General summer unavailability is resulting in the Tuesday Night Bloggers having August off (that’s what they’ve told me, anyway…) and so this final week of ‘Poison’ posts is an opportunity to right a wrong and launch on a new undertaking in my reading life. In short, to restart the Ellery Queen canon — all 40 (by my count) novels that had input from Dannay and/or Lee — from the very beginning, starting here with their first novel, the poisoning tale The Roman Hat Mystery.
This is motivated by a couple of things; firstly the general air of suppressed unrest at my not including them in my Kings of Crime, secondly the fact that I have a somewhat haphazard coverage of their output dating back some fifteen years, thirdly the fact that I’m reading Agatha Christie in order and getting a huge kick out of it, and finally the fact that people keep writing excellent Queen appreciations like this one from Brad at ahsweetmysteryblog that make me feel like I’m missing out on something despite having read about fifteen of their novels and two short story collections. And so, onwards…
Helpfully for the instigation of this undertaking, The Roman Hat Mystery is not one of the books I’ve already read, and it’s great to see that they’re playing their original trade early on: at a theatre showing a play entitled Gunplay in which there is a lot of, well, shooting effects, the sensible and easy thing to do would be to shoot your victim — instead, Dannay and Lee’s stooge is poisoned, and not just poisoned, but poisoned when no-one is sitting near him and there’s no real chance for anyone to have gotten near him to administer said poison, nor any sign of a receptacle for said poison on either the victim or anyone else in the theatre. And then to top it all off there’s a lovely Carrian flourish: the victim’s hat is missing, and how this is strung out into almost the entire plot of the book is another sign of just how brilliantly these two would come to approach this genre in the years to follow.
And let us not forget that this Carrian flourish predates Carrian flourishes, with It Walks by Night (1930) still some months away and so the detective fiction community still blithely unaware of the genius bearing down upon it. What a time to be alive! In fact, the obsession with top hats that runs through this rather brought to mind Carr’s own The Mad Hatter Mystery (1933), but that’s not about a poisoning so we’ll leave that here.
It’s easy to be surprised after the fact, because we know now what these guys would go on to do, but in spite these innovations this is also very much a product of its time and hamstrung by the usual conventions. It is exceptionally talky, and not in the spry and playful way that the later Queens would become but instead in a kind of “Let’s Recap the Facts to Date to Keep Our Reader Up to Speed” kind of way. It is also subject to the veneration of the rich — the financier Ives-Pope and his family are treated with dazzled awe by Ellery Queen detective and novelist alike — and treats its female characters as either paradigms of virtue and innocence (if wealthy, see above) or as the lowest of the dismissed worthy of the barest human consideration (one of them being told to “shut up until you’re spoken to” when under no suspicion and accused of no misdeeds).
Character-wise, too, it falls a little flat: had Richard Queen died at any point in this narrative, the medical examiner would doubtless cut him open and find him to be 87% snuff, as instead of allowing him to display characteristics and come to a conclusion on his character we’re simply told what his character is and then treated to the words “he took a pinch of snuff” every 20 lines. Ellery is…clever, apparently, and asks some questions. And there are a lot of very interchangeable policemen. No-one really stands out, and on this evidence the decision to make the author and lead character name the same so that readers could forget one but remember the other seems like a genius stroke, as I’d forget about this character solely on this evidence. Ellery, arguably, isn’t even the main character here: Richard Queen does most of the work and gets the final round-up. The Suspects are the Suspects, playing to type to a man, and fairly archetypal in a way that I’m not convinced Dannay and Lee every really transcended (but I’ll be able to assess the in time, of course).
Now contrast this with, say, The King is Dead (1952) which has a memorable setup with some very interesting characters but suffers with a dearth of plot (and certainly contains a mystery in no way requiring the Queens to take as long as they do over it). I know, I know, that’s not a good example of a Queen novel, but that’s sort of my point. In a way, you see Manfred Lee’s increasing influence as things wore on, so it’s interesting that he was the one to step away from the partnership for the likes of The Player on the Other Side (1963), And on the Eighth Day (1964), The Fourth Side of the Triangle (1965), and The House of Brass (1968). I started wondering a little while back whether Dannay produced plots too quickly for Lee to embellish (though the spacing of those books suggests that the startling rate of output wasn’t really the problem…), whereas now I wonder if this excess of enrichment to Frederick Dannay’s finely-honed plots lead to him drafting outlines for the likes of Theodore Sturgeon to write up, to keep the focus on the detection.
