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  • The Hollow Man (aka: The Three Coffins) by John Dickson Carr (1935)


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     hollow manThe Hollow Man (1935) by John Dickson Carr 

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    Also published as ‘The Three Coffins’ (US)

    The Hollow Man was voted the best locked-room mystery of all time in 1981, by seventeen well know authors and reviewers of this sub-genre – and not without good reason! * It is not just a great locked room story, it is quite clearly one of the best novels of that Golden Age of Mystery fiction between the two world wars, which has provided us with so many of our classic mysteries. Unfortunately, though many out-of-print Carr books have recently been re-issued as ebooks, this is not yet one of them. However, good second hand copies are available, and it can usually be found on-line at Scribd, or at your local library. We can only hope that it will soon be returned to the mystery bookshelves!

    The gist of the story begins with the arrival of Dr. Fell and his friends, Ted Rampole and Superintendent Hadley, at the house of Professor Charles Grimaud. They have been drawn out on this snowy winter night by Rampole’s tale of a strange occurrence at a local tavern. A discussion on magic and illusion, attended by Grimaud and his friends, had been interrupted by a mysterious stranger, later to be identified as the illusionist Pierre Fley, who made several extravagant claims about men arising from their graves and walking through walls. Fley had also informed the group that he had an even more dangerous brother who wanted to take Grimaud’s life, and that Grimaud must decide which brother is to pay him a visit. According to Rampole, Grimaud angrily told Fley to send his brother and be damned, and that odd visit was scheduled for this very night!

    Rampole’s story alarms Dr. Fell, but by the time they arrive at Grimaud’s house, it is already too late. Grimaud was in his upper floor study when an odd looking fellow, hidden behind a false face, pushed his way past the housekeeper and locked the door. A few minutes later a shot was heard, but by the time Hadley arrives and opens the door, Grimaud is quite alone and all but dead, leaving behind him a very puzzling situation. There is no sign of the odd stranger, or the gun that shot Grimaud, or the knife used to slash a painting of three coffins. Even worse, though the window is slightly open, there are no tracks in the newly fallen snow below, nor had their been any tracks to the front path when Fell and his companions had first arrived. A search of the grounds, the roof, and neighbouring yards proves useless, as does a search for secret passages. It appears that Fley has entered and exited without leaving the faintest physical trace.

    Hadley immediately interviews Mills, Grimaud’s secretary, and the housekeeper, Madame Dumont, who had both watched the study door from the time ‘The Hollow Man’ arrived, until the door was opened and the detectives entered, making it quite certain that no one passed in or out of the study. The only others in the house, were Grimaud’s daughter, and Boyd Mangan, another of the professor’s inner circle, and they had been quickly locked away in the front room by the stranger, while another old friend of Grimaud’s, named Drayman, had been dead asleep in his room after taking a powerful sleeping powder.

    The following morning, the situation becomes even more bizarre. Fley has also been shot to death in the middle of a nearby dead-end, called Cagliostro Street. Fley’s death, occurred a short time after Grimaud was discovered and was witnessed by a police officer and two sound men, who all heard a disembodied voice, followed by a shot, then watched Fley collapse in the middle of the unblemished snow that covered the street. To make matters worse, the gun carried by Fley matches the bullet found in Grimaud and the presence of powder burns make it quite certain that Fley was shot at close quarters, though the snow and the witnesses all suggest that this is quite impossible.

    Hadley goes on to interview Pettis, another member of Grimaud’s close circle, who had been heard calling out to Mangan, just after the Hollow Man rang the doorbell, but he has an unimpeachable alibi at the theatre. Meanwhile, Burnaby, the only other member of the group with close enough ties to pull off the crime, and the artist who painted the odd picture of three coffins, has an even better reason to be dismissed from suspicion. He was playing cards at his club with several others, including a prominent judge.

