Tuesday, April 19, 2011

The Search for My Great-Uncle's Head - Peter Coffin

Peter Coffin is both the narrator and author of The Search for My Great Uncle's Head (1937). There was a time when there were loads of books "written" by the narrator. I wonder why writers thought this was clever. They weren't fooling anyone. The books were always found in the fiction section of bookstores so why bother with the gimmick at all? In this case Peter Coffin turned out to be a pseudonym for Jonathan Latimer, creator of the Bill Crane private eye novels. The Crane books are completely different in tone and style from this book. From the title you think you'll be getting a very black comedy and there is a smidgen of that here. I'd say it's more of a blend of the fair play detective novel and a surreal nightmare thriller with a trace of the Gothic shocker thrown in for good measure. The wise cracking dialogue of Bill Crane is fairly absent here.

Coffin is summoned to the home of his great-uncle Tobias Coffin where his relatives have gathered for an announcement about Tobias' will. While walking through the woods in the most Gothic scene in the book Coffin encounters a barefoot man skipping along merrily and singing the old nursery rhyme "A tisket, a tasket." Later we discover that he met up with an escaped lunatic who previously had decapitated his wife and children. The police are trying to capture the nut case but are doing a pretty poor job of things. At the home of his great-uncle Coffin is met by his hostile relatives who mistake him for the lunatic due to his rain drenched clothes and his mud stained hands and face. After a brief clean-up and several protestations they allow him to see Great-Uncle Tobias who proceeds to castigate him in a kind of character test. Coffin, disgusted by the poor treatment, tells off his great-uncle and tries to leave the house. Tobias is pleased that Coffin shows a little backbone and convinces him to stay. He also confides in him that there will be a surprise in store for all the relatives the next day alluding to his plans to disperse his fortune in a new will.

But of course, Tobias is done in rather brutally as the title suggests. His headless corpse is discovered in his study and the new will is missing from his papers. Coffin attempts to do some detective work on his own but he proves to be rather dim witted even if he is a college professor of Renaissance English history. He's also ridiculed by nearly all the other characters in the book. Oddly enough, in a scene very reminiscent of ol' Aggy Plum, Coffin proves himself quite an athletic swimmer in the lake. When he practically drowns someone he believes to have taunted him one of the woman changes her initial opinion of him as a wimpy coward.

Our hero dwells too much, however, on what others think of him. He spends much of his time interpreting, often mistakenly, the opinions and actions of others. For a while it seems as if the book has forgotten it is a detective novel as it veers off into an exploration of a comedy of manners.

Coffin is trapped by his intellectual persona. The obvious eludes him. He is taken into confidence by some of his wily relatives who toy with him and yet he is never aware of their manipulations. He is something of an accidental detective like David Frome's Mr. Pinkerton who almost always stumbled into a crime and got entangled in the investigation like a cat playing with a ball of yarn. Still, Coffin is so oblivious he doesn't even realize that he had in his possession from very early in the book the missing will that all the characters are so desperate to locate.

Only late in the book when an insurance investigator, Colonel Black, shows up does the book really start shaping up into a detective novel. Black is the quintessential detective of the Golden Age. He has arcane hobbies (the authenticity of Shakespeare's work), speaks enigmatically, and displays quirky methods of detection. In one scene he's sitting on the floor of his bedroom in lotus position apparently meditating. Later he is seen crawling on all fours at the scene of the crime and looking up at impossible angles. He also suffers from the "Van Dine syndrome" of extemporaneously lecturing on any esoteric topic that captures his fancy whether it relates to the case or not (see my review of The Fifth Tumbler for another of these detectives). But he's far more interesting than Coffin. He's the much needed breath of fresh air in a book that otherwise might have succumbed to a suffocating claustrophobia.


  1. I have to admit, the title sounds marvelous. The rest of the book sounds kind of mediocre...

  2. I've had this on my to-read list for a decade now.

  3. The title is certainly catchy. I think I have read a Latimer book in the past.

  4. I remember reading this some years ago in the International Polygonics series that introduced me to so many great books and authors. However I can't recall much about it other than it not being one of Latimer's best.

  5. Great review John - glad to see you used the same cover as I have (from the IP edition). I assumed that Black is meant to be a Holmesian pastiche - than ring true to you?

    1. Yes, I'd agree about the Holmesian pastiche. But there's more lampoon than homage.