Either way, the plot and the turns thereof, while a little standard for the age, are what stands out at this nascent stage of the partnership ahead of the characters. And it’s…it’s not really that great. The huge amount of recapping throughout aside — even the final explanatory chapter starts with Richard Queen going over a load of points already cemented in the narrative, gaaaaah! — it’s just…not very good. This is perhaps typified for me by two things, both a “we’re searching for something and can’t find it”-style occurrence. The first of these requires the searching of a man’s apartment, which runs on for several pages and turns up nothing at all despite it being carefully catalogued just how many places they look in, and then the revelatory “Oh my god!” moment is…that they haven’t looked in the most bleedingly obvious place; and not even in a ‘Purloined Letter’ kind of way, it’s just stupidly obvious, easily among the first places you would look, and stupid to tell us that these characters are the finest minds on the Force and they don’t look there until despairing at the lack of any result.
THE NEXT PARAGRAPH CONTAINS ANGRY SPOILERS
The second is revealed in the final chapter, and frankly makes complete hogwash of the much-vaunted fair play of this particular mystery. They look everywhere for the hat. We’re told repeatedly they’ve looked everywhere for the hat. They can’t find the hat despite repeated searches. No, there’s definitely no hat anywhere. Absolutely not, we’ve looked everywhere. Definitely no hats. Uh-uh. Nope. Got that? No hats anywhere. And then — heaven preserve us — it’s revealed in the last chapter that Ellery conducted an off-page search we’re not privy to and found a hat. The search is loosely hinted at, sure, but the discovery of the hat is kept from you, the reader. And again it’s the most obvious place for a hat to be. But this is allowed to slip by through lazy implication, and so at the ‘Challenge to the Reader’ you’re assured you have information that you don’t. That is just not on. Unforgivable, in fact. If I’d started here, I would probably give up on Ellery Queen right there and never read another word. Furious. Absolutely furious.
SPOILERS END, ANGER REMAINS
So, where do we go from here? Well next up for these characters is The French Powder Mystery (1930) but I need a bit of a break after this to convince myself to carry on. As for Dannay and Lee, it’s amazing to think that they’d go on from this to become the titans bestriding the genre that they did. This is a duff starter, right? Or is anyone out there going to tell me it’s an absolute classic and represents the peak of their writing partnership? Because I’ve read others by them, better and worse, but I’m suffering a crisis of faith that this is something I want to persevere with. Your thoughts, as ever, are appreciated…
I’d like to take a moment to thank Sergio of Tipping My Fedora fame who helped me out, 140 characters at a time, on Twitter over an ordering query. His top nine Ellery Queen titles provides a pretty decent overview for anyone wishing to experience only the highlights. In about 6 years I shall (probably…) publish my own devastating overview and we’ll see how much we agree; watch this space.
And on that note…does anyone know the original publication order of The Greek Coffin Mystery, The Egyptian Cross Mystery, The Tragedy of X, The Tragedy of Y (all 1932), The American Gun Mystery, The Siamese Twin Mystery, The Tragedy of Z, and Drury Lane’s Last Case (all 1933)? I know that, taken separately, the “Ellery Queen” and “Barnaby Ross” orders are correct, but how were they published relative to each other? Any clarity eagerly sought!
Puzzle Doctor has less of an issue with this than I do, so I may be missing something, but we also share a few points of frustration. If this is any indication of the early Queens, I may just skip over The Egyptian Cross Mystery when its time comes; that was hard enough work first time aroud.
31 thoughts on “#117: The Tuesday Night Bloggers – The Underwhelming Origins of Ellery Queen in The Roman Hat Mystery (1929)”
It is a bit of a soft opening, no question JJ, but they sure got a lot better very, very fast, right from their next book in fact, so I hope you get to FRENCH POWDER soon 🙂
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Good to know — a lot of the early ones are the books I’ve missed, so I have no idea if they’re one of those partnerships that suddenly hits their stride on book 12…!
FRENCH POWDER is great (and whatever you do, don’t read the last line until you finish it) – not that I’m suggesting you are one of those reprobates who would do that …
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Thankfully The French Powder Mystery is one of the ones I have on Kindle, so there sholdn’t be even the slightest chance of an accidental look-ahead. Thanks for the tip.
There’s a good post in that, surely: books with change-everything last lines. I do so love a final line that provides a kick; feel a bit more enthused now knowing that’s ahead — much ta, Sergio.
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Hmmm. ‘Roman Hat Mystery’ was the very first Queen title I read, which was some time ago. I can’t remember much, but I don’t recall feeling provoked by the ‘fair play’ omission you mentioned, as the central deduction did not seem to me to be especially impaired by the omission of that discovery. But my memory might be playing tricks on me.
What I definitely recall was that I appreciated the initial Queen titles I read more than the initial Carr titles I read. I definitely preferred ‘French Powder Mystery’ and ‘Roman Hat Mystery’ to ‘Plague Court Murders’. But as time went by, I found that Queen’s novels were middling: most all of them were better than the Carr titles I liked least, but none of them were in the same league as best of the Carr titles I’ve read.
