and Levinson version of the role beautifully. He was brilliant and quirky and, in a touch that isn’t in the books but works well here, was a physical and social klutz. 

Jim Hutton as Ellery and David Wayne as Inspector Queen

Wayne is perfect as the “small, birdlike” Inspector Queen, so proud and loving of his sleuthing son but so irritated by the young man’s foibles, and Tom Reese was the physical embodiment of Sergeant Velie. The writers also invented a character who would go on to become one of Ellery’s two main foils on the series: John Hillerman played Simon Brimmer, the egotistical star of a radio detective series modeled in many ways after the Ellery Queen program from the 40’s. The film chronicles the genesis of the two men’s rivalry (which Ellery always won), and Hillerman’s archness always played well against the natural nice guy-ness of Hutton’s Ellery. 

The guest cast for Too Many Suspects was prestigious, signaling a quality that Levinson and Link would use again in Columbo and Murder, She Wrote. Ray Milland played Ashton (here named Carson), Kim Hunter played Luticia (changed to Marion), and Monte Markham was Dane (her called Tom). Also important was the writers’ adherence to Queen’s brand of puzzle: from the starting hook, the movie was carefully clued, and at a key point toward the end, Hutton broke the fourth wall to deliver the classic Queenian “Challenge to the Reader/Viewer”. 

There are a couple of changes that, in my view, didn’t help matters, although they fortunately did little damage as far as the network and the critics were concerned. The small circle of suspects was enlarged for TV, leading to some shenanigans involving a neighborhood break-in artist and a final chase for a suspect that were pure TV but led to a sense of padding. More egregious to me – although I understand the need to honor the visual aspect of TV – was the fiddling with key aspects of the puzzle. The victim’s love of word games is important in both the book and the movie, but it is better served in the book. There is no dying message there, but as this was a trope closely associated with Ellery Queen, it is added here. It is highly visual, but it is also a bit silly and, in the end, it doesn’t make a lot of sense. 

(Some further detail in ROT-13 for those who have read the novel)

Furvyn (urer anzrq Zbavpn) hfrq nantenzf bs rnpu bs ure pheerag ybiref’ anzrf gb puevfgra ure naahny pybguvat pbyyrpgvba. Gur hcpbzvat pbyyrpgvba, anzrq YNQL ABEZN, vf jung yrq Ryyrel gb qvfpbire gur pbaarpgvba gb gur pnfr bs gur ZpXryy punhssrhe Enzba. V’yy rira nqzvg gung gur hygvzngr erirny bs guvf nf n snxr raqvat (gurer’f NABGURE pbyyrpgvba craqvat) jbexf orggre va n obbx guna n zbivr. Ubjrire, gur vqrn gung Zbavpn, sngnyyl fubg, gheaf naq ybbxf ng gur arjf ercbeg ba GI naq qentf ure obql bire gb gur cyht, gura chyyf gur cyht bs obgu GI naq pybpx ng gur zbzrag gung gur fperra fubjf n cvpgher bs gur fha nf cneg bs gur jrngure ercbeg – nyy guvf va beqre sbe fbzr pyrire qrgrpgvir gb pbaarpg gur fha gb gur jbeq “fba” – vf, gb chg vg zvyqyl, evqvphybhf. Arire zvaq gur yvxryvubbq gung fbzrbar jbhyq chg vg gbtrgure nf Ryyrel qbrf. Ubj qbrf Zbavpn xabj, nf jr frr ure fgneg gb qent ure qlvat obql sbejneq, gung gur arjf jvyy orpbzr gur jrngure naq gung n tencuvp bs gur fha jvyy rira nccrne?!? Vg’f whfg fghcvq . . .

Whatever my issues with the ending of the film, it was good enough to give Levinson and Link the go-ahead for a series, and that’s what they did . . . for one glorious year. After that, they were cancelled, and although nobody has talked about the reason why, one can figure out a few reasons. First, given the tenor of the mid-70’s TV scene, with hard-hitting crime dramas abounding (The Streets of San Francisco was playing opposite Ellery Queen on ABC), a series like this must have seemed quaint. Puzzles were out, and action heroes were in – at least the bumbling Ellery became the equally klutzy Columbo. And then there’s the probable per-episode cost of a lovingly rendered, period-set drama populated by great (and expensive) stars of stage and screen. One can only imagine. 

