Wednesday, November 25, 2020

John Dickson Carr : The Three Coffins/ The Hollow Man, 1935




The Three Coffins is from 1935 and belongs to the period of Carr's great masterpieces. It is an extremely prolific period, full of atmospheres, extraordinary crimes and extraordinary solutions. Suffice it to say that in the famous decade 1930-1940, there are some of the most extraordinary novels not only by Carr but of all time. Furthermore, in the year of The Hollow Man / The Three Coffins, Carr packs three other remarkable novels, one more unforgettable than the other, testifying what fantasy and what energy he had inside: The Red Widow Murders and The Unicorn Murders (with H .Merrivale) and Death Watch (with G. Fell). Basically 2 with Fell and 2 with Merrivale.
The Three Coffins proposes the most famous crime in a closed room and an equally famous impossible crime in the snow.
The story is soon told. It revolves around the figure of Dr. Grimaud, lecturer, former university professor of French origin who dabbles in magic and esotericism. On an evening in the pub with his friends, debating what he is famous for (vampires, ghosts and the supernatural world), a stranger shows up who qualifies as Pierre Fley, magician and illusionist, specializing in disappearance shows. , which threatens him. Some days, a man shows up at the professor's house in the evening: he, who wears a mask on face, shoots him in his study, but then when they break into it, they find Grimaud dying as the killer has vanished. And outside, although the window is inaccessible, but outside and under the snow there is no footprint. Also, along with the killer, the gun also disappeared.
Before exhaling his last breaths, the professor murmurs some incomprehensible words. Burned papers are found in the fireplace, which then, treated according to a process described by Gross, reveal other incomprehensible words.


Meanwhile, a few minutes later, in a deserted street, with the bizarre name of Cagliostro Street, not far from Grimaud's home, his brother, Pierre Fley, is killed. Someone yelled at him "The second bullet is for you!". A shot sealed the murder. But the beauty is that three eyewitnesses, including a policeman, swear that there was no one. And the victim is in the middle of the street. And around him there is snow, without any footprints. Yet he was shot point blank in the back. The gun is there on the ground, without fingerprints, and is recognized as the one from which the bullet that killed Grimaud a little earlier came from.
Thus said the plot would seem poor. And instead...
Meanwhile, Grimaud was confronted by Pierre Fley in the pub while he was in the company of Pettis, Burnaby and Mangan. The conversation and the veiled threat to confront Grimaud with Pierre's brother have a great effect on Grimaud who convinces Burnaby to sell him a painting, depicting three graves in a ghostly night. A first mystery concerns the painting itself: when it is in Burnaby's studio, it is light; but when it is brought to Grimaud's house, two porters struggle to carry it. A second mystery concerns Grimaud, Fley and his brother: the three are not strangers but even brothers, and have escaped from forced labor in Romania: the luckiest of the three was Grimaud who ran away with the loot they had hidden and now the others. two want their share, also taking into account that Grimaud was not interested in the two brothers when he was running away, so much so that the other two ... one had been captured (Pierre) the other was deemed dead (Nicholas). So there is a revenge in the way. The third mystery concerning Grimaud's death is that in front of the door of the study was the station of Mills (the librarian) who testified that a man entered the study in a black coat, and there is also the housekeeper, Dumont, who opened the door. Another mystery concerns the time this visitor should have arrived: 9.30pm at Dumont / Mills, 10pm in Mangan who has an affair with Grimaud's daughter, Rosette. But there is a fifth very important mystery: in fact, as Fell observes when he is called into question together with Hadley, his friend Inspector of the CID, before 21.30 it stopped snowing and in the snow around the door there were only their Footprints: So how did the killer get home? Flying? It seems that it is one of the visitors to the house, Pettis Mangan and Drayman, but all three have iron alibis.
In short, there is to go crazy.


