The Ransom of EQMM #1
by Arthur Vidro
The pride of my life is my full run of Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine. In, of course, excellent condition. No browning or brittle pages. No rips. No coupons clipped. No doodling on the covers. No mailing labels. With reluctance, I allow on the contents page small checkmarks recommending specific stories; have to allow the previous owners some leeway. Otherwise, these magazines are in delicious condition.
The debut issue, dated Fall 1941, has seven stories, one each by Dashiell Hammett, Margery Allingham, T.S. Stribling, Anthony Abbott, Cornell Woolrich, Frederick Hazlitt Brennan, and Ellery Queen. Other authors published in the first year of EQMM include Agatha Christie, Melville Davisson Post, Frederick Irving Anderson, John Dickson Carr, R. Austin Freeman, Ben Hecht, Edgar Wallace, Lawrence G. Blochman, Stuart Palmer, and Jacques Futrelle. Quite a roster.
Unlike many collectors, I have read all the stories in my collection.
When the local newspaper got wind of my run of all seventy years’ worth of EQMM, they sent a cub reporter with notebook and camera. I even unlocked the glass case so he could shoot some snapshots without battling glare.
At least he asked permission before touching. “Mind if I move them around and look through a few?” he asked.
“Go right ahead, young man, but be careful.”
“I’m very careful with books, and these magazines are like small books.” He started setting up his photo shoot.
The end result landed on page 3 of the weekly Shinn Corners Courier:
70-Year-Old Local Man Showcases
70-Year-Old Magazine Collection
by Mark Wayne Howard
Some people collect coins or stamps or dolls or trains. One local resident has a full collection of more than 800 issues of Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, the leading fiction magazine of its genre. You won’t find it on sale in Shinn Corners anymore, but that’s because most of its business is by subscription. Homer Slocum adds ten issues each year to his growing collection by motoring toBoston to buy each copy as it hits the newsstands there. He claims he can’t subscribe, because “having a mailing label affixed ruins an issue’s collectibility.”
The magazine was founded in 1941 by the famous mystery writer Ellery Queen and publisher Lawrence E. Spivak.
Slocum’s collection is preserved behind glass in barrister bookcases. The accompanying photos show how the height and width of the digest-sized magazine fluctuated throughout the decades. The earliest issues all face the viewer front-on because, explains Slocum, it wasn’t until 1949 that the magazine was bound with a square spine on which the issue’s date and year could be printed.
“I’m sure there are some other collectors out there who, like me, have a full run of EQMM, but the number isn’t large,” says Slocum.
Even the current EQMM publisher, Dell Magazines, does not possess a full run of the title.
But why collect this particular magazine?
Slocum says he’s always been partial to short stories, especially mysteries, and he feels an affinity with EQMM because both he and it were brought into this world on the same day, September 25, 1941.
That first issue has appreciated greatly and a typical one would fetch several hundred dollars in the open market. Slocum believes his copy, being in excellent condition could command several times that amount. (If any other Courier readers have extensive collections, we’d love to highlight them.)
The article did not divulge my address, but I’m listed in the county phone book, so anyone with half a brain could have figured out where my collection was housed. And our town has plenty of folks with half a brain.
Next day, much to my dismay, the gawkers started arriving. People I barely knew or knew not at all would ring the doorbell for a look at The Collection. Young and old, male and female, even a whole den of Cub Scouts, traipsed through my home.
After a few days, I’d had enough. Placed my keep out and gone fishing signs on my porch swing and stopped letting people in. Had to get my collection back in order.
But I couldn’t.
For the Fall 1941 issue of EQMM was gone.
I ransacked my house looking for it, but it wasn’t there. Called my insurance company and learned collectibles are not covered under my homeowner’s policy. Moseyed over to the police station to file a missing magazine report.
A large, beefy sergeant named Thomas Velie was on duty and handled the paperwork.
“Dee-skrip-shun?” he asked.
“Five and a half inches wide. A smidgen over seven and a half inches tall. About three-eighths of an inch thick.”
He sighed. “You expect us to take mesh-ure-ments of every magazine we come across? Give me something better to go on.”
“A hundred and twenty-eight white pages in off-brown wrappers.”
“Soft paper covers. The front is dominated by a George Salter illustration of a man whose eyeglasses reflect the hunt for a killer.” About this time the sergeant put down his pencil. “And the back is dominated by a letter Q in quotation marks.”
“So you want us to look for a magazine with a Q on the back cover?”
“Not an ordinary Q. This one has two tails through it.”
The sergeant chuckled and called over a police officer who was sipping a cup of coffee in the corner. “Mr. Slocum, this here is Officer Arthur Johnson. Mr. Slocum wants us to mind our Ps and Qs—or at least he wants you to be on the lookout, Johnson, for a Q with two tails through it. Ain’t that right, Mr. Slocum?”
