Ellery Queen's name lives on today mainly through the wonderful mystery magazine which bears his name, and I suspect that there are plenty of modern readers who are unfamiliar with the Ellery Queen novels. Yet the books written by Ellery Queen (a pen-name for two cousins) and starring a young and brilliant amateur detective whose father was, conveniently, a cop, made a huge impact during the Golden Age, and for decades afterwards. It's interesting, however, that when I give talks about Golden Age fiction, I'm sometimes asked if there were any American counterparts to Christie, Sayers, and company. Mention of Ellery Queen's name is often greeted by blank faces.
The Greek Coffin Mystery, first published in 1932, was the fourth Queen novel, and is widely regarded by connoisseurs of Golden Age fiction as a classic example of the cerebral whodunit. There is a cast of characters - 33 of them, plus six staff detectives, are named. There is a foreword, explaining that this case occurred very early in Ellery's sleuthing career. There's a map of the location of the main action. There are two floor plans. There is a jaunty "challenge to the reader". There are no fewer than four elaborate solutions to the mystery put forward at various times. And there is a contents list which reveals that the initial letters of the chapter titles form an acrostic, giving the title of the book and name of the author. What more could any Golden Age fan want?
A elderly, blind Greek art dealer and collector dies of heart failure at his residence in New York. But was he blind? Did he die of natural causes? These questions spring instantly to mind, but aren't really central to the mystery. A missing will - another classic Golden Age ingredient - certainly is, and so is the discovery of the body of someone who is undoubtedly a murder victim.
The plot twists and turns, and it almost goes without saying that it's very cleverly constructed. That long list of characters is a clue to one of the story's flaws - there are so many people in it that it's not entirely easy to keep them all straight in one's mind, and it's certainly impossible to care about the fate of most of them. And I do find the early Ellery a bit wearisome - he became more human and, to my mind, more appealing in later books. But if it's an ingenious plot you're after, this novel certainly delivers.