Friday, March 1, 2013
Books Best Forgotten: The Roman Hat Mystery by Ellery Queen
I picked up the first in the series, The Roman Hat Mystery, from the public library. My first impression was that this a beautiful job of book-making. The copy I got was a 1996 Otto Penzler Books Facsimile Edition of the original 1929 novel. The original was published by Stokes, so I compared it to a couple of genuine Stokes volumes in my collection (by a gent named Carroll John Daly), and it passed every test. Size. Weight. Paper. Type. Etc. Cool.
The book starts with a Foreward by “J.J. McC.” reminiscing about the Queens and explaining his involvement with the Roman Hat affair. Surprisingly, he gave the impression that at the time of this publication, the Queens’ mystery-solving days were behind them, implying that all their adventures had taken place before 1929. If this is what the authors intended, I would guess they later changed their minds.
Next up came a two-page list of characters, that was both witty and fun (I enjoyed it so much I couldn’t resist reprinting it here) followed by a map of the Roman Theater, where the murder takes place.
So far so good. But after that my interest began to wane.
Since this series have given a lot of pleasure to a lot of people, the following comments are made in the spirit of “it’s not you - it’s me.” After all, my idea of a great mystery novel is Red Harvest (published the same year as The Roman Hat Mystery), in which close to three dozen people get slaughtered. So for me, this one was sssssssssssssslllllllllllllllooooooooooowwwwwwwwwwww.
I did enjoy the relationship and banter between the Queens, but the prose would be improved by editing with a weed whacker. For me, there were way too many throw-away characters and way too much meaningless dialogue. By the time I reached the 1/3 point, and we were still at the murder scene (!), I was ready to chuck it. But I gritted my teeth and resolved to stick it out until halftime.
I made it, and found the story moving a little faster - you know, like the difference between glacial and lentitudinous (I learned that word from Clark Ashton Smith). So I kept going, bearing in mind the promises of the back cover copy: “a foolproof plot of fascinating complexity,” “a most ingenious deductive pattern that is plausible, gripping throughout and wholly original in weave,” and “a startling denouement.”
So I read the whole dang thing, and boy, was I disappointed. The plot was far from foolproof, and the holes in Ellery’s deductive logic were big enough to march armies through. The victim's blackmail scheme was fascinatingly complex, but about as plausible as a Looney Tunes cartoon, and the resolution as gripping as a boiled lobster. As for the denouement, it was so unstartling that with fifty pages left, Ellery went away on vacation - never to return. I had the feeling he was embarrassed. Ultimately, the whole story hinged on the mystery surrounding the victim's top hat, and the hat fell flat.
Gotta run. I'm dying to read Red Harvest again.
The exciting line-up of Forgotten Books is once again at pattinase!