Sunday 23 December 2018

The Hollow Man by John Dickson Carr

For this year's Christmas blog post I've chosen a classic crime novel, a cosy locked room murder mystery, set in a beautifully evoked winter London where "The snow was whirling outside, and it was not a night to venture far..."

The first thing that has to be said about The Hollow Man is that this is not anything to do with the Paul Veerhoven movie featuring an invisible Kevin Bacon.

The second thing is that it is also widely known under the title The Three Coffins.

Whatever you call it, it's an outstanding example of the aforementioned "locked room" sub genre. 

In case you're not familiar with these, and at the risk of explaining the thunderingly obvious, these are murder mysteries where the crime appears to have taken place under impossible circumstances — for instance in a locked room where the killer couldn't have got in, or out.

The Hollow Man was published in 1935 and it's the work of John Dickson Carr, who wrote prolifically under his own name and also under a series of pseudonyms, including Carter Dickson.

Carr was an American, which comes as a surprise, since he writes so convincingly about British locations. But that's because he moved to England at the beginning of his long writing career.

The Hollow Man is a purely rational and realistic story (albeit rather sensational) but it begins by conjuring an air of supernatural menace, which it renews from time to time — fairly deftly. So it isn't surprising that elsewhere Carr did write some memorable fantasy novels, including Fire, Burn! in which a 20th century London cop is transported back to 1829.

But, as I say, The Hollow Man is firmly rooted in the rational and the hero of the book is one Dr Gideon Fell, who is not merely a rationalist, but an amateur detective who has a brain to rival that of Sherlock Holmes, although his corpulent body is a bit of a mess — on a single page he is evoked with the words "lumbering", "wheezed" and "waddled." Not exactly a picture of health and fitness. (Fell is said to be based on the crime writer G.K. Chesterton, creator of Father Brown.)

The Hollow Man was a big surprise to me. In this kind of story I expect the prose to be serviceable at best. But Carr is an excellent writer. His descriptions and dialogue are of a high standard, but it's his characterisation which really scores outstanding marks for him.

Particularly his women. He has some strong and memorable female characters here, which is very unusual at this time, especially from a male writer. 

Take for instance the "restless, sleek and puzzling" Rosette Grimaud, a self described feminist (I didn't even know the term existed in 1935) who announces that she's in favour of "less talk and more copulation."

This sort of characterisation, besides being vivid and original, is way ahead of its time. 

Carr is also often very funny. Superintendent Hadley of the CID — the Inspector Lestrade to Fell's Holmes — says at one point, "We can get ideas even from a clever man."

And Dr Fell describes the benefits of "Having been improving my mind with sensational fiction for forty years."  And then goes on to provide a lucid analysis of the whole field of locked room murder mysteries, citing names of writers and detectives in a way that's reminiscent of Stieg Larsson (whose hero Blomkvist devours crime novels while he is busy pursuing his own investigation).

This is very modern and witty — not to mention almost disturbingly meta... as when Fell declares "we're in a detective story and we don't fool the reader by pretending we're not."

Naturally the crucial thing in a detective story, especially a complex puzzle mystery like this one, is whether the payoff is satisfying or not. And here the author delivers the goods. The solution is diabolically ingenious, holds water, and I'm willing to wager you'll never guess it.

But for me the real revelation was the quality of Carr's writing. I'm seriously impressed  and I'll be looking for more of his books to read.

Meanwhile, if you want to curl up with a classic mystery this Christmas, I recommend that you let John Dickson Carr cast his spell on you, and accompany him into this moody, menacing tale where "London, on the morning of a grey winter Sunday, was deserted to the point of ghostliness along miles of streets..."

(Image credits: A delightfully huge selection of covers, including a couple of striking Chinese editions, at good old Good Reads.)

1 comment:

  1. I'm not a big fan of reading locked room mysteries but I do enjoy watching them.

    One locked room mystery book I've always remembered, though, was "Leonardo's Law" by Warren Murphy, who was better known for being a co-creator of Remo Williams in the "Destroyer" series, one of the writers of the movie "The Eiger Sanction" and a co-writer of the story for "Lethal Weapon."

    This one hinted heavily that the college professor who aids the police is the reincarnation of Leonardo da Vinci, and he knows it. Murphy has used the reincarnation shtick in another series and it's a bit heavy-handed here but it's fun in a cozy mystery. He never wrote a sequel.