Four unpleasant children (Part 2 of 2)

imagesThe other day, I published the first half of this essay. It was based upon the experience of picking up four mysteries at random from a box of recent acquisitions and finding that they all, to my surprise, contained children — unlikeable, unpleasant, and vaguely sticky children — as principal characters. This will be slightly less of a hatchet job than Part 1, since I actually liked one of today’s books … but I was in a mood to be less than pleased by children in mysteries.

Please be warned that this essay concerns works of crime fiction; part of their potential enjoyment is based on surprising the reader. If you read any further you will learn something about (1) The Widow’s Cruise, by Nicholas Blake; (2) Grey Mask, by Patricia Wentworth; and some others, including one by Christianna Brand to which I refer obliquely but specifically below, and Agatha Christie’s The Seven Dials Mystery. I discuss elements of plot and construction although I don’t lay out the answers in so many words.  If you haven’t already read these novels, reading this essay means they will have lost their power to surprise you to greater or lesser extent, and that would be a shame. So please go and read these books before you spoil your own enjoyment. If you proceed past this point, you’re on your own. 

What’s this rant about?

51Cx4OmyUXL._SX306_BO1,204,203,200_The third in my unbroken sequence of children in mysteries occurred when I picked up a copy of The Widow’s Cruise, a 1959 novel by the great Nicholas Blake. I provided a very brief biography of this writer some years back here; under his own name of Cecil Day-Lewis, he was indeed Poet Laureate of England (and his son is indeed the famous actor Daniel Day-Lewis).

As his career wound down, he published fewer novels in the series about amateur detective Nigel Strangeways and this is almost the last really satisfying one, I’ll suggest.  (That would be 1961’s The Worm of Death, which has small problems but large brilliancies.) In this outing, Nigel and his life partner Clare Massinger, a sculptor, board the Menelaos to cruise around the Greek Islands in the company of an assorted group of fellow passengers. The two of most interest are a pair of middle-aged sisters, one of whom is Melissa, a wealthy and glamorous widow, and the other a frustrated academic (Ianthe) recovering from a nervous breakdown.

447a5923b4b047fca5a624e0f32b639fOne of the other passengers is a teenage girl who attended the girls’ school where the bitter academic had taught until her breakdown; Faith and her brother are eager to snap at the heels of the former schoolteacher, who is withdrawn and unpleasant. Also in conflict with Ianthe is the scholar Jeremy Street, who is leading the “Greek history” part of the tour aboard the Menelaos; Ianthe’s last rational act before her breakdown appears to have been to publish a scathing review of Street’s scholarship.

UnknownBut it’s not teenage Faith who aroused my dislike; it’s another fellow passenger who is very little seen in the book but leaves an indelible impression. Little Primrose Chalmers, aged about nine, is the child of two psychoanalysts and her hobby appears to be spying on her fellow passengers and writing things down in a notebook. This unpleasant child contradicts her elders, doesn’t appear to realize when people don’t want her around, and appears to regard her fellow passengers as analytic subjects rather than adults to whom one should be respectful. Things build rapidly to a head and one afternoon, after a shore excursion during which Ianthe disappears, missing and presumed dead, Primrose is found face-down in the swimming pool and her notebook is missing. Apparently she saw or heard the wrong thing at the wrong time.

tumblr_lhm2a4iPD31qd7ygho1_1280Just imagining what it must be like to be trapped on a cruise ship with a child spying on you — let alone under circumstances productive of sexual dalliance, over-indulgence in food and drink, bitter arguments with persons on board from one’s past, and scholarly infighting — it all sounds very unpleasant to me. I’m not suggesting that Primrose deserved to be killed, that’s not fair to say at all about a child, but … how shall I put this? … the experienced mystery reader is not truly surprised.

517AXFNBzAL.SX316.SY316For the most part, this is really more a character study than anything else. Blake does a wonderful job of making us see bitter Ianthe and her less than virtuous sister Melissa, the pouty teenage Faith, the pompous but wounded Jeremy Street, and even the minor characters like a Bishop and his wife whom Nigel befriends, and the Greek cruise director, the greasy and highly-sexed Nikolaides. As you reach the conclusion of the book you will realize that you have actually been fooled by a complex and very deliberate plot, and that you have been given a large number of clues as to what actually happened — and you’ve overlooked or misinterpreted most of them.

My blogfriend, the percipient Kate Jackson, looked at this book last year with her usual acuity, and I do think her opinions and mine coincide for the most part. She made a good comparison of the central plot device here to certain of the works of Agatha Christie, and I agree. However, I think there’s even a stronger parallel in a novel of Christianna Brand’s from 1955 (don’t look up this piece by blogfriend Dan at The Reader Is Warned unless you are prepared to have some enjoyment spoiled of both this book and the Brand one).

51Mbiq780FL._SX343_BO1,204,203,200_What I enjoyed most about The Widow’s Cruise was the quality of the writing, which is head and shoulders above Blake’s contemporaries. The prose is elegant and intelligent, the plot is tidy and masterful, and the characterization, as I said, is the strongest point. Just a pleasure to read something this well-written, where intelligence leaks through the pores, as it were. I’m prepared to sacrifice a couple of Primroses for a book this smart and engaging.

4279de94b610700b1002b4e3cac79b7cAnd so I turn from a child who was a victim to a child who ought to have been a victim, as I mentioned yesterday. Grey Mask, a 1929 novel by Patricia Wentworth, is the earliest of my four encounters with the under-21 set and the very first in the long series of novels about Miss Silver, a retired governess who became a private investigator.

