So many of my friends love John Dickson Carr that, although it wasn’t conscious, the fact that I haven’t read a single one of his novels until now cannot be a coincidence. Among my Golden Age friends, he receives nothing but fulsome praise. But I think the reason I haven’t read him until now is that he is universally praised for his puzzles. Carr was, of course, the master of the locked room mystery.
While most of my friends who love the Golden Age do so because they love the puzzles, working out whodunnit is rarely the impetus or major take-home for me. I adore Agatha Christie because her social, psychological commentary is second to none, and the puzzles themselves are woven into that commentary in a way that other authors are yet to emulate. That’s why I can reread a Christie twenty times, not in spite of knowing the outcome but because of it. Carr has always had such a good press for his puzzles that I was afraid there wouldn’t be anything else to the books.
Well, I am honoured to be writing a chapter for the Routledge Companion to Crime Fiction, on self-referentiality and meta-fiction, and what did I think of when that remit was given to me? The infamous ‘locked room lecture’ in The Hollow Man (1935, known in the US under its original title, The Three Coffins). It is, in Malcah Effron’s words, ‘the benchmark for metatextuality in crime fiction’: Gideon Fell, the detective, acknowledges that he is among ‘characters in fiction’ and gives a detailed outline of every possible permeation of the locked-room mystery. He cites examples from literature, including A.A. Milne’s The Red House Mysteryand some of his own cases. So, although I’ve cited this passage several times, I felt that, really, I ought to read the book. And, as chance would have it, it’s widely considered one of Carr’s best.
Upstairs in a pub, Professor Grimaud is entertaining friends when a strange man enters the room and announces that he knows men who have risen from the grave. He then threatens Grimaud with the wrath of his mysterious brother, and disappears. A short while later, Grimaud is found dead in his locked, sealed study. At the same time, Grimaud’s visitor is shot dead in the middle of a street – and witnesses swear he was killed by a ghost.
The book has a very good puzzle. I was completely stumped but, once everything had been explained, totally satisfied. As an intellectual exercise, The Hollow Man is up there with the best of Christie. Also like Christie, Carr creates some wonderfully grotesque characters and scenarios in an elegantly streamlined plot.
However – and this is where I part company with so many of my friends – I was disappointed that each element remained separate. The setting is great. The puzzles are great. The characters are great. But none of them fit together. There is a very real sense in which the ‘goblin-like’ male secretary with the ‘large and loose mouth’, about whom ‘[y]ou would have diagnosed a Physics BSc with Socialist platform tendencies’, didn’t have to appear in this story specifically. The victim didn’thaveto die in his study – simply in a locked room. Remember that Hercule Poirot solved his first case because his obsessive neatness led him to straighten out objects on a mantelpiece; Gideon Fell’s eccentricities, however, are all window-dressing, and I never got the sense that I was enjoying a novel– rather, I was enjoying a story– as I read.
The upshot is that I found The Hollow Man extremely enjoyable, and now that I’ve jumped aboard the JDC Express, I’m not jumping off. Nonetheless, in a sense, my opinion has not changed: perhaps the puzzle isn’t everything in this book, but it is certainly the dominant feature – which is absolutely fine, and brilliantly done in this case – but not what I personally devour crime fiction for.