|(Not my cover but could not find an|
image of the Award Books cover)
The Three Coffins (better known outside the United States as The Hollow Man) by John Dickson Carr (1935) - Dr. Charles Vernet Grimaud is found mortally wounded inside his locked second floor study. Witnesses attest to a large man wearing a mask entering the room but Grimaud is found alone. There is no sign of escape and newly fallen snow on the roof and ground show no footprints.
On a nearby street three witnesses hear a gunshot and turn to see another man mortally wounded in the midst of the street. From the residue on his clothes he has been shot with the revolver either in contact with him or mere inches away. Yet there is no one else in the street.
Analysis determines the same gun fired the shots that killed each man.
At his death Professor Grimaud was a gentleman scholar living in London whose academic interests were focused on the black arts:
Low magic was the hobby of which he had made capital: any form of picturesque supernatural deviltry from vampirism to the Black Mass, over which he nodded and chuckled with childlike amusement – and got a bullet through the lung for his pains.
The other man, Pierre Fley, was a master illusionist performing his feats of magic in a London theatre.
Through skilful questioning and careful analysis of the study Dr. Gideon Fell is able to determine that Grimaud and Fley are brothers from Transylvania in East Central Europe.
They are actually the Horvath brothers. With a third brother, Henri, they had been imprisoned before 1900. Carr sent a chill up my spine with his description of the three brothers being buried alive during a plague epidemic.
Earlier in the book there had been an earnest discussion on the vampire legends of central Europe interrupted by a spectral figure who speaks of men able to leave their coffins. He had identified himself as Pierre Fley.
The mention of the supernatural played with this reader’s mind while I tried to decipher the clues.
Having a pair of connected impossible murders is a spectacular writing challenge and Carr flawlessly sets up the murders and resolves them with a flourish.
I have never figured out a locked room mystery before the author revealed the solution and The Three Coffins was no different.
The diagram of the upper floor of Grimaud’s house helped me visualize the scene but proved of no assistance in my attempts to solve Grimaud’s murder.
In this mystery it was the double connected murders that left my analysis floundering.
How could the same gun have been used in both killings when it is clear no one left the house. A witness could have been lying but there were multiple credible witnesses everyone remained in the house after the shot was fired in the study.
Motive is a challenge. Who would have wanted both brothers dead? The investigators speculate it was the third brother until a cable from Bucharest confirms Henri has been dead for 30 years.
Yet how could a killer of both men neither be seen nor leave any sign of his / her presence at the respective murder scenes?
I could have spent many nights pondering the evidence and never been close to the solution. It was most fairly done by Carr and I appreciate his talent with the locked room. I did no better when I read The Judas Window.
After reading The Three Coffins I can understand why classic mystery aficionados consider it one of the best locked room mysteries. My good friend Margot Kinberg from the superb blog, Confessions of a Mystery Novelist, specifically recommended the book to me.
I expect I will never figure out a locked room mystery. Give me a complex murky legal mystery any day. Sigh.
****Carr, John Dickson - (2011) - Death Turns the Tables
Carr, John Dickson writing as Carter Dickson - (2011) - The Judas Window