Who poisoned the man in the audience of the Roman Theatre in New York City? How was it done? And what happened to the victim's top hat?
That last, I assure you, is not a frivolous question - for the answer will be critical to the solution of "The Roman Hat Mystery," the first mystery novel written by "Ellery Queen."
As most classic mystery buffs know, Ellery Queen was the pen name used by two cousins, Frederick Dannay and Manfred B. Lee. It was also the name of their principle detective character; Ellery (the character) was the son of New York City Inspector Richard Queen and - in many of the books - helped his father solve particularly difficult cases.
I reviewed "The Roman Hat Mystery" a few years back. My blog post is here, and my audio review may be heard by clicking here. At the time, it was only available in a three-novel collection, now out of print, then offered by the Mystery Guild. So I am delighted to find The Mysterious Press offering "The Roman Hat Mystery" in a variety of electronic editions. They were kind enough to provide me with a copy for my Amazon Kindle. I was very pleased to find that the e-book editions include some essential diagrams, lists and illustrations from the original "hard-copy" book.
If you have any e-book reader - or if you simply want to read it on your home computer - I would urge you to give "The Roman Hat Mystery" a try. I think it is unconscionable that the Queen books are just about universally out of print. Ellery Queen, particularly in the first phase of his literary and detecting career, was one of the most powerful influences on American detective stories - at least the traditional story, in its "pre-hardboiled" days. The early books, the ones with titles patterned as "The [Nationality] [Noun] Mystery," are puzzles in their purest form. Readers are given all the clues available to the detective, and there is a formal challenge to the reader, before the final sorting-out, inviting him or her to solve the mystery before it is revealed:
"Who killed Monte Field?" "How was the murder accomplished?" ...Mr. Queen agrees with me that the alert student of mystery tales, now being in possession of all the pertinent facts, should at this stage of the story have reached definite conclusions on the questions propounded."
I never could do it.
"The Roman Hat Mystery" was the first Queen novel; I don't think it's necessarily the best. The character of Ellery Queen was still pretty raw, still based far too much on the amateur dilettante model of S. S. Van Dine's Philo Vance. And Ellery is totally missing from the final explanation, which is handled by his father - who does credit his son with making all the deductions for him!
As I say, it's good to have this back in print (all right, in pixels). It's a good example that I wish more publishers would follow - making older authors and the backlists of newer authors available to a new generation of readers at a relatively low cost and with few problems of building up unwanted and expensive inventory.
So take advantage of it. If you have never read the early Ellery Queen, this is the place to start.