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The Hollow Man

Page history last edited by Jon 12 years, 10 months ago

Carr, John Dickson - The Hollow Man aka The Three Coffins (1935)


Why Murder?


Newcomers to the detective story often feel squeamish about the use of murder as the trigger for an investigation. Why can’t some other crime be used instead? they ask. There are lots of answers to this, but the first and most important is that the murders in a detective story bear as little relation to real - life murder as the marzipan bride and groom on a wedding cake do to a real marriage. A detective story that sets out to shock or scare the reader with grisly details is not a detective story at all, but a thriller or horror story in disguise. Genuine detective fiction treats murder lightly; it usually takes place off - stage, and any gory cleaning - up is attended to by the police or the servants, not the author. The victim is often known to be a villain, or subsequently shown to be one, and the use of children as victims (except nasty ones) is considered to be bad form. Grief - stricken friends, lovers or relatives are the exception rather than the rule, and where they appear are usually touched on lightly.


Having said this, however, why is murder the crime of choice?


  • It justifies an effort to solve; as one of the two most serious crimes (with treason) it makes sense for plenty of money, time and effort to be spent on its solution.
  • It removes a witness who would otherwise have information about the murder or its motive; the detective must often try and reconstruct just what the victim knew.
  • It provides a strong motive for further cover - up activity by the perpetrator. (This is particularly true for stories written during the days of capital punishment for murder; having committed one murder the perpetrator has nothing to lose by committing more.)
  • The threat of being murdered can frighten suspects and witnesses into revealing their secrets rather than putting themselves at risk.
  • It can drastically rearrange power relationships and financial status through inheritance.


Although there are many detective stories that centre around theft, or attempted rather than actual murder, the finality of murder makes it an ideal trigger for the story of an investigation.


Whereabouts in the book the murder takes place, and how many murders there are, is usually not so important. Some authors like to prefigure a murder with a long description of the activities leading up to it – Ngaio Marsh is one prominent example. Others prefer to reconstruct the activities later, during the investigation itself. Too many preliminaries can make the reader feel cheated, as an investigation is crammed into the last 50 pages or so; too few can lead to feeling lost and confused among a welter of meaningless names and places.


John Dickson Carr


John Dickson Carr was born in America, of Scottish descent, in 1906, and lived both in the USA and Britain, setting stories on both sides of the Atlantic. He combined a profound intellect and enormous energy, some of which was spent on pursuing women and drink, and the rest dedicated wholeheartedly to the cause of the detective story. Carr was enormously prolific, not only of stories but also of screenplays, radio plays and reviews. When his novels became too much for his first pseudonym to bear, he adopted another transparently similar one: Carter Dickson.


Carr had a profound interest in history, and wrote several historical mysteries which are strikingly accurate in their depiction of the times they represent. His only non - fiction book is a recount of an Elizabethan murder case. He also took a strong interest in the history of the occult – but he was never tempted to provide an occult ‘explanation’ for his mysteries, no matter how strongly they might seem to require one; instead he delighted in debunking and showing up supposedly mystical events.


Above all, Carr takes risks. He goes all - out to baffle and mystify the reader. Red herrings abound; nothing can be taken for granted. His job is to fix, baffle and misdirect; the reader’s job is to see through it all and penetrate to the heart of the mystery before the detective does. And Carr tries to be scrupulously fair. The clues are all in place; in some books, in fact, their location is pointed out with footnotes during the denouement. A Carr book is a Times Crossword Puzzle for detection fans.


Because he takes risks, Carr sometimes fails. Occasionally his surprise endings fall utterly flat, rousing stark incredulity instead of startled recognition. (One such book for me, at least, is The Crooked Hinge, which begins full of promise and ends in flat disbelief.) Even an ending which satisfies at the time may turn out later, on mature reflection, to be full of holes. In some of his later books, written when Carr was suffering from alcoholic overindulgence, the sure touch fails and the dialogue becomes stilted and breathless. But at the height of his powers Carr was the detective writer’s detective writer – and The Hollow Man is one of his very best.


The Book


The book begins with a bold statement on the very first page: “… two murders were committed, in such fashion that the murderer must have been not only invisible, but lighter than air. According to the evidence, this person killed his first victim and literally disappeared. Again according to the evidence, he killed his second victim in the middle of an empty street, with watchers at either end; yet not a soul saw him, and no footprint appeared in the snow.”