I think of the Queen novels I’ve read, the ones I enjoyed most were ‘There was an Old Woman’, ‘Face to Face’ and ‘French Powder Mystery’: ‘French Powder’ had the best puzzle, while ‘Face to Face’ was the best novel. I didn’t really like ‘Egyptian Cross Mystery’, and possibly ‘Cat with Many Tails’. Then again, I have left the best for the last: ‘Greek Coffin Mystery’ and ‘Siamese Twin Mystery’ are still sitting on my shelf… Then again (again), I’ve also left the best of Carr for the last: “He Who Whispers”, “Hollow Man” and “Nine – and Death Makes Ten” are also sitting on my shelf.
Cutting my meanderings short, I meant to ask… You said you’ve read quite a few Queen novels – which did you think were the best?
It’s going to be interesting to see how they compare, certainly — initially I felt Chrisite was superior to Carr, but as my Carr experience broadened I came to much the same realisation as you describe here. I’ve not yet read an EQ novel that I’ve come away absolutely loving, but this could be due in part to my always managing to sandwich something good between a couple of stinkers.
My favourites thus far? Well, yeah, Greek Coffin and Siamese Twin — you’re on to a good thing there, definitely — and I have happy memories (now several years old, I’ll admit) of Calamity Town and Inspector Queen’s Own Case. I’m hoping that, if I manage these chronologically, I’ll start to get a sense of the eras in their writing and that might help clarify a few ‘conditional’ favourites in the way a sense of context does (eg, Hickory Dickory Dock is a great late Christie).
Be sure to read these great boks at some point, dude. I’ve just this morning finished one that I was saving and now I’m all “Why the hell didn’t I read that sooner?!” — saving them is good, but reading them is better 🙂
Oh dear JJ it hasn’t been your week so far book-wise. Stick your head into Rupert Penny novel and you’ll feel better! Queen has never been an author I have really got in to and I have read ones that you’ve liked such as Ten Day’s Wonder. Out of the ones I have read I think The Chinese Orange Mystery was my favourite. It’ll be interesting to see which ones you recommend if you go through with your plan to read them in order.
Despite being one of their impossibilities, I’ve still not read Chinese Orange — and in fact it was partly that which got me started on this undertaking, because I thought putting it (and, indeed, everything by them) in context might help with my appreciation. Watch this space!
You dog you! Yesterday, I was inspired to write my last post about Queen! I woke up to your post, and I had to do a quick rewrite! I agree that Roman Hat is terrible. In fact, my face was red in that I forgot that Monte Field was poisoned!!!! (Hence, much of the rewrite.)
Of my top three mystery writers from my youth, Queen is the one who has aged the worst for me, no doubt. I think his best written books are in the 40’s, but that might prove problematical for you, JJ, since this period also marks a lessening of the author’s preoccupation with puzzles and more character/theme driven work (and a detective that goes down much more easily). Honestly, if you decide to forsake the Queen Reread Project, I will not lash out at you. 🙂
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I’m a big Queen aficionado but I think the motive for the murder in Roman Hat is sad and lazy, and that’s not even with the benefit of living in 2016 and not 1930 (without spoilers, the motive would be pretty much invalid today due to changing social mores). The reader has no chance to figure out the motive and it could apply equally to anyone. Pfui.
I’ll look forward to seeing your thoughts as you progress through the nationalities series and into Spanish Cape, Halfway House, and Door Between; I find the transitional novels in the Queen oeuvre the most interesting.
Seeing how they change over time is part of the motivation for undertaking this. My experience with Christie has shown that a sense of context and progression really helps when looking at an authors’ output, and the chronological approach — while a trifle pedantic and victim to repetition in this case — should give me that.
And, hey, some of these books I read 15 years ago (this was in the dark days before ereaders, so you had to find rthese things secondhand…and I lived in a small town…) so chances are I don’t remember much beyond the the pertinent details for quite a few of them anyway.
I really agree that it’s fascinating to develop the sense of context and progression. In many cases over the course of an author’s oeuvre, what I find is that they don’t know what they’re doing correctly when they start — then they realize what the public is enjoying and start to give it to them. (Case in point, Phoebe Atwood Taylor.) Queen is fascinating because the cousins appear to have made a deliberate decision to change their work to write things that THEY wanted to write about, not refining the process of providing “the mixture as before”.
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Nice review. I’ve not read this one, but I sympathise with your reaction. I really want to like Ellery Queen, especially the intricate puzzly ones, but how you felt during your spoilered section is how I feel ALL THE TIME when I’m reading them!
