The Roman Hat Mystery (1929) by Ellery Queen

After a few reviews of quite different Ellery Queen novels, The Finishing Stroke, from the end of the first Lee/Dannay collaboration period, The Player On The Other Side from the period when Lee had writer’s block, and There Was An Old Woman  from the middle of the run, I thought I’d go back to the beginning with The Roman Hat Mystery – which nicely fits with the letter R from the Alphabet of Crime Fiction.

Dating from 1929, the book was written by Lee and Dannay as the entry for a writing competition. It won, but then the magazine that ran the competition was sold and the new owners gave the prize to another entry. Despite this, they took the book elsewhere and it became the first in what was one of the most successful series of detective novels in history.

There is a wonderful sense of the period in this book. Not that it’s full of casual racism or sexism like some novels from the era, but in the central problem of the mystery. Monte Field, a dodgy lawyer, is found poisoned halfway through Act 2 in a theatre – but his top hat is missing! And it can’t have been taken by the killer as EVERYBODY wore evening dress and a top hat to the theatre in those days and no-one left with two hats! Not a plot that could be recycled these days, methinks…

Anyway, on to the book itself. In one sense, not a lot really happens. Inspector Richard Queen and his son Ellery (who takes a back seat to his father for a fair portion of the book, which surprised me) basically interview suspects a few times and then catch the killer. There’s no added jeopardy, no subplots, no romantic entanglements – on the face of it, it should be quite dry and uninteresting. And yet, it’s not. The characters pull you in, especially, I felt, Richard Queen, and the mystery is intriguing. There is a need to adjust your viewpoint a little with regard the “everyone had a top hat” idea – the way around it is clever, but not unguessable, but you have to keep reminding yourself that it is apparently impossible for anyone to enter a theatre in evening dress without a top hat. I found myself reminding myself that a lot.

Being an early Queen, this one stops near the end with a “Challenge To The Reader” as to who the murderer is. It’s the ultimate in fair play mysteries in terms of laying the clues out, although I do feel a little cheated when one small clue needs a “remember, when Ellery and I were talking to Mr X near a phone booth, he mentioned that he was allergic to bananas” sort of comment. It’s not quite as annoying as The Headless Lady, where Clayton Rawson needed to put in page references for his obscure clues, but it does annoy me a little bit – in this case, it’s only a corroborating bit of evidence though. Unlike some of the latter Queen books, it basically hinges on one particular point – the disappearing hat – and if you can work that out, then you can probably guess the murderer.

There’s also a very odd foreword concerning Ellery, his father and their manservant Djuna retiring to Italy and then giving permission to tell this story – not convinced that this was mentioned again, but I’ll let you know, as I’m planning a vaguely chronological trip through the Ellery Queen novels in the not-too-distant future.

So to sum up, a very strong debut novel that still stands the test of time. The murderer might be guessable, and there is a distasteful idea in the motive that dates the book even more than the top hat idea, but the book kept my attention until the end. Recommended, if you can find it anywhere.


  1. Ellery from the beginning – really look forward to following you on this journey! Dannay and Lee were in their early twenties when they wrote this book of course and there something delightful about their sheer enjoyment of playing around in the detective genre – the intros by JJ McC are one of the things that date the books the most from the early period, but they are such a blatant riff on the SS Van Dine approach, like the retirement to Italy bit which is very Holmesian, that its both easy to see what the got dropped quite early but hard not to smile since most readers at the time would have picked up on the references. Great stuff – thanks Puzzledoctor!


  2. So glad you profiled this one! I was going to, myself, but I made another selection, so I’m doubly happy that somebody is highlighting this introduction to the Ellery Queen series :-). I agree with you that the challenge to the reader is an interesting facet of this early part of the series; I wish they’d kept that up, actually. And I, too, like the fact that Richard Queen has a really important role in this one. I like his character and it’s nice to see him take the spotlight, so to speak. Fine choice for the letter “R.”


  3. Thanks, Margot. I do wonder how much the intention was for this to be a double act, rather than just the Ellery show. I’m attempting a full bibliography of reviews so hopefully a bigger picture will appear to me in time regarding this.


  4. I remember the first time that I read this, after I had had already read half a dozen or more EQs, including the French Powder and Dutch Shoe Mysteries, and felt that this was the weakest of the lot. Clearly, the twins needed a couple of books to refine their style and to eliminate unnecessary exposition, characters and events, while developing subplots and characters, and both French and Dutch, the next two in the series, reflect significant improvement in storytelling. Still, being the first in the series, it deserves a place of honor! Djuna, who is supposed to be a child, weirdly enough, does appear in a number of the early novels; in fact, I believe the Ellery Queen, Jr. stories were about him. I always felt that he was an uncomfortable character for the Queens, and was glad to see him go. Much preferred the bachelor apartment atmosphere once Djuna was gone; and, in fact, it reflected my own living arrangements with my dad for a number of years after my mom passed away. Also strange about that foreword that you mention is that this was supposed to be one of Ellery’s last cases before he went off to live in Italy with his new wife, who never does materialize in the stories….and in the Finishing Stroke, the Roman Hat Mystery is duly noted as Ellery’s first big case.


    • Quite right about the dodgy chronology – in fact the first few are all out of order – I think Greek Coffin is the first, followed by Dutch Shoe. I have seen a theory that the Ellery of the first ten or so (who retires with his wife) is the father of the later Ellery, but that’s patently nonsense due to Richard Queen’s frequent appearances as Ellery’s dad throughout. My assumption is that Dannay and Lee simply preferred to tell a good story and didn’t care about the sort of thing that bothers people today.


  5. Well the idea is that the younger brother named Dan took his brother’s name and pretended to be the original Ellery and the father went along with him on it. You are going to say yeah “why would he do that?” Maybe to use his brother’s reputation. As you said they cared little about continuity which is the real reason,but for a explanation that would fix continuity problems it is decent enough.


  6. Let me add the the reason the Danny and Lee changed Ellery’s personality was that the arrogant detectives like Philo Vance,whom the early Ellery was partially patterned after,were more and more disliked by readers and critics. They knew people would stop buying the books if they did not make Ellery him a nicer guy.


  7. PuzzleDoctor,

    I have recently read Julian Symons book The Great Detectives and can explain his two “Ellery Queens” theory. In the early books there is a fictional introduction by the man who allegedly ‘wrote’ up the cases. When the first brother retired he wrote about the cases of the other younger brother named Dan. Of course now you would have to explain why we were not told these were the stories about a younger brother. And one could come up with some explanation like ‘did not want to confuse readers’ or the “the first brother had already a following of readers’. No explanation is going to be 100 perfect. But Julian Symons deserves a lot of credit for coming up with this idea. Give the man credit.


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