Wednesday, August 17, 2011

The Greek Coffin Mystery

After the famous art dealer Georg Khalkis dies caused by illness, his will turns out to be stolen. When the police, including Inspector Richard Queen and his son Ellery, arrive at the scene, Ellery suggests the will could only be found in Khalkis' coffin. However what turns out to be there is not the will but another corpse - and an obvious murder at that!

I was kind of surprised how unspoiled I managed to read this classic (I would not count the existence of several false and one correct solution as a spoiler since there's no way a solution stated before the challenge to the reader would be the definite one...). That said, the first solution was obviously wrong for me immediately anyway due to one clue, aspect, device or whatever I should call it I've encountered so often in Japanese mystery fiction that it just made me too cautious concerning that by now.

Apart from that though, this definitely deserves its status as one of the most important and simply awesome classics of the genre. I totally fell for one of the later false solutions and the actual culprit was indeed totally unexpected for me even though it was absolutely logical and deducible how Ellery's brilliant recital in the denouement proved. There are, typically for those old novels, some minor aspects that might make some clues a tad harder to catch and/or interpret but I don't think this unevitable factor makes the mystery unsolvable for readers who did not live at the time when this book was published.

If there was something I could remark, there would be two things:
1) There are one or two instances where a character suddenly remembers something or revokes established circumstances which felt a bit too convenient and almost random but any author has to construct and advance in his plot somehow.
2) The culprit, surprising as he was, almost felt a bit too unexpected since the motive still isn't anything satisfying, unique or memorable for me knowing the whole story. It's fair and guessable and convincing and all, it just didn't fit my personal taste, which might be a little bit too influenced by (especially contemporary) Japanese writers and their extended focus on characterization.

These are only minor nitpickings though as the complex yet entertaining plot and its mystery were totally engaging and made me love my first novel by Ellery Queen. I'm certainly inclined to try out others and I'll probably continue with The Siamese Twin Mystery and/or The Chinese Orange Mystery so I'd have three of the most popular/distinct Queens off my list.


  1. My opinions about the book are known, so the only comment I'll make here about Greek Coffin is that I actually have the pocket you used as the cover illustration ^_~

    With a lot of Queen's early stories, the motive isn't that important. The focus lies very heavily on the process of how Queen arrived at the murderer: he deduces the characteristics/knowledge the murderer must have and compares it to all the people (even those who seem unrelated). So often, the murderer seems to come out of nowhere storywise, even if logically, the process is sound.

    Oh, by the way, Ten Days' Wonder is one of the Queen's Wrightsville novels, which generally are too minimalistic for my taste, but this one is quite different and Ten Day's Wonder rather fantastical themes should appeal to you.

  2. I also want that pocket! Not only because my other Queens are more or less matching editions, but because the cover looks SO classy and actually depicts a scene from the novel's content... which sadly isn't exactly common.

    Yes, that's why I won't actually criticize that point since as much as I'm in for appropriate characterization, I can read/watch/play other stuff for that aspect and I'm mostly looking for interesting puzzles and settings when reading orthodox detective fiction. Of course the setting also includes the characters, but as long as the characters serve their purpose and don't bore me I'm usually fine with that.

    I was thinking about picking Ten Days' Wonder from what I've read about it and seeing authors like Maya Yutaka stating it as one of their Top 3 Queens. I'll just get it from our university library when I feel like it.

  3. Well, if you want extended, in-depth characterization on top of a complexly braided plot than you have to check out Patrick Quentin, which was one of three nom-de-plumes used by a collaborative writing team, who were a more mature equivalent of Ellery Queen – writing detective stories with darker themes, fully-rounded characters and ingeniously conceived plots.

    Death and the Maiden and Black Widow are masterpieces and among the best detective stories I have read this year. The only real fault these writers had is that they never dabbled into the impossible crime genre.

    It's such a shame these writers aren't widely read anymore.