At long last, I’ve made it…I think. I’ve survived the brutal intrigue-barren plains of the first three Ellery Queen novels with a grim determination to make it to an oasis – The Greek Coffin Mystery. With the promise of a nearly unanimously regarded top five Ellery Queen novel, I’ve maintained a steady yet bleary eye on the horizon as I trudged through hundreds of pages of mind-numbingly detailed suspect interviews and crime scene searches. Now that I’ve arrived at the goal, would it be a GAD paradise or merely a mirage?
I started my journey reading Queen in publishing-order with burning excitement. Here was one of the big name golden age authors – a true master of the craft – with a library of almost forty novels to look forward to. I’ll never forget those first few chapters of The Roman Hat Mystery. Mesmerized by crime scene maps, dramatis personæ, and a false forward, I waded into the chaos of those exciting first few chapters as the New York police struggled to contain a crime scene in a crowded theatre. It took a while, but as I slowly realized that I was going to have to sit through the police interviewing every damn person in the theatre, I found my startled eyes contemplating just how many pages there were in the book.
There’s a blandness to these first few Queen novels that’s difficult to describe. If you had me read any given chapter in isolation, I’d shrug my shoulders and say “I like the writing style enough, everything seems to be ok.” But, you’ve got to understand – after you slog through 300 pages of this (and yes, that’s how long these tend to run), it gets to be a bit much. Interview after interview after interview. Every crime scene search detailed down to the last fleck of paper. And then, in the end, when you realize with horror that 99.9% of what you just persevered through wasn’t really relevant to the actual solution, man, that takes the wind out of your sails. The Roman Hat Mystery was the equivalent of reading a 300 page account of someone searching for their glasses, only to be hit with the jaw dropping twist at the end that they were wearing them the entire time.
The Greek Coffin Mystery promised to be different though. If you’ve read any review of the book, it’s no spoiler to say that it includes multiple solutions – four to be exact. That immediately called out to me. A false solution is special because you kind of get multiple book endings, and isn’t that the part of a mystery we all look forward to the most? The detective struts the floor, reviews the facts of the case, and point by point exposes a line of reasoning that you never saw coming. That’s what we live for.
In other words, it doesn’t matter how painstakingly detailed the investigation in The Greek Coffin Mystery might be. If it features four solutions, then at least the investigation gets cut into sizable chunks. Allot 20 pages for each false ending (and it being discredited), and we’re talking 80 pages of delight.
Well, The Greek Coffin Mystery is 359 pages in my Pocket Book edition. That’s almost double the length of most GAD novels, but still, maybe it wouldn’t be that bad. We’re talking 70 pages in between each solution, assuming they’re spread evenly throughout the book. That I can tolerate.
Ok, so let’s get to the plot already. Man, to tell you the truth, there is so much that unfolds across the 359 pages of this book that looking back at the origin of the whole mystery seems a bit misguided. Georg Khalkis, a renowned art dealer, has died and a small party has gathered for his funeral. His body is laid to rest in an underground crypt in a small graveyard behind his estate. As the party returns to the house, his lawyer makes a startling discovery. The will of the deceased has vanished, along with the strong box that contained it. The will was known to be locked inside a safe five minutes before the burial, and a horde of press staked outside the house assures that no one could have snuck outside the premise with the will or strong box.
Were this any of the first three Queen mysteries, we’d be treated to 75 pages of the funeral party being interviewed one by one and a detailed search of the grounds. The authors have thankfully taken a different approach this time, and a brief sentence or two assures us that statements were taken from all occupants and a thorough search was made of the house and graveyard. Instead, the investigation quickly narrows in on the seeming impossibility that the will/box can’t be located and couldn’t have possibly made its way out of the house undetected.
A bit of deduction on Ellery’s part leads to an interesting discovery, and we’re only 39 pages into the book! Here’s where The Greek Coffin Mystery really starts to distinguish itself from the prior Queen novels. Discoveries are made and new mysteries are revealed, which really helps with the sense of progress and keeping the story interesting.
I’m going to actually stop revealing specifics of the plot at this point, because the developments are what really help move the story along. There are multiple murders and some major shifts in the focus of the story. By the end of the book, the case of the missing will is almost a distant memory, as the reader is now more concerned with matters such as a secret rendezvous at a hotel room and the authenticity of a painting.
