book review

The Greek Coffin Mystery

Jerry Lewis once tried to explain his distaste for widescreen aspect ratios by thundering, “It’s lazy to shoot a film in widescreen; everything is in the goddamn frame. There’s no need for pictorial skill!”

Whether I agree with Mr. Lewis’s opinion on widescreen ratios (or indeed, what constitutes pictorial skill) is entirely moot, but I thought of him when I began The Greek Coffin Mystery. The list of dramatis personae numbers 38. Minus the cops, the dead man, and a couple of people who cannot be considered for the crime–and we’ve got ourselves a good 20 suspects.

Even for a novel’s beginning, that’s a lot of characters. I can almost hear Jerry Lewis now. “Of course the killer will be a mystery–because the reader needs a flowchart to consider the damn suspects. There’s no need for authorial skill!”

When I think of my favorite type of mystery, there are far fewer suspects and (yes, I’ll say it) it takes more authorial skill to hide 1 killer in 5 than 1 in 25. How many suspects are in the average John Dickson Carr novel? 4-6? sometimes three? Hell, the character who ends up being the killer isn’t even a suspect half the time! Ellery Queen’s tactic is to create morass and then (sometimes more painstakingly than here) sift through that morass.

I’m sure a lot of my readers have no such issue with TGCM, for TGCM was the winner of my poll. I do not like the novel as much as most of you; however, I will be as fair as possible. Author Queen(s) does a nice job revving the plot’s engine–the set-up is efficient, and the the cast is handled in such a way that its heft does not grate–Queen will often (thankfully) combine interviewees whenever possible.

THE PROBLEM:

The novel begins with Georg Khalkis’s funeral. A large gathering of mourners returns to his home where it is discovered that his will (having to do with an art dealership) has vanished. Author Queen does an excellent job establishing the closed nature of the crime. The problem’s severity is amplified by the lawyer’s reaction and (in a brilliant scene) the rough search process run by my favorite character, Thomas Velie. The will cannot be found. Enter Ellery Queen and his pops…and the entirety of the NYPD. Ellery (younger here than in the other Queen novels) suggests the will might be in the coffin. They proceed to unearth the coffin, and they discover…Is this book even considered spoilable? I have to assume everyone who voted for this has read it, yeah?

They find a dead man. There are additional problems concerned with witness testimony, but each one is logical and they are dealt with one at a time. This is the main obstacle and TGCM will be a rather focused march toward solving it, one weird clue after another. That’s all well and good.

THE INVESTIGATION:

This novel begins a tradition in the series of Ellery Queen novels. Because Ellery is publicly embarrassed by his initial error in deduction with respect to the teacups, he will never reveal any of his thoughts about this or any other murder until he is ready to solve it. I wonder if that was a development of character or a tactic by the author. From now on, Ellery can be 95% certain and still stay mum, never revealing anything to the reader. It’s a genuine problem of writing detective fiction and I get the feeling Queen wanted to solve it for himself once and for all. I and a million other writers have take the “I won’t solve it unless I am 100% sure” mentality for granted, and I suspect we should thank Ellery Queen.

The false solutions, plentiful as they are, are simply not good. There are good elements, to be sure–the theory about Khalkis’s blindness is nice–but overall they involve stretches of logic too vast to wow the reader.

The group of suspects is questioned rather painlessly. There’s no horrible repetition of information. Though my brain (damnable as it might be) spasms at the idea of scenes which do not further the plot or act as red herrings, but simply compound things. With Queen there sometimes seems to be no tactic. He is simply observing, “Real investigations have to deal with useless crap. Then, so do my readers.” This is self-defeating, for the mysteries of life and the mysteries of the page are not meant to be 100% simpatico.

I know I sound negative. I liked a lot of individual stuff. The penultimate, final stalking of the killer is superb, especially the way it functions as true suspense while still playing the silly game of calling the darkened figure everything but his/her actual name. I like the frustration of the detectives. I like a lot of small things while not enjoying the whole.

THE SOLUTION:

It’s fun while not being at all inexorable. The leaps in logic to reach this place are too great for it to recover, but it still has plenty of the Aaaahs and Ohhhhhs. I’ll say this, Queen is bad at convincing the reader that things (any of the things) had to happen the way they did. That’s a major reason why I feel like I spent time listening to a story rather than being trapped in a mystery.

Imagine if Paul Halter tackled this coffin problem. Imagine how entertaining that book would be. Imagine how wild the ride.

TGCM is just okay, and it’s a long just okay at that. I’m glad I read it. Soon, I’ll forget it.

Let the lecturing begin.

4 thoughts on “The Greek Coffin Mystery”

  1. Well, James, if you didn’t love this one you’d better not grab any other period 1 novel. Except for Siamese Twin, that is. I bet it’s up your alley.
    Now, about the twenty suspects thing … do remember that they are not only suspects, but witnesses as well. If you are gonna cheat and pull a killer out of your ass, you can do it with five, twenty or one hundred characters. But I do prefer a smaller cast as well. You want to rub the killer in the reader’s face and still surprise them.
    The only detail in the whole book that bothered me had to do with the color blindness. I still don’t know whether bringing the wrong colored tie twice was a coincidence or the authors fucked up and thought colorblind people confused the name of the colors green and red. We shall never know.
    Anyway, grab a Halter nexr time. Even if you don’t like it, there are no pacing issues there.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. This was, probably, my first Queen, and I remember it vaguely. I remember being exhausted come the end, and I remember some tedious stuff with a typewriter — but I also remember loving how I fell into some obvious traps where the false solutions were involved, and I distinctly recall the murder’s identity taking me completely by surprise for all the right reasons.

    As someone with no huge amount of love for Early Queen (even Siamese Twin…in fact, especially Siamese Twin) I can recommend Halfway House. You’ll definitely solve it, but it’s more fun and contains a clue that tickles me to this day.

    Enjoy the explanations of why you’re wrong that you’re about to receive in bulk…

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Well, I don’t think there will be a lot of lecturing because you were fair enough in your review! I enjoyed this much more than you but I can understand your frustrations.

    I really loved the first false solution as well as the eventual logic behind the blackmailing letters. Its funny you should mention colour blindness because I thought that was rather unnecessary and shouldn’t have been included.

    I completely agree with Andres that this and Siamese Twin are the strongest books of first period. ( It should be noted that virtually everybody except JJ considers Siamese Twin to be excellent)

    I think that most people – especially the modern readers prefer the Third period books with “Cat of Many Tails” considered his masterpiece.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. This book is better than the Queen’s that come before it, but man, it is way too long. My main memory is that the logic that was used for all of the solutions (real and false) was incredibly flimsy. If you’re looking to try something else by Queen I suggest skipping ahead to Calamity Town. Not a brilliant mystery but much more readable.

    Like

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