Mysteries Ahoy!

The Roman Hat Mystery by Ellery Queen

One of the aims of this blogging project of mine was to broaden my reading horizons and to educate myself on the history of the genre. While I count myself pretty familiar with the works of Christie and Sayers, I had never read anything by Ellery Queen – one of the more significant figures from the Golden Age of Detective Fiction.

When I made the choice to begin with The Roman Hat Mystery, Queen’s first novel, I had little knowledge of what lay in store for me. Perhaps if I had read the less than glowing posts from JJ and The Green Capsule about the book, I might have been a little better prepared for seemed at times to be an epic test of my endurance.

Monte Fields, a lawyer, is discovered dead in his seat at the Roman Theatre during the second act of a show called Gunplay. Strangely, for a hit show, the seats on either side of him were empty and no one was observed coming up to him during the performance. Our detectives, Police Inspector Richard Queen and his son Ellery, immediately focus on the absence of the victim’s top hat – a discovery that will launch a very detailed and repetitive series of searches to try to find it and determine its significance to the murder.

While it is a little strange to hear the characters hone in so quickly on the question of the headwear as if it was the only significant oddity in a case that possesses several, I did find the questions of how and why the hat had disappeared to be intriguing. To my disappointment the answers, particularly with regards to how the hat was removed, proved far less interesting than the scenario seemed to promise.

Part of the problem is the way the authors walk us through nearly every step of the investigation, listing off the various places considered and examined along the way. These sections of the book feel exhausting and offer little interest or sense of discovery, slowing the novel down considerably.

When not considering the question of the hat, Richard and Ellery Queen spend considerable periods interviewing the various witnesses. Although ‘witnesses’ may be a little inaccurate, given that no one seems to have seen anything take place. These sections were a little more enjoyable for me, though once again the pacing is slow and the conversations are at times a little repetitive.

The two detectives are not particularly striking in terms of their personalities, though I did appreciate their father and son dynamic and enjoyed their warm sense of affection for one another. Both characters seem to be primarily characterized by their indulgences – Ellery for rare books and Richard for taking snuff – rather than their emotions or and peculiarities in their personalities. Both are quite normal, though Richard was for me easily the more sympathetic character.

Before I go on to sum up my overall feelings about the book, I do want to directly address two points I have seen made in other reviews of this novel. Firstly, that the novel does not play fair with the reader and, secondly, the story advances some outdated racial views.

Let me tackle the second point first. The Roman Hat Mystery certainly does have moments that feature or hint at outdated racial ideas. When one of those ideas is mentioned in the plot it is clear that we are not meant to be sharing in or celebrating those views. Modern readers may struggle with these aspects of the novel.

The issue of whether the novel plays fair is much harder to judge. Certainly I can understand some readers feeling frustrated that there was some information given near the end of the novel that was not clearly provided prior to the Challenge to the Reader. I do not believe that any information is imparted after that Challenge that we need to figure out what happened in general terms and while it is a little frustrating in a puzzle mystery to have some developments not shared with the reader, I did not feel cheated by that.

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. Still, I liked the concept of the story and I still plan on digging through the Ellery Queen novels in order.

On the back of this however I think it may be wise to spread them out a little.