Only half - a - page into the story, and Carr has already thrown down the gauntlet: this is the challenge, and we have to explain it before he does. He has also – as we discover much later – already begun to misdirect us. Like a conjurer he boldly draws our attention to the empty hat, and quietly away from the well - filled sleeve.


The plot is far too complex to set out in detail, but it concerns Professor Grimaud, a Frenchman resident in England, who, like Carr, studies the history of the occult. Grimaud, like Anthony Sheringham, has a discussion group. This one is an informal gathering at the Warwick Tavern, and here he holds forth on witchcraft and the like. Grimaud is a sceptic; but he is interested in the causes behind superstitions.


One evening while talking about vampirism the group is interrupted by a gaunt stranger, his face muffled from the cold, who talks cryptically about coffins. He warns Grimaud that he – the stranger – has a brother who is ‘very dangerous to you’. He leaves a card, identifying himself as Pierre Fley, Illusionist, and he gives Grimaud a choice; either Fley will call on him or he will send his brother. 'Send your brother,' snarled Grimaud, getting up suddenly, 'and be damned!'


Fley departs, and the scene is set. Carr is in his element with these conjurers and occultists, half - imagined hints of supernatural powers, and already the reader is a little off - balance.


The next scene is a sharp contrast; we meet one of Carr’s great detectives, Doctor Gideon Fell (the others are Henri Bencolin, and Sir Henry Merrivale, who appears in the books by Carter Dickson). Carr based Dr. Fell on G. K. Chesterton, whom he admired particularly for his Father Brown stories. Fell shares Chesterton’s immense girth (he requires two walking sticks to move around on), his black - ribboned eyeglasses, his appreciation for food and beer and a taste for Chestertonian paradox. Fell also has a wife who remains more or less invisible, and like many fictional detectives from Holmes onward, he doesn’t age; he is no less whiskered and wheezy at his first appearance in 1933 than his last in the late 1960s.


Fell and his friend Superintendent Hadley are having their own discussion, about criminology. Fell is decidedly not a forensic scientist: ‘his chemical researches left the roof on the house, since, fortunately, he always managed to smash the apparatus before the experiment had begun; and, beyond setting fire to the curtains with a Bunsen burner, he did little damage’. Ted Rampole, a friend of Fell’s, passes on what he knows about the meeting in the Warwick Tavern, together with some more information about Fley, who claims to have once been buried alive. Meanwhile, since the meeting Grimaud has been receiving daily messages in the mail, which he burns, and he has invited Mangan from the Warwick Tavern group to be present at his house next Saturday, when ‘somebody’ threatens to visit.


Fell, who also knows Grimaud, takes all this very seriously, and urges Hadley to make haste to Grimaud’s house. They arrive there to find the other inhabitants locked in on the ground floor and Grimaud upstairs, dying of a bullet wound in a locked room.


Naturally the room turns out to be escape - proof. There are no footprints in the snow and no ladder from the window, and a mysterious visitor whom Grimaud admitted before his death has vanished into thin air. We find ourselves faced with a locked room mystery; a staple of detective fiction, of which Carr was the champion exponent. With a locked room mystery, the problem of Whodunnit? pales into insignificance beside the much greater problem of How Was It Done?


Fell begins gathering his clues from bloodstains, from a heraldic coat of arms, from burnt paper, from books in a foreign language. Meanwhile Grimaud’s household is called to account: his odd, pedantic secretary, Mills; Rosette Grimaud, his daughter; the enigmatic housekeeper, Madame Dumont; an elderly friend named Drayman; and a maid called Annie. Fell’s questions are themselves mystifying: why does he want to know Madame Dumont’s religion, and what are the ‘seven towers’? Carr is an expert in the time - honoured tradition of dropping tantalising hints: 'Nothing is logical,' said Dr Fell. 'Not even - But that can wait.'


Hadley’s role in all this is to expound solid common sense. Unlike our earlier police investigators he is thoroughly competent and he has no qualms about class distinctions. And he has a few good lines: ‘We can get ideas even from a clever man’ he comments. He assists the investigation materially, but he lacks Fell’s imagination, and he knows it. His prosaic explanations always fail at some unlooked - for point. In cases like this it is always the doctor’s wildest imaginings that turn out to be true, to Hadley’s disgust. ‘I always dread the time when you begin to trot out your damned paradoxes’, he scowls. But the police methods that work in an ordinary case simply entangle the story in an extraordinary one.


