Sunday, May 12, 2013

Elleryana

"No man however modest -and Ellery Queen, I think he will be the first to agree, is far from that - cares to flaunt his failures to the world"
"The Greek Coffin Mystery"

For those wondering why I seem to be posting in a fairly regular schedule lately: I am actually a relatively fast reader and writer. It's just that I can't read Japanese as fast as Dutch or English, meaning I just can't post in this tempo when I read Japanese novels. Which is most of the time. And if one considers I also discuss games here (which usually take about 10~20 hours, compared to the couple of hours for a novel), well, that explains the regular schedule and the schedule of the last few days. I wish I were eloquent enough to explain this more concise . Like "I'm a locksmith and I'm a locksmith".

Reviews of Ellery Queen's 'nationality' novels:
The Roman Hat Mystery
The French Powder Mystery
The Dutch Shoe Mystery
The Greek Coffin Mystery
The Egyptian Cross Mystery
The American Gun Mystery
The Siamese Twin Mystery
The Chinese Orange Mystery
The Spanish Cape Mystery

The Roman Theater wasn't really Roman, the French department store not really French and the Dutch shoe wasn't really Dutch, but the body of famous art dealer Georg Khalkis was definitely Greek. His (non-criminal) death and the funeral were just little interesting blips on the news radar, but it's what happened after the funeral that caught the attention of the police and Ellery and what started The Greek Coffin Mystery. For right after the funeral, it's discovered that Khalkis' will has disappeared from the house safe. A search through the house, adjoining courtyard and graveyard is succesful, from a certain point of view. The will is still gone, but instead, the police do find an extra dead body of a person who was definitely not going to meet his Maker on voluntary terms.

Have I already mentioned that I consider this the best Queen novel? If not, I've done it now and if I had, well, it can't be said enough! I have no idea how the Queen cousins looked at their own work in their time, but it is like the two suddenly realized that the tropes utilized in their previous novels, like the grand search and fixation on objects, worked so well of their deductions, the long chains of cause and effect, the practical use of that adage 'when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth?'. Reading Queen is almost an exact science, but even someone weak in the exact sciences (like yours truly), can appreciate and admire the sheer ingenuity of the deductions Queen can produce just by the look of a set of tea cups.

Deductions are what drive this novel, which give The Greek Coffin Mystery a very different dynamic compared to the previous three novels. There we had a murder, long investigations and a climax. The middle parts were the most calm ones. Here however, the middle part is almost the most dynamic part of the story, and that is because Ellery's deductions are in the spotlight now, and even the murderer is aware of that. The structure of The Greek Coffin Mystery is quite well known, so I don't consider it a real spoiler if I mention that yes, there are false solutions planted by the real murderer, but this is something that only works because Queen was quite aware of the weaknesses of Ellery's method. He can deduce the world from one single item, but that doesn't mean he should. A crafty murderer can plant false clues to manupulate Ellery, as he will infer a complete (and totally false) world for you given the right stimuli. And that is what happens here. The murderer tries to trap Ellery with his false solutions: this is very different from the previous novels, where yes, murderers (naturally) did try to hide their guilt, but never did so by actually coming up with a complete false solution for the detective. Also, in The Greek Coffin Mystery, this battle for the truth between Ellery and the murderer is repeated several times, giving the novel a kind of adventure / interrelated short stories feeling, as it is like they have several skirmishes, continuously trying to adapt each other's strategies. In my mind, The Greek Coffin Mystery therefore feels quite close to Maurice LeBlanc's 813, even though they're actually very different novels.

These false solutions are of course a central problem to Queen's novels, in Japan usually called the Later Period Queen problems (even though it was first posed in Norizuki Rintarou's book titled Early Period Queen Problems).  If you accept the probability of a false solution, that is, the possibility that the real murderer can plant false clues that lead to the wrong person, then you're dealing with an unsolvable problem. Suppose Solution 1 (featuring murderer 1) is false, because clue A was planted, by murderer 2 (thus, solution 2, substantiated by clue B). What guarantee can you have that clue B, and therefore solution 2, isn't a plant by murderer 3? And in turn a murderer 4? This is a meta problem, and the writer can 'forcefully' end this by just ending his novel, but 'in-universe', the detective can never be absolutely sure his final solution is actually the correct one. False solutions and manupulating murderers are a common sight in Queen novels, but it does pose fundamental problems for the genre and Ellery's method, especially as The Greek Coffin Mystery shows that it can be fairly easy to create a false solution.

It is of course both a strong and weak point of the story. I remember having seen several comments on how the story developments (=new deductions) seemed to have been driven by people who suddenly remembered new things, ergo the introduction of new elements to add in the equation, altering the outcome of the deductions. It shows at the same time how drastically deductions can change because of a new element, even if it requires exceptional reasoning power, but also how arbitrarily it can be: the only way to escape from a false solution is by having the writer intervene in one way or another and even that is not really convincing.

But if you don't worry about that, then you're in for a heck of a ride. The way Queen managed to work with all these false solutions and make them a relevant part of the final solution is amazing and a showcase of how logical reasoning puzzlers should be constructed. I had already noted that the actual spatial range of the stories seemed to become smaller with every novel, this time the story being mostly set around the Khalkis residence, but the imaginary spatial range, that is, the depth and breadth of the deductions, is probably the widest of all Queen novels.

Oh, and I love the play with chapter titles! The first two novels had them to a lesser extent (French had some references to nursery rhymes), while those of The Dutch Shoe Mystery were all nouns ending with -ion, but having chapter titles whose initial letters spell 'The Greek Coffin Mystery by Ellery Queen' is just awesome!

And I still consider this the best Queen. I usually recommend this novel to newcomers, but now that I've read the books in order, I am inclined to change that opinion. The Greek Coffin Mystery was the first novel of the nationality cycle I had read, but this time I read it as an evolution of the previous three novels and the novel as a whole made more sense in that context.

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