1/19/21

The Three Coffins (1935) by John Dickson Carr

Back in 2019, I decided to reread Till Death Do Us Part (1944) by John Dickson Carr, the warlock of Golden Age detective fiction, because it underwent a reevaluation over the past fifteen years and its status raised from a mid-tier title to one of Carr's ten best novels – a trend that began on the now defunct JDCarr forum and Yahoo GAD group. A trend that continued through this blogging era. Yeah, it was a deserved, long overdue reevaluation of an often overlooked and underappreciated novel in Carr's oeuvre. 

What's not as well deserved, or acceptable, is the simultaneous devaluation of Carr's landmark locked room mystery novel, The Three Coffins (1935; originally published as The Hollow Man).

I noted in my review of Till Death Do Us Part that book earned its new status on technical points rather than a knockout, but The Three Coffins seems to have lost its classic status on points. Sure, technically, it's perhaps not quite as sound as, let's say, She Died a Lady (1943) or He Who Whispers (1944), but I think readers today miss the point why it was considered a monumental contribution to the genre – a landmark only comparable in status to Conan Doyle's The Hound of the Baskervilles (1902) and Agatha Christie's And Then There Were None (1939). The Three Coffins is the utterly bizarre and fantastic done right. An impressive juggling act, traversing a slippery tight-rope, which reached the ending without the intricate, complicated plot becoming a tangled, incomprehensible mess. It worked with all the mad logic of a dream! That's what generations of (locked room) mystery readers admired about it.

However, there's one difference between the mystery readers of yesterday and today: we have a larger frame of reference, as there's more available today, which can give a new perspective on a long-held, settled opinion. Just look at my own downgrade of Robert van Gulik's Fantoom in Foe-lai (translated as The Chinese Gold Murders, 1959). So it was time to give The Three Coffins another read to see how well its reputation stands up to rereading and standing it did. The Three Coffins is written proof that there's no one, past, present or future, who can hold a candle to Carr. He proves it on the very first pages of the story! 

The Three Coffins opens with the statement that "those of Dr Fell's friends who like impossible situations will not find in his case–book any puzzle more baffling or more terrifying" than the murder of Professor Grimaud and "later the equally incredible crime in Cagliostro Street" – committed in such a fashion that the murderer must have been invisible and "lighter than air." A stone cold killer with all the otherworldly qualities of a goblin or mage. Some began to wonder that the killer really was nothing more than hollow shell and that if you took away "the cap and the black coat and the child's false–face," you might reveal someone "like the man in a certain famous romance by Mr H.G. Wells." An extraordinary and confusing murder case, but Carr hastens to add that "the reader must be told at the outset" on "whose evidence he can absolutely rely." Such as the witnesses at Professor Grimaud's house and Cagliostro Street. This is the kind of the confident bravado that separated the masters from their apprentices.

Dr. Charles Grimaud a teacher, a popular lecturer and writer whose specialized in "any form of picturesque supernatural devilry from vampirism to the Black Mass." Every week, Dr. Grimaud holds court at the Warwick Tavern in Museum Street with a small group of his cronies, but, during their last meeting, there was an unexpected guest. A magician by the name of Pierre Fley challenges Dr. Grimaud that there are men who can get out of their coffins, move anywhere invisibly and four walls are nothing to them. Frey claims to be one of them and has a brother who can do even more, but he's dangerous and says either himself or his brother will visit Dr. Grimaud very soon. Dr. Grimaud tells him to send his brother and "be damned."

A few days later, Dr. Gideon Fell is sitting in front of a roaring fire of his library with Superintendent Hadley and Ted Rampole when the latter tells them about the incident at the Warwick Tavern. Dr. Fell immediately springs his immense bulk into action to pay Dr. Grimaud a visit, because he fears the worst has already happened.

The "first deadly walking of the hollow man" took place that night, shortly before Dr. Fell, Hadley and Rampole arrived at the scene, when "the side street of London were quiet with snow" and Dr. Grimaud received a strange, bundled up visitor – whose face was obscured by child's false-face resembling a Guy Fawkes mask. He was seen talking with Dr. Grimaud by the open door of his study, before entering and locking it behind them. A gunshot was heard and when the door was finally opened, they found a dying Dr. Grimaud, but not a trace of the shooter or the gun. There's an unlocked window in the study, but it overlooks a large, unbroken blanket of virgin snow and the locked door was under constant observation.

 

So, according to the evidence, the murderer drifted into the house without leaving any footprints on the sidewalk and floated out of the study window!

Dr. Fell is having a field day with this one and is more actively woolgathering than usual, but he still does it with all the tact of "a load of bricks coming through a skylight." He lumbers through the crime scene, while Hadley is questioning people, as he inspects the slashed painting of three coffins, pounces on the most disreputable-looking volumes on the bookshelves and went down wheezingly to look at the fireplace. Somehow, Dr. Fell combined his observation with Dr. Grimaud's dying words and "interpreted in jig–saw fashion" part of the backstory to the murder that's buried in Transylvania. I had completely forgotten The Three Coffins is not only a monumental locked room mystery, but also made perfect use of the dying message and the correct interpretation is another clue that a master was at work here.

There are many layers to this story, which have to be slowly peeled away, but as layer after layer gets removed, they expose new questions and complications. Such as a second, seemingly impossible, murder.

