ELLERY QUEEN – The Roman Hat Mystery.

Signet P3229; paperback reprint; 1st printing, August 1967. [Hardcover first edition: Frederick A. Stokes, 1929. Shown below, left.]

ELLERY QUEEN Roman Hat Mystery

   First published in 1929, this early Ellery Queen effort really shows its age, unfortunately — it’s difficult to be any more polite than that. It was their first novel, and as an intellectual puzzle, it still has some fizz, but the characters are weak, and the strings they’re manipulated by stand out strongly.

   The death — by poisoning — of a unliked, unlikable lawyer takes place in the middle of the Roman Theatre while a play is going on. The key clue is the dead man’s missing top hat. In the 1920s, all men wore hats — if not top hats, then derbies and fedoras and more — all strange almost unidentifiable objects today. Ellery, aiding his father, Inspector Richard Queen, takes this premise, seemingly small, to its most logical extremes and solves the mystery.

   The Inspector, by the way, dotes on snuff, to another extreme — at least every other page, or so it seems. In terms of populating their story, the writers Queen deliberately modeled their early work on S. S. Van Dine and Philo Vance, or so I’ve been led to believe, and there’s nothing to contradict it here. Fortunately their idea of what makes a good mystery changed and coalesced into something much more solid over the years, along with their audience’s.

   With about two or three chapters to go, there’s a Challenge to the Reader, a favorite Ellery Queenian device, at which time — based on the facts so far — the reader is asked to pinpoint the killer’s identity. I hope I don’t hurt myself, patting myself on the back, but I’ll give myself about 80% on this one.

— July 2000

[UPDATE] 02-21-08. I don’t how often I’ll keep running these old reviews, but on the other hand, if you haven’t read them, they’re new to you.

ELLERY QUEEN Roman Hat Mystery

   At the time, this happened to be the first review I’d written in about eight years. I’d drifted away from reading mysteries for a lot of that time, and even more so I’d lost touch with mystery fandom. This was prior to blogging, but not DorothyL, to put a time perspective on things. I’d been busy with teaching and other matters, but not with collecting, by any means. That has never stopped, not since I was 12 or 13. Some of the books I bought then I still have, but unfortunately not all of them.

   In any case, when I started Mystery*File up as a print zine again, this was the first review of mine that I included. Some readers thought I was fairly rough on Mr. Queen, but others agreed with me. I haven’t made any attempt to rewrite it. While the rust shows, it still reads like my writing. I know what my writing reads like, and I can’t do anything about it.

   For an Ellery Queen novel I liked more, read a more recent review of The Tragedy of X here.