I’ve had quite a bit to say over the last few years about the work of Patricia Wentworth; The Clock Strikes Twelve (1944); The Dower House Mystery (1925) (a non-Miss Silver mystery); Poison in the Pen (1954); and a long piece about Miss Silver Comes To Stay (1949) that contains quite a bit of general observation about her entire oeuvre. I’m thinking of another more major piece in the future (in that regard, does anyone know why you would want to poison an innocent caterpillar?) but in the meantime it’s been pleasant to dip into the many mysteries she currently has available thanks to e-books. I’ll let those other pieces speak for themselves, if I may.

6a00d834515bbc69e2019101ea6a4f970c-600wiHowever, this is Miss Silver’s first outing, and honestly I suspect it was nearly her last. It took nearly ten years for the author to create a second Miss Silver novel and there were well more than a dozen non-series novels in the interval. I think it’s clear that Miss Silver got re-worked a little bit in the interval. She’s more aggressive here, less self-effacing, and, if you’ll pardon a more modern metaphor for this antique character, she’s more in your face. It’s the only book in the entire series where Miss Silver is heard to speak using contractions.

51B6LNvU-FLGrey Mask comes from a more antique tradition, and one that will not be well known nearly a century later. Essentially this comes from a style of novel that asks the reader to believe that (a) there is a secret society devoted to a large-scale cause, usually political, personal, or financial gain; (b) the people involved in this secret society wear masks at their meetings so that they won’t recognize each other if they meet mask-less; and (c) innocent and brave young people, frequently with troubled romantic lives, are constantly getting mixed up with these societies and bringing them to an unpleasant end. Indeed, you may have already read one of these (Agatha Christie’s 1929 novel, The Seven Dials Mystery) or seen this repetitive element used in film or television (for instance, 1999’s Eyes Wide Shut and a vast array of direct-to-video gialli about witchcraft and female frontal nudity).

9781453223628-book-coverSo in 1929, when this was written, I suspect it may have been about the final point in time in which the reader was meant to take this seriously. This book, like all such books, chronicles the involvement of an innocent young person with the masked secret society; the innocent person decides that s/he is going to find out just what’s going on and do the job that the police cannot. Here it is Charles Moray, who four years ago had his engagement broken by the beautiful Margaret Langton. He travels the world, trying to forget (yes, the book is pretty much at this level of cliche) and upon his return he finds out that Margaret is a member of a masked secret society that is … blackmailing people? It’s not absolutely clear. But any clandestine meeting of people where everyone gets a mask and a number has got to be more than vaguely criminal. So Charles decides to take on Grey Mask, the leader of the group, and win back Margaret.

Wentworth_Patricia_Grey_Mask2Meanwhile, and this is what brought this so unfavourably to my attention, a new character arrives. Margot Standing is approximately 18 years old, fresh from a European finishing school, and the beautiful blonde daughter and heir of a wealthy shipping magnate who was recently lost at sea.  There’s a lot of money at stake and Grey Mask has his/her eyes on controlling Margot’s inheritance, so plans begin to take shape.

But Margot — oh, my, Margot. Oh, my. Apparently she’s been living in an extremely limited environment for the past decade or so, possibly one for the mentally challenged. She acts like an unsophisticated girl of about 12; she is credulous, pleasure-seeking, slightly rebellious, lazy, and oh, so stupid. Unbelievably stupid. Walking-into-traffic stupid. One of the first things she does is reply to a want-ad that is clearly designed to lure girls into the white slave traffic . She has no sense of self-preservation and apparently no sense that anyone would want to injure or inconvenience her. Why? Well, mostly because …

“A glance in the mirror never failed to have a cheering effect. It is very difficult to go on being unhappy when you can see that you have a skin of milk and roses, golden brown hair with a natural wave, and eyes that are much larger and bluer than those of any other girl you know. Margot Standing’s eyes really were rather remarkable. They were of a very pale blue, and if they had not been surrounded by ridiculously long black lashes, they might have spoilt her looks; as it was the contrast of dark lashes and pale bright eyes gave her prettiness a touch of exotic beauty. She was of middle height, with a pretty, rather plump figure, and a trick of falling from one graceful pose into another.”

What happens is that every single eligible male and a few who aren’t fall immediately in love with her, and wealthy aristocrats are competing for the right to buy her dinner and listen to her burble about whatever is on what passes for her mind.

9780446301350So that’s half the plot right there; Margot charms everyone. The remainder consists of Margot doing things that are unimaginably stupid and to the immediate benefit of Grey Mask and the group of conspirators, and then Margaret and Charles quite obviously falling in love all over again (but first, of course, he has to find out why she jilted him). And there’s a small percentage about Miss Silver acting rather in the role of private investigator Paul Drake from the Perry Mason series, whose job it is to pop up every now and then and provide information about who lives where and what they did last night. Miss Silver actually does save the day at the end, after some moderately surprising plot developments, and rescues Margaret and Charles from their imprisonment in a soundproof cellar. You will not be surprised to know that Grey Mask is someone who has not previously given any signs of the ability to be the mastermind of a powerful criminal organization — and has been fooling everyone for years.

