Friday, March 1, 2013

Books Best Forgotten: The Roman Hat Mystery by Ellery Queen

Like (I suspect) many other mystery bloggers, I got an email recently announcing republication of many Ellery Queen adventures as eBooks. Well, hey, I’d never read an actual Ellery Queen novel (the closest I’d come was A Study in Terror, in which the Queens provide a framing device to a Sherlock Holmes/Ripper story), and I do have a particular fondness for the magazine named after the author/character, so I figured it was about time.

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!

13 comments:

Sergio (Tipping My Fedora) said...

Well, I'm a big Ellery Queen fan but this is their debut and they (Fred Dannay and Manfred Lee) would do much better work in the future. Their earliest books were heavily indebted to SS Van Dine and this is very clear in this one - the influence would wain by the mid 1930s however. If you find a copy of CAT OF MANY TAILS that might grab you more. I loved your phrase "the resolution as gripping as a boiled lobster".

George said...

My first Ellery Queen was THE EGYPTIAN CROSS MYSTERY (published in 1932, it was the 5th Ellery Queen mystery published). I remember reading all of these early Ellery Queens but the details have fled.

Joe Barone said...

I read The Roman Hat Mystery a while back and enjoyed it. It was the first Ellery Queen I'd read, I think. When I was reading as a young man, I liked something a little tougher than Ellery.

John said...

Well, a pulp ficiton fan is really not the target reader for Queen that's for sure. The early books do have an emphasis on the cerebral and they are really all about the puzzles. Even I will admit when I re-read two of them I found my interest wandering due to too much logical analysis and Ellery's tendency to speak pedantically and condescendingly. The characters do absurd things but it's a detective novel fantasy. You kind of have to surrender to the fictional world. It's not meant to be a depiction of hard reality at all.

Christine said...

Evan says: "the prose would be improved by editing with a weed whacker" Ouch! Great image.

Methinks the comment could apply to more than a few books from the s-l-o-w-e-r era. These days, if you can't say something pithy in 140 characters or less... you're considered long-winded.

Anonymous said...

IMHO, the Queens worked best in short stories, where there was no time for a lot of throw-away characters or meaningless dialogue.

Cap'n Bob said...

My first EQ was The Chinese Orange Mystery (1934, so five years didn't chage things much), and it was also my last. Everything you said about Roman Hat applies here: slow, ponderous, and boring. If you didn't say boring you should have.

Shay said...

What Sergio said...they got better.

This one had too many characters, too many red herrings, too much...stuff.

Todd Mason said...

I've liked the later Queen short stories I've read, but haven't ever tried any of the novels, not even the ones ghosted by Theodore Sturgeon, Avram Davidson or Jack Vance...but they're on my radar...I wouldn't make any final decisions from this book, either...

Anonymous said...

The working out of the Roman Hat puzzle depends crucially on assumed rigid adherence to conventions of the era regarding male attire that seem ridiculous today. The same is true of Chinese Orange. In Roman Hat, the presumption is that EVERY man attending a theatrical performance would be wearing a hat; in Chinese Orange, that EVERY ordinary man not a mere laborer would be wearing a necktie going about his daily business. It really does date these early Queens, which I must confess I still enjoy revisiting now and again.
Art Scott

Evan Lewis said...

Among Elley's silliest pronouncements was that it was the most normal thing in the world for a man, finding himself at leisure in a theater, to doodle his name repeatedly on the program. Who sits and doodles their own name?

Christine said...

Evan asks: Who sits and doodles their own name?

The answer: Um, girls in middle school. Big doodlers. Big on their own names. :)

I'm with you on the "it's a weird thing for a man to do in a theater" thing, though!

Anonymous said...

For intrepid souls who still might want to sample an early Queen, I recommend Greek Coffin. It shares the defects of length & pace noted by Evan, but it does have a couple of genuine surprises.
Art Scott