The Roman Hat Mystery (Ellery Queen)

  • By Ellery Queen
  • First published: US: Frederick A. Stokes, 1929; UK: Gollancz, 1929

Rating: 3 out of 5.

The curtain goes up on Ellery Queen’s criminological career with a clever murder in a theatre.

In 1929, two cousins, Frederic Dannay (the plotter) and Manfred B. Lee (the writer), wrote a detective novel and entered it in a magazine competition, Stokes and McClure’s Magazine’s $7500 Detective-Mystery Novel Contest. They won first prize (until the magazine was sold), and were offered a publishing contract. Over the next four decades, the “Ellery Queen” name produced nearly 40 novels, more than 75 short stories, and a plethora of radio plays. The adventures of Ellery Queen appeared on the silver screen and the small screen, and even on jigsaw puzzles. The cousins also set up America’s longest-running detective fiction short story magazine, EQMM, and edited volumes of short stories. They were arguably America’s most important detective writers since Edgar Allan Poe. As Anthony Boucher remarked: “Ellery Queen is the American detective story.”

The second winner, incidentally, was Isabel Briggs Myers, deviser of the MBTI. Her Murder Yet To Come (1929) is very old-fashioned; a mixture of Wilkie Collins’s Moonstone (1868) (the Wrath of Kali jewel, the Indian priest who has followed the stolen jewel, hypnotism, morphine), told in the genteel, melodramatic style of A.K. Green or Carolyn Wells. And if you think Roman Hat‘s racial politics have dated badly, then you should read Briggs Myers’ second detective story.

The Roman Hat Mystery is modern; Queen’s model is S.S. Van Dine, then America’s most popular detective writer, who had reconceptualised the detective story as both “a kind of intellectual game [and] a sporting event”, played between the writer and the reader. Van Dine’s approach – an emphasis on mystery and fair play; a genius detective whose workings are not shared with the reader until the end, but who (unlike Sherlock Holmes) reaches them on clues pronfavided to the reader; a closed circle of suspects, with suspicion moving rapidly from one character to another; an emphasis on character clues, with physical clues used to support conclusions – is the modern, ‘puzzle plot’ detective story, which would be brought to fruition in the 1930s by Queen, Agatha Christie (after 1934), and John Dickson Carr

Queen expands upon Van Dine’s technique, with both the introduction of the formal Challenge to the Reader, and the greater emphasis on reason, but Roman Hat is less flamboyant and less Baroque, and less surreal than later Queen novels. This is essentially a good solid 1920s detective story with the limitations of the form, but with more logic than most.

The scene: The Roman Theatre; the time: sometime in the 1920s, either 1923 or 1928. Onstage, Gunplay, a rough, tough drama of gangsters and violence (presumably something like Dashiell Hammett). In the auditorium, murder, but murder in the classical American style of the fair-play puzzle plot. Crooked lawyer Monte Field, blackmailer and gang boss, is found dying during the second act – poisoned with a noxious substance called tetra ethyl lead, which you can make in your own garage from gasoline. There’s American knowhow for you. 

The most intriguing thing about the mystery is the fact that the dead man’s hat is missing. That’s a typical Ellery Queen clue; as Carr remarked, the clue is negative; it’s not what’s there, but what isn’t there that matters.

The police are swiftly called to the scene (Ellery with celerity): bird-like, snuff-taking Inspector Richard Queen and his son Ellery, athletically built but with the forehead of a thinker. The first section describes the search of the Roman Theatre. The police look for the hat; they fail to find it, but turn up several possible leads. The dead man’s former partner is in the theatre; their firm ended on bad terms, and he threatened to kill Field. A slimy, sanctimonious gangster named ‘Parson Johnny’ is also in the audience; maybe he rubbed Field out. And the handbag of a society beauty is found in Field’s pocket. What is her connection to the case?

In this first novel, Queen does a lot of things right. The investigation is absorbing; it never stands still; there’s always plenty to investigate, plenty to look into, plenty of suspicion. It’s detailed, taut and tight and logical, as a detective story investigation should be. Queen handles a very large cast with skill; there are some 30 characters identified in a Lexicon at the start. They provide maps, two of them – one of the theatre, and one of the dead man’s bedroom.  Queen doesn’t have Ngaio Marsh‘s insider look at the theatre, but he’s excellent on its geography, on its lobby and its auditorium. There are doors and alleys, orangeade boys and usherettes to watch ways in and out of the theater. The map is excellent; the reader will overlook a crucial point that leaps out when explained. And Queen devises the famous Challenge to the Reader, daring the intelligent reader to match wits with his authorial opponent and solve the problem.