51XlQmHKasL.SX160.SY160I suppose for me Margot was the sticking point. Frankly, if you have a plot that allows you the freedom to have just about anyone — passers-by, delivery boys, taxi drivers, waiters — be in the pay of your secret society, you don’t need the active cooperation of your victim in walking directly into every trap in sight. Similarly if you’re trying to keep Margot disguised and out of the hands of the secret society, it doesn’t help that she lets her secret slip to every man who talks to her politely for five minutes. She is a fifth wheel in the budding re-romance of Margaret and Charles, she eats all Margaret’s food and can’t afford to replace it, and is constantly gushing about how fabulous all the men in sight are and whether they are romantically interested in her. In later decades and milieux she might have found herself a preppy, bon chic bon genre, or a Sloane Ranger. But in this volume she’s a pompous little Valley Girl before her time. It’s unpleasant to consider that a wealthy man would have left his daughter so completely unequipped to meet the exigencies of modern life; her idea of work is apparently asking her father’s lawyer to give her money.  And I rather think this is the kind of person the Communists wanted to stand up against a wall and shoot; I’m somewhat more sympathetic now.

29010So Margot is carrying the weight of the plot and just cannot stand up to it. If you find yourself unable to countenance Margot, as I was unable, then you will not enjoy this book very much since it’s pretty clear what’s going to happen from the outset. The day will indeed be saved, the lovers will reunite, and the villain will be killed while trying to escape. I did have a moment’s pleasure thinking of what Miss Silver might have made of this lazy nitwit as a governess but I think Miss Silver would have more sense than to waste her effort. There is not much here but the bare bones of what Miss Silver would become in the future; she’s the only person in the book I wanted more from.

EUni12TPatricia Wentworth made the error of introducing repellent children at least once more; Vanishing Point, from 1953, features a young girl who is simultaneously an invalid and a plucky young thing with dreams of becoming an author. The result may leave the reader needing insulin because of a sugar overdose. But I haven’t heard anything from most of my regular commenters about other awful children in detective fiction. Does no one remember the xiphopagous twins from Ellery Queen‘s The Siamese Twin Mystery? The impossibly perfect offspring of Lieutenant Mendoza in the works of Dell Shannon? Horrible little Billy and Jackie from Queen’s The Tragedy of Y? Agatha Christie is full of them: the Girl-Guide-aged taxi dancer in Christie’s The Body in the Library, or Hallowe’en Party, with two repellent little girls (one sweet, one sour); the little ballerina in Crooked House, or the pudgy and unpleasant victim in Dead Man’s Folly; Pippa Hailsham-Brown from Spider’s Web or Linda Marshall from Evil Under The Sun. That creepy little group in Margery Allingham‘s The Mind Readers; brats in Erle Stanley Gardner‘s TCOT Empty Tin, Deadly Toy and Spurious Spinster — and that’s just with thinking about it for ten minutes.  There’s possibly a long series here!!





Money in the Morgue, by Ngaio Marsh and Stella Duffy (2018)

Ngaio Marsh and Stella Duffy, Money in the MorgueProbably my regular readers are already familiar with the reason this book exists. Ngaio Marsh died in 1982, after publishing 32 novels about Roderick Alleyn, second son of a baronet and a police inspector with Scotland Yard. She left behind three short chapters comprising the introduction to the present volume, as well as “a page of rough notes”; the notes did not apparently solve the murder or provide a motive and stipulated that all the action of the book takes place over the course of one night.

The daunting task of fashioning a book out of this sparse beginning was given to Stella Duffy, who shares a number of personal characteristics with the late Dame Ngaio. Duffy is originally from New Zealand, moved to London, works in theatre, writes detective fiction, and was awarded an OBE. As Duffy elsewhere remarked, “I would have been a bit miffed if they had asked someone else.” I agree it seems like a natural match.

I must here note that the “call to adventure” came from David Brawn, who is “estates manager” at Harper Collins. Brawn was responsible for the continuance of Hercule Poirot as by Sophie Hannah in 2014, in The Monogram Murders (about which I commented here).  Brawn and what are now two Poirot novels by Sophie Hannah have received my criticism in the past — I’m still quite creeped out by the existence of an estates manager at a major publishing house and have been quite disparaging about the whole idea here. In that article I damned with faint praise the work of Stella Duffy, who has continued to entertain me with her writing, and expressed my displeasure with the idea that Ngaio Marsh needed in any sense to be continued.

Stella Duffy

Stella Duffy

Ladies and gentlemen, I have changed my mind, and I apologize to all concerned. If David Brawn can bring books like this to the public, he himself deserves an OBE, and Stella Duffy deserves the Gold Dagger. This is the best continuation novel I’ve ever read. Duffy has combined a real grasp of Marsh’s traditional themes, preoccupations, and even language with the ability to write like Marsh and, may I add, Marsh at her best. Ngaio Marsh at her best means somewhere around 1940 to 1945, and that’s when Marsh set this book (and Duffy continued and finished it). If you are that kind of Ngaio Marsh fan and you haven’t got time to read the rest of this, here’s the conclusion I want you to reach: buy this book immediately because you will enjoy it very much.

Please be warned that this essay concerns a work of detective fiction; part of its potential enjoyment is based on surprising the reader. If you read any further you will learn something about the titular novel and perhaps some others; I discuss elements of plot and construction although I do not lay out the answers.  If you haven’t already read this novel, reading this essay means it will have lost its power to surprise you to greater or lesser extent, and that would be a shame. So please go and read this book before you spoil your own enjoyment. If you proceed past this point, you’re on your own. 

Ngaio Marsh and Shakespeare

Ngaio Marsh and friend

What is this book about?

