Advertised as “Different From Any Detective Story Ellery Queen Has Ever Written,” this novel marked the 40th anniversary of the cousins’ collaboration. Forty years of novels, short stories, motion pictures, radio shows, television shows, big-little books, novels for children, and comic books starring Ellery and the gang. No two novels over that time were duplicates. They may have had repeating tropes, like dying clues, but had different social messages, and different settings (Manhattan, Wrightsville, a mysterious island, Trenton, Hollywood, …). Each novel had been distinct. However, the characters created in the 1920s were getting old, both as characters and as cultural icons. In late 1960s America, social change came quickly, polarization was the word of the day as cities and rivers burned. Where in this new reality was there a place for a bookish bachelor deducting who killed some rich person?
So, for Cop Out, Lee and Dannay, still writing as Ellery Queen, finally threw Ellery and the gang in the dumpster and wrote a novel more in step with the police dramas of the day: a heroic lone wolf cop acting by himself to free his family, held as hostages by a trio of desperadoes. The only problem was, since they had been farming out the Queen name to appear on ghost-written cheap adventure novels, no one believed this was actually written by the cousins!
Francis Nevins says that Lee claimed to have, indeed, written the novel. As research, Lee even accompanied the local New Milford, CT police on their rounds. (Cop Out takes place in fictional New Bradford, CT). As a quick aside, the summer after I began reading Ellery Queen, I spent at a camp on New Milford’s Candlewood Lake. But, I digress…
The most interesting aspect of the novel is the subtext sermon, which takes its cue from the opening quote from John Donne, “No man is an island, entire of itself.” This is an interesting quote to start off a book about a lone wolf, me-against-the-world protagonist. The novel turns out to be a statement on the folly of the concept of the lone wolf, that we all depend on each other to get by. The protagonist, certainly, learns to work and cooperate with the family, colleagues and community which has, despite his denials, supported him all his life.
Cop Out succeeded in being different from any other Queen novel. It is a well-crafted page turner of a dime novel published as a hardcover. It was also a one-off, since the cousins did return to Ellery and the gang for their remains short stories and 2 1/2 novels.