Other elements will be improved upon in later books. Surprisingly, Ellery Queen plays second fiddle to his father; he even fades out of the investigation, and goes on a fishing holiday while Inspector Queen traps the murderer and then explains to DA Sampson and Cronin how he worked out the case. Ellery is less developed than his Period I self; there are elements of Lord Peter Wimsey; he’s a bibliomane, a book collector, who complains that he has been dragged to a crime scene just as he was about to buy a rare Falconer book. We learn in the prologue that Ellery, his wife and father are living in Italy; this is later dropped, although JJ McC’s Prologue continues. (Julian Symons suggested that Period I Ellery is the older brother of the Ellery of later books.)

Queen gives the reader the problem and nothing but the problem; it’s a streamlined investigation without any digressions or diversions. There’s not much character interest; Queen doesn’t introduce that until American Gun or Siamese Twin. The human interest is provided by Inspector Queen’s affection for his son. There’s a very large cast from a wide range of social backgrounds; there are actors, New York socialites, theatre staff, clerks, fussy pompous theatregoers, servants, ex-cons, mistresses, gangsters, lawyers, who are all separable, but we don’t get much sense of their inner life, if at all. We’re not personally involved with them. True, one character had an illegitimate child and is supporting his mistress and baby, but married the woman his family chose for him, but this is as much motive as it is a character point.

The books get steadily get more sophisticated in terms of characterisation and style. From the start, Queen has a certain base level of writing that is effective and appropriate, but Roman Hat is not as finely written as the 1940s books. Later Queens will be interested in social issues, in religion, in psychology.

At this stage, Queen is better at deductions than at ingenuity. The poison is novel; the murderer is extremely well-hidden among the large cast. I can’t remember if I solved the murderer when I read it 20-odd years ago. It’s not a brilliant surprise; the murderer plays only a small part, so we don’t get to know X as a person. This is true of several Period I books, certainly of Dutch Shoe; in Egyptian Cross, ROT13: gur zheqrere qbrfa’g nccrne va crefba hagvy ur’f neerfgrq; and in Spanish Cape, gur zheqrere vf cerfhzrq qrnq be xvqanccrq, naq gung’f n snveyl boivbhf cybl, although there Queen has a much smaller cast to play with, so the murderer is prominent. The criminal is careful and clever, but doesn’t have the fiendish ingenuity of some of the later Queen books; he’s certainly not a diabolical mastermind in the way the criminals of The Greek Coffin Mystery, The Tragedy of X or even The American Gun Mystery will be.

But the deductions from the top hat are excellent. Queen skilfully makes the hat a McGuffin (it contains something that is very important to the murderer and to the victim, but not to the reader); it’s the motive for the crime; and it’s also a clue that properly followed leads directly to the murderer. There aren’t any character clues; because the murderer doesn’t appear much on stage, you can’t really see his reactions, but if we think about the hat, we know that ROT13: gur zheqrere zhfg unir jbea gur ung jura ur jnyxrq bhg bs gur gurnger, gung gur zheqrere zhfg unir yrsg uvf bja ung va gur gurnger, gurersber gur zheqrere zhfg or n zna va riravat qerff, jvgu npprff gb gur gurnger cebc-ebbz; va bgure jbeqf, bar bs gur npgbef be gurnger crefbaary. Bayl bar bs gur npgbef jrnef riravat qerff, gurersber Fgrcura Oneel.

The motive has dated quite badly. ROT13: Gur zheqrere vf cneg oynpx, naq Svryq vf oynpxznvyvat uvz orpnhfr bs guvf. Gur Dhrraf qba’g ernyyl cnff nal whqtrzrag, ohg ner flzcngurgvp gbjneqf gur zheqrere. Gur zheqrere pbasrffrf bssfgntr; jr qba’g frr uvz bapr ur’f orra neerfgrq, naq vs nalguvat, gurer’f cvgl sbe gur zheqrere’f cerqvpnzrag. “Cbbe qrivy!” Ohg ur’f nyfb n tnzoyre.

Vg furqf na htyl yvtug ba Nzrevpna enpvny nggvghqrf va gur 1920f gung guvf jbhyq or n zbgvir sbe zheqre. Ur jnagf gb zneel vagb n jrnygul Arj Lbex snzvyl; gur zbgure senaxyl frrzf cerggl nccnyyvat; fur qvfnccebirf bs npgbef naq npgerffrf, fb na npgbe jvgu oynpx oybbq jbhyq or orlbaq gur cnyr, bar zvtug fnl.

Va gur Oevttf-Zlref frdhry, Tvir Zr Qrngu (1934), punenpgref pbzzvg fhvpvqr jura gurl yrnea gurl’er oynpx. Univat ‘n fgenva bs Arteb oybbq’ (ubj zhpu, naq ubj sne onpx?) fhqqrayl fgbcf fbzrbar sebz orvat juvgr naq gheaf gurz vagb n Arteb: na bowrpg bs ubeebe naq frys-qvfthfg, jub pna’g zneel “npebff gur yvar”, naq pna’g nffbpvngr jvgu juvgrf ba na rdhny yriry.  Univat n zvkrq-enpr tenaqcnerag vf pbafvqrerq fhssvpvrag ernfba sbe na “ubabhenoyr” fhvpvqr.

