Monday, April 17, 2017

Coffin's Dark Number: Review

Coffin's Dark Number (1969), the fourteenth book in the John Coffin series by Gwendoline Butler, is my second squalid, depressing little mystery in row. Generally speaking, I find books that feature murdered children or children in danger to be WAY out of my comfort zone. That became especially true once I was a mother. It doesn't matter that my son is now 24; I can't bear the thought of children, real or fictitious, suffering.

Three little girls--average age eleven--have disappeared from Superintendent John Coffin's district in South London. One minute they were there and the next they were gone. The district is full of unsavory types and cranks. Including Tony Young's UFO Watchers who investigate sightings and just maybe believe that the girls have been abducted by beings from another world. Or maybe they just walked into another dimension. It is an odd coincidence that the watchers were out investigating a sighting every time the girls have disappeared. Is one of the club members responsible--or someone connected to a club member? Coffin investigates through the usual channels and throws his own spotlight on the UFO club. Meanwhile, Tony investigates on his own and dictates his thoughts and findings to a tape recorder. The two methods converge and we expect Coffin to find the answers.

SPOILERS ahead. Read on at your own risk.

This book is jarring on a number of counts. First, as previously mentioned, there is my discomfort with the little girls as murder victims. Then there are the various points of view. We begin with Tony Young as our narrator. He is speaking into a tape recorder and gives us the background on the UFO Watchers, his own history, and his views on the disappearance of the children. This shifts to Superintendent Coffin who tells us that "there's a danger to it [the tape recorder]. I can see you might get to trust it too much...." Which definitely clues the reader in that Tony may not be the most reliable of narrators. Coffin gives us the official viewpoint. Then, there is the omniscient narrator who takes over quite frequently just so we can see everything (or maybe not).

And speaking of unreliable narrators...having our unreliable narrator wind up being so very involved in the murders didn't create quite the surprise one might expect at the end of a mystery novel. Butler perhaps tries to make up for that by making Tony's involvement a little ambiguous. Should you believe that your unreliable narrator is reliable up to a point (ie he didn't actually do the killing) and we should believe him and not his confederate? Or is it the confederate who is reliable on this final point? It's a bit too ambiguous for me.

These earlier novels in the Coffin series aren't nearly as engaging as those I've read in the latter half of the mysteries. The characters and relationships in Dine & Be Dead (the other early novel I've read) were much more interesting and the academic setting helped. The characters here really aren't appealing at all and the relationships aren't very interesting either. and 3/4.

With the red beaded necklace, this fulfills the "Red Object" category on the Silver Vintage Scavenger Hunt card.

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