Inspector Alleyn is in New Zealand, at a point in World War 2 when its invasion by Japan is forecast as a strong possibility.  The recovering soldiers and local patients at Mount Seager Hospital include Alleyn, who is doing a quiet little job of investigation involving some coded radio transmissions and pretending to be an invalid as cover; he has been in the hospital but not really part of it. The pulse of the experienced reader will quicken faintly as the opening pages reveal a rough map of the grounds of the hospital grounds and buildings.

nz20The everyday activities of the hospital involve a number of staff members: handsome young Dr. Hughes and crabby old Sister Comfort, Father O’Sullivan the unctuous vicar and various nurses and workers, and most especially the convalescing patients, all take their orders from the serene and authoritative Matron. A number of things happen roughly simultaneously at the outset of this night. The death of young Sydney Brown’s grandfather has caused him great distress, and his bereavement is being mitigated. A fat and pompous government payroll clerk, Mr. Glossop, has to spend the night at the hospital due to bad weather and needs to lock his cash in the Matron’s safe. One young and pretty nurse, the less than chaste Rosamund Farquharson, has won the enormous sum of one hundred pounds betting on an outsider at the races, and has also been relieved of it by Matron to put it in the safe for safekeeping. And there is a welter of personal relationships and romantic frustrations and sins small and large that are hinted at in the opening chapters.

Since the title of this book is Money in the Morgue, the experienced reader will not be surprised to learn that both the money and the Matron disappear quite soon into the book, although her body shows up in short order. Alleyn reveals his police credentials and, with the assistance of Sergeant Bix of the New Zealand Army substituting for his usual assistant Inspector Fox, takes charge of the case.

The plot’s the thing here, and since the action of the book takes place over such a short period of time, just about anything I say will spoil your enjoyment. I’ll merely note that Alleyn, in his usual display of gentlemanly uber-competence, solves every crime in sight before the break of dawn, some of which will not have made themselves plain to the less perceptive reader, and rights every wrong that needs righting. There is a very surprising climax followed by a series of short scenes in which all the loose ends are tied off.

Ngaio Marsh, 1940s

Ngaio Marsh, 1940s

Why is this book worth your time?

Ngaio Marsh was one of the four Queens of Crime of the Golden Age, we are often told, although I consider her fourth among that quadrumvirate after Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers, and Margery Allingham. I had a try at talking about my five most/least favourite of her novels here; I’ve written about her paperback editions in general, from a collector’s standpoint, here, here, and here. And I went into great detail about Hand in Glove (1962) here and Last Ditch here (as part of my 100 Mysteries You Should Die Before You Read series, which may give you all the idea you need of my opinion LOL).

I mention all this to drive traffic to my blog (smiling) but also to bolster the idea that, yes, I’ve read everything Ngaio Marsh ever wrote, multiple times, and given her work a lot of thought over the years. Some of her books are great; some of her books are awful. From my point of view, the ones that are great are generally speaking (a) written in her best period, roughly 1937’s Vintage Murder to 1947’s Final Curtain, (b) set in her native New Zealand, of which there are only four (and one is awful).

Marsh’s best writing is marked by a few general qualities. Since she was deeply engaged in the theatre — I won’t say that her best books are set against the theatrical background, because that is to my mind regrettably not true, but when Marsh grasps the three-act structure of a good play and applies it to her work, it escapes the dreaded Marshian second-act sag as Alleyn interviews all the witnesses one by one. (My friend Brad at ahsweetmysteryblog calls this “wallowing in the Marshes”.) She understood how this structure works and, when she got it right, she got it right. My experience is that she didn’t often get it right but when she did, it’s almost always in a book she wrote between 1937 and 1947 or so. Stella Duffy gets it right here. The sag is cleverly leavened by action that arises organically out of the situation … the interviews still happen but they’re not a deadly slog, as Marsh could sometimes manage.

The other quality that Marsh occasionally got right, and thereby lifted her work from average to extremely good, is more difficult to describe. It is a property of most well-written books, but it’s extremely important in detective fiction, which is highly plot driven. In long-winded terms; first Marsh creates believable characters who do things for believable reasons. Then she makes the things they do further the plot — and since those things are done for believable reasons, the reader can accept that they happened. Little or no suspension of belief is required. If you believe in the people, you believe in the plot, even though the plot is paramount. And then it becomes a very satisfying experience to be surprised at the REAL meaning of some of those actions — because they have become believable for a different, yet believable, reason. This is the sort of thing that happens when you have a well-hidden criminal, as you do in this book. Mr. X does action Y, and it seems as though he did Y because we see that he is the kind of person who would do that. It later turns out that he did Y for different reasons, ones that further the criminal plot; and thus there are new reasons to believe that he did Y. To me it’s one of the most satisfying ways of approaching a detective novel. You see the setting and the characters and the actions, and you think you know what you’ve seen. Then the author shakes the snow globe and, holy moly, all your assumptions were wrong and everything means something else that is also wholly believable. I think in the present volume this is all down to Stella Duffy’s plotting skills, and they are superb.

At her best, between about 1937 and 1947, Marsh’s ear for her own writing was very keen. Perhaps it was merely that she had an editor who held down the worst of her later excesses; perhaps this editor also encouraged her to occasionally step out. Marsh had moments of writing, quite often about the beauties of New Zealand, that were downright lyrical; Colour Scheme (1943), for instance, is filled with descriptions of the countryside and the vegetation and the weather (and the hideously powerful fumaroles) that beautifully set the scene and add delightfully to the atmosphere. Wikipedia appears to assert that the Marshian fragment completed by Stella Duffy was written in 1946 and I can see many reasons why this would be so. Her previous two novels had been set in wartime New Zealand (Colour Scheme and Died in the Wool) and this seems to follow right along; the same location, the same premise, the same framing story of Alleyn writing letters to Fox and Troy. Anyway, I think her writing style at this point was at its most effective height. She was writing elegant prose for intelligent people, with a good ear for dialogue and strong powers of characterization and description.

