Book Review: The Greek Coffin Mystery by Ellery Queen

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The Greek Coffin Mystery is the fourth Ellery Queen mystery novel, and was published in 1932. The book was written by two cousins, Daniel Nathan (aka Frederic Dannay) and Manford Lepofsky (aka Manfred Bennington Lee), who coauthored the original novels under the pseudonym Ellery Queen. Ellery Queen is also the name of the novels’ detective as well, so that the illusion is created that the author of the books and the main character are one and the same. The novels, though, are not written in the first person, as are many of the hard-boiled detective novels, a device that gives the reader the sense that s/he is being told the story by the investigator him/herself.

The mystery can be summed up as follows: an elderly and wealthy Greek art dealer and collector, George Khalkis, dies, and at his funeral, it is noted that his will has gone missing. The District Attorney is informed, and Inspector Richard Queen of the NY Police is brought in to investigate. Tagging along is his college-aged son, Ellery. When it has been determined that the will is most likely in the coffin with the dead man, the coffin is opened only to reveal the body of an ex-convict who has been murdered. The will, though, is not found in the coffin.

And so the investigation begins in earnest to determine which of the guests or acquaintances of the dead collector was responsible for the death of the ex-convict, a man who had been involved in art forgery, and who seems to have made off with the will.

This book is typical of the classic mystery school, with the mystery as puzzle being key. The police are involved in the investigation, but like Lestrade and Gregson in the Sherlock Holmes stories, they are present only to provide access to the machinery of the police to the gifted amateur.

Like many of the early Ellery Queen novels, the title consists of "The + National Adjective + Common Noun + Mystery" (e.g. The Roman Hat Mystery, The French Powder Mystery, and The Dutch Shoe Mystery precede this novel). In those first three mysteries, the character of Ellery is more closely modeled on S.S. Van Dine’s Philo Vance, a patrician who loves to solve mysteries, and who is rather impatient with (as he sees them) the dim-witted police. Ellery even wears pince-nez glasses, and seems a lot like the arrogant and patrician Vance, which is somewhat surprising, given that his father is a police inspector who rose through the ranks – the chemistry between Ellery in those first few novels and his dad is a lot like (but with fewer comic payoffs) that between Dr. Frasier Crane and his retired police officer dad in Frasier.

The Greek Coffin Mystery presents a younger Ellery (this adventure takes place before the earlier published novels), with Ellery still in college. Ellery, though he is given to strange reveries, is not coldly arrogant in this novel. He also seems much more conversant with the classics of literature here than he had been in the earlier novels, where he seemed downright proud of his ignorance of the classics. He is more approachable than in the earlier novels, but he does display a young man’s confidence in his own infallibility and in a key chapter midway through the book, Ellery delivers a brilliant analysis of the case and offers up his own solution, which proves to be erroneous.

Ultimately Ellery, and his father, Inspector Queen, do get the culprit, but not before the reader is addressed by the authors with a “Challenge to the Reader,” in which the point is made that the reader has seen all the clues and so can, before the solution is given in the final chapter, attempt his/her own solution. Though all of the classic mystery authors are expected to engage in “fair play” and provide all the clues to the readers, Ellery Queen is unique in hitting the literary PAUSE button and issuing a direct challenge to the reader. Despite having all the clues, most readers will find it an almost insurmountable challenge, but that’s part of the fun of these brain-twisting puzzlers.

Though I chose to read The Greek Coffin Mystery this time around, I might as well have read any of the Ellery Queen novels using the formulaic title of The National Adjective Common Noun Mystery. All these novels are equally focused on the puzzle.

Interested readers might also want to look into some of the radio shows from the 40s — you can find some on The Internet Archive — these radio dramas follow the same sort of formula as the books, though Ellery is generally accompanied by a secretary, Nikki Porter. By the late 30s, when Ellery went to radio, the fictional Ellery has become a mystery novelist, who also solves mysteries, a creative approach later used on TV (in the 1950s and 1970s). The intriguing part of the radio shows was that each show had a panel of “experts,” often including some celebrity, who were asked to offer their solution to the mystery before Ellery himself gives the solution and the reasoning behind it.

So whether you choose to read, or listen to, or watch some Ellery Queen, you’ll find an intriguing puzzle, and a direct challenge to you to see if you can solve the puzzle. If you pay close attention, you just may do it.

About the Author

Bernard Norcott-Mahany, a library technical assistant at the Lucile H. Bluford Branch, is our resident connoisseur of classic literature. He is also the leader of the Black Classics and In the Heat of the Night book groups.

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