“Why, yes,” I stammered.
“Now tell us, Maestro,” the sergeant continued, “why does this particular Q on the back cover have two tails when one tail is good enough for all the other Qs?”
“One tail represents Manfred Lee and the other tail represents Frederic Dannay. You see, together they wrote as Ellery Queen.”
The sergeant nodded with feigned comprehension. “Well, sure, Mr. Slocum, sir. That explains everything.” He crumpled up the paper on which he’d been writing. “Johnson and I will look at every Q in town until we find us the one with the two tails, and when we find it we’ll let you know right away. And in the meantime, you be careful, Mr. Slocum, not to climb any trees.”
I didn’t understand. “Not to climb trees?”
“Wouldn’t want the squirrels to mistake you for a nut!” Velie roared at his joke, Johnson chuckled, and I slinked away.
I’d have to find EQMM #1 on my own.
Each night over supper I open the day’s mail and, once a week, pore over the local newspaper.
The following edition of the Courier included, in the Police Log, a report of the missing magazine. It concluded with:
“Distinctive features: on rear wrapper is the letter ‘Q’ with an unusual variation.”
Two evenings later, still mourning the loss of my EQMM #1, I dined at home on chicken soup with rice and a slab of rye bread. My incoming correspondence included the usual items plus one envelope that bore a local postmark but no return address. Inside was a slip of plain white paper on which was typed:
Here is picture proving we have your magazine and have not hurt it. To get it back, leave $500 cash in brown paper bag under elm tree outside police station. Tonight. Midnight. Or else it’s curtains for your magazine. Each night you do not pay, we will draw an extra tail through the back-page double-tailed Q. Heck, we’ll even draw extra Qs. With permanent marker.
This was the enclosed picture:
I ran off a copy of the ransom note en route to the police station. Velie and Johnson were on duty alone and didn’t seem to notice me.
“Did you lend him the money?” asked Velie.
“No,” said Johnson. “Not this time. Told him if he gets into debt without the family’s help, then he should get out of it without our help. Don’t think he’ll ever learn his les—”
“Good evening,” I spoke up. Their faces sank. Unfortunately, they remembered me.
I presented the ransom note to the smirking Velie. “I don’t expect you to find my magazine, Sergeant; that’s my worry. But I plan to leave a bag filled with money outside your police station tonight. Can you post someone to nab the greedy bugger?”
The sergeant rubbed his jaw and pocketed the note. “Now that we have some ev-ee-dence, we can spare a man for one night. Johnson here will be glad to take the midnight watch.”
The small, balding officer smiled “I will? But Velie, you’re much bigger than me. What if the thief is huge and—”
“You’ll be armed; the thief probably won’t be. Thanks for volunteering.” Johnson went to the coffeepot. Velie beamed at me. “Mr. Slocum, if the thief shows up, we’ll catch him.”
“Oh, the thief won’t show up,” I said. “I just want you to apprehend whoever sent this note.”
“Isn’t that the thief?”
“No. But thanks for your help. I’ll be back a few minutes before midnight with the drop-off bag. Should I come in here first or just leave it at the tree?”
“Leave it at the tree. He might be watching the place. And just to be safe, when you put down the bag, make some noise.”
“What noise? And why?”
“Any loud noise. Cough, sneeze, walk with a cane or long umbrella. This way we’ll know it’s you and be alert.” He lowered his voice to a rumbling whisper and winked. “It’s to wake Johnson up. He don’t know it yet, but last week we switched the stationhouse brew to decaf.”
I hustled home to work on my larger problem, finding the missing magazine.
The dim light of my porch bulb showed I had company. There on my porch swing, nibbling a doughnut over a paper sack and sipping a takeout coffee, was cub reporter Mark Wayne Howard. Beside him lay a shoebox. He hailed me with a sheepish grin.
“Been waiting for you. Thought you’d want this back.” He neatly set down the coffee and handed me the box. I lifted the lid.
Inside, resting on a small fleecy lining and a bed of color photographs, was my EQMM #1.
After placing the magazine back in its rightful place of prominence, we sat down to admire the collection anew.
“Why did you take my magazine?” I asked.
“Sorry. Wasn’t thinking. I saw the authors’ names and started flipping pages and reading . . . couldn’t put it down . . . so I took it with me to read all the stories in full. But then I got sick for several days. Couldn’t sit up in bed, let alone read. Got my strength back today.”
“Wish you’d have just asked me first. I don’t mind your reading it if you’re careful.”
“Gee, sir, I didn’t realize I was causing such a problem until I read the police report. But here it is, and none the worse for wear. Okay if I tell my editor the crime is solved?”