WWII nurses

These nurses reminded me of what the nurses and matron of this story might have had to dress like as they did a tough and messy job — crisp outfits and starched caps.

When I read this volume, I felt immediately that the writing style was actually from that period; Duffy has picked up on that perfectly and really carried it through with great restraint. I gather from an interview that she found words and phrases in Marsh’s oeuvre that had been repeated and tried to use them. Just a great idea. Ordinarily I don’t mind if a continuation writer doesn’t sound so much like the original writer as long as she thinks like the original writer. Here, Duffy has really matched and occasionally exceeded Marsh’s prose at her most intelligent, and yet restrained herself from adding her own voice, for the most part. My attention was caught by a tiny snippet about Miss Farquharson being mocked for a non-NZ accent when ordering a drink — that sounded like Duffy herself. I mention that because it’s the only time I had the thought of Duffy and not Marsh herself writing this.

And now I have come to the part for which Stella Duffy deserves all the praise and then some. If all she got was the first three chapters of this and a page of notes then all I can say is, she’s got a hell of a career ahead of her as a Golden Age continuation writer if nothing else. There is a central twist in this book that is killingly clever as it reverses your expectations; it’s thoroughly foreshadowed and almost obvious once you go back and look to see where you’ve been led astray. Frankly, fooled I was and fooled I was happy to be. I enjoy books like this and they have that true Golden Age quality of story-telling, a delightful reversal that’s a twist in the tale. This is something that Marsh only occasionally reached and there are not many of her novels that are this clever and thus this enjoyable in terms of the criminal plot.

All the characters are believable, and I am happy to say that they are believable in the sense of it being 1946. Duffy doesn’t make the error of ascribing modern-day points of view to characters for whom they are anachronisms. In fact as I read through the book, I kept being reminded of characters from other Marsh novels. Bix and Fox are pretty obvious cognates, rather a “tip of the hat” kind of thing. There are Matrons and nurses and handsome young doctors in The Nursing Home Murder, she knew that background. Pompous Mr. Glossop reminded me of a couple of other characters in other novels (perhaps Death at the Bar), angry little men whose job, plot wise, is to keep people on edge and confrontational. There are other Maori characters in Vintage Murder (this book name checks a Maori doctor we first met in Vintage Murder) and Colour Scheme, a mixture of good and bad like all populations. Evasive Father O’Callaghan made me think of a minor character in Overture to Death; the unpleasant Sister Comfort made me think of a major one. The added fillip in the present volume is that there is just the faintest, most delicate tinge of lesbianism in a comment in Chapter 35 that doubles the meaning of a central relationship in the book … which to my mind is an elegant echo of the faint and delicate tinge of lesbianism in Ngaio Marsh’s own life. (I hasten to add, to my mind it’s just a rumour and probably not true. Not that that’s a bad thing, just that it wasn’t her thing.) Certainly it is in Duffy’s own life; she is married to a woman. So I’m willing to believe she knows what she’s laying down here and, for me, it was precisely the right amount. Another “tip of the hat”.

So many nice things in this book; I could go on and on. The grand revelation of the book is pulled back just the tiniest bit from being truly explosive, but you know, Marsh herself wasn’t very good at coming up with a explosive finish. There’s some great work with the tiniest details of life during food and rubber rationing; just enough to remind the reader when they are. Similarly the niceties of linguistic New Zealand are handled just as cleverly here as Marsh did herself; “I reckon you’d better rattle those dags if you’re going to get a shoofti at it … ” to me is the equivalent of Dead Water‘s “‘Oh, Patrick!’ ‘Don’t say ”’Ow, Pettruck!”'” in its conveyance of accurate everyday NZ usage.

So many things to like, indeed, that I’m astonished to think that, you know, I want more of this. And that truly is a surprise. With Sophie Hannah’s resurrection of Poirot, I merely want that to stop, or for Hannah to work on a project more suited to her considerable talents. This one is done so well that I want Stella Duffy to write a whole new series of Alleyn adventures, based on no Marshian notes at all. I can’t believe I just typed that, but, yeah; I think I would enjoy the hell out of that. In the meantime I’m going to get my hands on a lot of other Stella Duffy mysteries.

A note on editions

Of course there is only one edition of this book at the moment; I got this in electronic format the day it came out, which was yesterday. Yes, I’m a fast reader LOL. So if you want to read this you have the choice of a hugely overpriced electronic version or a reasonably priced first-edition hardcover that still costs twice what the electronic version does. Honestly, this is such a good book, I’m going to go out and get one or even two copies of the first edition and lay them down for the future; I think this book will appreciate.




The Greek Coffin Mystery, by Ellery Queen (1932)

The Greek Coffin Mystery, by Ellery Queen (1932)


Ellery Queen is a fictional detective in the books by Ellery Queen … who is  a fictional writer.  The fictional writer whose name is on a set of novels from 1929 to 1971 was actually two people, cousins generally known as Frederic Dannay and Manfred Lee, whose joint Wikipedia entry is found here. As Wikipedia makes clear here, quite a few books ascribed to Ellery Queen were actually written by other authors; this one, however, is certainly the product of Dannay and Lee. Dannay also managed the affairs of Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine (the original version of this post erroneously suggested that it was Dannay and Lee in tandem), and the Ellery Queen name appears on the cover of many books of anthologized short stories reprinted from the magazine. Complicated, isn’t it? There’s also an old-time radio program, a series of vintage movies, a television series, comic books, a game or two, and even reference books about the character and the authors.