Despite all that happens, The Greek Coffin Mystery is a rather long book for it’s genre and the story does somewhat plod along in the same fashion as earlier titles. There’s certainly much more to grab your attention, but there are also few moments that truly had me fully engaged. I would be interested to see how my reading experience would have differed if this was my first encounter with Queen, as I think I brought in some mental baggage in terms of what I didn’t like in the previous books.
But how about those famed false solutions? Did they serve to chop up the book and provide the satisfaction I dreamed of? Well, they certainly do provide a break in the investigation, but I can’t quite say they were all I was hoping for.
The first solution comes a little over a third of the way through the book. A young cocky Ellery (The Greek Coffin Mystery is actually set years before the first three books in the series), drops an absolute bomb of an accusation… followed by backing it up with a healthy serving of convoluted spaghetti logic. The actual accusation features a promising and unforeseen twist, but the tower of logic that Ellery builds as justification lacks any solid support. It’s no surprise when it all falls down.
But isn’t a false solution by nature supposed to have holes? Well, yes, but it should also be as satisfying as a real solution until those holes are poked. I’ll draw a comparison to the false solution presented midway through the John Rhode / Carter Dickson collaboration Fatal Descent. That solution was so hilariously clever that I could have slapped the book shut for good and accepted it as the actual solution.
The first false solution of The Greek Coffin Mystery, on the other hand, suffers from the same weak logic present in the first three Queen books. Take The French Powder Mystery as an example – the reveal of the killer was actually one of the more thrilling finale’s I’ve read in GAD fiction, but the logic used to pin the identity seemed to hang by a thread. The killer could have simply said “uh, nope, not me”, and I don’t think the prosecution could have really done anything about it. There’s a similar issue at the end of The Dutch Shoe Mystery. While I liked the clever bit of misdirection that the killer used to commit the crime, the circumstantial evidence against them was thin at best. Again, the killer could have simply said “uh, sorry, it must have been somebody else.”
Of course, the first false solution doesn’t serve to simply provide a break in the plot. It’s a key moment in young Ellery Queen’s career where he realizes the danger of presenting a theory before he has all of the loose ends tied up. It’s this moment that takes him from a cocky young man to a more mature investigator who only holds his theories back from his inspector father because he hasn’t finessed all of the angles yet.
Or so the authors say. To tell you the truth, Ellery isn’t really that annoying before the false solution. Yeah, he slings around his latin quotes and smiles smugly, but it’s nothing that really bothered me. After the false solution, that’s another story. Worked into a frenzy by the need to justify his mistake, Ellery makes some insane leaps in logic in order to preserve aspects of his false theory. There’s about a 20 page passage after the nullification of the first solution where he launches into a dissection of where he went wrong, and I have to say that just about every fragment of logic that he stated struck me as “uh, what?”
From that point on, Ellery dismisses all of his father’s much more well reasoned attempts to take the investigation in a different direction and scoffs at the old man’s effort to follow up on clues that, you know, actually look like clues. If anything Ellery became more unlikeable after his supposed turning point.
I won’t go further down the path of the remaining solutions so you can experience how they play out for yourself, but I’d say that solution number three should have gotten his father fired from the police force and Ellery banned from coming from within 200 yards of a police station.
The actual real end to the book is a mixed bag. The identity of the killer was a definite surprise and is unveiled in a thrilling scene. The authors also built the story up in such a skilled manner that once you know who the killer is, all of the loose ends tie themselves and the various mysteries encountered throughout the book immediately make sense without needing any explanation. Oh, but you get an explanation, and it lasts near forty pages. Ellery lays what is now obvious out in needless detail, but mixes it in with the logical conclusions that led him to the culprit. This all sounds fine in theory, but the logical acrobatics employed by the authors just don’t jive with me.
When I first approached the Queen novels, the puzzle plots of the first period sounded like exactly what I was looking for. After all, impossible crime novels like those by John Dickson Carr are puzzles, right? Well, I assume the misinterpretation was on my part. The Queenian puzzle is an exercise in pure long-winded logical equations. Strap together thirty variations of “Person X must have done Y because of A, B, and C”, and you get a logic train that eventually leads down the tracks to the killer. The problem is that:
1. That isn’t much fun.
2. When one of those inferences isn’t really that tight, it all kind of comes apart.
Anyway, this sort of logical stacking doesn’t seem to be for me. I’ll be curious to see how I fare with authors like Freeman Wills Crofts, who has been described as writing timetable mysteries.
