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Mystery author # 10: John Dickson Carr/Carter Dickson

This time I read two novels by the author, one each with his two series sleuths.

Titles: The Hollow Man (alt. title: The Three Coffins), The Red Widow Murders
No. in series: 6, 3
Year of publication: 1935 (both)
Type of mystery: locked-room mystery, whodunit, howdunit
Type of investigator: amateur, retired professional
Setting & time: London, 1930’s (both)
Some themes: Locked rooms, poison, the French Revolution

John Dickson Carr is one of the Golden Age mystery writers. He was an American, but lived in Britain for a long time and set many of his books there. He was a very prolific writer during the peak of his career, and wrote most of his books under two different names: his own, and the pseudonym Carter Dickson. He had two series detectives: Dr. Gideon Fell, a professor of lexicography about whom he wrote as Carr, and Sir Henry Merrivale, written under the Dickson name. In addition he wrote non-series books, many of them historical novels.

The Hollow Man is one of Carr’s most famous novels, and is by many considered to be his best.

Story:Charles Grimaud is visited, publicly, by a mysterious man who makes veiled threats. Shortly afterwards Grimaud is found dying in his room and utters some cryptic words before lapsing into unconsciousness, and on the same night the man who threatened him is murdered. Both murders appear to be impossible: one man was shot in a locked room, the other in the middle of a snowy street, but the only footprints seen were his own. Yet the killer had stood close enough to him that powder burns were found on his clothes. How was it done?

Review: It’s hard to review a novel of this kind without giving away something of the plot, which is complex and full of unexpected twists and turns. This may be a locked room mystery, but then again it may not be. It may be about a double homicide, or just one. The murder or murders may be a diabolically clever scheme perfectly executed, or a risky one horribly bungled. Nothing is as it seems, and it falls to Dr. Gideon Fell to puzzle together the pieces and discover how it was done.

Carr creates a playful knowingness in the story, first by having the narrator be visible for part of the story then by making it clear that the characters know they are in a story that is being read. At the beginning, the narrator becomes visible and comments directly to the readers, and later on Dr. Fell indicates that the characters know very well that they are in a novel. The “Locked Room” lecture is a famous chapter where Dr. Fell discusses the various solutions to locked room mysteries, a sub-genre of the “impossible crime” genre that Carr specialised in. Every Golden Age crime writer worth his salt tried to write at least one.

A complaint I have is that Carr does not play fair. He does not give the readers all the information available to the sleuth, or rather he gives it in such an oblique way that there is no way for the readers to solve it on their own. As this is not a realistic crime story, but one in which anything is possible, there are a lot of coincidences, and once Dr. Fell has discovered one of those, he has the final piece of the puzzle and is able to solve the case. The discovery of this particular coincidence (it’s a coincidence that works in the villain’s favour, not a coincidental discovery) is presented in such a way as to confound both the reader and the sidekick equally.

Although this is not a realistic crime story in the sense that it is unlikely to have happened, it does take place within a realistic framework, meaning that while the story is unlikely, it should not be impossible. This means that coincidence plays a huge role in the plot. Carr stretches the believability of the story unreasonably when he allows two mortally wounded men to perform feats only supermen or people on drugs could possibly do in their condition.

Rating: While this is a thrilling story to read and gives cause for a lot of thinking, it is not the kind of story one enjoys reading again. 3 stars.

The Red Widow Murders is another series book, about Sir Henry Merrivale, a retired doctor, barrister and former intelligence officer, that Carr wrote under the pseudonym Carter Dickson.

Story: A group of people gathers together to draw cards to decide who will spend two hours in a room no-one who has spent time in alone has ever left alive. One man, who later turns out to have been a psychiatrist, cheats and gets to go into the room. At the end of the two hours he is found dead from curare poisoning, and has been dead for at least an hour. But someone answered the call of the outside group every 15 minutes for the duration of the two hours. The next night, the unstable younger son of the house owner, is found bludgeoned to death in the room. Sir Henry, who was there as a witness, sets out to investigate and uncovers two unrelated plots, one about theft, the other about murder.

Review: Not such a good detective story. The characters are mostly flat, those who are not are uninteresting, and Sir Henry could be replaced with Dr. Fell and no one would notice any difference in behaviour or methods of investigation. The mystery is interestingly twisted, but not satisfying. I pegged the killer and his motive from the moment he appeared, and all the interest was in seeing how he did it. 2+ stars.

I am now convinced that Carr’s books should be read with several weeks or months passing between the readings, not a few days.

While both books have been disappointing to a degree, I still haven’t given up on Carr. I have another two of his books that I intend to read later, and will review them when the time comes.


Maxine Clarke said…
I liked reading your post (and the one about Heyer). I liked Carr's books too but I agree they didn't hang together and I wouldn't particularly want to read them again now. It was nice to be reminded of them in your post. I have linked to your posts from Petrona.
Look forward to what you write about those 20 rules.

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