2633Publication Data:

This volume is the fourth Ellery Queen novel to be published by the cousins. The first nine books in the series each have a number of common features; there is a nationality in the title, here “Greek”; there is an introduction written by someone known only as “J.J. McC.”, now not considered canonical, and the famous “Challenge to the Reader”.  This challenge stops the action of the book and speaks directly to the reader, asserting that every piece of information necessary to solve the mystery is now in the reader’s hands. This is, in fact, the case; this volume is a strict-form puzzle mystery as I have elsewhere defined this term. One interesting conceit of this particular book is that each chapter has a single-word title; examination of the table of contents reveals that the initial letters of the chapter titles, considered acrostically, spell out “The Greek Coffin Mystery By Ellery Queen”.

The book was first published in 1932 by Frederick A. Stokes in the U.S. and a little later by Gollancz in the UK.  The first paperback edition is Pocket #179, seen at the head of this post. Many paperback editions exist; this book has only sporadically been out of print since its publication. It is now available in multiple e-book formats.

The Greek Coffin Mystery, 1960 - illus James Meese-1Although I have a VG copy of the first paper edition shown above, I actually used an e-book from an unknown source as my reference copy for this review (I found it in my files and have no idea where it came from, possibly as part of a gift of a bundle of e-books from a colleague); pagination is impossible to guarantee and I have chosen to not give page citations.

About this book:

Standard spoiler warning: What you are about to read may discuss in explicit terms the events of this murder mystery in GREAT detail. Please read no further if you wish to preserve your ignorance. You will also probably find here discussions of the content of other murder mysteries, perhaps by other authors, and a similar warning should apply.

IF YOU HAVE NOT READ THIS BOOK, STOP HERE AND GO READ IT BEFORE YOU RETURN. YOU WILL THANK ME. I can’t be any clearer — your first reading of this book should be unsullied by any knowledge of its contents, and the less you know in advance, the happier you will be. 

index-3_1The story begins with the death of wealthy Greek-American art dealer and connoisseur Gregor Khalkis; for once in a murder mystery, there’s nothing suspicious about the death. He’s been suffering from heart troubles for years that have left him blind and under the full-time care of a physician. It’s the disappearance of Khalkis’s will that is baffling everyone; five minutes before the funeral it was there, after the funeral it’s vanished. The house is searched, to no avail, and Mr. Woodruff, the family lawyer, calls in District Attorney Pepper. More searching, and no results. No secret passages or hidden compartments in the furniture or walls; no evidence that it was destroyed. Apparently the disappearance of the will is connected with its provisions, and someone’s desire to return to an earlier testamentary disposition of the Khalkis estate … but no one can figure out what happened. Finally Pepper calls in Ellery Queen, who deduces that the only possible location is inside the only object that’s left the house unsearched — Mr. Khalkis’s coffin. He convinces the authorities of the validity of his logic and they obtain permission to dig up the coffin. Unfortunately the coffin doesn’t contain the will. What it does contain is the strangled body of an ex-convict, a convicted forger named Grimshaw, jammed in on top of the late Mr. Khalkis. 

We soon meet the household and learn that Grimshaw had been admitted to a private interview with Khalkis shortly before their deaths. Khalkis has household staff (including the beautiful British secretary, Miss Brett, who might be romantically involved with Khalkis’s handsome young nephew Alan), relatives (including his mentally handicapped cousin Demmy, who acts as a kind of valet for the blind Mr. Khalkis) and the various employees of his art gallery and other business operations.

Ellery directs the activities of his father, Inspector Queen of the New York Police, with the assistance of DA Pepper, and a large group of officers immediately begin to learn everyone’s every movement. As is common in such fictional situations, it soon becomes apparent that most of the people in Khalkis’s life had recent acrimonious interactions with him, and many of them may well have had interactions with the deceased forger. Promptly upon the start of investigations, multi-millionaire Wall Street baron James Knox, friend of both the President and the late Mr. Khalkis, insists upon being briefed upon progress; Ellery announces that the case is solved. <gasp>

index-5_1A few chapters previously, the people around Ellery were baffled by his insistence on performing a number of experiments with the contents of a tea-urn in Khalkis’s office, and the surrounding used teacups, lemon, et cetera. He boils water, pours it out, measures amounts — no one understands what’s going on, and they think he’s losing his grip. As well, Ellery seems curiously interested in Mr. Khalkis’s neckties; he’d had some new ones delivered for the use of his handicapped cousin in executing his valeting duties. Ellery doesn’t explain until this point, when he reveals that, first of all, the details surrounding the neckties reveal that Mr. Khalkis has spontaneously regained his vision, and second, that two mysterious people who visited Khalkis in his study the night before his death were not actually two people, and that Khalkis had gone through an incredible rigamarole to make it seem as though two other people had been there. This idea, Ellery reveals, is the result of his analysis of tea-cups and tea water. And therefore — Khalkis murdered Grimshaw.

Immediately upon this revelation — about halfway through the book — two things happen. One is that Miss Brett reveals that, oopsie, she forgot to mention that the used teacups were differently arranged than when they were found by Ellery, and Knox reveals that there was indeed a third man in that meeting with Khalkis and Grimshaw.  How does he know?  Knox was the third man.

