October 2004 | Volume 55, Issue 5
Overrated For years the name Ellery Queen was almost synonymous with detective fiction. Manfred B. Lee and Frederic Dannay, the cousins who wrote as the pseudonymous Queen, cleverly gave the same name to their detective. At the time of their first book, The Roman Hat Mystery (1929), the most successful detective in America was S. S. Van Dine’s insufferable Philo Vance, so Lee and Dannay made their protagonist a virtual clone. He was just as pompous and erudite, irritating as hell, and as realistic as expecting to see Saddam Hussein perform Swan Lake in a tutu. Both detectives lived in New York and spent the best part of their lives wearing tuxedos and getting called in by the NYPD to help solve crimes. There wasn’t an iota of originality in the character then, and age hasn’t improved him.
Underrated When an author has 7 of the 10 best-selling novels in the history of America (on a New York Times list of about a quarter-century ago), how could one call him underrated? Yet Mickey Spillane, the most popular writer in the country during the 1950s, has always been dismissed by critics and academics. The fact that the vast majority of these intellectuals are politically left-wing, and Spillane (as well as his hero, Mike Hammer) is decidedly not, may have something to do with that assessment. Ayn Rand was a great admirer of Spillane’s skills as a stylist, calling him the last great romantic writer. He was also an astute plotter, constructing one novel so ingeniously that the solution was revealed only in the very last word— a feat worthy of Agatha Christie at her sharpest.