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

The Dutch Shoe Mystery by Ellery Queen

DutchAfter getting off to a rough start with The Roman Hat Mystery, I felt that I had turned the corner with the second Ellery Queen novel The French Powder Mystery. I had read good things about the third book in the series, including from some people who generally don’t care about the early Nationalities phase of the cousins’ writing. On top of that, this book was significantly shorter than the two efforts that preceded it. Surely this would be the book where Dannay and Lee would knock it out of the park and deliver the classic read I know they are capable of… Right?

Well, let’s start with the positives. The initial premise of the book is, in my opinion, the strongest of the first three novels. Ellery is attending a meeting at the Dutch Hospital and, at its conclusion, he is invited to watch an operation being carried out on a wealthy philanthropist who funds some of the hospital’s research.

When the time comes for the surgeon to operate however they discover that she has been garroted and at first it seems that the killer is none other than the surgeon himself. There are a few other possibilities however including – and here my pulse was truly quickening – a mobster who was under anaesthesia at the time.

The other element of the novel that particularly marks it out is that this story features a second murder at the midpoint of the novel. This is a particularly welcome development as it addresses one of the principle weaknesses of the first two books – that the second halves of those books drag, becoming chapter after chapter of interviews. By introducing a second corpse, Ellery not only has something to do but he also must now question whether he is investigating the actions of one murderer or a first murderer and a second copycat murderer.

So, why aren’t I feeling more enthused about this? Perhaps it’s an expectations game. Maybe I just thought that The French Powder Mystery was so certain to be terrible that I was pleasantly surprised whereas I came to this one feeling hopeful that I was on course for a thrilling read that I felt let down. I certainly think that is a part of it.

The more significant problem for me was that I didn’t find the mystery particularly mysterious, at least in comparison with the previous two stories. There are some clues that Ellery takes a long time to piece together (or at least to tell us that he has pieced together) whose significance seemed quite obvious to me and, once worked out, the identity of a key figure is pretty simple to piece together. So where the previous books kept my attention in their final section as Ellery explains it all in minute, excruciating detail, here I just wanted him to get on with it.

There are other issues of pacing. While the introduction of a second murder certainly gives the story a lift, the individual chapters often pass with very little progress being made. In fact, there is quite a large section of the book where Ellery just seems to wallow in his inability to piece the case together in spite of the apparent simplicity of the crime. While I think the first two books are far too long, there is at least the sense of constant progress, however incremental. Here however we are waiting for Ellery to make a mental connection between evidence he already has and it is tedious.

I also think the book suffers from not having any particularly standout, colorful characters. I wasn’t rooting for anyone, either to be found innocent or guilty, and with Ellery conducting the investigation on his own, I found myself missing the banter between Ellery and his father.

So, were there any bright spots? Well, I appreciated that Djuna is finally given something to do and sets up some future development, though I still find the core concept of that character problematic (he is a Romany orphan that Ellery’s father adopts and makes into a sort of housekeeper).

Also, while the individual pacing of the chapters is a problem, I do think that the second murder adds a welcome complexity to the investigation even if it has the unfortunate side effect of narrowing an already quite limited field of suspects.

But sadly I think that’s about it. While the previous two books were a grind at times, I was at least interested in following them through to the end and finding out exactly how the crimes were committed. The Dutch Shoe Mystery tested my patience and I was found wanting.

I will, of course, no doubt find myself reaching for the next book at some point soon. I’ve already paid for it and while Queen can be tedious, I can see the bright spots and the potential. But I will be much more careful about letting those expectations rise again.

Vintage Mysteries Challenge: Set in a hospital/nursing home (Where)

The French Powder Mystery by Ellery Queen

FrenchMy experiences with the first Ellery Queen novel, The Roman Hat Mystery, were disappointing and I had told myself that I would take a break before tackling another one from this series any time soon so why on Earth was I listening to this just three weeks later?

The answer is that I was decorating my dining room and needed something to occupy my mind while I was watching the paint dry. Very happily I can report that I found this an altogether more entertaining experience.

I did find it curious though that two books that largely adhere to the same style and formula produced quite different responses in me. After much thought, I do think that I can identify a few aspects of this book that I felt contributed to my extra enjoyment.

Firstly, the early part of the book has Ellery work under the pressures of time and secrecy to survey and pick apart a crime scene before Police Commissioner Welles arrives to inspect it. This section is every bit as thorough as the searching the apartment sequence from the first book but whereas that begat pages of frustration, here there are several significant clues found and we get to follow and engage with Ellery’s process much more as he is no longer in the background but taking the lead in this investigation.

Second, while the book is not an impossible crime it is at least a logistically difficult one. While the first novel took place in a relatively crowded public space, here the authors place the murder in a location that is hard to gain access to and allow the various spaces and objects Ellery interacts with to dictate the progress of the investigation rather than the interviews. This suits the way in which Ellery makes his deductions in this early phase of his career and the regular discoveries of evidence (as opposed to the absence of evidence in the first novel) help keep this case from feeling as static as its predecessor.

