For over a month I’ve had a tall stack of Ellery Queen books staring at me out of the corner of my eye. It would be easy (perhaps advisable) to dive in with The Greek Coffin Mystery, commonly regarded as Queen’s best. But no, I’ve made the decision to tackle them in order (an effort which JJ at the Invisible Event proactively cribbed from me). This makes my path perilous – The Roman Hat Mystery doesn’t seem to be that well regarded. In fact JJ flat out panned it several months back.
The criticism didn’t affect me though – I was excited to get started with such a well regarded author(s) with a massive backlog of enticing titles. And what a start it was…
I’ll admit it, I’m a sucker for gimmicks, and The Roman Hat Mystery piles them on from the start. We get:
- A nicely fleshed out table of contents, with multiple sections and intriguing chapter names.
- A lexicon of persons connected with the investigation. Sure, some of my other books have one of these, listing out five our six characters of note. This one is over the top, providing descriptions of over 30 people of interest.
- A map!!! Oh, how I love a map. Give me a map in a murder mystery and we’re all good. Actually, we get a second map much later in the book, which is all the better as far as I’m concerned.
- A fake forward introducing the book as if it is an anonymized account of a real investigation. JJ McC provides introductions for the early Ellery Queen novels, describing his relationship with the Queens (the detectives, not the authors) and how he persuaded Ellery to allow the story to be published. Most notably, the forward mentions the murder of a man named Barnaby Ross, a name that the authors would later use as a pen name for the Drury Lane novels.
I hadn’t even started the actual story yet, and I was enamored. It’s like they took all of the gimmicks I love, and stuffed them in one perfect package. Then I start reading the first chapter, and things get even better – the murder occurs on page 2. That’s how you start a book, much less a career!
A theatre is jam packed for the performance of a hot new play. Suddenly a scream rings out – a man lies dead in the back row. Strangely enough, the three seats to his side are unoccupied, as are four seats directly in front of him. Despite the brimming crowd, no one witnessed anyone in the vicinity of the victim. All exits have been under observation, and ushers report that no one approached the seats where the body was found. We don’t necessarily have an impossible crime on our hands, but it is decently improbable.
The police, along with Ellery and Inspector Queen, arrive quickly and contain the crowd. They have a chaotic job on their hands – interview and catalog an entire theatre full of witnesses/suspects. The number of characters thrown at you in the first few chapters is breathtaking. That extensive character list following the table of contents makes sense. There is no way you could possibly keep track of it all.
And then the investigation…keeps going…
It never stops. That is all this book is – one big prolonged police investigation. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not bad investigation, but it’s damned near 300 pages of interviews, interrogations, searches, summaries, and rehashes of the investigation. Having been very focused on John Dickson Carr, I’m used to a bit more – some romance, a little humor, some atmosphere, trivia on poisoners or Regency-era wig powdering. We have none of that here – just bare boned police investigation.
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.
Then comes the ending.
It’s funny how the ending of a book can transform your overall reading experience when you reflect on it later. Maybe I had the wrong expectations going in, but I expect some payout from a book. When we’re fed such a perplexing question as how a murder can be committed in a crowded theatre without anyone seeing it done, I’m expecting some clever twist. I’ll have to save my detailed thoughts for the spoilers section, but suffice to say, you get nothing of the sort. No subtle clue, no clever misdirection, no impossible alibi. All of the evidence has been laid out plainly before you in the story and discussed repeatedly, and if you just took the time to write it all out and analyze the time tables and alibis, it would all be there for you.
Perhaps that appeals to some people. To piece together the puzzle like an investigator really would, relying on testimony and imperfect witnesses. Sorry, I need a little something more. A spark of revelation that makes me smack myself at the end and exclaim “why didn’t I see that?!?” I do want all of the pieces to be staring me in the face, but at the same time they should be cleverly tucked away. If I solve the trick, like I did with The Unicorn Murders, it should be because my mind underwent some amazing gymnastics and shed the cloud of misdirection to reveal the one painfully simple solution. Instead, The Roman Hat Mystery treats us to an end reveal that comparatively makes an episode of Dragnet look like The House in Goblin Wood.
And that is why I complain. The lack of twist that makes 300 pages of investigation feel like a trudge in hindsight.
Truthfully, I enjoyed The Roman Hat Mystery while I read it. The writing itself is fine, although it lacks flourish. The authors do a fine job describing the events and the dialog was readable, although you encounter so many characters that none of them have time to acquire much depth. Ellery and Inspector Queen are the exception. Ellery sticks to the background more than I anticipated, though he didn’t strike me as the snob that he is commonly described as within the early books.
Inspector Queen’s most notable quality is that he’s constantly stuffing his nose full of snuff. I’m no smoker, but there is some alluring quality to how authors of the time period describe the smoking habits, whether cigarettes, pipes, or oily black cigars. “Smoke another!” I find myself curiously cheering, “and have another brandy while you’re at it!” Snuff doesn’t have that affect on me, at least not in the way the author’s describe the inspector cramming his nose.
And now for the spoilers. I typically keep my spoiler comments fairly general, but I’m going to make some pretty explicit comments today. Definitely don’t read this section if you haven’t read the book. I’m not going to give away the killer, but I will be complaining about how the crime was committed. If you leave a comment below, please be sensitive to people who haven’t read the book and try to keep your comments very general regarding any solutions.
Ok, so maybe it was my fault for assuming this was a quasi-impossible crime. Was I wrong to think that though? We have a pretty air-tight looking set up. A theatre full of witnesses, ushers watching the aisles, and guarded doors. It is impossible that anyone could have even come near our victim.
Except it wasn’t. The killer walked right up and sat down with the victim for a full 10 minutes before walking out in plain sight without anyone noticing it. That is all there is – no one noticed. I suppose there is something to appreciate in that. Police deal with imperfect witnesses and imperfect crimes. I guess that as the reader I was placed on the same footing.
But, come on, were you satisfied? This whole story is set up as some incredibly stealthy murder, and then it didn’t even come close. The other “big reveals” weren’t even satisfying. The idea of the hat being in the dressing room seemed painfully obvious, and since they police made such an effort to search the building, I assumed it would have been mentioned that there were a bunch of other hats.
Then, we have the hats hidden in the bed. Just kill me now. The authors took such pains to explain how thoroughly the investigators searched the apartment, and it turns out that the one place they didn’t look is a massive floor to ceiling bed.
Ok, oh well, this one was flawed. Fine by me. I assume that these get better. They have to. The Greek Coffin Mystery is considered one of the top impossible crimes and I’ve heard great things about a number of the other titles. The French Powder Mystery awaits next…