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).