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University at Buffalo Libraries

George Kelley Paperback & Pulp Fiction Collection

The Scarlet Letters

cover image By: Queen, Ellery (pseudonym of Frederic Dannay and Manfred B. Lee) (male)
Publisher: Pocket Books, Inc. (1049)
Place of Publication: New York, NY
Catalog #: Kelley Box 357: PS3533 .U4 S2 1955
Contributor: D. Hartman


Era: 1950s Author as on Cover: Ellery Queen Geographic Locale: New York City Date of Publication: 1955  |  Original Date: 1953 Setting: urban; numerous references to famous New York City locations (Central Park, Washington Square, Saks Fifth Avenue, Grant's Tomb, etc.) Motives: blackmail, murder

Plot Summary

The story revolves around Dirk Lawrence, a drunk and insanely jealous novelist, and his wife Martha, a Broadway producer who inherited millions from her father. The Lawrence's marriage begins to crumble when Dirk starts accusing Martha of sleeping around. Martha turns to her friend Nikki Porter for support, and it's not very long until Ellery Queen finds himself enmeshed in the Lawrence's domestic woes. Ellery soon discovers that Dirk's accusations of adultery may be valid when he learns that Martha is making alphabetically coded meetings in restaurants, hotel rooms, etc. with an aging and once-famous Broadway star. In a fit of jealous rage, Dirk shoots both Martha and her lover; a murder trial ensues, but Ellery's investigations reveal not adultery but duplicity and blackmail.

Major Characters

Ellery Queen adult male, writer and detective

Nikki Porter adult female, Ellery's secretary

Dirk Lawrence: adult male, early 30s, writer of mystery novels, drunk, wife-beater

Martha Lawrence adult female, 2 years older than her husband Dirk, amateur Broadway producer, millionaire

Van Harrison adult male, 50s, actor and ex-Broadway idol, ladies' man

Inspector Richard Queen adult male, policeman and father of Ellery Queen

Leon Fields adult male, gossip columnist



Level of Violence

two people are shot, one to death; Dirk Lawrence does a fair amount of fighting (he punches Ellery Queen and Leon Fields); Ellery Queen punches Van Harrison


implied adultery; story contains no sex scenes (a minor character, Alex Conn, is a homosexual; he is described as having "a broad streak of lavender", he is also called a "fairy")

Gender Roles

typical gender roles for a novel written in the 1950s


not evident

Alcohol/Drug Abuse

constant drinking of martinis, whiskey sours and other cocktails; codeine and sleeping pills are taken; some cigarette smoking

Law Enforcement

police are not a major focus in the book

Subject Headings

Marriage/ Alcoholism/ Adultery/ Blackmail/ Murder/ New York (N.Y.)/ Authors

Psychological Elements

much is made of Dirk's phobias and the effect of his upbringing on his psychological makeup