Cagliostro Street is a little cul-de-sac, no more than three minutes' walk from Grimaud's house, where a man was shot and killed under circumstances suggesting that he was "murdered by magic." Several witnesses at either end of the street heard a voice saying, "the second bullet is for you," followed by a laugh, a muffled pistol shot and man walking in the middle of the street pitching forward on his face – shot close enough that the wound was "burnt and singed black." There were no footprints in the snow but his own. This second murder allows Dr. Fell to reach his full potential as he goes into overdrive. Dr. Fell lectures on ghost stories, gets lectured on magic tricks and culminates with one of the most iconic chapters in all of detective fiction, "The Locked Room Lecture," in which Dr. Fell famously breaks the fourth wall ("because... we're in a detective story, and we don't fool the reader by pretending we're not") to talk about all the known locked room-tricks at the time! Just one of those many touches that makes this is a genuine classic.

The masterstroke comes when Dr. Fell visits Cagliostro Street and observes "a big round–hooded German clock with moving eyes in its sun of a face," in a shop window, "seeming to watch with idiot amusement the place where a man had been killed" and hears church bells in the distance that he finally sees the whole picture – which translates in one of the best surprise solutions of the period! A beautifully executed solution, reversing everything you thought was true, that pays homage to G.K. Chesterton (plot) and Conan Doyle (backstory). Sure, the critics have a small point that the solution is a little improbable in certain places and aspect can be hard to swallow. But, as stated before, it's the utterly bizarre and fantastic done right with all the mad logic of a dream and (impressively) Carr in full control of every moving bit and piece of a staggeringly complex plot, which is still easy to visualize once everything is explained. 

The Three Coffins is an almost otherworldly performance that nobody else could have pulled off except Carr. There have been those who tried. Clayton Rawson's Death from a Top Hat (1938), John Russell Fearn's The Five Matchboxes (1948) and Paul Halter's La quatrième porte (The Fourth Door, 1987) spring to mind. There even have been those who came close, like Christianna Brand's Death of Jezebel (1948) and Hake Talbot's Rim of the Pit (1944), but there will never be another Carr or The Three Coffins.

So, no, I don't agree with the downgrading of The Three Coffins at all. It's deservedly the most famous of Carr's many masterpieces and a landmark of the locked room mystery. Recommended unreservedly! I hope my fanboyism didn't bleed through too much.

13 comments:

  1. The more I read about locked-rooms, impossible crimes, the more I like The Hollow Man / The Three Coffins.

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  2. Don't know if I am swimming with or against the tide but I much prefer She Died a Lady, The Emperor's Snuffbox and The Case of the Constant Suicides, as well as Till Death Do Us Part. I find The Three Coffins a much more dense read.

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    1. Yes, The Three Coffins is much denser than the excellent She Died a Lady and Till Death Do Us Part, but that was the point and it actually worked. Carr executed it (almost) perfectly. Don't get me wrong, I can understand why it's not everyone's favorite Carr novel or locked room mystery, you can't account for personal taste, but it deserves to be recognized as a colossus of the genre. A detective story that gives the reader everything they hope to find when they crack open one of these old, 1930s mysteries.

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  3. I remarked to my wife last year as I gave it a reread that it was due another critical reappraisal. I don't think it's the best locked room mystery ever, or the best one Carr wrote. (What is, you ask? I'm not sure myself!) But I've read it three times now and I succumb to its charms each time. Thank you for the review!

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    1. That's one of the things that sets great writers, like Carr and Christie, apart from their contemporaries. Their mid-tier titles are so good that they would have been considered masterpieces with a different name on the cover. If some of Carr's more contentious, or mid-tier, novels were written by Hake Talbot or Theodore Roscoe, they would be more appreciated by locked room readers than as one of Carr's novels.

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  4. Well said! I think many people come into this book based on its reputation and expect a perfect murder plot like Death on the Nile or something then get disappointed, but that's not the book's goal. It's about presenting an utterly baffling problem with an utterly fantastic solution that fits the book's tone. As a detective story, the very core idea behind the plot is simple and can be summarized in one sentence (Noel Vindry did it as well), but the way it's implemented in the story is unreal. The payoff in ingenuity is well worth any far-fetched parts.
    There are authors who wrote, and will write, perfectly plausible and practical murder schemes with perfect execution. Nothing wrong with that... great for them. But the Three Coffins presents something more baffling, more bonkers, and more imaginative than the perfect murder.

    on a side note, I'd love to hear Ho-Ling's perspective on which Japanese impossible crimes "come close" to the ingenuity on display in The Three Coffins

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    1. I can't answer for Ho-Ling, of course, but I suppose that honor goes to Seishi Yokomizo's The Honjin Murders.

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  5. I don't know whether it's necessarily better or worse than Death of Jezebel. DOJ's strength is the very entertaining setup that admits a kaleidoscope of solutions in the service of a single moment of shocking realization. While I don't feel THM packs quite the same shock, it shines more in the sequence of events leading to the impossibilities, and in how the solution recontexualizes many clues and events, so it's more of a string of smaller brilliant moments than the single thunderbolt that DOJ has. It's a tie for me.

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    1. Fair enough. I did say Death of Jezebel is one of those novels that came very close, but it also has a very different approach and qualities than The Three Coffins. So I can see your point.

      One point in favor of Death of Jezebel is that it's a rare example of a Golden Age crossover in which two different series-characters cross paths. I've never understood why that never became a thing with the mystery genre.

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  6. This was the first Carr I read and (most probably due to the high expectations) it just did not work for me. Now that I have read more of Carr (including the The Blind - just what was he thinking - Barber) perhaps it is time to give it another go. But nobody can convince me that there can be anything more sublime than THE BURNING COURT.

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    1. The often-praised The Burning Court was among the first Carr novels I've read and left me unimpressed, but then again, I read an old Dutch translation. So I definitely have to reread it in English to give it a fair judgment, but remember not being impressed with the Dutch translation. So take that for what it's worth.

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  7. It's devaluation over time is a shame. Beyond the brilliant off-page machinations, it has one of Carr's best hooks. A short summary would immediately put it at the top of any mystery lovers TBR list.

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