“The hat is the focal point of this investigation—I cannot see any other way out of it. Solve the mystery of Field’s hat and you will find the one essential clue that will point to the murderer.”
It’s a rainy night on Broadway, but theatregoers are packing the aisles to see the hit gangster show Gunplay. Enthralled by the imaginary blood and guts on stage, no one notices an audience member’s quiet collapse. Murder has struck the Roman Theatre for real, and it’s up to Inspector Richard Queen and his son Ellery to crack the case. There are a few clues, but Ellery is most struck by the clue that isn’t there: the victim’s top hat is missing. This seemingly insignificant detail will allow the Queens to trap a killer.
If The Roman Hat Mystery were not the debut of Ellery Queen, it would be nothing more than a mildly diverting puzzle mystery. However, those two magic words, “Ellery Queen,” subject this modest story to a level of scrutiny it can’t withstand. Hindsight works both ways, though, and the glimpses of Baby Ellery at work add an extra spark to an otherwise standard work.
There is a temptation to scour these pages for signs of future greatness, and a few bright spots can be found. The opening chapter conveys the jazz-age glamour of a Broadway theater that is not exactly a temple of high art:
“Gunplay” was the first drama of the season to utilize the noises commonly associated with the underworld. Automatics, machine guns, raids on night-clubs, the legal sounds of gang vendettas—the entire stock-in-trade of the romanticized crime society was jammed into three swift acts. It was an exaggerated reflection of the times—a bit raw, a bit nasty and altogether satisfying to the theatrical public. Consequently it played to packed houses in rain or shine.
The first large chunk of the story takes place in the theater and mostly concentrates on Inspector Queen’s investigation at the crime scene. This is the best sequence in the book, capturing the confusion and high emotion of trying to question hundreds of witnesses who are understandably outraged at being trapped in the theater with a corpse.
The dead man, a sleazy attorney named Monte Field, has many enemies, a suspicious number of whom are present in the audience. Perhaps the most notable is his ex-law partner Benjamin Morgan, emphasis on the ex. The thief “Parson John” claims not to have known the victim, even though Field was his lawyer. Debutante Frances Ives-Pope also says Field was a stranger to her. She has no idea why her purse is in his pocket.
Inspector Queen later questions Field’s “very best friend” Angela Russo. The difference in the way these two women are treated is sobering. Mrs. Russo says she was engaged to Field (though his servant Michaels thinks the relationship was “a little less formal”) and is found waiting for him in bed. They question her harshly and don’t even bother to inform her of Field’s death at first, leaving her to assume that the police have broken into the apartment and physically attacked her for no reason.
Frances, meanwhile, acts far more suspiciously but is treated with kid gloves. When first questioned at the theater, she screams and faints at the very first question. When Queen tries to follow up the next day, Frances is so terribly ill from shock that she can’t come down to the police station. Oh, and she won’t be questioned unless her entourage is present for emotional support. The Inspector is happy to accommodate her. He hates to bother this sweet young girl, “who seemed to personify everything a man of years could hope for in his own daughter,” simply because she happens to be mixed up in a murder.
Please believe me when I say that Monday night you were to me merely one of a number of suspicious characters. I acted in accordance with my habits in such cases. I see now how, to a woman of your breeding and social position, a grilling by a policeman under such circumstances would cause sufficient shock to bring you to your present condition.
This kind of double standard is frustratingly common in detective fiction of the era, but I was surprised to find it so blatant here as later Queen novels are less black-and-white in their portrayal of female characters. It’s especially hypocritical, as male characters are guilty of the same behavior as Angela Russo but receive little judgment for it.
Once Queen comes home to his son and their young servant Djuna (everything involving Djuna is weird), the pace slows down considerably and Ellery gets more involved in the investigation. There are a lot of interviews and recaps that actually move along quite well as individual scenes; the real issue is that the book is simply too long. There are so many scenes, and each is longer than it needs to be. The pretentious foreword by “J.J.McC.” describing how he acquired and published Ellery’s manuscript doesn’t help, though it’s a wonderfully 1920s touch.
The character of Ellery is still a bit sketchy here. Indeed, Inspector Queen is really the main sleuth, with Ellery as his sidekick—the younger Queen isn’t even present for the denouement. Ellery likes quotations (in moderation) and his father likes snuff (in excess); that’s about as deep as the characterization gets.
Ellery’s only annoying quality is his tendency to seize onto certain clues and totally dismiss others on specious grounds. His obsession with the top hat is a case in point. Since no gentleman would attend the theater without a top hat, Ellery is sure that whoever stole Field’s must have necessarily discarded his own, so as not to be caught with two hats. Apparently New York is a police state in which top hats are compulsory. The hat saga eventually culminates in not one, but two stupid conclusions. (Though maybe I’m just bitter because the authors didn’t use the brilliant murder method I came up with.)
While the book is always readable, the prose and characters are no more than workmanlike and the solution involves an element that is nasty to modern readers. The Roman Hat Mystery is a disappointing effort from Ellery Queen, king of crime. But it would have been a promising debut for the new author Ellery Queen, two young cousins from Brooklyn with high hopes for their first novel.
The Roman Hat Mystery was Ellery Queen’s first novel. This is significant, and people are drawn to it for that very reason, but it is far from being his best novel. Not even close. The cousins even distanced themselves from it later in life, describing the early Ellery as entirely unlikable. However, the cousins were still better than most writers, and they do sweep the readers up into the action.
It’s easy to be surprised after the fact, because we know now what these guys would go on to do, but in spite these innovations this is also very much a product of its time and hamstrung by the usual conventions. It is exceptionally talky, and not in the spry and playful way that the later Queens would become but instead in a kind of “Let’s Recap the Facts to Date to Keep Our Reader Up to Speed” kind of way.
The Roman Hat Mystery is ultimately a fairly enjoyable read, but it is very focused on the investigation angle. I wouldn’t say that the investigation necessarily tires, but it does go on and on.
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.
Overall, I found the novel to be quite uneven and poorly paced with lengthy blocks of dialogue and a dull array of suspects. While there are some strong and entertaining parts of the story, I did feel that all-in-all this was a miss for me.
The Roman Hat Mysteryis available in ebook format from the Mysterious Press in the US and UK.