The Penguin Drop Caps edition is a rich cornflower blue and the royal blue initial Q is holding a lime green magnifying glass in its lower curlicue. The table of contents is also clever: the chapter titles are an acrostic of “The Greek Coffin Mystery by Ellery Queen”. On the following page there is a list of characters and their relationships to the murder victim or their job title and good thing, too, as I had to consult it a few times. After the (self-congratulatory) forward by the anonymous J.J. McC. are a map and two floor plans to help the reader visualize the action more precisely. The epigraph of Book One is a lengthy quote from a German professor lecturing to a class on applied criminology. Is it a spoof? It contains the phrase: Use the little grey cells God has given you. Are the authors poking fun at Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot whose little grey cells are still internationally renowned?
And now onto the first chapter, Tomb. On my first reading of of The Greek Coffin Mystery, I found the lengthy, comma- and em dash- punctuated sentences a little hard to get into. This book was one of the rare novels I have had trouble getting a foothold on and because I did not follow the advice in How to Read a Book—read a novel in as close to one sitting as possible—I found myself getting lost in the details and losing the train of the story. I really had no idea “whodunit” by the end of the 363 pages.
I was supposed to "have in [my] possession all the facts pertinent to the only correct solution" to the death of Georg Khalkis and the second man who was found in Khalkis's coffin when they exhumed him. And why was Khalkis' will missing? And who was involved in the art forgery cover up? Oh, it was complicated, and I wasn't paying close enough attention.
But if I can be accused of not following How to Read a Book, I’m afraid Ellery Queen can be accused of not following Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style which advises “Avoid Fancy Words”. Sentences like “The occasion seemed to call for finesse and a conversational myopia. Whereupon he smiled in a rather vacuous fashion…” aren’t exactly examples of “lively Anglo-Saxon” words. For a detective novel I found it a tough slog.
The most enjoyable aspect of this novel was that it’s full of what I call “See, Bugsy” language. You know, the hard-boiled guy with the cheap cigar hanging out one side of his mouth, speaking in slang, dropping vowels and g’s like nobody’s business. I can’t figure out if it was just a trend to make characters talk like this in the ‘30s or if they really did and writers just tried to capture the dialect. In any case, I can hear Mel Blancs (who did all the Looney Toons voices) in my head when I read dialogue of the kind you find on page 113: “The dame, she don’t want nothin’. Pretty soon they start jawin’ at each other—reg’lar battle, I’d say.. I did catch the dame’s front handle—Lily, he calls her… ‘S’all I know, Inspector.” Or maybe it’s more like “Angels with Dirty Faces” (1938) You’re taken straight back to 1930s gang-land on the one hand and the world of the ultra rich art collectors on the other. It’s a fun mix.
Bottom line, I prefer Dorothy Sayers and Agatha Christie from the same era, but I can see why The Greek Coffin Mystery is a classic. In the comments, let me know what you think of Ellery Queen.
In order to slow down my frenetic book-eating, I'm writing reviews of the books I read to better digest them. Bon appétit!