The Greek Coffin Mystery is the fourth stop in what is turning out to be a somewhat arduous quest to read all of the Ellery Queen novels in order of publication. It is safe to say that I have had mixed experiences with these novels, appreciating some of the clever, logical plotting in The French Powder Mystery while feeling frustrated by the lengthy explanations and interviews of The Roman Hat Mystery or The Dutch Shoe Mystery.
One complaint that I have made against all three of those books relates to their length. Dannay and Lee’s narratives seem to progress at a crawl as Ellery has to explain each stage of his logical reasoning in minute, precise detail. The Greek Coffin Mystery is considerably longer than its immediate predecessor, the respective audio version clocking in at a full four hours longer. Somehow though, in spite of that longer runtime, I was relieved to discover that The Greek Coffin Mystery is a pacier, more dynamic read.
The story begins with the death of Georg Khalkis, an art dealer, from heart failure. Following his funeral the family return to his home to open up a strongbox that contains his will, only to discover that the document is missing. Members of the family attest to the fact that the will was there before the funeral procession began while others can confirm that no one entered or left the house during the funeral. Where could the will have gone to?
Ellery is brought in, listens to the different accounts being given by the Police about their thorough search and uses reasoning to expose a hiding place for the document that they have not thought of. When it is checked however a body is discovered and the focus of the book changes to the identification of that mysterious body and discovering who killed him and why.
The mini-mystery of the will is quite a fun way to reintroduce us to Ellery and his logical deductive method which is necessary because this particular plot sees that method challenged more than in any of the three previous works. One of the defining characteristics of this novel is that Ellery will use that method to reach an incorrect result that, we are told in the introduction, will humiliate him for years to come and be responsible for him never sharing his reasoning while a case is in progress again.
This results in a narrative that stops and starts again, giving it an unusual pace. Listening to it as an audiobook, I had little conception of just how close I was to the end of the novel as there were times it clearly felt that an ending was in sight before the investigation ramps up again. Still, while you might think that would cause frustration, I felt that the general trajectory of the case was interesting enough to justify that approach, particularly once we reach the true ending which I failed to see coming.
There are, of course, still plenty of examples of narrative stretch where a character conveniently doesn’t think to tell Ellery something until chapters after their initial interview has taken place. Some may consider this a realistic touch as the relevance of a few of the pieces of information would have been questionable at the time they would have been shared but I think the point is that it feels information is withheld to send Queen down a path of deductive reasoning that the information will close off. Given the overall length of this investigation I think a little judicious trimming of some of these false leads would have been welcome.
The idea of presenting this as a prequel is intriguing but ultimately does not result in any significant new side to Ellery or Richard Queen’s personalities emerging. Perhaps Ellery is a little more abrasive and obnoxious here than in his previous outings but I think that reflects the frustrations of this case rather than any real shift in his character.
The authors assemble a pretty sizeable supporting cast of characters, some of whom are only relevant to one phase of the story, with a few notable standout figures. One of these is a wealthy industrialist who has the ear of the President and my wife commented on the lengthy descriptions of his opulent home and lifestyle. I chalk this down as a reflection of the times in which it is written – just a few years after the Wall Street Crash, that sort of material must have come as a pleasant bit of fantasy for readers. The character himself is easily one of the most successful ones developed in the books to this point.
I am not going to go in any further detail about the book for fear of spoiling something as I do think this is a book best enjoyed with relatively little knowledge of its twists and developments. I would suggest that, if you do so, you seek out the printed copy rather than the audiobook because of the novel’s pacing.
The Greek Coffin Mystery is certainly a more interesting read than its immediate predecessor and I think the case is both the most complex and tricky of the first four. While I guessed at some developments correctly, I didn’t come close to the final answer as to what had happened and I felt things were tied together very tidily. On the other hand, in terms of sheer enjoyment I still would say that The French Powder Mystery is my favorite of the Queens I have read so far. That story had the same sense of constant movement but to a clearer, static objective and I think had a stronger, punchier ending and a greater sense of thematic focus.
Next up will be The Egyptian Cross Mystery. It does strike me that I seem to be liking only the even number mysteries in this series but hopefully that will turn out to be the book that breaks that rule.
Vintage Mysteries Challenge: It made a “best of” list (Why)
Sergio lists this in 9 of the Best by Ellery Queen