“Not yet, young man. The magazine’s disappearance is solved. But we still have a criminal to catch.” I showed him my photocopy of the ransom note.
“Whew. That’s something. May I tag along and earn a scoop?”
“You sure you don’t know anything about this ransom note?”
He blanched. “No, I swear! I didn’t even know about the double-tailed Q—you never mentioned it in our interview.”
“Never mentioned it? No, I didn’t . . . not to you nor to the gawkers—of course! That’s the key clue!”
“Key clue, sir?”
“Never mind that. Did you shoot a picture of my EQMM #1?”
“Sure did. But it didn’t run in the Courier. Editor published only a few, mostly closeups of the more bloody and sexy covers. All the photos we didn’t use are in the shoebox. Thought you might like them enough that you wouldn’t get me into trouble for, er, borrowing your magazine.”
“Ah,” I said. “A peace offering? Very well, I accept. Get that photo from the box and follow me. We’ve work to do.”
The young journalist trailed me as I retrieved from my games room a large stack of Monopoly currency, then searched with increasing annoyance for a brown paper sack. But there was none in the house. I berated myself for always bringing my own cloth bags to the shops. My companion finally gave me his bag. I tossed the false currency onto the doughnut crumbs and coffee droplets, sealed the bag with a few rubber bands, grabbed a walking stick from my closet, and off we went to nab a crook.”
We quickly reached the police station. I parked a half-block away, turned off my lights. As we waited the few minutes to midnight, I gave the young journalist some instructions. Then I headed to the elm tree. I poked harshly at the ground with my walking stick, but the darned thing had a rubber tip on it, like a silencer. So when I reached the tree trunk I resorted to a few wheezes that blossomed into a coughing fit.
I dropped the bag at the trunk base, walked away as sharply as my 70-year-old legs allowed, then ducked for cover behind a thicket of bushes.
Silence for about thirty seconds. Then my car engine kicked in, and I heard the auto pull away. Good boy, that journalist. Doing exactly as I told him. Immediately after came the sound of cautious but rapid footsteps. They got nearer and I craned to look.
A lanky man-shaped figure in a ski mask hastened through the dim night straight to the elm. He scooped up the paper bag and began sprinting my way.
Then everything happened at once.
I jumped up, aimed my flashlight at the felon, and snapped it on. “Stop, crook! You’re surrounded!” I brandished the walking stick like a club.
My car engine revved louder as it skidded toward us, and the car headlights snapped on, blinding the petrified thug.
Officer Johnson, in plain clothes, leapt from a nearby thicket, gun in hand. “Police! Freeze! Don’t make me shoot! You are under arrest!” I hadn’t counted on the police’s help, but was grateful for it.
The crook raised his hands, still holding the paper bag.
Young Mr. Howard ran from the car, its headlights still on us, and removed the fellow’s mask.
“Chester!” exclaimed Johnson.
The unmasked man shielded his face from the light and whimpered. “Uncle Arthur, please let me go. I didn’t hurt anyone, and I won’t do it again. But I was gambling too much again, and had to pay off my bookie and—”
“Shut up!” said Johnson. “You’re under arrest for trying to ransom issue # 1 of Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine. You have the right to remain silent. I strongly encourage you to exercise that right, else I’ll get your parents here pronto and they’ll give you a good whipping. Into the stationhouse, everyone!”
Johnson, Howard, and I sat in the stationhouse, drinking precinct coffee, until Sergeant Velie arrived to take charge.
In another room,Chesterwas locked up in the constabulary’s one holding cell.
“Good work, Johnson. You too, Mr. Slocum,” Velie said after being updated. “Quite a shocker, Johnson, your nephew being the culprit.”
“Didn't shock me, “ I said. “ I knew the person who sent the ransom note had be one of you two officers, or else someone who knew you fairly well.”
Johnson turned red and Velie scratched his head.
“How did you dope that out, Maestro?”
“Simple. The note mentioned the Q with two tails. But the police report in the newspaper didn’t mention the two tails. And when Mr. Howard here wrote the feature article about my collection, he didn’t mention the tails either—because he didn’t know about them. The only time I mentioned them was here, to you, Sergeant, and you, Officer Johnson. So one or both of you were guilty, or else one of you had mentioned it to the ransomer . . .”
Johnson turned a deeper shade of scarlet. “Yeah, I shouldn’t have done it, but I told my missus the whole story about the missing EQMM; thought she’d get a laugh about that Q business.”
“Joanne’s trustworthy,” said Velie. “I could see your telling her. But your deadbeat nephew? Come on!”
“Well, he was mooching a meal off us, so he heard it too. Big mistake. My mistake.”