Thus, we have only the pilot and twenty-two lovingly created episodes to serve as an altar to Levinson and Link’s devotion to their favorite author. It is said that Fred Dannay liked the series and loved Hutton in the role. I know that I enjoyed it immensely, too, and for the next year, I propose to look at two episodes each time I post. For those of you who haven’t seen the series, it is around on DVD, and I promise that any spoiler discussion will be well-marked and coded (in ROT-13) to keep all the twists and surprises fresh for you should you seek this series out – as you should!

I also hope to cover some of the movies I mentioned (thanks to fellow L&L enthusiast Sergio, who has provided me with the links), as well as Shooting Script, a collection of Levinson and Link stories that was released last year by Crippen and Landru. It’s time we at Ah Sweet Mystery celebrated the pair who for decades brought such joy to classic mystery lovers everywhere. 

Be sure and find me on Twitter (@ahsweetmystery). 

41 thoughts on “FROM THE PEN OF LEVINSON AND LINK (and Queen)

  1. Thanks for this Brad, brings it all back so clearly. I love Levinson & Link (just reading the SHOOTING SCRIPT collection, thanks for our friend Jim) and TOO MANY SUSPECTS was a great pilot. I know what you mean about the ending, though I like the addition of the dying clue, and which is not an obvious improvement on the one in the novel, though as you say making it visual rather than verbal was a typically smart L&L move. And of course the fabulous score by Elmer Bernstein too. And Simon Brimmer is just such a superb addition. Can’t wait to read your episode reviews. Great post Brad (and thanks for the very kind shoutout) – 2022 already looking great!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Clearly, Levinson and Link like the EQ trope of the dying message as much as most of our fellow GAD fans seems to disparage it, so I get why they did this in the pilot (and in MANY of the episodes.) Ironically, the much better ending in the book has no dying message at all, merely a victim with a fondness for word problems, and I thought it worked tons better AND provided a more devastating ending.

      How sad to realize that One of My Wives Is Missing had nothing to do with L&L except to inspire them. I think I also saw Vanishing Act, but I sense that I liked the first one much more.

      Expect the first two episodes out next week. And my 50’s noir class starts on Tuesday. Sadly, I can’t attend (I’m holding auditions!!! wish me luck!!!), but I’ve seen both films and will write about them the following week. I’m counting on you to join me there, Sergio!!!

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  2. It’s been a while since I revisited the pilot in full, but the series is a comfort favorite of mine. Episodes are repetitive and can be a little cheesy in places, but it is in good fun. I can’t not see David Wayne in my head when reading a Queen novel now. I very much look forward to the future reviews!

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    • Three episodes in, and I’m batting one for two. “Cheesy” is the perfect description when they choose to up the humor quotient, but there has been some fine detection in two of the episodes.

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  3. I’m sure you’re right that the period setting would have added to the cost of the series and probably contributed to its cancellation. And I agree that that same period setting is one of the greatest strengths of the series. It looks fabulous.

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  4. I think Vanishing Act has a lot going for it, especially the best-ever casting all the central character. What it lacks more regrettably than anything else is the method of central plot point revelation that One of My Wives is Missing screenwriter Peter Stone borrowed openly from Frederick Knott’s Dial M for Murder (Stone goes so far as to feature a production of Dial M in his teleplay!). After all, all versions of this story hinge upon the basic “guilty knowledge” clues that are a staple of the genre and became a cliche of the later Levinson and Link Murder She Wrote (“Red Shoes? The papers never mentioned that they were RED shoes. How did you know that they were RED shoes?”). All Knott did was change the revelation of this plot point from a forced slip of the tongue to a forced course of action, which somehow makes it many more times compelling. Don’t ask me why, but it does.

