The Hollow Man (AKA The Three Coffins) by John Dickson Carr (1935)

To the murder of Professor Grimaud, and later the equally incredible crime in Cagliostro Street, many fantastic terms could be applied – with reason. Those of Dr Fell’s friends who like impossible situations will not find in his case-book any puzzle more baffling or more terrifying. Thus: 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.”

Finally, my first Fell impossible crime! Carr has created a story with not one, but two impossible murders. In the first, the murderer disappears into thin air, and in the second, is seemingly invisible. I’m just going to say it…I loved it!  

This is a complex story with an ending that will totally surprise. The victim’s dark pasts, as well as allusions to vampires, empty graves, and cold silent streets, creates an atmosphere which is ominous, eerie and filled with tension. Also, surprisingly, but quite suitably, there is none of the comic Dr. Fell to be seen. He is amiable and kind, but there are no leering looks, no burbling, and hardly any twinkles.

The beauty of this story is Carr’s writing and his ability to deceive, and do it in such a brilliantly entertaining way. He is the writer/magician who presents one reality while concealing another. With subtle misdirection; he places the facts right under your nose, then slyly shifts the focus, manipulating your attention so you don’t see them for what they are. 

But do you know what I really loved about this book? The famous Locked – Room Lecture and how Carr very candidly tells us that locked room mysteries are magic tricks, meant to hoodwink, and that detective fiction is full of improbabilities. and that is what makes it enjoyable. But, if it’s not to your taste, that’s fine with him. 

When the cry of ‘This-sort-of-think-wouldn’t-happen!’ goes up, when you complain about homicidal maniacs and killers who leave cards, you are merely saying, ‘I don’t like this sort of story.’ That’s fair enough. If you don’t like it, you have a howling right to say so. But when you twist this matter of taste into a rule for judging the merit or even the probability of the story, you are merely saying, “This series of events couldn’t happen, because I couldn’t enjoy it if it did.’”

Are the story and the solution perfect? Definitely not, it has flaws, but it is brilliantly clever. I definitely will be reading this one again…and again!

My Judgment – 5/5

Prior Rulings – crossexamingingcrime, Past OffencesThe Invisible EventThe Puzzle DoctorThe Grandest Game in the World

One thought on “The Hollow Man (AKA The Three Coffins) by John Dickson Carr (1935)

  1. Pingback: My Book Notes: The Hollow Man (aka The Three Coffins), 1935 (Dr Fell # 6) by John Dickson Carr – A Crime is Afoot

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