And the second murder is also maddening. A certain O 'Rourke, Fley's colleague, not only talks about him but also leads them to someone's apartment, an expert in illusionism and many investigative practices. Here they also find a bloodstained towel. The apartment light was on that night, and someone saw a shadow prowling. It belongs to Burnaby. but Burnaby swears and swears that he wasn't there and Fell believes him. There is also another oddity: the clock of the jewelry shop, near Cagliostro Street, the street where Pierre Fley was killed, a street strangely very close to the Grimaud house. And just before the solution Drayman has a heart attack, from something he did that is related to the solution (even though he is not the killer).
Fell's solution will reverse the problem and examine clock, painting, a bloodstained tweed coat that belongs to none of the people in the house, which then disappears and reappears as black and then disappears again; a thud that someone heard before the visitor arrived; his impossible disappearance together with the gun; the mysterious papers burned in the fireplace; the incomprehensible words spoken by Grimaud before he died; the story of the three brothers; the death of Fley; the proximity of the apartments of Fley, Burnaby and the Grimaud house; and finally Drayman's heart attack.
Meanwhile, let's say that narratively this is one of the best novels if not the best, with impossible crimes that are truly impossible until the solution that Fell arrives at turns everything upside down.


I will highlight some things that jumped to my eyes. Some I exposed to Doug Greene who said he was very interested. Above all one: the story of the three brothers. Now, if we weren't talking about Carr, talking about brothers which author would come to mind? Queen came to me immediately. At 17 I hadn't even come for the antechamber of the brain, but now yes, of course. And what novel? The Egyptian Cross Mystery. Which is from 1933, mind you. And it speaks of a revenge, of three brothers, who are originally from Eastern Europe (there from Montenegro, here from Romania), and of one who kills the others.
Doug was very surprised: he hadn't thought about it. He said he's going to re-read Queen's novel. After all, the similarities between the two novels are very strong. So I asked him: Did Carr read Queen? And he replied that Carr was quoting another Queenian novel that is also intimately connected to his: The Chinese Orange Mystery, which is mind you, a reverse murder, and which is from 1934. Another novel published before Hollow Man. So Queen influenced Carr's The Hollow Man, definitely. Then obviously Carr created something unique, but the influence of the first two Queenian novels is all there.
I also noticed something I had never noticed: in a certain passage Fell speaks not as he would speak but as Carr would speak; that is, we witness a pirouette on itself: Carr for a moment is not interested in the conference and says:
'Because,' said the doctor, frankly, 'we're in a detective story, and we don't fool the reader by pretending we're not. Let's not invent elaborate excuses to drag in a discussion of detective stories. Let's candidly glory in the noblest pursuits possible to character in a book"

That is, we might think that for a moment Fell leaves the page of the book as a character, addressing the reader of the novel. A process in a certain sense close to Halter when halfway through The Fourth Door he stops writing as a character and speaks as a reader who reads the story told before.
Then there's another thing that jumped at me and never occurred to me: the influence on Rawson. In fact, Death from a Top Hat is from 1938. Rawson's novel is structured like Carr's: it speaks of two slain magicians, illusionists, connoisseurs of the esoteric world (even Grimaud is in a certain sense a magician, as well as a scholar of esotericism, and obviously Fley is); the two crimes are as impossible as those of Carr; and furthermore Rawson's solution is influenced by Carr's, because there too is a reverse solution. So basically we have Queen influencing Carr influencing Rawson: interesting huh?
Then in the novel there is still much talk, and among other things also about vampires. Vampires are incidentally talked about in He Who Whispers, which is from 1946. And here is the main character who, like Grimaud, is a university professor, and whose surname, Rigaud is very similar to it. Not only that: Rigaud dies from a stab inflicted by those close to him, but on the tower there is no one like himself who shoots Pierre Fley is invisible even though he has been shot at point blank range. Furthermore, the two victims die, one from a pistol, the other from a dagger, but it can be said ... in the same way. Because..
they are hit earlier than you think.

Finally, Doug reminded me of something I had also written years ago in Hake Talbot's Rim of the Pit article 


Grimaud is so called because it derives from Grimorium, an ancient book of black magic. And also in Talbot's novel there is a Grimaud, which is evidently a tribute to Carr. After all, the root of Grimorium is Grim, whose meaning is well suited to both the character by Carr and that by Talbot.


The Locked Room-Lecture in the seventeenth chapter was by me, treated separately, years ago in one of my most read article



Pietro De Palma