The Fourth Coffin

“…he would tell a story of mediaeval sorcery and, at the end, abruptly explain all the puzzles in the fashion of a detective story.”

“This case he was going to talk about was rather special and sensational. … Crime and the occult! These were the only hobbies for a man of taste!”

[CAVEAT LECTOR: there are going to be major spoilers for John Dickson Carr’s The Hollow Man/The Three Coffins in this post. If you haven’t read that, I advise that you do so—it is a seminal work in detective fiction—and then come back to this post. The point of the post (now that sounds Chestertonian…) is to come up with an alternate solution to the book. OK, don’t say I didn’t warn ya… I should also note that this is going to be a text-heavy post, as it is a lot of explanation. Sorry about that.]

This post has been long-promised, and it began like this:

JJ, from The Invisible Event, reviewed an atrocious book called The Third Gunman (2016), by self-published author Raymond Knight Read, for his amusing (for us, though not often for him!) “adventures in self-publishing” series. JJ wrote: “Essentially it’s a reimagining of John Dickson Carr’s The Hollow Man/The Three Coffins which someone who has read both Carr and Paul Halter found commendable — throwing around words like ‘baffling’ and ‘satisfying’…”

…………………………………………….. (both in the spirit of Read’s lack of knowledge about ellipses and of warning the reader that the spoilers begin here)














Back to JJ:

Imagine my disappointment, then — nay, my frank, bewildered, aghast astonishment — when this turns out to simply be The Hollow Man.  The plot of The Third Gunman effectively runs thus: man is confronted by someone from his past, goes to kill that person while giving the impression he is in his office, gets shot in the act of killing them, returns to his office under the guise of the person he has just killed, sets off a gunshot to make it appear that he’s just been shot after locking himself in his office, and dies of his wounds as people break in to discover him.  This is the plot of The Hollow Man, without even so much as a meaningful deviation to make it surprisingly clever.

Now, if I had read that book (and now I’ve read a sample), I would have had to resist the very persuasive temptation to “… lynch the publisher, shoot the bookseller, and strangle the author,” to put it in Carrian terms. In this case, all three seem to be more or less the same person, which would seem to infuse in the reader the desire to emulate the murderers of Rasputin. Our JJ, thankfully, is more sanguine than I, so the lucky Mr. Read got off with only a stringent review of his book. Such is, however, only Part I of the preamble. (*Here, the reader groans.*)

In the review, JJ gave us this very intriguing little nugget of information:

Read does at least try to work in a false solution, but this is dismissed for no reason other than he doesn’t want that to be the answer.

to which I responded:

I suppose my question is, is it possible to find another explanation to Carr’s set-up in The Three Coffins? … Perhaps Read’s false solution has a kernel of a good idea there? Or no?

JJ couldn’t quite recall, but he did write that Read’s false solution “…does something interesting…” Now to me: “Perhaps I shall try to take on the challenge of plotting another solution to Carr’s problem as set forth.”

Thus endeth Part II of the Preamble. (*“Thank God!” says the reader.*) That was my challenge, and… Well, let’s see. I shall try to tackle the first of the problems Carr sets forth in The Three Coffins—the murder of Dr. Grimaud and the vanishing of the “hollow man” from Grimaud’s study—as that was the one Read replicated [i.e., plagiarized]. (I should note that I did not, and do not, intend my solution to be half as satisfying as Carr’s—I knew from the get-go that it may well sound like a false solution, which is more or less what it is. Still, it’s an interesting thought-experiment.)

And now, as they say, “ze plot zickens.”

I should note that, in trying for “another solution to Carr’s problem as set forth,” I tried to eliminate a few minor possibilities. For example, one could change the Grimaud problem as to make it that Grimaud shot himself and then did everything in the room—a solution both disappointing and so similar as not really to warrant a discussion. (It was used in an early Simenon tale that might have inspired Carr’s book.)

I’m not particularly interested, then, in minor variations on Carr’s solution; I’m interested in a wholly different solution to the same problem—which is how it became increasingly clear to me that I had to have two people actually in that room.

The ingenuity of Carr’s solution is that, where it seems that two people (Grimaud and the murderer) were in Grimaud’s study, in reality there was only one. It is thus that the problem becomes impossible; there really is a “hollow man,” one who does not exist. The mirror-trick is only a secondary factor to the primary principle that there is only one man in the room; this latter point is, in reality, the trick on which the study-problem (and, in the same way, the street-problem) turns.