Third, in addition to the big mystery of who killed Mrs French, Dannay and Lee also add several smaller mysteries that the reader is given the information to solve. The one that sticks out most in my head relates to the meaning of a series of books found on a desk. Here the writers do a great job of pacing Ellery’s process so that the reader has the chance to beat the sleuth.

While I do think this novel improves significantly on the first, it does still have some problems. Though Ellery’s process is quite clearly shown and explained to us, there are a few times where he states a deduction as fact where there are alternative, albeit incorrect, conclusions that could have been drawn at the point at which he draws his inferences.

Second, there is a secondary character whose whereabouts and fate ought to be of great concern to Ellery and the Police yet the narrative neglects them. This feels very strange and, for me, detracted from my overall enjoyment of the conclusion.

That conclusion is, as with the first novel, both exhaustive and exhausting though it does shed a lot of light on Ellery’s thinking and process. As I noted above, there are a few things he assumes and takes as fact that I am unconvinced by but this is at least acknowledged in a comment made after the summation. And it must be noted just how effectively the authors manage to allow the conclusion to play out without naming the murderer, only giving their name in the final sentence of the novel. This is a really powerful way to end a book, keeping the reader hooked until the end.

While I may not have had the best experience with the first Ellery Queen novel, I think overall this second one is much more entertaining and leaves me much more hopeful about continuing with my quest to work through these in order. I hope that I will be similarly impressed with The Dutch Shoe Mystery.

The Roman Hat Mystery by Ellery Queen

RomanOne of the aims of this blogging project of mine was to broaden my reading horizons and to educate myself on the history of the genre. While I count myself pretty familiar with the works of Christie and Sayers, I had never read anything by Ellery Queen – one of the more significant figures from the Golden Age of Detective Fiction.

When I made the choice to begin with The Roman Hat Mystery, Queen’s first novel, I had little knowledge of what lay in store for me. Perhaps if I had read the less than glowing posts from JJ and The Green Capsule about the book, I might have been a little better prepared for seemed at times to be an epic test of my endurance.

Monte Fields, a lawyer, is discovered dead in his seat at the Roman Theatre during the second act of a show called Gunplay. Strangely, for a hit show, the seats on either side of him were empty and no one was observed coming up to him during the performance. Our detectives, Police Inspector Richard Queen and his son Ellery, immediately focus on the absence of the victim’s top hat – a discovery that will launch a very detailed and repetitive series of searches to try to find it and determine its significance to the murder.

While it is a little strange to hear the characters hone in so quickly on the question of the headwear as if it was the only significant oddity in a case that possesses several, I did find the questions of how and why the hat had disappeared to be intriguing. To my disappointment the answers, particularly with regards to how the hat was removed, proved far less interesting than the scenario seemed to promise.

Part of the problem is the way the authors walk us through nearly every step of the investigation, listing off the various places considered and examined along the way. These sections of the book feel exhausting and offer little interest or sense of discovery, slowing the novel down considerably.

When not considering the question of the hat, Richard and Ellery Queen spend considerable periods interviewing the various witnesses. Although ‘witnesses’ may be a little inaccurate, given that no one seems to have seen anything take place. These sections were a little more enjoyable for me, though once again the pacing is slow and the conversations are at times a little repetitive.

The two detectives are not particularly striking in terms of their personalities, though I did appreciate their father and son dynamic and enjoyed their warm sense of affection for one another. Both characters seem to be primarily characterized by their indulgences – Ellery for rare books and Richard for taking snuff – rather than their emotions or and peculiarities in their personalities. Both are quite normal, though Richard was for me easily the more sympathetic character.

Before I go on to sum up my overall feelings about the book, I do want to directly address two points I have seen made in other reviews of this novel. Firstly, that the novel does not play fair with the reader and, secondly, the story advances some outdated racial views.

Let me tackle the second point first. The Roman Hat Mystery certainly does have moments that feature or hint at outdated racial ideas. When one of those ideas is mentioned in the plot it is clear that we are not meant to be sharing in or celebrating those views. Modern readers may struggle with these aspects of the novel.

The issue of whether the novel plays fair is much harder to judge. Certainly I can understand some readers feeling frustrated that there was some information given near the end of the novel that was not clearly provided prior to the Challenge to the Reader. I do not believe that any information is imparted after that Challenge that we need to figure out what happened in general terms and while it is a little frustrating in a puzzle mystery to have some developments not shared with the reader, I did not feel cheated by that.

Overall, I found the novel to be quite uneven and poorly paced with lengthy blocks of dialogue and a dull array of suspects. While there are some strong and entertaining parts of the story, I did feel that all-in-all this was a miss for me. Still, I liked the concept of the story and I still plan on digging through the Ellery Queen novels in order.

On the back of this however I think it may be wise to spread them out a little.