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 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.
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.
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.