Friday, August 29, 2008

The Book You Have to Read:
“The Three Coffins,” by John Dickson Carr

(Editor’s note: This is the 20th installment of our ongoing Friday blog series highlighting great but forgotten books--and the first of two posts today featuring locked-room mysteries. Our first selection comes from prolific British novelist Edward Marston (aka Keith Miles), perhaps best known for his Nicholas Bracewell Elizabethan mysteries, but more recently the creator of a series about mid-19th-century “Railway Detective” and Scotland Yard Inspector Robert Colbeck. His latest entry in the Colbeck series is this summer’s Murder on the Brighton Express. Earlier this year, Marston also saw published Soldier of Fortune, the debut work in a brand-new series of adventures starring Captain Daniel Rawson, described as a 16th-century “spy, linguist, sportsman, duelist, ladies’ man, and career soldier.”)

The Three Coffins is the definitive locked-room mystery by John Dickson Carr, the greatest exponent of that tantalizing sub-genre. It features Dr. Gideon Fell, one of the author’s most beguiling characters, who steps outside the novel at one point to deliver the famous Locked-Room Lecture, thereby puncturing all the theories that readers have so far devised while at the same time encouraging them to look afresh at the problem. As Douglas Greene pointed out in The Man Who Explained Miracles (1995), his exhaustive and authoritative study of Carr, The Three Coffins (1935) is that rare exception--a book that can be read with equal enjoyment two, three, or more times, even though the ending is already known.

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. From the very start, the author’s sense of control is mesmerizing. He not only describes the room in which Professor Grimaud’s body is found, he also provides a plan of the rear of the top floor of the house. What seems like a useful aid for the reader, however, can also be misleading. It simplifies a mystery that is far too complex to be explained diagrammatically.

This book is carefully divided into the First Coffin, the Second Coffin, and the Third Coffin. The respective subtitles are “The Problem of the Savant’s Study,” “The Problem of Cagliostro Street,” and “The Problem of Seven Towers.” In the opening chapter, the author confronts us with a challenge--“Those of Dr. Fell’s friends who like impossible situations will not find anything in his case-book more baffling and or more terrifying. Thus: two murders were committed, in such fashion that the murderer must not only have been invisible, but lighter than air. According to the evidence, this person killed his first victim and literally disappeared. 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 no footprint appeared in the snow.” Explain.

The savant in question is Dr. Charles Vernet Grimaud, scholar, lecturer and author, who has lived in England long enough to lose all trace of his foreign accent and who has an obscure, unsalaried post at the British Museum. Known for his affability, he also has a violent temper. A sort of club exists in the Warwick Tavern in Museum Street. Four or five nights a week, a group of friends meets there to discuss witchcraft, ghosts, and other supernatural events. There are a handful of regulars who attend, “but Professor Grimaud was the undisputed Dr. Johnson.” It’s important to note that it is Stuart Mills, Grimaud’s secretary and self-appointed Boswell, who describes what happens when his employer and three other members of the club are suddenly confronted by the illusionist, Pierre Frey, who issues a threat about the three coffins and warns that he has a dangerous brother.

In the space of a short chapter, key characters are delineated, a menacing situation is set up, and the precise terms in which the novel operates are laid out. From then on, the reader is led through a bewildering but always entertaining hall of mirrors. The Three Coffins is the work of a literary illusionist at the height of his powers.

Gideon Fell is at the heart of the novel without overshadowing it. Vast, eccentric, and with a piercing intelligence, Fell was modeled on G.K. Chesterton, author of the Father Brown stories, a man much admired by Carr. He has great ability, irrepressible good humor, and bewitching charm, though he is not without his faults. He’s as English as John Bull and a beautifully rounded character in every sense. What strikes me every time I read this book is Carr’s mastery of the English idiom, so convincing that you forget he was born and brought up in America.

Inevitably, The Three Coffins feels a trifle dated but its virtues remain untarnished by time’s passage. It is clever, cunning, exhilarating, maddening, and the quality of the writing remains high throughout. This is certainly not an airport novel, still less one to be read on a beach. The ideal place to share its joys is in a high-backed leather chair beside a glowing fire with a glass of champagne at hand to toast the author.

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Next Friday’s “forgotten book” selection will in fact be made by Edward Marston’s wife, Judith Cutler. She’s the author of two long-running series--one featuring amateur sleuth Sophie Rivers, the other starring Detective Sergeant Kate Power--as well as a pair of series with shorter histories, the first featuring Chief Superintendent Fran Harman (Still Waters) and the second led by the Reverend Tobias Campion (Shadow of the Past). Cutler promises to focus on a novel of royal violence. It should be good.


pattinase (abbott) said...

A book I actually read with all the other Carrs many years ago.

Ali Karim said...

An excellent choice....and one Dr Lecter would approve of as he chose the pen name Dr Fell when he hid out in Florence following his escape.