Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine came on the scene in the fall of 1941 under the ownership of Lawrence E. Spivak of The Mercury Press (who subsequently founded and hosted the popular TV show Meet the Press). It was heralded as the brainchild of Ellery Queen himself, really the two-cousin writing team of Frederic Dannay and Manfred B. Lee. Dannay assumed primary editorial responsibility for the magazine, serving as its editor-in-chief from 1941 until his death in 1982. He sent the magazine into the world with this message to readers: “This first issue is frankly experimental. Our belief that a large public exists which impatiently awaits such publication can only be confirmed by that public.” Response to the magazine was enthusiastic, with the first issue selling over 90,000 copies. EQMM quickly established a place as the leading periodical in the genre—a place it has retained for more than three-quarters of a century.
Dannay explained his manifesto for Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine as being to "raise the sights of mystery writers generally to a genuine literary form," to "encourage good writing among our colleagues by offering a practical market not otherwise available," and to "develop new writers seeking expression in the genre." In pursuit of the first goal — to raise mystery writing to a respected literary form — he set about finding and publishing stories with elements of crime or mystery by great literary figures past and present. The result was the inclusion of more than forty Nobel and Pulitzer Prize winners in EQMM — Rudyard Kipling, William Faulkner, Ernest Hemingway, Norman Mailer, and Alice Walker among them. The tradition of literary excellence continues today with writers such as National Book Award winner Joyce Carol Oates.
Under Dannay’s editorship EQMM’s list of contributors became an honor roll of crime and literary fiction’s great names, from Christie to Hammett to Faulkner. Under the magazine’s subsequent editors, many more luminaries—from Stephen King to Ian Rankin, Val McDermid, Ruth Rendell, Charlaine Harris, and Peter Robinson—were added to the list. But the story of EQMM does not turn simply on its star writers. As Dannay said at the outset: “We propose to give you stories by big-name writers, by lesser known writers, and by unknown writers. But no matter what their source, they will be superior stories.” To foster new talent, EQMM established its Department of First Stories in 1949; to date, more than 800 new writers have broken into print in EQMM. They include MWA Grand Master Stanley Ellin, David Morrell (of Rambo fame), Levinson & Link (creators of Columbo, Muder She Wrote, and other popular TV crime shows), Harry Kemelman (author of the Rabbi Small novels, adapted for both TV and film), Jack Finney (whose work formed the basis for Invasion of the Body Snatchers), Nancy Pickard (Shamus, Anthony, Agatha, and Macavity award winner—and the only winner of all four awards), and many more.
From the very beginning, EQMM had a global orientation. Its Worldwide Short Story Contests of the early decades brought in submissions from five continents, and groundbreaking translations, including the first English translation of the work of the great Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges, frequently appeared. In 2003, the Passport to Crime department was created with the aim of making translations a regular feature of the magazine.
Literary quality and a global focus are two of the hallmarks of EQMM, but the magazine has an equally important, third defining characteristic. EQMM was the first publication to bring together between common covers all different types of mystery and crime fiction. In its first issue editor Dannay extolled the variety to be found inside: “two realistic stories of the hardboiled school” [by Dashiell Hammett and Cornell Woolrich]; a “story of the modern English school” [by Margery Allingham]; stories of the “straightforward modern American school” [including one by Ellery Queen]; and a story “which fuses . . . humor . . . and murder” [by Frederick Hazlitt Brennan]. In the pages of EQMM noir and hard-boiled crime stories continue to rub shoulders with the classical whodunit, suspense and psychological suspense thrillers, and private eye, locked room, and impossible crime tales. The iconic pulp fiction magazine Black Mask was incorporated as a frequent department in EQMM in the 1950s and reinstated in 2008, where it continues to run today. The wide variety of EQMM’s content is meant to appeal to both the dedicated mystery and crime-fiction fan and to the general reader. That concept was new in its day, but it has proved to be the source of the magazine’s enduring appeal. The Readers Encyclopedia of American Literature has called Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine "the finest periodical of its kind," and Stephen King has called it “the best mystery magazine in the world—bar none.” Recognizing the importance of EQMM and Dannay’s other editorial work, the Mystery Writers of America, in 1983, christened its ongoing award for writing teams or publishing professionals the Ellery Queen Award.
That award would later be won by each of EQMM’s subsequent editors, Eleanor Sullivan (who took the helm from 1982 to 1991) and Janet Hutchings (EQMM’s current editor, who took over from Eleanor Sullivan in 1991). Under Editor Sullivan many top-notch writers appeared in the magazine for the first time, most notably frequent contributor Ruth Rendell and other stars of British crime fiction. Under Editor Hutchings, the Passport to Crime department was created and for the first time EQMM took a proactive role in obtaining crime fiction from around the world, establishing a network of translators for Europe, Japan, China, and South America. But for all of the changes that have been made over the years, the principles laid down by Editor Dannay in 1941 have continued to guide the magazine. What you find in EQMM is an expansive range of content of literary merit, for which, as Dannay said in EQMM’s first issue, the sole editorial criterion is quality.