Gur Dhrraf gurzfryirf jrer snveyl enpvnyyl cebterffvir, nygubhtu va Gur Nqiragherf bs Ryyrel Dhrra, gurl ersre gb n sevtugrarq oynpx znvq jvgu n snpr yvxr yvirejhefg, naq Vafcrpgbe Dhrra pnyyf n oynpx znvq n ‘fuvar’, juvpu vf n ovg bhg bs punenpgre – cnegvphyneyl fvapr ur’f nyfb cerfragrq nf jvfr, flzcngurgvp, naq uhznar. Ur’f abg whfg n cbyvprzna, ohg n guvaxre; ur erernqf Rqjneq Tvooba.

Senapvf Z. Arivaf (Eblny Oybbqyvar, 1974) qrfpevorf gurve nggvghqr nf “qrgnpurq, vagryyrpghnyvmrq, hacerwhqvprq ohg abg bhgentrq be rira hcfrg ol gur enpvfz bs gur fbpvrgl, fgbvpnyyl npprcgvat nf hanygrenoyr (va Evpuneq’f jbeqf gb Ryyrel) gung ‘gurer’f yvggyr whfgvpr naq pregnvayl ab zrepl va guvf jbeyq’” (20–21).  Senaxvr L. Onvyrl (Bhg bs gur Jbbqcvyr: Oynpx Punenpgref va Pevzr & Qrgrpgvir Svpgvba, 1991) fhttrfgf gung gur Dhrraf jrer flzcngurgvp gb gur zheqrere, naq tvirf n pbhcyr bs rknzcyrf bs n yvoreny frafvovyvgl evqvphyvat enpvfz va gur rneyl obbxf.  Dhrra’f yngre obbxf (cbfg-Crevbq V) ner bhgfcbxrayl nagv-enpvfg; abgnoyl Png bs Znal Gnvyf naq Gur Tynff Ivyyntr.  In fact, as Mike Grost points out, the American detective story (as opposed to the hard-boiled genre) has a strong liberal sensibility, because it is a rational genre.  Examples include Rex Stout (notably Too Many Cooks and The Right to Die), Helen McCloy, and Anthony Boucher.

Other blogs:


1929 Stokes

The Roman Hat Mystery has been chosen from more than 100 selected manuscripts to represent the Stokes contribution to the mysterio-detective literature of 1929.  Because we believe it to be in a class by itself we are publishing no other detective novel this season.

Following no hackneyed formula, conveying to the public an entirely new experience in this popular type of fiction, The Roman Hat Mystery offers a foolproof plot of fascinating complexity, a theatrically romantic setting and a most ingenious deductive pattern that is plausible, gripping throughout and wholly original in weave.

The essential clue is a missing silk tophat.  On the surface it appears to be of minor significance, yet about this elusive thread the entire amazing tale revolves.  The reader is given every fact necessary to the solution; and yet we challenge your most ardent amateur criminologists to deduce the startling dénouement.

Not only in plot but in protagonist does this novel offer something “different.”  You will like the old snuff-taking Inspector Richard Queen, a shrewd and human manhunter; you will more than like his son Ellery, whose keen intellect dominates every situation.  A brilliant analyst, a convincing maker of miracles, Ellery Queen bids fair to join that immortal group in which Sherlock Holmes, Lupin and few others belong.

Contemporary reviews

Star Tribune (11 August 1929): For excellent mental gymnastics, completely testing one’s memory, alertness, intuition, power of analysis and other psychological attributes, there is nothing like a fine mystery story. To be more explicit, there is nothing like Ellery Queen’s problem in deduction. The Roman Hat Mystery.

The Queens are detectives of no mean ability called upon to find the murderer of a man found dead in the Roman theatre. To the police it appears to be a perfect crime. There are a goodly number of suspects – it would seem that the victim had a very doubtful past – and even the detectives seem baffled.

On the slender clue of a missing top hat, Ellery Queen traces the career of the nefarious lawyer whose life was taken so cleverly by some one whom even the officers of the law are inclined to call “our friend, the murderer.”

It is the sort of story that you should read in one sitting, so as to employ all your powers of concentration in logical deduction. And the denouement – well, when we had finished the book, we went back to look for some loop-hole, and the case was disgustingly simple, and quite perfect in detail.

You’ll add this to your list of favourite detective stories, we’re sure.

