"Ellery is merly indulging in his favorite game of ratiocination. He doesn't know where the papers are any more than you do. he's guessing.... in detective literature," he added with a sad smile, "they call it the 'art of deduction,'"
"The Roman Hat Mystery"
It's almost been two months and I'm still waiting for the boat to deliver the books I sent to myself from Japan, so to fill the time, I finally decided to reread Ellery Queen. Because it's been a while. I'm planning to do the first nine novels only, and seeing I already did The French Powder Mystery a year or two ago, I'll be skipping that one too, so eight to go. And yes, I know that there are two persons behind the EQ nome-de-plume and Barnaby Ross and all of that, but as I will be mostly writing about the novels based on their plot and structure, and not about the world outside that (writers and such), I'll be just talking about Queen, as 'one' writer for convenience's sake. And to make it clear from the start: I refer to the writer as Queen, and to the character as Ellery (which is also what I do for Norizuki Rintarou and Arisugawa Alice by the way).
Reviews of Ellery Queen's 'nationality' novels:
The Roman Hat Mystery
The French Powder Mystery
The Dutch Shoe Mystery
The Greek Coffin Mystery
The Egyptian Cross Mystery
The American Gun Mystery
The Siamese Twin Mystery
The Chinese Orange Mystery
The Spanish Cape Mystery
The Roman Hat Mystery is indeed about a hat, though there is nothing particular Roman to it. The titular hat belonged to a certain Monte Field, crooked laywer and his untimely demise is what forms the main mystery of this novel. His rather dead body was found in a seat of the Roman Theater, during a particularly popular play and two items that the police would have liked to have found near the body were sadly not present there. That is, Mr. Monte Field's top hat and of course his murderer (because that would make things a lot easier). Inspector Richard Queen of the New York police has little choice but to try to find hat and murderer somewhere in the theater. Which is rather full people who really want to go home, with the play cancelled and a dead body among their midst and all. But the inspector doesn't has to work alone! Besides a loyal and capable group of subordinates, he's also blessed with a son Ellery, who can be pretty darn smart when he isn't talking about first edition books and all.
The first Queen novel and has both elements the reader will find in following novels, as well as some 'strange' other artistic choices. The biggest surprise of The Roman Hat Mystery is perhaps the role of our master-detective Ellery Queen. Ellery Queen might be presented as the detective in this story, but this is actually more inspector Queen's story than his son's. The story mostly follows the inspector's efforts in locating the victim's murderer and his hat and the reader is introduced to a large group of policemen, the District Attorney and shown the ways the inspector interacts with everybody. His son, billed the protagonist, on the other hand stays largely in the background and in fact, does not even appear in person in the last section of the book, nor at the crucial moment of unmasking the murderer. Yes, it was Ellery who solves the case, but he has nothing to do with the practicals of bringing the case to an end. In fact, Ellery might as well have been a ghost or some figment of the inspector's imagination, assisting him at the crucial moment with brilliant deductions. In following novels, Ellery luckily gains more personality and already in the second Queen novel, The French Powder Mystery, we see a more active Ellery in the form of a detective, rather than an oracle figure misplaced in a police story.
But the problem of the missing top hat is something we'll see a lot in Queen novels. I can't remember where this was, but I once read a text that described Ellery Queen as having a fetish for objects; that is, a lot of (the deductions in) his stories are focused on objects, whether they are missing or present or in a certain state or condition, and these objects are almost even more central to the story than for example the victim himself. In The Roman Hat Mystery, the fact the victim's hat is missing is what sets the Queens on the right trail, but one can for example also think of the beginning part of The Greek Coffin Mystery, where drinkware becomes a central point, or the cards in The Siamese Twin Mystery.
And if we're dealing with specifically a missing object, like in this novel, you can bet on a Grand Search. The Queens, they love searching for objects. And the people in the world of the Queens, they love hiding things. In all kind of places. If it's not in here, then it's beneath that or behind this or on top of that. These searches have a tendency to be set in a large area, forcing the Queens (+ accompanying police) to work very thoroughly, making it all the more surprising when we discover where the desired object was all the time.
The Queens also love rather strange crime scenes. A murder inside a packed theater? What about a body on display in a department store? One might call it objectification of the dead body, together with the crime scene, as the murder itself is not half as interesting as the picture of how the dead body is found. In general, the bodies aren't in places that are strange per se. It's just a small adjustment to the scene that makes you feel uneasy. A man neatly dressed in a theater? Normal, except for the fact he's dead and not wearing a hat. Somebody lying in a showcase bed of a department store? Normal, except for the fact she's dead (and was locked inside the wall). These are the 'normal' examples, but there are some stranger ones in the following novels.
The other major Queenian trope, the Challenge to the Reader is also present and this is something I still enjoy thoroughly. I am not very familiar with contemporary English(-language) detective novels, so I am not sure how often this is used, but I still come across challenges in Japanese mystery novels and approach these novels with a slightly different mindset than 'normal' detective novels. Sure, I try to solve detective novels myself anyway, but give a challenge, and I am at least sure the writer tried to make it fair for me too.
I am not too familiar with the activities of other mystery clubs in Japan, but at least Kyoto University Mystery Club has a long tradition of Guess the Criminal stories, which are short stories, with a challenge to the reader (whether explicitly written or not): members have to read the first part of the story, up until the challenge and try to solve the case themselves, after which they are handed out the solution. This might explain why the trope is still relatively popular in Japan, as writers who originate from clubs with such a tradition are probably more trained in this device, and maybe also more willing to use it.
But how is The Roman Hat Mystery as a novel? At one hand, we have the logical deductions based on the elimination method that make the Queen novels such a joy to read and elements like an exciting search for a top hat and such. On the other hand, most of the characters besides the inspector are a bit bland and the deductions and hints that ultimately lead to the identity of the murderer are not as refined as in later novels: yes, the elimination method of deduction does point to the murderer (that is, we know the murderer has characteristics X, Y and Z, and only person A has all three characteristics, ergo he is the murderer), but not all hints are not laid down as visible to the reader as they should have been, making it feel less satisfying. Compare with the direct sequel The French Powder Mystery, where the murderer may seem to come out of nowhere, but the logic and the underlying hints in the text are fundamentally much stronger (and thus more convincing to the reader).
I would definitely read The Roman Hat Mystery though. Despite some minor points, it's still a fine mystery novel and has enough of the elements that grow out to be typical Queen tropes. Maybe not the best Queen novel, and maybe a bit 'different' from the other early Queen novels because of its focus on the formal police investigation, but enough of a royal entry.