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