In 1920s New York City, crowds have been thronging to see the latest Broadway hit, a sensationalist gangster play complete with flashing lights and gunfire. But little did the audience members of the Roman theater suspect that a real murder would be committed during the second act! Inspector Richard Queen of the local police is on the scene almost immediately, with his curious son Ellery in tow. In examining the victim’s body, they soon discover an interesting anomaly: despite being dressed in full evening clothes, the dead man wasn’t wearing a top hat. The police scour the Roman theater from top to bottom and search all the audience members as they leave the premises, but the hat is nowhere to be found. While Inspector Queen and his fellow police detectives identify the corpse and discover his involvement in a blackmailing scheme, Ellery applies himself to the mystery of the missing hat — and deduces the identity of the murderer as a result.
I really enjoy classic mysteries from the early 20th century, so I was excited to read this first Ellery Queen novel. Overall, I was very impressed with the mystery plot itself; the solution is tight and hangs together well, although part of the motive is concealed from readers until the very end. (Historical racism is also an aspect of the solution, which can certainly be offputting for contemporary readers.) I also liked the way in which the police were depicted as they investigated the murder: far from being bumbling idiots, they approach their job intelligently and methodically. I was especially tickled by the introduction of the district attorney as a character. Most mystery novels focus solely on catching the killer — never mind if s/he can actually be convicted in a court of law! I wasn’t as impressed with the characterization of the detectives, however. Inspector Queen was more central to this book than Ellery, but he didn’t seem to be consistently depicted, and Ellery was barely fleshed out at all. Presumably, though, more character development occurs in subsequent books, and I’d certainly be willing to read more Ellery Queen novels.