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.
Our Mechanical Brain: What 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 Sheet: When 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 Room: If 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.