Coffin Underground (Gwendoline Butler)

By Gwendoline Butler

First published: UK, Collins, 1988

3 stars

Butler - Coffin Underground.jpgPeople die at No. 22, Church Row.  The cleaner mops up blood on the front stair – but the stain grows back every year.

A diplomat’s daughter buys a game in New York.  A violent criminal goes gunning for Coffin and the informer who put him away.  A chemistry student apparently commits suicide by taking potassium cyanide – but there’s no container for the poison near the body.  And a family is poisoned with potassium cyanide in the soup.

A high concept ties these disparate elements together.  It’s clever – but it’s also damn unconvincing.

Butler – 66 when her book came out – comes across as an old lady writing about a topic of which she knows nothing.





Do fantasy board games kill people?

The game in question?  Tombs & Torturers, presided over by a “Storm Master”.

Coffin discovers “a number of cases, involving both sexes and spanning the age range of 12 to 20, dealing with suicides, murders and rapes connected with violent fantasy games.  It made for disquieting reading.”

It’s a very 1980s fear.  Dungeons and Dragons came out in 1974, four years before Butler’s novel is set.  Evangelical Christians and others with a tenuous hold on reality panicked that RPGs caused teenagers to kill others, or commit suicide, or that they “opened up young people to influence or possession by demons”.  (See here and here.)

I’ve played the occasional RPG, and haven’t had any strong desire to conjure up succubi and incubi, eat corpses, or hack my nearest and dearest to bits.

(And how can anyone believe in demons?)


The year is 1978, the place South London, the area that by the river at Greenwich which has been the scene of earlier investigations by detective John Coffin.  Now he is back, a senior and much respected police officer, called home in charge of his own small team of detectives.  He has been handed the task of overseeing the local detective branch and of bringing it up to maximum efficiency.  Like all men of strong character, he has his critics and his enemies, and he knows that this job will arouse hostility.  It may lead to yet higher promotion, but for the time being he must work underground.

But even as he embarks on the job, he is involved in a series of violent happenings which have their roots in the past but take their terrible form from an early manifestation of a very contemporary phenomenon.

The brutality of the crimes which follow springs from a fantasy world of games.  But these games are deadly, played out according to rules by masters, acolytes – and victims, and Coffin finds himself caught up in one for whose climax he is totally unprepared.

2 thoughts on “Coffin Underground (Gwendoline Butler)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s