The Greek Coffin Mystery by Ellery Queen

CoffinThe 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

16 thoughts on “The Greek Coffin Mystery by Ellery Queen

  1. “Egyptian Cross” has a pretty great setup, but some will be very disappointed with the twist. I’m not one of them, so I enjoy the book quite a lot. Though the next one, “Siamese Twin”, is even better, so you might get to continue your even numbers streak. 🙂

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      1. The first half of Egyptian Cross is, for my money, hard work once the setup is out of the way. Than about halfway through it becomes amazing for maybe 20% of the book, before reverting to type. But, well, you may have a better time with it (and I sincerely hope you do!).

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  2. I used to think I didn’t like early Queen, but I had a much better reaction to them than you, Ben, and JJ…

    I rather like The Greek Coffin Mystery, but when you compare it to The Hollow Man or The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, it definitely comes off as a little flat. With that said, I’m very fond of the four solutions: once they really start going in earnest, the book does become, as you put it, a “pacier, more dynamic read.” (I’m particularly fond of that first false solution, but then it did inspire a story I’m working on now…) I very much like the actual solution, but (as is Queen’s wont) it goes on a bit too long… Yes, I like the [admittedly not ironclad, as much as Queen wants us to think it is] logic chain, Ellery, but will you please stop already? 😉

    To make some comments about EQ recommendations… Hm. Like Christian, I really like Egyptian Cross (the gimmick is guessable but very clever) and think Siamese Twin is better—perhaps the best of Period I, along with The Adventures. I was rather surprised by how good Spanish Cape is—better written than most of Period I, and, while the killer’s identity is obvious, there’s some wonderful plotting about why said killer did a particular act. Fairly good b-movie they made based on it, too (https://youtu.be/Yjg4a6NJVM4). Of Period II, Halfway House, The Four of Hearts, and “The Lamp of God” are some of EQ’s best detective stories—both well-plotted and well-written. Period III continues on in the same vein, though with theology and philosophy added; I think Calamity Town and Cat of Many Tails excellent and Ten Days’ Wonder Queen’s masterpiece. Oddly, with Ellery, the early ones are so plot-based that I was surprised I was reading the later ones for writing and character, but I was.

    Hope that gives a few pointers (though I know you didn’t ask—sorry). 🙂

    Karl

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    1. I’d be willing to accept that it may be a format thing. At first I thought that I made a strong choice by opting for the audiobooks for these but while I have enjoyed aspects of them, it makes the long explanations Ellery gives feel like they last forever.

      I bought the next one as an audio a while ago but I may try the ebook to see how that affects my perception of the story.

      No need to apologize for those recommendations – I appreciate them and am happy to hear that I have some good stories ahead of me! I will have to check out that b-movie version of the Spanish Cape once I’ve read the book to see how the two compare.

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      1. I’d really be interested in hearing an audiobook version… I haven’t really tried one since those “Playaways” several years ago. (Anyone know those? They were a big deal here about ten years ago—librarians pushed them on everyone—and then the whole craze kinda died down and everyone forgot about them.) I wonder how that does affect the experience. If anything, though, Egyptian Cross may be a good one for the audiobook format: its opening and the build-up to solution are very fast paced, and only the middle drags a bit (though there are still some interesting clues about checkers and ink).

        The Spanish Cape movie simplifies the plot, obviously, but it’s decent; though Insp. Queen (Guy Usher) only shows up for the first five minutes, the rapport between him and Ellery (Donald Cook) is good. I’m happy we have the movie, especially as there are no Christie adaptations extant from the ’30s except for Love from a Stranger, and no Carr adaptations at all until ’51. Oh, well…

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      2. I remember playaways! I bought one at the O’Hare airport bookstore right before a flight once and remember going around for weeks saying that they would be the future of audio books! Thank goodness I was wrong…

        My sneaky technique with listening to the Queens on audio is to then look at the Kindle preview for the maps, not that I have ever been helped in guessing a solution by doing this. I prefer the narrator for the first two audio books than the one who took over with The Dutch Shoe Mystery though.

        Is movie Ellery a little less prone to rhetorical flights of fancy than his literary counterpart?

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      3. Pretty much, yes, though it is a very Queenian tendency (even Jim Hutton in the excellent TV series tends to go on a bit). For the film, the writers have turned EQ into more of romantic hero, which is to be expected—so he does get fewer opportunities to explain everything.

        Yes, someone else who remembers playaways! Ugh, I recall “the future of the audiobook” as well. I think my library may still have them, too…

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      1. MAJOR SPOILER FOR THE GREEK COFFIN MYSTERY BEGINS HERE! DON’T READ ANY FURTHER IF YOU HAVEN’T READ IT!

        Come to think of it… how the heck do you do Greek Coffin as an audio book? One major clue is purely visual. It’s in Chapter 29 after the paragraph that begins, “They studied the figures”. (It’s the same one omitted in the Kindle edition.) Without it, there’s a whole chain of deductions that the reader doesn’t have a fair chance of making about whose typewriter was used, and who had access to it, which is the chain that leads Ellery to the murderer.

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      2. I have to cast my mind back about 4 months but I think the question of key layout is addressed in the text. It is possible that the text used in the audiobook was adapted in some way or that I just assumed it had been mentioned… I don’t remember being bothered by it and I usually am when I didn’t feel something was fairly clued.

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  3. After reading the comment by Justice for the Corpse, I compared the paperback with the kindle regarding the missing clue. The clue is actually an image of certain figures typed on a letter in chapter 29. The image is again shown in chapter 32 when Ellery Queen explains the figures by writing them with a chalk on the blackboard. In the kindle edition, these images are not properly represented.
    To help readers having kindle edition, I have uploaded the 2 images here:

    In the kindle edition, both images are simply printed as $30,000

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  4. I loved this when I read it 40 years ago. I reread it last year and it doesn’t really hold up. I guess that once I was happy to read a dozen pages proving the eggs were sunny side up not over easy, but no more.
    FWIW my favourites of the early Queens were French, Orange, Twin, Coffin in that order.

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    1. I do think that the detail can be excruciating at times, as can Ellery’s smug demeanor. There is unfortunately a reason that this Ellery Queen read through has not been the monthly feature I originally envisioned! Happily I did at least enjoy The Egyptian Cross Mystery but I gather my next one, The American Gun Mystery, is something of a turkey.

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