If we blast that to smithereens, then, and say that there really were two men in that room…where does that leave us? Well, Carr gives us the locked-room lecture (hereinafter LRL) for a few reasons, but one is misdirection: it gets us back to thinking about a solution in which there were two men in Grimaud’s study. If we take that point as a given, then we are bound, I think, by the LRL itself—specifically the part that may superficially seem the least important, near the end:

“Then we come back in a circle to the window, don’t we?” demanded Hadley. “You’ve gone on and on about ways that obviously couldn’t have been used. [This is actually a fair criticism on Hadley’s part—but, obviously, it helps JDC’s misdirection technique.] But in this catalogue of sensationalism you’ve omitted all mention of the only means of exit the murderer could have used…” 

I think (with one exception, which I’ll go into in a moment) that Hadley is correct here. If we operate on two premises—(1) that there really were two men in that room and (2) that the murderer left the room—then “…we come back in a circle to the window…” Yes, indeed.

Let me note the one exception here, which I’m sure you’ve already seen: a denial of Premise 2, or the argument that the murderer never actually left the room at all. It is this oversight in Carr’s lecture that Clayton Rawson [through the Great Merlini] noted in Death from a Top Hat, in his own LRL. It can be used quite well indeed—there’s an episode of Murder, She Wrote, of all things, that uses it excellently—or it can be rather goofy. But I suppose it’s that way with most locked-room solutions. In this case, I was trying, more or less fruitlessly, to work out such a solution. With all of Carr’s pronouncements that Fell, Hadley, et al., searched the room to make sure that this isn’t the solution, it was fairly difficult, but there is one, rather unsatisfying way in which it could have worked, and that involves the sofa.

(This map is going to become very useful for us.)

As you may recall, “Just before the fire, a long brown-leather sofa had been knocked awry and a leather chair rolled back in a twisted-up hearthrug. There was blood on the sofa.” I wondered if the murderer could have hidden in the sofa, and I suppose it’s technically possible if it has cushions, if exceedingly unlikely. Thus: the mysterious visitor enters the room, shoots Grimaud, and goes over to the sofa. He uses the knife (the one used to slice up the painting—to suggest a struggle, I suppose) to rip out the inner stuffing of the sofa, which he then burns in the fireplace (or throws out the window, or even keeps with him). He then hides in the hollowed-out area, puts the cushions over him, and waits until the police have left the room to make his escape. An utterly ridiculous solution? Absolutely, and with a huge number of flaws. Granted, and it’s shot all to blazes if the sofa is (e.g.) a loveseat. Back to the window.  

Carr analyzes in some depth the possible ways in which the murderer could have used the window to effect his escape—and rules them out, confounding our expectations (ch. 3 and Mills). This is vital for our solution, so I can’t help quoting in full:

There was a bright moon in the west, and every detail stood out sharp as a woodcut. It was a good fifty feet to the ground; the wall fell away in a drop of smooth, wet stone. Just below there was a backyard, like that of all the houses in this row, surrounded by a low wall. The snow lay unbroken in this courtyard, or any other as far as they could look, and along the tops of the walls. Below in the whole side of the house there were no windows whatever. The only windows were on this top floor; and the nearest one to this room was in the hallway to the left, a good thirty feet away. To the right, the nearest window would have been in the adjoining house, an equal distance away. Ahead there lay a vast chessboard of adjoining backyards from houses lining the square, so that the nearest house was several hundred yards away. Finally, there stretched above this window a smooth upward run of stone for some fifteen feet to the roof—whose slope afforded neither hold for the fingers nor for the attaching of a rope.

Now that would seem to do it, especially as Hadley’s first solution (the killer has tied a rope to the chimney and swings out to the roof after killing Grimaud) is thrown out because there are no prints on the roof. But the important point is this: the killer didn’t have to get to the roof. He only had to get to the nearest window—“a good thirty feet away.” We know fair well that he can’t climb that distance, as there are neither finger- nor foot-holds. But he can swing.

And therein lies the rub. Thanks to the website “Measure of Things,” I know that thirty feet is “about one-and-one-tenth times as long as a London bus” or “four-fifths as tall as a telephone pole.” (Or see here.) With a leap from the window, a sturdy chimney, and an especially strong rope, that’s not impossible. And we know that points 2 and 3 are at least likely: in Ch. 8, Sgt. Betts ties ropes to the chimneys to check the gutters. But how did the killer get the rope around the chimney, and how did he have a (literal) ledge to stand on once he swung over?

