Yesterday I made mention of the role that footwear plays in crime fiction. Never one to leave things half-done, I thought it only right to do a ‘head to toe’ job of it and take a look today at the way hats figure into the genre.
You may think that people don’t wear hats as they did in times past. But you’d be surprised how much of a role hats play in crime fiction. For example, the character of Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes will probably always be associated with the deerstalker hat. And where would the genre be without the fedora? It’s a classic ‘PI’ sort of a hat. Just check out Tipping My Fedora, a fantastic crime-fictional blog, if you don’t believe me. And that’s to say nothing of criminals who wear balaclavas, sleuths who wear toques outdoors when it’s cold, and a lot more too.
Now, let’s get into a few specific examples to show you just how important hats are in crime fiction. In Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle, Commissionaire Peterson brings an unusual case to Sherlock Holmes. He discovered a battered hat and a goose lying in a street where their owner had dropped them after a run-in with some hooligans. Peterson’s wife cooked the goose for Christmas dinner and discovered a valuable jewel in the goose’s crop. It all makes no sense to Peterson, but Holmes finds the case interesting. Here is a bit of a conversation he has with Dr. Watson about the matter:
‘But you are joking. What can you gather from this old battered felt?’ …
He picked it up and gazed at it in the peculiar introspective fashion which was characteristic of him. ‘It is perhaps less suggestive than it might have been,’ he remarked, ‘and yet there are a few inferences which are very distinct, and a few others which represent at least a strong balance of probability. That the man was highly intellectual is of course obvious upon the face of it, and also that he was fairly well-to-do within the last three years, although he has now fallen upon evil days. He had foresight, but has less now than formerly, pointing to a moral retrogression, which, when taken with the decline of his fortunes, seems to indicate some evil influence, probably drink, at work upon him. This may account also for the obvious fact that his wife has ceased to love him.’
All of this from one battered felt hat. Holmes follows up by explaining how he made each deduction, and it turns out that he is correct in every detail. Those deductions help him track down the hat’s owner and solve the mystery of the jewel.
In Ellery Queen’s The Roman Hat Mystery, successful attorney Monte Field attends a production at New York’s Roman Theatre. By the time the production is over, Field is dead of poisoning. Inspector Richard Queen and his son Ellery investigate the case and soon find out some important things. Field was a blackmailer, so it’s likely that whoever killed him was one of his blackmail victims. This gives the sleuths a number of possible suspects, several of whom were in the theatre the night of the murder. And yet, all of the seats around the victim were empty although the production was sold out. So it’s hard to see how anyone could have gotten close enough to poison him. And the really interesting detail is that Field’s top hat, which he wore to the show, is missing. That hat’s disappearance and its location turn out to be vital clues to the murder.
In several of Agatha Christie’s novels and stories, hats are used to help disguise a person’s identity. I won’t mention specific examples so as to avoid spoilers, but I can say that she takes full advantage of the fact that certain styles of hat can hide a person’s face.
There’s also a sort of funny hat-related scene in Mrs. McGinty’s Dead. Hercule Poirot has come to the village of Broadhinny to investigate the murder of a charwoman. Everyone thinks the killer is her lodger James Bentley; in fact, he’s been convicted of the crime and is awaiting execution. But Superintendent Spence wasn’t sure of Bentley’s guilt, so he asked Poirot to look into the matter. One day, Poirot is taking a walk when he encounters detective novelist Ariadne Oliver, who is on her way by car to visit one of Broadhinny’s residents Robin Upward. Upward is a playwright who is planning to adapt one of Mrs. Oliver’s novels for the stage. Poirot and Mrs. Oliver have a moment or two of conversation, and then Mrs. Oliver says,
‘What have I done with my hat?’
Poirot looked into the car.
‘I think, madame, that you must have been sitting on it.’
‘It does look like it’, agreed Mrs. Oliver, surveying the wreckage. ‘Oh, well,’ she continued cheerfully, ‘I never liked it much. But I thought I might have to go to church on Sunday, and although the Archbishop has said one needn’t, I still think that the more old-fashioned clergy expect one to wear a hat.’
It’s an interesting look at the culture.
Elizabeth Spann Craig’s Memphis Barbecue series features Lulu Taylor, whose barbecue restaurant has been in the family for years. One of the restaurant’s regulars, and one of Lulu’s best friends, is Cherry Hayes. She is a volunteer docent at Elvis Presley’s home Graceland, and is a little eccentric. For example, she often wears a motorcycle helmet with Presley’s picture on it. Her theory is that danger could come at any time and it’s best to be prepared for it with a proper helmet.
Shamini Flint’s Inspector Singh is a Sikh, and wears his turban with pride. Although he is not a strict observer of his religion, he wouldn’t be without the turban:
‘…his wife had once referred to his turban as his comfort blanket…’
It’s a very important part of his look and his identity.
And that’s the thing about hats. They can be quite distinctive and very often they reflect important parts of their owners’ personalities. Just ask D.S. Nelson’s Blake Heatherington. As the series featuring him begins, Heatherington is a milliner whose family has been in the business for a long time. He has keen instincts about people and is skilled at matching client to hat. He’s got a thorough knowledge of hats, too of course, and the history of different kinds of hats. And in Hats Off to Murder, he makes good use of those skills and that knowledge. It all starts with an unusual request from a new client Delilah Delibes, who is searching for her missing mother. But it ends up in some very odd incidents and two murders. Heatherington’s love for hats doesn’t end when he retires, either. He still keeps a shed that he uses as a hat workshop and a place to contemplate.
So which hat style suits you? Trilby? Homburg? Cloche? Beret? Fedora? Something else?
Want to know more about hats? Do visit D.S. Nelson’s fantastic site. There’s all sorts of interesting hat-related information, support for writers, and good fiction to be hat – er – had. ;-)
On Another Note…
My best wishes for a joyous and peaceful Easter to those who celebrate it. If you’ve been celebrating Passover, I hope it’s given you a sense of connection, renewal and reflection.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Irving Berlin’s Easter Parade.