    Levinson and Link themselves used the “forced course of action guilty knowledge reveal” for their Rehearsal for Murder, which I feel compensates for the incredibility of its use of the device (I mean, who really thinks that would work?) with one of the best casts ever assembled for any screen mystery, large or small. And Peter Stone, son of Charlie Chan producer John Stone, was clearly aware of the “modular” capacity of plot devices— he borrowed the exact same extrication from an inescapable dilemma device from his suspense thriller Mirage for the resolution to his historical musical 1776 five years later! (and I think that the backstory plot to his Charade owes a few things to Carr’s Hollow Man).

    As for Vanishing Act / One of My Wives is Missing, it has a genesis / remake history nearly as complex as that of And Then There Were None, going back at least as far as a 1940’s radio episode of The Whistler.

    On the more-to-point subject of Ellery Queen, I really wish the Levinson-Link series had lasted at least one more season. I’m not really categorically opposed to dying message clues— I just think they’re often insufficiently motivationally justified— but I really feel a second season would have gone back to that well less often, with more satisfactory results. Two of my very favorite episodes include dying message clues— but in neither is that aspect the plot feature that makes them most interesting (incidentally, I’ve never read The Fourth Side of the Triangle, but I find the penultimate word play device in the episode far more satisfactory than the dying message clue, and I presume it was. Key feature of the novel).

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    • Re Triangle: It was, and then the author (let’s give Avram Davidson the credit for writing, but I’m not sure if Dannay continued to help plot these; he might have?) doubles down on that same thing. It’s not something one can “deduce,” but it makes for a much more powerful ending to the book.

      I’m three episodes in, and the victim attempts a dying message in two of them. I don’t want to give the game away here in terms of analysis, but the series certainly showcased the problematic quality of the trope. In one of these episodes, the dying message is clever . . . but that’s all there is to this mystery. In the other, the dying message is a much more convoluted part of the plot and inherently more satisfying.

      In terms of the whole Vanishing Act and all its predecessors situation, I’m sure much of my love for OoMWIM has to do with the timing of my view. The basic idea has been done again and again: there’s even an old Bela Lugosi vampire film (of which you are very aware, Ratner but I won’t name it here), where the use of the same trope is the best part of it. Val McDermid uses it in the only one of her books I’ve read. It’s a trick I like very much BECAUSE of this first view of it – and OoMWIM is almost certainly the first time I saw something like this. Honestly, though, I don’t see how we can connect it with Dial M for Murder, which approaches a similar act from an inverted point of view.

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      • When I speak of the genesis of OoMWIM, I’m speaking far more specifically of instances in which a central character denies the identity of someone claiming to be their relation recently returned from being missing or dead – – and that in all of these instances the ultimate plot twist (the identity of the true culprit), and the reason for the claimed-relation’s return, is the same. While the resemblance to the vampire film to which you refer can be seen (yes, it entails the second part of that description), it certainly doesn’t fit into that specific framework. But the radio and TV versions of The Whistler’s A Stranger in the House do, as does the film Chase a Crooked Shadow, the French play Trap for a Single Man, its Broadway adaptation Catch Me if You Can, the TV movies Honeymoon With a Stranger, One of My Wives is Missing, Vanishing Act, and many, many other foreign language films and TV movies.

        As for the DIal M connection with OoMWIM, I don’t think it could be any clearer, or more openly acknowledged. The only major difference between OoMWIM and Catch Me if You Can (its most direct predecessor— character names, wisecracks and all) is the way in which the culprit’s guilt is revealed— which in the Peter Stone teleplay is changed from a slip of the tongue (as in every other version of which I’m aware) to a forced course of action, as notably occurs in Dial M Murder. And in OoMWIM this forced course of action is achieved through the help of several people… who are cast members of a local production of Dial M Murder!

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      • Danny would have supplied a really detailed synopsis and an equally detailed dramatisation persona and statement on the structure and themes explored. Lee and Dannay argued, probably more than anything, one surmises from Nevins and Goodrich, over Dannay being so specific. But you can always tell Lee from the others, with the sole exception for me of the great Theodore Sturgeon on PLAYER.

