The following will contain spoilers, so if you plan on reading it in the future (something I would strongly urge you to reconsider) it’s probably best to hit the back button.
I rarely do this: write reviews of other writers work.
Beyond recommending something I’ve loved, generally by yelling on social media at anyone who may listen, I’m wary of expressing my more negative opinions online. After all, someone worked bloody hard to write that book and just because it’s not my cup of tea doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with it. I’ve always doubted it’s dignified and I prefer to live kindly.
Plus, Karma-wise, it’s not great.
That was, until I read ‘The Roman Hat Mystery’ by Ellery Queen.
Ellery Queen is detective fiction royalty.
He is revered; frequently held up as a shining example of the best in the genre.
I expected to love this. I wanted to. I can’t tell you how much I wanted to love it.
Who is Ellery Queen
But first, if you’ve never heard of Ellery Queen, here are the need-to-knows. Queen is both the name of the main character, who is a mystery writer, and the pen name of writing duo Frederic Dannay and Manfred Bennington Lee, who were also cousins. They published over 30 Ellery Queen novels and worked roughly at the same time as Agatha Christie.
Between them they edited numerous anthologies, founded The Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, wrote under the name Barnaby Ross and commissioned others to write non-Ellery Queen novels under their pen name. Queen was first turned into a successful TV series in the 1950s and over the course of their careers together won multiple Edgar awards.
Pretty freaking impressive, I’m sure you’ll agree. Which is why I was so ready to love the novel that kicked off the duo: ‘The Roman Hat Mystery”.
The Roman Hat Mystery
So, when I saw it was included for free (along with many others by the author — which ought to have given me pause … why so many free?🤔) with my Audible membership I dove in with high expectations.
It began enjoyably, if slowly, enough with some amusing phrases. Once the reason for its narration was established though, I struggled to pin down the characters. Inspector Richard Queen’s only claim to a character seems to be his use of snuff. His son, Ellery, is equally insipid. His quirk is using a pair of ‘pince nez’ although he does have a facet of personality in his love of books.
The rest of the cast were no more vibrantly or interestingly drawn. And almost were deeply unlikable.
With the exception of downtrodden Djuna, the Inspector’s servant, who smiles out at us through the pages.
And that brings us to the nub of why I disliked this: pejudice. Racism. Sexism, Antisemitism. It’s jam packed.
Prejudice runs through this like I’ve never read or seen before.
A few examples
Queen, we’re told, thinks fondly of Djuna, the orphan he adopts to fend off loneliness when his son goes away to school (more on that relationship later). He demonstrates this fondness by, for example, grabbing Djuna by the neck and pushing him out of the way! At other times Djuna is expected to crouch in the corner or curl up by the fire. And this is the person we are told, didactically, to like.
The problem seems to be that the character doesn’t see others as human. There are times when he likens people to green ants, monkeys and more.
The Inspector prides himself on his ability disarm his suspects by rapidly changing emotions, while simultaneously disparaging the women in the book for the doing the same thing.
We’re told what a great guy this is. Over and over again. But his words and actions simply don’t support that. The character is a hypocritical, racist, sexist, antisemitic, bullying, manipulative snob.
In short, Richard Queen is nasty.
I know it was written in the 1920s and times were different back then. Segregation was an affront to humanity and we all know it happened. But I’ve seen enough films made in the 1920s and read enough literature of the 19th and early 20th century to be taken off guard by the pervasive ferocity in this one. Not even by the very low standard of the time.
If you’re wondering why I’m focusing so much on Richard Queen and not Ellery, it’s because it reads as if Richard is the main character. Ellery even slopes off for a large chunk towards the end of the book. Yet still, he somehow manages to solve the vexatious affair from afar!
Richard’s a police inspector who, we are told, commands much respect. But he can’t do anything without his son, Ellery.
Which brings us on to the Strange relationship.
At one point we’re told Djuna has a small room through the Queens’ bedroom. Bedroom singular, not plural. Father and son, may I remind you.
But let’s leave the characters and move on.
Plot and Form.
The prose is overblown and repetitive. Points are made. And then repeated. Then repeated again before were allowed to move on to the next point. It’s like having a really didactic, and boring, teacher. I was left silently screaming ‘I know, get on with it!’ multiple times.
The plot is unbelievable and unrealistic. The killer enters a theatre during a performance and no one notices?! Please. No matter how engrossing the action is on the stage, you would at the very least be aware of someone disrupting the play. Even if you are unable to identify that person. You’d know it happened.
There is one little chapter specifically stating that we have all the same knowledge as Queen, who has deduced the murderer and that therefore we should be able to figure it out as well. Well, we don’t have the same information.
Murder mysteries work best when the killer is one of the suspects. It’s less satisfying for it to be a random guy who floated peripherally around a couple of scenes.
And we come to pacing. There’s very little action action and no tension, it’s like hearing a police report read out loud. Even after one of the few exciting, if confusing, passages where the killer is captured, we’re left to hear what happens next in the words of Queen: Barry told me last night. Literally, that’s a direct quote.
I’ve heard so many excuses for this book, mainly centering around the idea that it’s of it’s time. And of course it is. Our morals have evolved. Thankfully. Many things deemed acceptable then are appalling to us now. However, even in the twenties, movies depicting these prejudices, almost always show the most racist person as the baddie not the hero.
Writing has evolved too. But no, it wasn’t as different as people are claiming. Don’t forget this novel was first published several years into Agatha Christie’s literary success. She has plots that work, even when they demand leaps of faith; far better pacing and when someone is obnoxious, they get generally killed.
This is the first in a long, long series of Ellery Queen mysteries. As I had never encountered them before I don’t know if, or how, they get better – which they must do because they’re so beloved – but I won’t be following on.
But it’s not all gloom and waiting for what awful thing to be said next. It had one very positive effect, it has reminded me: Christie, I love you.