I began reading Ellery Queen’s “The Roman Hat Mystery” last Thursday afternoon at the Panera Bread in downtown Silver Spring. It’s one of the five novels included in the sumptuous “Classic American Crime Fiction of the 1920s” (Pegasus), edited and annotated by Leslie S. Klinger. By the time Inspector Richard Queen and his bookish son Ellery arrive at Manhattan’s Roman theater to examine the dead body of crooked lawyer Monte Field, I was registering a distinct sense of well-being and contentment. Here was a classic Golden Age puzzle — Ellery Queen’s first case, in fact — and virtually all the characters were caricatures, the dialogue was stilted and corny, and the elaborate plot verged on the ludicrous. What more could one ask for?
That sounds paradoxical, but artificiality is a welcome attraction in many vintage who-and-howdunits. The stories deliberately leave out the messiness of real life, of real emotions, thus allowing the reader to mentally just amble along, mildly intrigued, feeling comfortable and even, yes, cozy. In this case, the key clue — where is the murdered Field’s missing top hat? — drives home the difference between then and now: We are a long way from deranged fanatics armed with semiautomatic weapons.
The other mysteries included in this omnibus are “The House Without a Key,” by Earl Derr Biggers, which is set in Hawaii and introduces the detective Charlie Chan; “The Benson Murder Case,” by S.S. Van Dine, whose cosmopolitan Philo Vance is a more effete version of Lord Peter Wimsey; Dashiell Hammett’s hard-boiled “Red Harvest,” which features the Continental Op; and the gangster classic, W.R. Burnett’s “Little Caesar.” This hefty volume (1,126 pages) opens with an essay by our preeminent authority on the mystery genre, Otto Penzler, followed by excellent brief introductions to each author and novel from Klinger. What’s more, Pegasus has produced as handsome a volume as you could ask for, starting with the gold-embossed lettering on its cinema-marquee style dust jacket. The whole package cries “terrific holiday gift,” which it is.
And yet duty requires me to issue a few caveats. Not only is this book is huge, but it’s also heavy and unwieldy: Will people actually read it? Perhaps it’s meant to be consulted at a desk rather than enjoyed in bed. If so, I’m not sure that these 1920s novels deserve or require the full annotated treatment. Unlike Klinger’s admirable “New Annotated Sherlock Holmes,” there isn’t any body of commentary attached to the works here nor do they invite fanciful speculation. In “The Roman Hat Mystery” alone many pages go by without a single note or illustration. While proper nouns, such as Diogenes or the Wailing Wall, are identified, more pertinent details sometimes pass unremarked. What exactly is “the rear coat-tail pocket” of a “full dress suit?” Why is Djuna, the Queen’s young servant, described as if he were a pet dog? And why does he bear a woman’s name? A weirdly indeterminate figure, he merits more than a stock reference to writer Djuna Barnes.
Annotation is obviously a minefield and know-it-all reviewers heartlessly pounce on the occasional mistake, so let me stress that there’s a treasure house of illuminating and useful information here — even if the third note for the Queen novel is wrong. The phrase “that boredom which comes to every Conrad in search of his youth” doesn’t refer to Joseph Conrad, but to the romantic novel “Conrad in Quest of His Youth,” by the once popular and critically acclaimed Leonard Merrick.
Ideally, glamorous productions such as Klinger’s lead modern readers to good books worth rediscovering. With a similar hope, the industrious Penzler recently launched American Mystery Classics, a line of hardbacks graced with highly stylized dust jackets. Included among the first six titles is “The Chinese Orange Mystery,” probably Ellery Queen’s most dazzling case: Why would everything in a room containing a dead body be turned backward and upside down? This riddle’s solution proves far more satisfying than that of “The Roman Hat Mystery,” which requires trained police to be utterly inept at searching an apartment.
Penzler’s initial titles reveal a welcome eclecticism. Mary Roberts Rinehart’s “The Red Lamp” appeared when the “American Agatha Christie” was the highest paid writer in the country; “Home Sweet Homicide” by Craig Rice and “The Puzzle of the Happy Hooligan” by Stuart Palmer are comic capers; and “The So Blue Marble” is a suspenseful chiller by Dorothy B. Hughes, best known for the noir masterpiece “In a Lonely Place.” Not least, any devotee of the locked-room mystery should quickly acquire Clayton Rawson’s lively “Death From a Top Hat,” starring the magician-detective the Great Merlini.
Once you’ve enjoyed the Rawson, you’ll want to seek out other examples from its tantalizing subgenre, and there is no better guide than Robert Adey’s “Locked Room Murders” (published appropriately by Locked Room International). I particularly recommend Hake Talbot’s “Rim of the Pit” and Randall Garrett’s “Too Many Magicians.”
Of course, the supreme master of the seemingly impossible murder is John Dickson Carr — see “The Three Coffins.” His devious inventiveness might even exceed that of Christie, whose artistry is the subject of John Goddard’s “Agatha Christie’s Golden Age: An Analysis of Poirot’s Golden Age Puzzles” (Stylish Eye Press). In its pages, Goddard parses some ingenious mysteries down to their tiniest details. His exhaustive study belongs on the same shelf as John Curran’s “Agatha Christie’s Secret Notebooks.”
Let me close with two additional recommendations: In “The Annotated Big Sleep” (Vintage) the editors — Owen Hill, Pamela Jackson and Anthony Dean Rizzuto — have produced an outstanding critical companion to Raymond Chandler’s great California novel. Last, the most endearing American detective since Nero Wolfe — Edward D. Hoch’s Dr. Sam Hawthorne — is still solving crimes in “Challenge the Impossible,” the last of five volumes of his collected cases (Crippen & Landru). To read these quietly told, extremely clever stories is pure pleasure.
Michael Dirda reviews books each Thursday in Style.