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  5. I don’t recall ever reading about the cousins appearing on the literary circuit wearing masks. Thanks for sharing. It reminds me of Daft Punk, the influential French electronic dance music duo! I bet Dannay’s & Lee’s masks were not as cool as Daft Punk’s helmets.

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  6. That is, if Dial M had ended like any other version of Trap for a Single Man, it would’ve concluded with Tony Wendice saying “No, Inspector— If that was Swann’s own latchkey, then Margo’s key must still be under the third stair carp- – oh shit!” The same knowledge one shouldn’t have— no difference in what it proves —but not nearly as interestingly related.

    At any rate, Stone was more open about his acknowledgment to Knott than he was even about his own identity!

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    • I have a link to OoMWIM but not to Vanishing Act. We can go through this when I’ve watched one or both. I think where we’re a bit at cross purposes here is that you’re focusing on the slip of the tongue – which I do see – and I’m focusing on the conspiracy – which I don’t think exists in DMfM. That one always seems more like an episode of Columbo to me . . . and I would have been a HUGE fan of Columbo if only John Williams had played the part! However, the stock company that plays the roles in VA – I do see THAT connection.

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      • Yes, there are two different things of which we’re speaking, but both are in operation here. Stone took the most recent iteration of the Robert Thomas play – – in this case its Broadway adaptation, Catch Me if You Can— and transferred it rather directly: setting, character names, even exact jokes. The one big difference is that he took the culprit’s unwitting revelation of his guilty knowledge, and changed it from a slip of the tongue to a more dramatically-involving forced course of action, as had Knott done in the inverted Dial M for Murder. Thus, OoMWIM could fairly accurately be described as Catch Me if You Can with Dial M’s plot resolution technique. And Stone paid very open tribute to this debt to Knott by making members of his conspiracy turn out to be not only actors, but specifically cast members of a production of Dial M. It’s been a while since I’ve seen Vanishing Act— are the actors from a production of Dial M? Even if they were, though, it wouldn’t make sense because, unlike OoMWIM, VA doesn’t employ the Dial M device.

        The “conspiracy of the righteous” is indeed a technique used in several works, but those I consider the true relations of OoMWIM, officially recognized as such or not, are those in which a character reports to the police that a person claiming to be his (or her) missing (or dead) spouse (or sibling) is an imposter, and that the true guilty party (who in each case holds the same position in the story) ultimately reveals his or her guilt either via admission or a revelation of knowledge he or she shouldn’t have, brought about by the machinations of a similarly-constituted conspiracy.

        So let me make it clear: I’m not claiming that Dial M is one of the true relations of OoMWIM, but rather that OoMWIM is one of that numerous tradition that— quite openly and ostentatiously— employed a technique from Dial M. And that, IMO, it is its employment of that technique that above all makes it more effective than the others in that tradition.

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        • Though I can’t say it was a conscious influence— or even that Levinson and Link had ever seen it (I’m a believer in coincidences)— a very much stronger connection can be found between Prescription Murder and the 1932 Broadway play Riddle Me This (and its film adaptation of later that year, Guilty as Hell), in which a respected doctor is seen to kill his wife and then enact a perfect alibi which provides apparent evidence that his wife was alive after the time he left the premises. This inverted mystery story is solved by the team of a reporter and a police officer, the latter of which was played on Broadway by Thomas Mitchell— who later became the first stage Columbo in Prescription Murder(which was intended for Broadway).

          Dial M for Murder shared with Prescription Murder the inverted crime aspect the ideosyncratic detective, but Riddle Me This, with the prominent doctor culprit, the doctor’s wife victim, the time shift alibi in which the wife is witnessed alive after her actual death— and Thomas Mitchell as detective!— is a much closer thing!

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          • I think DIAL M may be a more likely source just in terms of fame and availability? But it’s also the making of the killer the main protagonist and seeing everything through their eyes. But you know what? I have never seen the Knott listed as an influence by them, though it was a gigantic hit, which always has an impact, let’s face it. I must track down GUILTY AS HELL though, thanks Scot!