At this halfway point in the novel, Ellery’s house of logical cards collapses and he sinks into depression; this event actually affects the remainder of his career and all subsequent books that feature him. He determines that because he has revealed the results of his analysis and been disproven, he will never again speak about his investigations until he is absolutely, completely certain of the identity of the murderer (rather like Saul’s conversion on the road to Tarsus). Although it’s not referred to specifically in later volumes, his detective career is forever changed by this event; it also changes the way in which his work is presented. When you think about it, it’s not sensible for a detective to hide the progress of his investigations from the police; this situation was apparently set up by the authors to create a structure for future novels that would delay the solution until the end of the book.

Knox now starts the second half of the plot in motion.  He had been dickering with Khalkis for the right to purchase a Da Vinci painting that had previously been thought to have been destroyed. But Grimshaw had become involved by going to Knox, announcing that he had stolen the Da Vinci some years ago for Khalkis, and Khalkis had apparently been unable to pay him for his labours. Finally Khalkis had agreed to make out his will in favour of Grimshaw and in the interim gave him a promissory note. Khalkis, Grimshaw and Knox had all met and drunk tea on that fateful evening, and then some unknown person had tampered with the physical evidence in order to lead Ellery away from the truth. Ellery soon determines that that unknown person must logically have been in partnership with Grimshaw.

Knox refuses to hand over the Da Vinci and announces that he’ll deny having it in his possession — and that it’s a copy anyway. Ellery then realizes that his deduction of Khalkis having recovered his sight was also incorrect; instead, handicapped Demmy is revealed to be colour-blind. Ellery grimly acknowledges his mistakes and gets back to work on solving the case.

Events now progress more rapidly.  The investigation receives an anonymous tip that the manager of Khalkis’s art gallery, Gilbert Sloane, is actually Grimshaw’s brother. The police discover that an empty house in Khalkis’s neighbourhood was the temporary resting place of Grimshaw’s corpse (until the murderer had the bright idea of disposing of it in the coffin) and they discover a shred of the burned will in a furnace in the empty house, confirming that the missing will indeed left the huge Khalkis estate to Grimshaw. This means that Sloane will actually inherit through his brother; they find a key to the empty house concealed in the Sloane home. Everyone rushes to the Khalkis Gallery to arrest Sloane — and he’s been shot. Superficially it looks like suicide, but Ellery makes a deduction that proves it to be murder. And everything grinds to a halt, because Ellery cannot find a thread of the tapestry upon which to pull in order to make progress with the case.

index-221_1Miss Brent reveals herself to have been an agent of the British Museum, employed to track down the Da Vinci; she’s hired by Knox to help him with his executor’s duties on the Khalkis estate. And the British Museum is about to pull the lid off the case unless Ellery solves it in a hurry.  Soon, the missing promissory note shows up — half of it is used as the paper upon which a blackmail note is typed. The actual typing of this note is of interest; there’s a tiny typographical error that is shown to the reader but not further explained.

At about this point, the above-mentioned “Challenge to the Reader” breaks the flow of the action; you now have in your possession enough information to solve the mystery and identify Grimshaw’s partner and the murderer.  I will from this point on be reticent about what happens; I haven’t yet told you anything that would make any difference to your ability to solve the murder, since if you read the book everything will be available to you.  But henceforth, I will cut back drastically on my comments for fear of spoiling things for you.

It is safe to say, though, that there is a common theme in nearly all Ellery Queen stories that is repeated here; the false solution, then the true. At this point, Ellery makes an announcement about who is guilty of precisely what; this leads to a series of events that brings us to the final solution. Ellery has set a trap for the real killer, and I wager that you will be very, very surprised by the answer, which is revealed dramatically with Ellery being shot in the shoulder and the murderer dying in a hail of gunfire at the end of Chapter 33. Chapter 34 consists of Ellery recuperating from his wound and explaining everything, in great detail, to an assembly of suspects and investigators.

04b_GreekWhy is this book worth your time?

The year of publication of this book is 1932.  In 1932, Agatha Christie had published a mere dozen novels, but including one of the most difficult mysteries ever written (The Murder of Roger Ackroyd). Ngaio Marsh was two years away from her first book; Margery Allingham was at the beginning of her career; John Dickson Carr had not yet published a Gideon Fell or a Henry Merrivale novel; Anthony Berkeley had published a number of excellent books including 1929’s The Poisoned Chocolates Case — and the “Golden Age” mystery was in its early stages. It was not completely newborn; perhaps adolescent; still finding its way, outlining the ideas that define the form, the boundaries of the genre, its passions, its likes and dislikes, its enthusiasms and hatreds. S.S. Van Dine and Ronald Knox had both published sets of rules as to what detective stories should and should not be; clever writers like “Ellery Queen” were casting off the old strictures and extending the boundaries of the form.

This particular story has to be one of the most difficult strict-form puzzle mysteries ever written and, frankly, they don’t make ’em like this any more. This book has more sheer logic and detection in it by the halfway point than in the entire oeuvre of your average cozy author; and by the end of the novel, more difficult chains of logic than the entire oeuvre of ten cozy writers. This book was written at a time when readers did not cavil at being faced with an extremely difficult puzzle and it has, over the years, maintained its place as one of the finest examples of such a puzzle. I haven’t worked out the ramifications of this in great detail, but I’ll suggest that this is one of Queen’s top two books — the other being The Chinese Orange Mystery — and one of the top 25 puzzle mysteries ever written. Just don’t make me name the other 23, please!

