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.