For example, I just don’t understand the love for The Greek Coffin Mystery, even overlooking the bizarre misunderstanding of how colourblindness works. I was expecting a humdinger, but it felt very slow and talky, and Ellery’s solution felt completely arbitrary in places, given the bonkers characterisation established earlier in the book. It’s hard to get at without spoilers, but at various points we’re told characters have done totally counterintuitive things for the sole purpose of misleading Ellery and the police down the line, yet a key part of the solution is that a crucial character (and a whole host of minor characters) must obviously be innocent because, if he wasn’t, his behaviour would be totally counterintuitive! That’s the problem with opening the bluff, double-bluff, triple-bluff, quadruple-bluff can of worms: if you create characters who are capable of this kind of ludicrous scheming, where’s the cut-off point? Apparently, like with so much of the “logic” and “proofs” in EQ books, it’s wherever Ellery says it is!
At least Siamese Twin has the weird atmosphere and the exciting stuff with the fire to distract from all the utter nonsense Ellery is talking, but I’d say all the good stuff is in spite of Ellery and the rather dull puzzle plotting (“The whole mountain is on fire, and there’s been a gruesome murder, what shall we write now? I know, let’s have Ellery spend fifty pages pontificating incorrectly about the minutiae of how people tear up playing cards, then never explain why it was torn up in the first place!”)
I savaged it a bit here: https://goo.gl/baHiGu. I’d probably be less snarky now, but I stand by most of it. I don’t think I’ve ever read a detective novel where the detective spends so much time being grumpy, rude, and basically wrong about everything, including his final preposterous solution, and yet we’re supposed to believe it’s the OTHER characters who are behaving strangely!
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Greek Coffin was a very early one for me, and I was led by the nose into every single trap of the first solution thinking I was being so clever…only to then have it all blown up about 60 pages in. The rest of it I don’t remember all that well, except the whole “how the thing gets in the coffin” seemed alarmingly convenient (but, again, I remember no specifics).
Your summation of the playing card thing in Siamese Twin cracked me up, and I am phenomenally impressed at the work that has gone into that solve-along post…dude, how did you ever have the time?! I remember really enjoying this one, but these is a chance I just got caught up in the excitement of it all. Time will tell…
I kinda relieved that the impression of Queen isn’t quite as fervently supported as I feard it might be at this stage — this felt like a bit of a jump into the dark, and when it didn’t turn out as expected I was half anticipating a stern telling off from my better-read contemporaries; delighted to know that sometimes when I don’t enjoy a book it’s not solely because I’m an awkward bugger 🙂
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Thanks! If I remember right, that was when the internet exploded so I couldn’t do any of my work. Also I’m an expert procrastinator!
I, too, was blown away by your solve-along post, Rich! I didn’t see a way to follow your blog, but I know I will go back and enjoy many past writings!
Greek Coffin blew me away at 12 or 13 with its final twist, but a recent re-read was tougher going. Part of that is because Ellery is so damn supercilious! Even when he is led by the nose, he barely drops his sense of superiority. Also, the deductions around the coffee cups seem to take freaking forever!!!
JJ, I will always read with interest and support your opinions, even those I disagree with, but who said you WEREN’T an awkward bugger? I thought it was part of your charm . . .
Thanks Brad. I do have some followers, so there must be a way to follow it, but I’m not sure how. I really need to look at changing the WordPress theme for it over the weekend – something seems to have changed in the settings since the upgrade. I’m sure the font never used to be that tiny!
I’m afraid it’s not a very well kept blog! It goes in fits and starts, and I have a habit of thinking of ambitious and interesting projects and never finishing them. Once I’ve finished the big book editing project I’m working on in August, I’m going to make a real effort to get back to blogging regularly – people seem to like my more analytical approach to mysteries, and I’ve gotten a few commissions from it, even in its current dishevelled state!
As a Christie fan, you might be interested in this post on 4:50 from Paddington (https://goo.gl/OEn14g). I’m afraid I never did get round to covering all the adaptations (I think the McEwan one makes the best of a bad mystery), but even looking at the original text is still interesting: it makes so little sense, in ways which seem very uncharacteristic of Christie.
The original publication order of the 1932 and 1933 novels are as follows:
1. Tragedy of X (March 1932)
2. Greek Coffin (April 1932)
3. Tragedy of Y (Sept. 1932)
4. Egyptian Cross (Oct. 1932)
5. Tragedy of Z (March 1933)
6. American Gun (May 1933)
7. Drury Lane’s Last Case (Sept. 1933)
8. Siamese Twin (Nov. 1933)
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Sin credible output over eighteen months! Thanks, Santosh!
Santosh you are, as ever, a wonder. I hugely appreciate this, many many thanks.
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