The Roman Hat Mystery – Ellery Queen (1929)

RomanHatMysteryFor 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…

 

…and going…

 

…and 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.

Spoilers

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…

End spoilers

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13 thoughts on “The Roman Hat Mystery – Ellery Queen (1929)”

  1. I think both you and JJ have made a good choice to read the novels in chronological order; yes, you’ll have to put up with some clunkers like this one. In historical context writing after the style of Van Dine is quite appropriate and well done — Van Dine was a huge figure in the marketplace at that point in time — it just doesn’t read well 90 years later, is all. The “fake foreword” you mention is part of that Van Dine-an style and the “facts” about Ellery’s later life are soon retconned out of existence.
    In order to obey your stricture about spoilers, I can’t even mention in detail the thing that was most glaring for me — I will merely say that the killer’s risk of being recognized at a certain point is much, much more risky than would have been considered acceptable by most prospective murderers making a plan. But I can easily say that the underlying motive for the murder is completely impossible to discern, has zero foreshadowing, and will not easily come to the mind of today’s reader — I hope.

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    1. Yeah, that’s right – the motive comes out of no where. Along those lines, I somewhat question if the time-table oriented evidence really leads to one possible culprit. The conclusion was disappointing enough that I didn’t bother questioning it.

      You are right about the risk of being seen/identified that the killer took. That is part of what makes the solution so disappointing. That there is zero real trick to it at all.

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  2. I’d say something like “I’m glad you ejoyed this more than I did” but, well, that’s not quite the achievement it might otherwise seem! I’m with you on the hat thing, though — there’s dealing with imperfect witnesses and there’s simply not telling your readers something that would be rather important to tell them. I bloody hate the old Purloined Letter gambit — which this isn’t quite, I know, but it’s not far off with it’s “We’ve looked everywhere!” eventually followed by “Well, no, we didn’t actually look everywhere…”. Frankly, I hate that.

    I might be ready for The Dutch Shoe Mystery by the time you get there if you fancy looking at that together…might be interesting to compare experiences to that point…

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    1. I’m behind on my reviews right now because my computer went out and I foolishly put off ordering a new one. Typing a full review on an iPad wasn’t tolerable. Anyway, you have a few additional reviews to look forward to soon, including The French Powder Mystery (hint, it was a bit better than The Roman Hat Mystery).

      I actually picked up The Dutch Shoe Mystery, read through the paper-thin shadow of a JJ McC forward, and then ended up getting distracted. The next morning when I went to pick up a book, it was Carr’s The Gilded Man (and what a refreshing experience it was).

      Up next I’ll probably read Rim of the Pit (got my Dell map back for $7), since I need that in time for your debate in July. After that, I’ll probably be ready to tackle The Dutch Shoe Mystery, so we could possibly do that together.

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      1. How’s this for continued serendipitous coincidence: I poured a pint of water over my computer a couple of days ago (not intentionally); I’m starting to think you and I might be psychically linked or something…

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  3. The Greek Coffin Mystery is considered one of the top impossible crimes

    A note of warning: The Greek Coffin Mystery is considered as one of the top titles in the series, especially from the early period, but it’s not an impossible crime novel. So you might not want to go into the book with that expectation.

    Anyway, I feel kind of sorry for Ho-Ling at the moment. He’s one of the biggest EQ fanboys and, lately, everyone seems to be panning their books. However, one thing that the recent string of comments on their work has made abundantly clear, is that I really need to re-read some early EQ for myself. I remember loving most of the international titles.

    I do hope you, and JJ, don’t get bogged down too much in the international series, because I would like to read what you two think of The American Gun Mystery. I really want to compare some fresh opinions on that particular title to compare with my own.

    You’ll be reviewing The Gilded Man soon? I remember loving H.M.’s comedic bits and the great magician scene, but recall very little about the actual plot except that it was modeled after a short story featuring Dr. Fell.

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    1. Yeah, I hope to have The Gilded Man up some time this weekend. It was an absolute joy to read – short and to the point. The actual crime is pretty weak by Carr’s standards, but the rest of the plotting was so refreshing after trudging through 600 pages of police work in Roman Hat and French Powder.

      I had assumed that The Greek Coffin Mystery involved some level of impossibility, as I believe it is in the top five of that “Top 100 Locked Room Mysteries” list (can’t find the link). Of course, not all of those are locked room mysteries, but I assumed they were at least impossible crimes to some degree.

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  4. You know, I’m thinking I may join in with you two here and there on your trip through EQ. I don’t think I’m ready to go through the entire EQ oeuvre book by book, but you’ve sparked my memory about Dutch Shoe and I haven’t re-read it for … well, perhaps a decade at least. No promises, but I’ll see if I can kindle that spark.

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