The Greek Coffin Mystery by Ellery Queen (1932)

Obligatory introduction to any review of an Ellery Queen book: there are two Ellery Queens:

(1) Ellery Queen is the pseudonym under which the son of a New York policeman writes up the real-life cases in which he and his father are involved. He writes detective fiction under his real name.

(2) Ellery Queen is the pseudonym of cousins Frederic Dannay and Manfred Lee who wrote detective novels featuring the character Ellery Queen (1).

The convention I have seen elsewhere is that Ellery refers to the character and Queen to the authors and that is what I will use here.

Although the fourth in the series in order of publication, J. J. McC.’s introduction implies that this case came first chronologically and this is born out as we see the development of Ellery’s method and a particular aspect of his way of working.

The story begins at the funeral of Georg Khalkis, an art dealer of Greek extraction. Shortly after the service in the graveyard neighbouring the family home, a lawyer finds that the recently changed will, which he had seen five minutes before the burial party left the house, has vanished from the safe. The nosy crowd gathered outside the house swear that no one else has gone in or out of the house. A thorough police search of the property and all the people therein is undertaken which reveals nothing.

A few days later, Ellery is informed of the facts and deduces where the missing will must be. When this lead is followed up, the will is still not found, but something much more unpleasant is and thus begins Queen’s most elaborate mystery to date.

I was completely taken in – this is normally the case – but here I had thought I was on the right track for once only to then realise that I had seen exactly what Queen had wanted me to see and draw my flawed conclusion accordingly. And yet because of one particular aspect of this case, if I had checked something that briefly crossed my mind, I might have got to the solution.

In many ways the whole thing is nonsense – I don’t believe a real murderer would act as they do in this book – but if it is nonsense, it is glorious nonsense: a fabulously crafted example of the pure puzzle taken to extremes. Having learned in reading The Dutch Shoe Mystery to accept Queen on their own terms, I found this to be a brilliant read.

Vintage Mystery Challenge

Fulfils “What – Written by more than one person”.

 

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5 thoughts on “The Greek Coffin Mystery by Ellery Queen (1932)”

  1. I’m glad this blew you away, John! I read it when i was 12 or 13 – it was my first Queen and probably the 3rd or 4th classic mystery I had ever read. I remember when the reveal came at the end that I literally jumped out of my chair. I didn’t know mysteries were allowed to do things like this!!

    I re-read the book a couple of years ago and, of course, didn’t like it nearly as much. Ellery is insufferable, and most of the book is him pontificating one theory after another. But the jolt at the end is good, and the whole thing is quintessential GAD – pure puzzle, for better or worse, that will dazzle the willing reader.

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    1. You had told me on someone else’s blog that I wouldn’t be disappointed with this and that was certainly the case. In hindsight I particularly liked the significance of the value of the blackmail and why it did not fit psychologically.

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  2. Like you, I fell right into a couple of the traps that were so ostentatiously laid out for me. I was lucky enough to read this before my awareness of Queen and GAD in general had me overwhelmed at what a leviathan it was, and I think my opinion veers closer to the vox populi as a result: I remember it being insanely dense, wickedly complex, wildly improbable, and written with a feisty intelligence that would get anyone interested in puzzle fiction very excited. I think I then went on to expect the rest of EQ’s stuff to be at least this brilliant, and ended up stymied in all manner of ways…!

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    1. I am intrigued to see how things change when I move into later period Ellery with the Wrightsville Murder trilogy.

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      1. The transitional stuff I’m currently mired in — Halfway House, The Door Between — is fascinating for how Dannay and Lee are changing the game. Clearly they recognise the need to refresh the idiom in which they write, but breaking out is often far harder than breaking in to begin with…

        I’d advise trying at least some of the middle-period works before jumping straight to the later stuff. It’ll be less jarring that way, though not always fun.

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