Rampole – Fell’s young friend – has an important part to play too. He does not recur in other stories, but there is usually someone in the same position, a young man, often with a romance going on in the background, who is with Fell most of the time. He hears the suggestions, the hints, the odd questions and the ‘H’rmfs!’ as Fell encounters a clue that he can’t yet assimilate; but like the ordinary reader he is well behind the old fox in putting the pieces together.


The police do their thorough routine. There is no shortage of evidence; the problem is how to make sense of it. Grimaud’s last words are laid out for us – but what exactly did he say, and what did he mean? Secrets begin to emerge about Grimaud’s background, thanks to Fell’s encyclopaedic knowledge – like Holmes, he has the world of human knowledge at his fingertips. The half - blind Mr. Drayman has a Transylvanian story to tell confirming Fell’s deductions. The history of the three graves emerges. The mysterious Pierre Fley begins to take shape, but his brother remains a shadow.


Most of us associate Transylvania with vampires, and I am sure this was in Carr’s mind; but it is typical of him to replace mythical, supernatural vampires with real horrors – plague and political tyranny – which are no less Gothic and much more menacing. Although the Transylvanian episode only takes a few pages to tell, it remains central to the story.


Having led us – and Fell – carefully down this garden path, Carr casually tosses another bombshell. Fley, too, is dead, killed in the open air in Cagliostro Street, and his murderer too has left no footprints in the snow. There is a detailed report in the paper – in the world of detective stories newspapers always to give much more coverage to the circumstances of crime than real ones do; what’s more, they’re invariably accurate.


Back in his rooms, with Hadley and Rampole, Fell makes a revealing remark, though its significance is not clear at the time: ‘it's the cussedness of things in general which makes me raise my hat’. The ‘cussedness of things in general’ is an important theme in all Carr’s work; in fact, it could be described as the theme of his detective stories. In a ‘typical’ detective story – if there is any such thing – the criminal concocts a clever plot which works out to the letter; and the detective has to hunt for anything that has been overlooked. Carr’s achievement was to show how much more mystifying it is when plots go wrong; when the totally unexpected intrudes and makes hay of carefully - laid plans. Murphy’s Law, to Carr, applies for criminals too.


Fell has a good deal more to say, about the case in particular, about ghost stories, about melodrama, about locked rooms. So do many of the other characters, and all of it is worth reading. Like The Poisoned Chocolates Case, this is both a detective story and a book about detective stories, brilliantly woven together so that the commentary hides clues to the murders, and the murders themselves provide some of the commentary. Carr toys with us by shooting down our own wild fancies while at the same time he is developing his own.


One whole chapter is given over to Fell’s locked - room lecture, which has been reprinted in its entirety as a classic contribution to literary criticism. ‘All those opposing’, he says wickedly, ‘can skip this chapter.’ Here Fell lays down Carr’s manifesto: about murders (‘I like my murders to be frequent, gory, and grotesque’), about probability, and about impossible crimes, with numerous examples from real authors (including Carr himself), although not cited by name. Locked room mysteries are grouped into seven categories, and each is discussed with reference to the present case. And, despite the disclaimer at the beginning of the chapter, there are important clues here, too.


Meanwhile the investigation is going on. Fell and Hadley visit Cagliostro Street, which Carr describes in detail. Experienced readers know the trick he has of slipping crucial information into what seems to be just an evocation of atmosphere, so they will peruse the description closely: “It was a backwater of Lamb's Conduit Street - which itself is a long and narrow thoroughfare, a shopping centre of its own, stretching north to the barrack - windowed quiet of Guilford Street and south to the main artery of traffic along Theobald's Road. Towards the Guilford Street end on the west side, the entrance to Cagliostro Street is tucked between a stationer's and a butcher's. It looks much like an alley that you would miss it altogether if you were not watching for the sign. Past these two buildings, it suddenly widens to an unexpected breadth, and runs straight for two hundred yards to a blank brick wall at the end.”


