The Greek Coffin Mystery – Ellery Queen

As a lover of mystery and crime novels it is perhaps surprising that this was my first time reading Ellery Queen and the fact that I have started at the fourth book is due entirely to this being the only Ellery Queen that I possess. Let’s get the somewhat complicated back story of the authorship out of the way first and then dive into this surprisingly long (363 pages) crime novel. Ellery Queen is given as the author as well as the name of the private detective featuring in the book, in fact it is the work of two cousins, Frederic Dannay and Manfred Bennington Lee, who also individually wrote crime novels under those names. To add to the confusion both those names are also pseudonyms; Frederic Dannay’s real name was Daniel Nathan whilst his cousin Manfred Bennington Lee was really Emanuel Benjamin Lepofsky. Between them they wrote over thirty Ellery Queen novels and collections of short stories and there were also a few later books which were ghostwritten by various other authors and supervised by Lee.

What to make of this book though? It features Detective Inspector Richard Queen and his private detective son Ellery, who improbably gets to sit in on all meetings and interviews, along with visiting crime scenes just as if he was an actual member of the police force, he can even apparently make arrests. Indeed it took me some time to realise that Ellery Queen was, unlike his father, not actually an official part of the police. The story initially is simply the case of a missing will following the death of an elderly art dealer in New York. When it is worked out that the only place the will could have been put in the short time available from when it was last seen to when it was discovered to be missing is in Georg Khalkis’s coffin before the lid was screwed down an exhumation is ordered. The coffin being opened however is found to have two bodies in it, Khalkis and a mystery corpse and the case becomes murder and the problem is not just who killed the unknown victim but who are they… With thirty nine characters (including the police and Ellery) it can get complicated and I was glad of the list of people at the front of the book when trying to sort out the different relationships between them all.

The story is split up into two books, the first ending with the arrest of yet another incorrect suspect but with the police apparently satisfied that this time they have got their man. The second book details the collapse of the case against the arrested person and the slow discovery of the clues leading to the true murderer and thief. One thing I really liked was at the end of the thirtieth chapter where there is a break in the story for Ellery Queen to speak directly to the reader and make clear that at this point you have read all the clues needed to solve the case and that there is only one solution that fits everything you know. With almost sixty pages still to go it provided a break where I could go back in my mind over what has happened in the first three hundred pages and try to solve it. I have to admit that the actual solution was so surprising that I didn’t get it but yes everything fitted once you knew who did it.

This edition of The Greek Coffin Mystery was published as part of the Penguin Drop Caps series of twenty six books each with an author starting with a different letter and it is particularly appropriate for this to be Ellery Queen book chosen for Q as the chapters in this one are titled as an acrostic spelling out the titles and author. First published in 1932, the first Penguin Books edition came out in May 1957, this hardback was published in 2013 for the American and Canadian market only.

As I said at the start this was my first Ellery Queen mystery and whilst I enjoyed it I did find the character of Ellery Queen rather annoying. Reading about later books in the series he apparently does calm down a lot as the series progresses with far fewer irritating build ups to an incorrect accusation than occurs in this story. Maybe I ought to read one of the later books to see if I like him better.

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