“For discussing police work in front ofChester, I suspend you for a week without pay.” Johnson shrugged and stood up as if to leave. “Stick around. Suspension starts next week. Can’t get Hesse or Piggott to cover for you until then.” Johnson placidly sat back down. “And when you do return, you have a full month of daily coffeepot-cleaning duty.”
“Ouch!” Johnson winced. “I don’t care what happens toChester. And I could use a few days off. But a month of cleaning that coffeepot? That hurts worst of all.”
Velie removed the rubber bands from the paper bag. “Let’s count and pocket—I mean, file away the ev-ee-dence.” He dumped out the contents. “Monopoly money?” He snorted.
“Afraid so, Sergeant,” smiled journalist Howard.
“Well, let’s count it anyway and file it away.” Velie methodically tabulated the pseudo-cash while eating the few doughnut remnants large enough to be worth his while. He unlocked a desk drawer and tossed the bag in, then removed the ransom envelope from the drawer.
“One thing I don’t understand, Maestro. “Velie studied the paper. “When you brought us this ransom note, you said you already knew the sender wasn’t the thief. How did you know?”
“Yeah, how?” asked Howard. “The Courier’s readers will want to know.”
“Easy, Sergeant. One glance at the photo that came with the note told me right away that the sender did not have my magazine.” Velie laid down the photo from the ransom envelope and scrutinized it.
“Mr. Howard,” I said, “please give us the photo you took of my magazine.” He placed on the table, beside the ransomer’s EQMM picture, this snapshot:
“You see the difference, of course,” I stated.
The sergeant pondered, Howard looked blank, and Johnson squinted with intensity.
Finally the small balding officer spoke. “You mean that your magazine has just a little bit of wear and tear, but the picture that was mailed to you looks like a flawless example?”
“Well, that’s true enough, but the evidence to me was much more glaring. You still don’t see it?”
They all shook their heads.
“Check the price.”
“Oho!” said Velie. “Your copy sold for twenty-five cents but Chester sent you a picture showing a twenty-cent issue?”
“Bingo.” I smiled. “That’s how I knew right away that the ransomer was a fraud.”
“But how could the magazine have two different prices?” asked Howard.
“It pretty much had only one price, for twenty-five cents. Near as I can figure it, the publishers had planned on a twenty-cent price but shortly before there was much or even any distribution, raised it to twenty-five. But the publisher kept the twenty-cent version in its files. Whenever it chose to recreate the image of the first issue, the nonexistent twenty-cent version was used.”
“How,” asked Johnson, “did my nephew get hold of the twenty-cent image?”
“Probably off the Internet. It’s a paradise for false information. Fools like your nephew tend to believe everything they read on it. But the image must be there somewhere. Back in 1976 EQMM’s publisher, which was Davis Publications then, offered readers a poster-size version of the cover of EQMM #1 in a limited numbered set of three hundred and fifty, all of them signed by Fred Dannay. It was sort of a thirty-fifth anniversary celebration.”
“Gee,” said Howard. “Bet it sold like hotcakes.”
“Not really, son. As late as nineteen eighty-nine, Davis was still trying to sell the last few of the three hundred and fifty posters. Now let’s cut ahead to 2005. To celebrate the hundredth birthdays of Manny Lee and Fred Dannay, EQMM’s publisher—by this time Dell Magazines—sponsored a symposium and exhibition at Columbia University. To advertise the event, it made up postcards bearing the image of a flawless twenty-cent EQMM #1 from its files—or perhaps they enhanced the poster image. So either from that postcard or from the poster, Chester got an image, pretended it was a photograph he had taken, and sent it to me.”
“Don’t any twenty-cent issues of EQMM #1 exist?” asked Howard.
“Well,” I hedged, “I have heard of one, in the possession of the Queen estate. But even that one, with a twenty-cent cover price, says in small print inside, ‘Published quarterly by The American Mercury, Inc., at 25¢ a copy.’ So I don’t think, despite the posters and postcards, that twenty-cent copies were ever sold to the public. Then, of course, there was an Armed Forces edition without any price—”
Howard put down his notebook and pencil. “My head is spinning,” he said. “ I need to go home and sleep. Can you give me a ride and then tomorrow I’ll write up the story?”
“If that’s all right with the sergeant here,” I beamed.
“Sure, Maestro, sure, get yourselves home and take your screwball EQMM knowledge with you. We’ll handle the rest of the case from this end.”
Howard directed me to his apartment, but before going in asked me one more favor, to which I agreed.
“Mr. Slocum,” he said, “there are so many great stories to read. Could I stop by tomorrow and borrow EQMM #2?” •
"The Ransom of EQMM #1" Copyright © 2011 Arthur Vidro with permission of the author. All rights reserved.
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