When I’m analyzing a puzzle mystery, there’s a process I go through that is crucial to determining its level of quality. Simply put, once I know whodunnit, I go through the novel again from the murderer’s point of view and see if everything makes sense. And I think you would be surprised at how often things just do not make sense when I do that. For instance, I recently looked at a poorly-written mystery by Frances Crane, The Applegreen Cat. (My analysis is here.) Among other problems, the plot consisted of a mystery that was difficult from the point of view of the reader — but ridiculous from the point of view of the murderer, who apparently deliberately waited until the country house was filled with house guests before embarking upon a killing spree among the servants. Another example is an early novel of Harlan Coben’s whose name slips my mind along with most of the details. Three-quarters of the way through the book, the protagonist discovers that the murderer has a cabin  in the woods filled with evidence, and this provides everything needed to bring the book to a close. The problem is, as I realized even before reaching the end of the novel, no murderer in his right mind would have left all that tasty evidence in place, sitting in an empty cabin for anyone who happened by. It’s rather like one of those plots where the murderer has the detective at his mercy, but stops to deliver a complete detailed confession before disposing of his nemesis. It helps out the book a lot, but lowers the murderer’s IQ by 50 points in an instant.

If you go through the process of analyzing things from the murderer’s point of view, everything in this book continues to make perfect sense. The murderer’s motives are clear; they make sense and continue to make sense once you know what they are. The only thing that trips up the killer is a trap set by the detectives that is also based on something that the murderer needs to see happen. The tiny clues left by the murderer are tiny accidents; they aren’t taunts left by the killer, or foolish oversights, but something small and careless like closing a door when it shouldn’t have been closed, or not predicting that a character may confess something that is not in his best interests in order to cooperate with the police. And there are not many puzzle mysteries about which this can be said. Nothing depends on coincidence, chance, acts of God or ridiculous motivation. Just about the only logical flaw in the entire novel is the size of the fragment of the will that is found in the furnace of the empty house, and the fact that it contains precisely the information that is needed to move forward; this is a bit of a stretch, but, you know, it could happen. All the clues you need are fairly there, and the Challenge to the Reader is accurate.

The other part of this book that is beautifully crafted is the false trail that the reader is meant to follow. I read this book as a teenager and I remember the sense of exultation with which I came to the conclusion that the authors wished me to reach; I’d spotted the tiny clues, I’d noticed the snippets of dialogue, and I’d realized what they meant. I felt smart. By golly, this mystery business wasn’t so hard after all, I thought. And then I realized that I’d been well and truly fooled, and that was what the authors had meant to happen. Up until that point, I’d merely failed to solve the mystery, or I’d guessed sort of randomly at a possible solution. This time I’d tried to solve the mystery, and I’d been fooled. And it may well be this book that started me on a lifetime of challenging my wits against those of the author.

In short — this is one of the finest strict-form puzzle mysteries that you will ever have the pleasure of failing to solve. In the past, for the benefit of a friend who hasn’t yet had the pleasure of encountering this mystery, I’ve taken a cheap paperback and torn it in half at the point at which the Challenge to the Reader appears, in order to give my friend the chance to give this mystery the attention it deserves without the opportunity to spoil it by peeking. There are not many mysteries worth doing that with. If you enjoy the experience, and you see a cheap paperback copy go by, pay it forward for a friend.

Notes for the Collector:

As of this writing, AbeBooks has on offer a Good copy of the first edition, inscribed by Frederick Dannay to his sister-in-law, for $500, and two unsigned copies of the first for $236 and $250. The second edition will set you back $175, and a copy of the first UK from Gollancz is listed for about $60. I am aware of an interesting edition from International Readers League in 1933, with a street map and floor plan of the Khalkis house (like the ones reproduced here, which are also in the first paper edition), and Abe has a copy for $75.

Some crazy person on ViaLibri wants $500 for the Bestseller Mystery/Mercury edition of 1941, and I can only think that it has about $490 in cash tucked between the pages. Amereon reprinted this title in 2001 and I can’t think why this particular book is bringing prices in the $75 range for an undistinguished hardcover with no jacket.

In paper, the 1942 first paper edition from Pocket is quite collectible because it’s a low-numbered book in that pioneering series, collected by many, even though, as you can see from the illustration at the top of this post, the cover art is downright unattractive — muddy, unexciting and dull. (When you look at the gaudy but exciting cover of The French Powder Mystery from the same company at about the same time, you wonder if the publishers were trying to make the Greek Coffin look boring!) Mine is a relatively nice copy and what appears to be a similar one on Abe is listed for $20; I’ve seen many copies of this book and many of them appear to have vertical creases in the cover, rolling, etc. There is a Penguin greenback available, of which there are many collectors, and many other editions.

1808330There’s a Cardinal edition that has a great piece of “girlie leg art” on the cover and, for once, it actually depicts a scene from the book. One quirky favourite edition of mine has always been a uniform set of Signet paperbacks from the early 70s with a tightly-kerned Helvetica title and cover art of a pretty model posed within a box, holding an oversized prop that has something to do with the plot.  Possibly this has something to do with the fact that in many cases this was the first edition that passed through my hands; at this remove, they look quite camp. Your mileage may vary. The point is that, depending on what your budget and collector’s instincts might be, there’s something for you. My own recommendation would be the signed first, which is quite scarce with any signature, and for smaller budgets the best copy you can afford of the Pocket edition, unless you like “girlie leg art” in which case the Cardinal edition may suit you best.

2014 Vintage Mystery Bingo:

This 1932 volume qualifies as a Golden Age mystery; third under “D”, “Read a book already read by another challenger.” This volume was reviewed on February 17, 2014 at a blog called “Classic Mysteries”; the review is found here. For a chart outlining my progress, see below.

Vintage Golden Card 001