As a nerdy child who read just about any mystery she could get her hands on, I often picked up musty copies of the Ellery Queen Magazine with stories by dozens of contributing writers at yard sales. And in recent years I’ve watched some episodes of the show starring Jim Hutton. But somehow, I had never read an original Ellery Queen novel.
Based on the pulpiness of the magazine (in both content and printing material), I presumed the novel would have that hard-boiled grittiness to it. I expected dames and car chases and gun battles and alley fights. In reality, the novel is very constructed and the prose is dense.
The whole delicate structure of his reasoning, so glibly out-lined, toppled and shivered into fragments at his feet. This in itself would have been so disastrous to his ego had it not been coupled with a strong element of personal mortifications. He had been “smart” about it. He had been so clever and subtle. … The very phenomenon — of Knox’s august presence — that originally inspired him to make a show of himself now faces about to leer at him and burn his cheeks with shame.
His mind was working furiously, trying to put down the rebellion of the facts, trying to forget what a sophomoric young fool he had been. Little waves of panic slapped against his brain, filming the clarity of his thoughts. But one thing he knew — he must work on Knox. Knox’s extraordinary statement. ~ Pg 148
In this case, The Greek Coffin Mystery, a New York notable dies somewhat unexpectedly. It is soon discovered that his most recent will has gone missing. Reluctant to let his hefty bequests remain intestate, Inspector Queen and his son Ellery attempt to locate the missing document. After some deduction, Ellery surmises it must have been buried with the deceased. When the exhume the recently departed, however, they discover another body with him. And here, the mystery really begins to intensify. The DA’s office (and a handful of its tough investigators) get involved.
All the while, the unflappable and brilliant Ellery sifts through each piece of evidence, looking for the one that will crack the case. Often, Ellery uses florid languages and quotes obscure philosophers. Yet, he remains endearing even as he refuses to lower his conversational standards.
“Be loyal to your Ovid,” chuckled Ellery. “‘Have patience and endure; this unhappiness will one day be beneficial.'” …
Ellery transfixed him with a mournful eye. “Father! Do you spurn what Colley Cibber took a while speech to eulogize? ‘Tea! thou soft, thou sober, sage, and venerable liquid, thou female tongue-running, smile-soothing, heart-opening, wink-tipping cordial!'” ~Pg. 91
According to the book’s “editor”, this novel recounts a case early in Queen’s career and occasionally refers to potential confusions with footnotes. It is a brilliant detail in creating a reality around the character. In truth, Ellery Queen was a pseudonym for two cousins — Frederic Dannay and Manfred Bennington Lee. Together, the two wrote dozens of short stories, novels and radio plays. They also founded and edited the Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, which is still in print today.
I’ve very glad Penguin decided to include this in their Drop Caps series. Hische’s design is both smart and sleek. And the back cover includes a quote that came to be the motto for Queen’s stories:
Many thanks to Rebecca at Penguin for the review copy.
Jacket Illustrator: Jessica Hische
Series: Penguin Drop Caps
Hardcover: 384 pages
Publisher: Penguin Books (April 23, 2014)
Product Dimensions: 7.9 x 5.4 x 1.2 inches