NBC’s Ellery Queen Mysteries only lasted one season, but it remains a favorite among fans of TV detective shows in general, and fans of writer-producers Richard Levinson and William Link in particular. Following their success with Mannix and Columbo, Levinson and Link had the clout to pursue a series based on Ellery Queen, whose stories they had bonded over in junior high. “Ellery Queen” was the pseudonym of another mystery-loving pair, Frederic Dannay and Manfred Lee, two cousins who stuck the name on novels, short stories, magazine anthologies, movies, radio dramas, and the protagonist of all the above. Their mysteries were designed like puzzles, always ending with a challenge to the audience to solve the crime using the clues that we and Queen are given. Character development, rich themes, cultural relevance… none of these were a priority for the original Ellery Queen stories. They’re games, first and foremost.
Levinson and Link’s TV series is true to Dannay and Lee’s “fair play” spirit. Debuting in spring 1975 as a special episode of The NBC Mystery Movie, Ellery Queen Mysteries starred Jim Hutton as the bookish, socially awkward detective. Hutton came up through the Hollywood studio system during its last throes, and spent the early ’60s playing romantic leads in dopey youth comedies, but he was at his best as Queen, fumbling through crime scenes with his police-inspector father (David Wayne) and finding the clues that others would miss, like a misaligned stab wound or an improperly set wristwatch. And in keeping with the Dannay/Lee formula, each episode of Ellery Queen Mysteries included a moment before the last commercial break when Hutton would look into the camera, remind the home viewer of the essential facts of the case, and challenge us to solve the crime.
The 24 episodes on the Ellery Queen Mysteries DVD are consistently clever and entertaining, but they have a point of view, too. Levinson and Link set the series in 1947, and made frequent references to the transitional state of American culture and mores post-World War II, often using the early days of television as a plot point. Hutton himself comes off as a man out of time, more casual and modern than the well-dressed society crowd whose crimes he exposes. In subtle ways, Ellery Queen Mysteries was a show about ignoring the surface rituals and emotions of human interaction, and getting down to our truest values: the power reason and observation have to effect justice.
Key feature: A 20-minute interview with Link, who speaks lovingly about the mystery genre, his collaboration with Levinson, the style of Ellery Queen, and the joys of working with Hutton.