Is there a clue there? Should we check back for other references to Lamb’s Conduit Street and Theobald’s Road? Is there something sinister about a stationer’s and a butcher’s? We are uncertain what to preserve and what to discard. The atmosphere of disconcerting illusion builds. “It was like wondering whether, if you walked out of your own front door, you might not find the whole street mysteriously changed overnight, and strange faces grinning out of houses you had never seen before.” But in this very paragraph there is an important clue.


They interview a Canadian trapeze artist, a man with an Irish name and an Italian nom de guerre, who was the last person to see Fley alive. They find a room with some suggestive props, and a disappearing tenant with a false name. Fell, the Chesterton character, reminds us of Chesterton’s stories, in which deep and sinister secrets turn out to be jokes – and vice versa. They investigate Fley’s lodgings, where they find an upside - down motto. There is an overcoat which apparently changes colour overnight. There is more than a hint of Magic Realism here. Another bombshell comes in a telegram from Bucarest: the third brother, the one that Hadley had pinned his hopes on, is long dead.


By now Fell can identify the murderer, but he will not reveal the name until he knows how the trick has been worked. This is a signal to us that we need to hurry up with our own deductions. The pace of the book begins to accelerate. Fell announces that he has found the truth. He has a rare moment of that angst that often troubles fictional detectives – and perhaps real ones too - 'What is justice? I've asked it at the end of nearly every case I ever handled. I see faces rise, and sick souls and bad dreams... No matter.’ He does some rare forensic work, applying Gross’s test to burned papers from the fireplace, and confirms his hypothesis. Now at last he is ready to reveal who committed the murder, and how it was done. The surprise ending which follows turns the whole thing – literally – upside down; and even then there remains one last twist of the knife.


Does the ending work? This is a personal thing. Endings that some people find brilliant others will feel are absurd and nonsensical. It all rests, perhaps on our own view of the world, and of detective stories, and of how the two are meant to interact. Of course it’s improbable; as Carr admits earlier, if it wasn’t improbable then there wouldn’t be a story. The question is: does it work in the book? And the answer from hundreds of Carr enthusiasts at least, is ‘Yes!’




It is years since I read this book. My vague recollection is that I found it clever and complex and that I was intrigued and impressed by the `locked room lecture'. On rereading I found it clever and complex (although some aspects of the puzzle and solution struck me as implausible, heavily reliant on coincidence and based on remarkable deductions from slender clues) while the `lecture' appeared now, in the light of much more reading in the field, to be superficial and more in the nature of an introduction to the subject. Professor Grimaud ( a dabbler in `supernatural devilry')is confronted and challenged by an `illusionist' (Pierre Frey) with talk of brothers, coffins and a threat of a nocturnal visit. Dr Fell shortly thereafter visits Grimaud's residence in Russell Square just as a shot is heard from Grimaud's locked second floor study; shortly before this Grimaud and Frey had been seen by witnesses to enter the study together. When the study door is opened Grimaud is found mortally wounded, no sign is found of Frey and he ground outside the only exit (the window) is covered by unmarked snow.


Then we learn that Frey is shot to death from close range while walking on his own in a nearby street covered in unmarked snow. Superintendent Hadley investigates with a small team of detectives who seem for the most part to run errands (is this how a major murder investigation was conducted in England in 1935?) and fortunately with the assistance of Dr. Gideon Fell. There are clues, revelations, red herrings and revealing hints from Fell. Grimaud is found to have escaped with his two brothers from a Hungarian prison in 1900 by being buried alive and then escaping from his grave. A lot turns on a painting of three graves in a forest that is found in the study, on burnt papers found in the hearth in that room and on what witnesses saw and heard in Cagliosto Street after Frey died. These and other clues that lead Fell to the truth are revealed throughout the text to the reader. The problem for this reader was to understand what they meant; but even when they were explained there appear to be a number of critical conclusions Fell draws that are not based on the clues but rather on intuition. Nevertheless when all is revealed it is difficult to conclude the murders could have occurred in any other way.


Certainly not Carr's best work. However the plot, setting, puzzle, clueing and deductions are so superior to much written in the golden age with the result the book has to be recommended as well worth reading.


A G McLean


See also http://pattinase.blogspot.com/2011/08/fridays-forgotten-books-friday-august_19.html

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