John Dickson Carr: The Hollow Man aka The Three Coffins

Hollow_ManThe Hollow Man aka The Three Coffins
John Dickson Carr
First published in the UK in 1935 by Hamish Hamilton
This edition Orion Books, 2013
213 pages
Source: Norwich Millennium Library

John Dickson Carr is the acknowledged master of the locked-room mystery, and his detective Doctor Fell – a larger than life figure harumphing, swearing by Bacchus, blowing his nose and waving his walking canes around – is an outstanding character. Fell is based on the larger-than-life G. K. Chesterton, writer of the Father Brown stories (and potential saint), and The Hollow Man, known as the The Three Coffins in the US, is the sixth of his 23 mysteries, which appeared between 1933 and 1967.

In The Hollow Man Carr serves up not one, but two impossible crimes.

…two murders were committed, in such fashion that the murderer must not only have been invisible, but lighter than air…

The story opens on a wintry evening in the snug of a London pub near the British Museum. Noted witchcarft expert Professor Grimaud is entertaining his coterie of friends when he receives a grim warning from an illusionist named Pierre Fley. Fley’s brother is out for his blood.

According to the evidence, this person killed his first victim and literally disappeared.

A tall man follows a housekeeper up the stairs after she has locked the front door in his face, knocks on Grimaud’s study door, then hurries in, leaving only an impression of a pink-painted papier-mâché head in the minds of two witnesses. Then where did he go after killing Grimaud? Not over the roof or out of the window – there are no marks in the thick snow below or above the room. The whole incident is grotesque and baffling.

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 not a footprint appeared in the snow.

The death of the illusionist Pierre Fley in the evocatively named Cagliostro Street is perhaps less chilling but no less impossible. Fley was shot at close range – by nobody.

As back story, a third impossible crime concerns the three coffins which gave this book its American title. Three men were buried in Transylvania half-a-lifetime ago, but at least one climbed out of his grave.

I love the atmosphere Carr generates in The Hollow Man. Writing in the 1930s, he creates a world which seems somehow timeless. He makes electricity meters seem Jacobean and a car journey through London reads like a ride in a Hansom cab. The erudite and eccentric gentlemen that populate the book would be equally at home in Tristram Shandy or the Pickwick Club.

And the whole book is spooky, starting with those wonderfully redolent names (Grimaud, Fley, Cagliostro Street), the doom-laden warning to Grimaud in a London pub, open graves in Transylvania, and the stillness of a snowy night near the British Museum.

All this, plus Dr Fell’s famous and often-quoted (so I won’t) locked-room lecture – what more could you ask? Fell advises us to suspend disbelief when reading about impossible crimes, and that advice should be followed. The solution to the crimes is logical – but not so logical that it actually makes sense. You come to John Dickson Carr for the barking mad, and he delivers it here.

See also:

Our Mechanical BrainWhat surprised me about the book is that, far from being an exemplar of the formal detective story, it’s more like an affectionate parody of it, or even a eulogy. It’s almost as though Carr knew that this literary trend was on its last legs, and wanted to give it a decent send-off. This is partly apparent from the solution to the mystery itself, which is so absurdly complex that no reader would stand a chance of guessing it (which was half the fun of this kind of book).

The Rap SheetWhen published in England, its title was changed to The Hollow Man, a poor and ambiguous substitute for the original. In losing the number of coffins, the alternative title loses an indication both of the tripartite structure of this novel and of the mathematical accuracy with which it is put together.

The Locked RoomIf there’s any criticism to level at The Hollow Man, the story is primarily told instead of experienced. While the detectives stumble upon the crime in the first few chapters, the rest of the story is told through dialogue and discussion as they piece together the solution. The approach does feel a little dated when compared to more action focused recent mystery novels, but does allow for a deeper insight into the crimes and the motives behind them.

About pastoffences

Past Offences exists to review classic crime and mystery books, with ‘classic’ meaning books originally published before 1987.
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17 Responses to John Dickson Carr: The Hollow Man aka The Three Coffins

  1. lesblatt says:

    One of the reasons I particularly enjoy this book is because it opens with a direct challenge to the reader – from which your quotes, above, were taken. And while I agree that it is unlikely that most readers will solve the case before Dr. Fell does, I don’t think they’ll mind – and the clues ARE there (one key clue is pointed out several times by Dr. Fell, though – to be sure – in cryptic terms). Anyway, it remains a favorite, right up there with “The Judas Window” among Carr’s best, IMHO, and I enjoyed your review of it.


    • pastoffences says:

      Thanks Les – I wonder if anybody has ever solved it? This was a second read for me – I remembered the first part of the solution after a while, but was still foxed by the second.


  2. realthog says:

    I remember enjoying this a lot. Your evocative discussion makes me want to read it again sometime soon.

    When published in England, its title was changed to The Hollow Man

    Am I right in thinking The Rap Sheet has got this back to front. I could have sworn the UK edn preceded the US one, so the retitling was done by the US publisher. (I also, unlike The Rap Sheet, vastly prefer The Hollow Man of the two titles.)


    • pastoffences says:

      Thanks John, I thought that too (both retitling and preference).


    • Santosh Iyer says:

      Actually The Rap Sheet is correct. The Three Coffins was published in USA by Harper & Brothers in September 1935. The Hollow Man was published in UK by Hamish Hamilton in October 1935.
      Thus the original title was The Three Coffins referring to the three sections of the book titled First Coffin, Second Coffin and Third Coffin. The title was changed for the British edition.


      • realthog says:

        How interesting — many thanks! However, it could still be the case that the UK edition was the “primary” one: it depends on which publisher JDC was directly contracted to. My guess is that it was HH, and that the US edition was subcontracted.

        I know, I know: fiddlesticking stuff. But that was how it all worked, back in t’day.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Santosh Iyer says:

        The source of my information is Douglas G. Greene’s The Man Who Explained Miracles. Here it is clearly mentioned that the original title was The Three Coffins. In fact, this title was used in the initial letters from the British publisher to JDC. It was only later, before publication, that the British publisher decided on an alternative title. The reason for this is not known.


  3. Santosh Iyer says:

    This is a brilliant novel, a must reading for mystery fans.

    The only niggle is the time mix up of 40 minutes—clearly absurd.


    • Santosh Iyer says:


      Another complaint is the explanation of how he entered his house towards the end without leaving tracks. We are told of an entrance-way into the basement of the house that is sheltered from the snow by a projection. We were never previously told about this.Hence I regard this as a cheat.


  4. kaggsysbookishramblings says:

    Great review. It’s a long time since I read any JDC but I do remember loving the locked-room concept. Maybe time for a revisit!


  5. It’s been an absolute age since I read this and my primary memory, apart from that chapter of course, was mildly being irked by the artificiality of the whole thing. I think it might be time to re-read it.


  6. Couldn’t agree more (belatedly) – easily one of his best and automatically one of the peaks of Golden Age detection – can’t wait to re-read it 🙂


  7. Pingback: E. C. R. Lorac, Murder by Matchlight | Past Offences Classic Crime Fiction

  8. Pingback: The Hollow Man (1935) by John Dickson Carr | crossexaminingcrime

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