An unflattering remark about this novel the other day by a crime blogger whose judgments I generally enjoy reminded me I should read the book again: it’s been a very long time indeed since last I did so, my copy then being one of those old Victor Gollancz yellow-jackets (borrowed from the St. Bride Library, just off Fleet Street, London, if you need the full particulars). I don’t know if it was the very first Ellery Queen novel I read, but it must have been close to it; although my love affair with Queen’s work really began some years later, when I came across Calamity Town in a secondhand bookshop in Edinburgh (see? extraneous details — I gottem!, it was one of these early outings by the cousins that got the ball rolling for me.
In the middle of a performance of the latest Broadway sensation, Gunplay!, a man is found murdered in the auditorium, and Inspector Richard Queen of the NYPD is called in to investigate. He brings to the case with him his affected detective-novelist son Ellery, and it’s no surprise to learn that between them they crack it — most of the essential ratiocination being Ellery’s, as you’d expect.
The dead man proves to have been crooked lawyer Monte Field, and there’s no shortage of suspects. Leaving aside his dubious legal career, Field was also a blackmailer, one who believed in sucking his victims drier than dry.
The plethora of people with a motive for knocking off the appalling little rat is just one of the problems facing the Queens. The poison that was injected into Field proves to have been tetra ethyl lead, which can be easily extracted from leaded gasoline — in other words, there’s no chance of tracing its source. The only real clue the Queens have is that Field’s top hat is missing: apparently, any man going to the theater in the late 1920s who lacked a top hat to accompany his evening dress would have stood out a mile, so there’s no possibility Field simply came without one. And how could the murderer have left with two top hats?
Ellery and the Inspector reckon that, if they can only work out why the hat was stolen and how it was smuggled out of the theater, they’ll be well on the way to solving the murder.
Toward the end of the novel there’s a Challenge to the Reader, in which we’re told we’re now in possession of all the information that should enable us to solve the mystery. In fact, as we later learn, we aren’t in possession of all the facts: some of them the Queens have been keeping to themselves, via occasional muttered asides to each other to which we’ve not been privy. This annoyed me less than it might have, since I had a reasonable notion of what had gone down in the Roman Theatre: there’s one very obvious way Field’s top hat could have been gotten off the premises, and once you realize that a lot else becomes clearer.
Earlier on, there’s another, similar instance of something pretty obvious being treated as if it were super-mysterious, demanding all Ellery’s intellectual powers to crack. (Where did the dead man hide the documents that were the basis for his blackmailing activities? No one thought to look in one of the very first places I would have checked!) This tallies with the way the Inspector, right from the outset, keeps telling us the case is perhaps the most confounding he’s ever faced in all his long and distinguished career, yadee yada. To which all one can say is: Pull yourself together, man. Yes, it’s something of a puzzler, but it’s nothing like as complex as some of the others that you and Ellery will soon be tackling.
Part of the solution to the mystery relies on the perception that 1920s America is an endemically racist society. From everything I know, that was then a perfectly legitimate assumption (we still have a long way to go), and there’s no sense in which the Queens — either the characters or the authors — seem particularly happy with the situation: it was just the way it was, however depressing the attitude might seem to us reading about it ninety years later. But there’s a sort of casual racism that’s less easy to dismiss in the characters’ and the authors’ treatment of Djuna, the Queens’ manservant. I’m not quite certain of Djuna’s ethnicity, but it’s clear he is of color. The way he’s regarded and described because of this latter characteristic leaves — although I’m sure the authors thought they were being magnanimously liberal in their approach — a nasty taste in the mouth.
I came away from The Roman Hat Mystery with mixed feelings. Ellery is a bit of a fop, but he’s by no means the Philo Vance clone I’d dimly remembered; get rid of the bloody pince-nez and he’d be by and large okay. The book has far too many characters, many of them being rentacops I couldn’t tell one from the other (and it didn’t matter that I couldn’t); Dannay and Lee would soon enough get past this beginners’ error. As noted, despite a lot of puffing about how fair-play the mystery is, it isn’t, really. The writing’s a bit florid, as if someone was determined their expensive education shouldn’t go to waste. The treatment’s a bit heavy-handed in places . . .
On the other hand, I never lost interest and the pages kept turning. So, overall, while this isn’t a novel I could get enthusiastic about, I can quite see why I continued to read whatever EQ I came across until, in due course, I hit the really good stuff.