The Greek Coffin Mystery (1932) by Ellery Queen

The Greek Coffin Mystery is one of the Ellery Queen novels that appears on almost every “Best of…” lists. When I first read it years ago, however, it seemed pretty unmemorable to me. So which is it – a classic mystery or simply overrated?

When George Khaklis dies suddenly, his will disappears from a locked safe during the funeral. When Ellery puts his mind to it, he realises that the only place the will can be is in the buried coffin itself. When the coffin is dug up though, the will isn’t there. What is in the coffin, however, is an extra body…

As with The Dutch Shoe Mystery, this adventure is set out of sequence – in fact the writer of the foreword, the mysterious J.J.Mc. makes a point of claiming that this is the earliest adventure so far for Ellery and friends. In terms of characterisation, Ellery is allegedly, according to the foreword, more impetuous that in the previously published books, but there isn’t much evidence of this. He seems to be making obscure quotations even more than before so maybe that was a habit that he grew out of – I hope so! It seems the reason for this “prequel” is, according to a footnote, which people had complained about Ellery’s habit of keeping everything from his father until the denouement. There is a reason of sorts presented in the book, as Ellery’s first solution to the crime(s) is embarrassingly wrong to him and hence he pledges to keep his theories to himself in the future until he is 100% certain of them. This is kind of odd, as there’s every implication in The Roman Hat Mystery and The French Powder Mystery that Ellery is keeping his father in the loop as he progresses, while in The Dutch Shoe Mystery, he only works out the killer at the end and again, tells his father first. Did readers really expect several semi-revelations as the case progressed? Had they not read detective stories before?

There is also one important downside to making it a prequel, but to discuss that would be a spoiler.

Anyway, back to this one. We’re still in logic problem mode with the plotting and this one is more complex than most. The plot keeps moving forward, notably with one other death, and there are four solutions in total (only one of them correct, obviously). I was completely taken in by and had guessed one of the wrong ones. It’s very well constructed, but there are issues with it for me.

First of all, a number of plot developments occur when a witness remembers something important that they had forgotten. Once or twice is fine, but it happened a bit too often for me here. As I mentioned before, there is a general style in the books so far in making the murderer someone that you have overlooked. Again, there are a few potentials in the “overlooked” category, but as more and more of the central cast fade into the background at the halfway mark, it does limit the possibilities.

All in all, an excellent mystery, but I think The French Powder Mystery is a little better for being a bit less convoluted.

Oh, and keeping with the “Why This Book Won’t Be Reprinted Unedited”

“The Negro groaned – I got jus’ an empty haid, suh. Can’t ‘member nuthin’.

Oh dear…

Oh (again) and here’s another of those completely irrelevant, vaguely pervy covers. OK, there is a painting in the book, but it’s not of a woman. Why on earth were these ever created?


  1. In my mind this has always ranked as the best of the early Queen books as I remember being truly stunned by the revelation of the villain’s identity. But it was also the one chosen by Symons and Nevins so i may also have been influenced by their opinions. It’s been a good 20 years since I read it and you’ve certainly made want to go back and see if my recollection is one I want to stand by or not, so thanks very much. Those Signet covers with the slinky females are fairly rubbish aren’t they? Here’s one I much prefer:


      • Those type of covers are often a bait-and-switch tactic, since they suggest that there’s sex in a book when there isn’t–there’s certainly none in this one.


    • Do you mean the “more” tag? That was an error on my part. Otherwise, what do you mean be Gallery setting?

      EDIT: I understand now, I think. Found the setting you mean, but I post everything as Standard. However with the Continue Reading bit that I almost always remember to include, that comes across as looking like a Gallery post.


      • Actually, that’s really interesting as I always used to have trouble with the excerpt function and ended up using the Gallery style to do it – I shall investigate the ‘more’ tag, thanks for the tip!


  2. Those Signet covers may have embarrassed me sometimes carrying them around, but they certainly got MY attention at the time, since I was 17-18 or so! 🙂 Greek Coffin is an enjoyable early EQ. The prissy early Ellery, with his pince-nez glasses and affectations begins to disappear and the more likeable Ellery begins to appear. The juxtaposition of the quote from a black character to the Signet cover is interesting though because I’d bet that the language was edited for the reprint. Having read a number of the books in early ’30s or ’40s editions, I haven’t found too much dialog or exposition that needed to be edited for the reprints–maybe the fact that the cousins were Jewish had something to do with their greater sensitivity then, say, Agatha Christie– but usually when it was done, it was for black characters that were maids, porters, etc. Usually when I find something questionable, I go check it out in the Signet editions. However, the Signet and they usually fix that. If you tell me what page/scene the quote is from, I could pull out my copy and see how it was repaired.


    • The stereotypical black character has a very small part in the book. I was more bothered by the character who is repeatedly referred to as an “idiot”, “imbecile”, “feeble-minded”, and so on.


  3. I just reread this one. Despite the fact that I had read it before, I was completely fooled by the solution. I suspected a couple of characters–one of whom I think was an intentional red herring–but not the actual culprit. In my defense, it was probably 25 or 30 years ago that I read it. It’s a good mystery, but I’m not fond of the writing style of these early books.


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