    These odd occurrences are all tied together by a story of three brothers who escaped from a prison at the salt mines in Transylvania, during an outbreak of plague many years earlier. They had faked their deaths, and once buried in a distant graveyard, had planned to escape from their coffins. Drayman confirms that Grimaud was one of the brothers, but had failed to rescue the other two from their graves. Still, it now seems quite clear that Fley also survived, and later hunted down his unfaithful brother, and with Fley dead, the detectives are now left to search for the elusive third brother he had invoked. The mysterious ‘Henri’, arbitrarily named by Fell, has the best motive for both of these inexplicable murders, but is not easily run to ground!

    Of course, with John Dickson Carr, things are never quite that simple! Fell eventually works out the solution to this impossible crime, though it takes all his analytical talents and his vast knowledge of crime and the mystery genre, to finally fit all the pieces into their proper place.

    One of the most tantalizing parts of this amazing novel, comes in Chapter 17, when Fell delivers a lengthy lecture on the locked room mystery, to Pettis, Rampole, and Hadley, during a late lunch. This lecture provides an extensive discussion on the various type of locked room mysteries, from simple secret passages to masterful illusions. Fell begins by simply asking how a murderer can create the impression of a hermetically sealed chamber, when we all know their must be some flaw? He finally provides seven basic scenarios, with many deviations, and five common tricks of the trade, in what must be viewed as the classic definition of the Locked Room mystery. Clayton Rawson, in ‘Death from a Top Hat’, and Anthony Boucher in ‘Nine Times Nine’, as well as Derek Smith in ‘Whistle Up the Devil’, all attempt to write the rules of this intriguing game, but none offer such an impressive analysis of locked-room methods.

    Fell also laments the ultimate fate of all illusionists, whether mystery novelist or stage magician. While mysterious tricks always inspire initial awe and wonder, there is certainly a down side to the business of illusion. Eventually, when the explanation is revealed, the mood inevitably shifts to one of bitter disappointment, and a strong feeling arises that the author has played a cheap trick on his audience. We all want to believe in magic, yet demand a logical solution, and then resent any answer that is short magical! Of course, Fley and Grimaud had both been fascinated by the art of illusion, and O’Rourke, a stage companion of Fley, also expounds on this art, all of which further reinforces Fell’s narrative. Every true fan of the locked room mystery simply must read this novel, if only for this highly entertaining conversation after the meal!

    The Hollow Man is right up there with all the other truly great mysteries of the Golden Age, like Christie’s ‘The Murder of Roger Ackroyd’, Sayer’s ‘Strong Poison’, or the best Sherlock Holmes cases. It is definitely one of a select few of the best locked room mysteries, but I would further argue that Carr has long been underrated and that this is one of a handful of Dr. Gideon Fell and Sir Henry Merrrivale stories that deserve to be included in the library of every true mystery fan. Carr provides a truly ingenious plot, and though the solution may slightly stretch your incredulity, only the sharpest mystery fans will see the entire solution before Dr. Fell finally lays out his case. Clearly a five star read!

    *****

    * The Best reference on the locked room genre is ‘The Locked Room Library’ a website by John Pugmire, who is a an author and recognized authority on locked room mysteries. Go To Locked Room Library

    LR J D CarrJohn Dickson Carr – a few facts from Wikipedia:

    John Dickson Carr (November 30, 1906 – February 27, 1977) was an American author of detective stories, who also published under the pen names Carter Dickson, Carr Dickson and Roger Fairbairn.

    Carr is generally regarded as one of the greatest writers of so-called “Golden Age” mysteries, complex, plot-driven stories in which the puzzle is paramount. He was influenced in this regard by the works of Gaston Leroux and by the Father Brown stories of G. K. Chesterton. He was a master of the locked room mystery, in which a detective solves apparently impossible crimes. The Dr. Fell mystery The Hollow Man (1935), usually considered Carr’s masterpiece, was selected in 1981 as the best locked-room mystery of all time by a panel of 17 mystery authors and reviewers. He was also a pioneer of the historical mystery.

    A resident of England for a number of years, Carr is often grouped among “British-style” mystery writers. Most (though certainly not all) of his novels had English settings, especially country villages and estates, and English characters. His two best-known fictional detectives were English… Go to Wikipedia


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