Times Literary Supplement (29th August 1929): This is a well-planned detective story.  The puzzle is kept clearly before the reader’s mind from beginning to end, with no love-story or by-plot to distract him, not even sympathy with the victim, for Monte Field was a blackmailing scoundrel.  The book begins with an index of the thirty-four people concerned, and goes on with a plan of the Roman Theatre, New York, where Field was murdered, and where his hat was missing.  The only thing lacking in the map is the stage door, through which the murderer escaped on page 309.  This makes the escape not quite clear.  On page 268, in a special half-page chapter, the reader is told that if he is a good sleuth he can now see who the culprit was.  It would be interesting to know how many readers per hundred do see it.  Field blackmailed Morgan because he had an illegitimate son, and another man because he had one thirty-second negro blood.  It appears that either accusation is worth many thousand dollars to a blackmailer in New York.  In some cities neither would be worth a cent.  One possible criticism is connected with the poison used.  Tetra ethyl lead, it appears, is very deadly and very easily made from gasoline.  The author tells us how to make it.  The name does not fit the ordinary principles of chemical nomenclature, but the author on the flyleaf thanks the chief toxicologist of the City of New York for help, so we may presume the chemistry is correct.  Now, if a few of Mr. Queen’s readers use the information to remove the people they dislike, ought not Mr. Queen to take half the penalty?

New Statesman (E.S., 7th September 1929): The Mystery of the Roman Hat will not, perhaps, pass the highest tests that can be applied to the detective story.  There is an important motive, which is not revealed until the mystery has been solved, and there is one element of the problem in which a definite attempt is made to confuse the reader.  But these are faults which may be excused on the score of the general ingenuity of the story and the readable manner in which it is told.

Detroit Free Press (Helen F. Aldrich, 22 September 1929): A murder in a theater, and as brilliantly and smoothly performed as the play which is in progress, is the sinister but highly entertaining prelude to the mystery of the victim’s top-hat and incidentally to one of the best detective stories written in years. Yes, Mr. Van Dine, you may crawl under the table.

At the very beginning is a lexicon of persons connected with the investigation and also a masterly wrought diagram of the theater. The author urges frequent reference to these during the course of the book, emphasizing the fact that he intends to play fairly with the reader by disclosing all characters and clues as they present themselves. Mr. Queen sustains his promise admirably and furnishes his reader with a palpitating urge to solve the vexing question of the hat before the last chapter or die a martyr to the science of detection in the hectic attempt. But curses, you are going to be foiled, for the Queens will lead you right up to the startling last chapter all unsuspecting. The denouement, as the publisher unflatteringly claims, is fool-proof. Moreover, it is a complete knockout.

Who Ellery Queen is we do not know, but he and his father, old Richard Queen, are the chief protagonists in this amazing book. Ellery is young, with a cool, brilliant mind, plus imagination, while Richard, long recognized as an invincible person in the matter of criminal detection and keen as a bloodhound, examines minutely everything that touches even remotely the crime at hand. But it is Ellery who furnishes the elusive but essential clue. He and his father are refreshingly different detectives, yet they do not monopolize the book with a superabundance of personal sidelights. They are very really depicted, but always the main thing is – who killed Monte Field and why is his top-hat missing and where is it? These are the questions to be solved and solved they are with a relentless cunning and amazing brilliance that makes The Roman Hat Mystery of such calibre as to satisfy the most critical of detective story readers.

Ellery Queen is, of course, a pseudonym. An amusing and very clever introduction signed “J. J. McC.” sketches the Queens’ lives and, we suspect, pulls ever so slightly Philo Vance’s effete leg. The publisher’s faith in this book is attested by the announcement that it was “chosen from more than one hundred manuscripts to represent the Stokes contribution to the mysterio-detective literature of 1929. Because we believe it to be in a class by itself we are publishing no other detective novel this season.”

So here’s to you for three hours of breathless bliss while the question of the silk top-hat drives you cuckoo. And here’s to you again for a violent recovery in the last chapter.

Howard Vincent O’Brien, Chicago Daily News: Gets our class A rating.

A Catalogue of Crime (Barzun & Taylor, 1989): A landmark rather than a cornerstone, perhaps, being the first of a dozen mysteries by these authors, each subtitled “A Problem in Deduction”. Insp. Richard Queen and his son Ellery tackle a puzzling murder with immense thoroughness and almost fatiguing pertinacity.  Though the egregious bonhomie of the Queens and Ellery’s pseudo bookishness occasionally irritate, the neatness of the plot involving a missing hat in a theatre murder cannot be denied.  But the police procedure is not what it would be now, and the criminal’s luck in carrying out his complex plan strains the believables.

5 thoughts on “The Roman Hat Mystery (Ellery Queen)

  1. This may well be the most glowing write-up of this book I’ve yet read; I didn’t get on with it at all — found it moribund and tedious — but that’s the beauty of individual experience; I recognise the elements you enjoyed so much, even if I didn’t get that same vitality from them!

    Liked by 2 people

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