The Greek Coffin Mystery was definitely an improvement from the earlier Queen efforts in terms of the flow of the story and maintaining my interest. It was overly long and somewhat unrelenting, but there was enough going on to keep me semi-engaged. I still can’t say that I thought about the mystery while I wasn’t actively reading it, other than lamenting the notion that I could be spending the time with a book from another author.
So, was this the classic I was hoping for? Clearly not, although I think I walked into the book with that possibility already in mind. This is my favorite Queen so far, although that isn’t really saying much at this point.
The question now is where do I go from here? It’s tempting to drop my original mission to approach Queen in order and to jump to a later phase in the career. At the same time, I’ve got some 1940s-era Pocket Book editions of The Egyptian Cross Mystery, and I’m a sucker for a good cover…
Speaking of covers, I can’t resist leaving a few comments on the editions of The Greek Coffin Mystery that I’ve obtained while collecting Queen.
My 1942 Pocket Book edition with the men carrying the coffin on the cover was my goto read. As with most books from this era, the paper is super thin due to war rationing and has an amazing smooth feel to it. The cover of my copy is a little worse for wear, but the book was a delight to hold.
My 1960 Pocket Book edition with the woman caught in front of a safe was added to my library just as I was finishing the book. I personally love the cover art, which is very much in the same vein as other 1960’s editions by Pocket Books, although this may be my favorite of the series. My copy is notable for having a postcard-style insert for The Detective Book Club midway through, which none of my other 60’s-era PB editions have.
My 1969 Signet Mystery edition is part of a whole slate of Queen releases featuring a model with props on the cover. I’m much more a fan of illustrations and this isn’t really my style. It is interesting that they chose props alluding to the mystery of the painting, as that’s an aspect of the plot that tends to be skipped over in other reviews of the book that I’ve read.
Up above I talked about some of the issues that I have with the logic used in the early Queen books. I’ll take some time to explain myself using an example from The Greek Coffin Mystery, but it’s going to requires spoilers. I’m not going to give away the ending of the book, but I will be going into details that would spoil your experience if you haven’t read it yet. For anyone commenting below, please be careful with your comments so as to not ruin anything for anyone else.
The first false solution involves Ellery jumping to the conclusion that Georg Khalkis wasn’t really blind. That’s an extremely interesting plot twist and I was delighted when I read it. But the entire bit about the teacups, Georg only having one visitor, and the bit about the ties didn’t really seem like that strong of a justification to leap to such conclusions. Yes, we know someone did something with the teacups, and Ellery’s explanation seems like a clever theory, but it is by no means the only explanation.
Of course, it makes sense that Ellery’s logic would be weak, as his solution is to be proven wrong. However, once it’s proven wrong, Ellery responds in a way that caught me off guard. Rather than dispensing with the whole theory, he actually seizes tighter to it. The theory was wrong, he explains, but only because the killer planted clever clues to lead him to those conclusion.
I love the idea of a clever adversary planting false clues and using the detective’s own logic against him. However, Ellery doesn’t ever seem to consider that maybe his original theories were just wrong. Maybe the ties were just an accident as explained by the color blindness. Maybe something did happen with the teacups, but it wasn’t a ploy by the killer to make Ellery jump through insane logic hoops to conclude that Georg Khalkis could see.
Of course, in the end Ellery is correct – or is he? There’s certainly no one to refute Ellery’s final telling of the solution, but there’s nothing that really confirms that his theory of the falsely planted clues was correct. All that we know is that he correctly identified the killer. We really have no explanation of what happened with the teacups. I think it’s fair to assume that the killer was the one who manipulated them, but to state with certainty that they were manipulated with the purpose of tricking Ellery into thinking that Khalkis wasn’t blind is a leap too far.
Anyway, that’s the one bit of the solution that I thought I’d pick on, but there were a number of claims that Ellery made where I was thinking “yeah, I don’t really know if that is air tight…”