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  7. I absolutely love the EQ television show. It has a very different kind of Ellery (and a fun one too), but the style of plotting is exactly what you’d want from a series about Ellery.

    I hadn’t heard about Shooting Script yet by the way, but what a coincidence! Last September, a Japanese pocket was released collecting Levinson and Link’s short stories (It also has the English title The Collected Stories of Richard Levinson & William Link). The book featured both previously published translations and enew translations, and it appeared at that time it had been actually the very first time anywhere on the world anyone had collected their stories in one book. I guess that was true, as I see Shooting Script was released just a few weeks later 😛 I suppose the contents should have a lot of overlap, though I can’t seem to find a list for Shooting Script right now

    https://www.fusosha.co.jp/books/detail/9784594088552

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    • I’m happy to provide the table of contents for Shooting Script to you, Ho-Ling:

      “Whistle While You Work”
      “Child’s Play”
      “Shooting Script”
      “Suddenly, There Was Mrs. Kemp”
      “Operation Staying-Alive”
      “Robbery, Robbery, Robbery”
      “The Hundred-Dollar Bird’s Nest”
      “One Bad Winter Day”
      “Memory Game”
      “The Joan Club”
      “Dear Corpus”
      “Jessica”
      “No Name”
      “End of an Era”
      “Top-Flight Aquarium”
      “Exit Line”
      “Man in the Lobby”

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  8. Any information on the Japanese COLLECTED STORIES would be welcome, because as far as I know it wasn’t authorized by the Link and Levinson estates. SHOOTING SCRIPT, however, has the approval of Margery Nelson Link and Christine Levinson.

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    • I love dying clues, too. And I know – we’re all divided between the people who believe that a dying murder victim simply isn’t going to think this way and those of us who scientifically . . . don’t give a fart. As an objective reviewer (and am I not always objective??), I’m trying to straddle the POV of both camps. I’ll have things to say about each dying message we come across (and so far I’m batting four for five – they do like their dying messages!). My point about the one in Too Many Suspects is not just that I think it inferior to the way the killer is revealed in the book (which happens to not be a dying message) but I don’t see buy the victim dragging herself to the TV when the image she needs isn’t there! Plus – SPOILERS – it has been raining in New York, so she has no assurance as she’s bleeding out and heading to the set that this weather will change and afford her the message she’s seeking. She might as well drag herself to the kitchen, grab a tomato, and chop it in half . . . . .

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      • I like dying clues because they’re so unrealistic. That’s why I love golden age detective fiction – it’s a vehement rejection of realism.

        No real-life crime has ever been solved by the methods used by Hercule Poirot or Philo Vance or Dr Gideon Fell. Real-life crime is unbelievably boring.

        Fiction should not try to emulate reality. Reality is not worth emulating.

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  9. Pingback: HAIL TO THE QUEENS: EQ Mysteries Eps 1 and 2 | ahsweetmysteryblog

  10. Pingback: HAIL TO THE QUEENS: Ellery Queen Eps 1 and 2 – The Controversial Files

  11. Brad – I am catching up on your blog and see that you are going through the Ellery Queen episodes at pace. For me the episodes in this series are like comfort food … not fancy, sometimes cheesy, but nearly always satisfying. If I am honest, I like another L & L series, Murder She Wrote, in the same way. Neither is perfect, sometimes the episodes are clumsy (e.g., like the dying clue in this one as you and others point out above), but I enjoy the puzzles, the celebrity guest stars, and trying to outwit Ellery and Jessica respectively.

    How stupid am I in that I didn’t know that Too Many Suspects was based on the EQ (ghost written) novel, The Fourth Side of the Triangle, which is one of the few EQ books I haven’t read. Thanks for mentioning that in your blog as I ordered a copy and look forward finally to reading it. The same with L & L Shooting Script by Crippen & Landru. My copy should arrive in a few days.

    I won’t be as quick as you getting through the episodes, but I want to re-watch them on DVD in order as you’re doing. Great to see the number of comments you’re getting on each of these EQ posts. Well done.

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