Now there are two ways to do this: the killer either swung left, to the windows on the diagram, or right, to the house next door (both 30 ft. away). As we don’t know exactly where the chimney is, however, Option 1, though less helpful for our purpose, seems more reasonable than Option 2. If one chimney were close enough to the house next door, the killer could have used that house as a base of operations, opened that window, and swung over there. If not, it makes our job a little more complicated. Nevertheless, it’s possible that he could have gotten over to one window, having purposely left it open, and entered the house in that way. It is stipulated that the windows in the hall are all locked, but we don’t know exactly when they were locked. He certainly would have had to tie the ropes to the chimney[s] before the snow started (having gotten to the roof by the trap door before Mills got there), or there would have been tracks.

Could he have done this without Mills and/or Mme. Dumont seeing? Hypothetically, we could explain this away with Mme. Dumont as the accomplice, or we could go with Option 2 (there are other ways to do it, too, I believe, but I’ve gone on too long already).

Now, as I said, this solution is rather disappointing, especially when compared with Carr’s, but I believe that it works. (Now, I’m sure, there’s something major I missed.) The only two others I can think up—Mills being fooled as to footprints on the roof and a play with the time the “hollow man” walked in—are slightly less workable, I think.

All right, well… As I said, this post has been long-promised, so I’m happy that I have a solution down on paper (well—you know what I mean) at long last. I’m more than willing to explain (or rip the whole thing up because of) any possible criticisms. Just a thought-experiment, but a fun one.

Posted in John Dickson Carr, Musings, My Stories, Paul Halter, Solutions | Tagged , , , , , | 2 Comments

L’incertitude haltérophile

Having cluttered everyone else’s blog with my opinions on Paul Halter (sorry, folks!), I thought it would be best if I assembled some of my general thoughts here—this post is coming right after my having finished two Halters, The Lord of Misrule and The Seventh Hypothesis, in quick procession…and, at this point, I’m just not quite sure what to think.


At the risk of pure unoriginality, let me list the Halters I’ve read from best to worst, to give you an idea of where I’m coming from…

  1. 51GyppynAuL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_The Night of the Wolf—a short story collection is always going to be hit-and-miss, but I remain convinced that this is the best Halter thus far translated in English. “The Abominable Snowman,” “The Golden Ghost,” “The Cleaver,” and “The Flower Girl” are all excellent—Halter at his most Carrian (except for the Dickensian “Golden Ghost”)—and “The Dead Dance at Night,” “The Call of the Lorelei,” “Rippermania,” and the titular “Night of the Wolf” are not far behind. (In all honesty, I don’t think Halter is particularly Carrian, despite the surface trappings, in the novels.) The short-story format also disguises his clear challenges with character and setting—and I believe that the plots are the cleverest as well.
  2. The Phantom Passage—by far the best Halter novel I’ve read so far. 25780901 While I guessed the identity of the murderer early on (PH’s killers are never all that surprising), I had the joy of a decently-written and fast-paced plot, complete with a jaw-dropper of an impossible crime trick. My guesses for said trick were wildly off-base, and the real solution united surprise and inevitability perfectly. To be sure, you get what you’d expect with Halter—the characters are mostly stock, and there is never Carr’s Baroque turn of phrase that convinces the reader he has just entered a Stevensonian Baghdad-on-the-Thames—but this one comes the closest to the effect Halter is trying to achieve. Formidable, monsieur.18680330
  3. The Crimson Fog—this is not, I should note, the best-plotted Halter I’ve read, but it’s decent, and the second part of the book (which I shan’t spoil) is absorbing. Nick Fuller calls it Halter’s Burning Court, which it is in ultimate effect on the reader. Not as effective as several others with a similar theme, but I enjoyed this one a great deal.
  4. The Lord of Misrule—I’m rather surprised this one is often considered one of the weaker Halters, as I thought it one of the best; indeed, if the writing had been a bit better, it would have overtaken Crimson Fog for the third spot. The concept of the story behind the titular “lord” is ex51bhlnW1DaL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_cellent, but PH does not have the power to pull it off; the potential is never actualized. With that said, Owen Burns (about 80% Oscar Wilde and 20% Sherlock Holmes) is a delightful sleuth, far better than the colorless Dr. Twist, and we do receive some good build-up that recalls, of all things, The Hound of the Baskervilles. (In fact, we can describe the book as equal parts Hound, Carr’s The Three Coffins, and Chesterton’s “The Hole in the Wall,” with a dash of Dickens for good measure.) While the atmosphere, unfortunately, never really comes alive, the cluing is absolutely stellar: I deduced the solution of the “indoor murder,” but one clue in particular was one of those great “of course!” moments in detective-stories—as was the entire solution to the “outdoor murder.” This latter is one of Halter’s greatest and simplest tricks—an absolute beauty of an impossible crime solution and, once you know it, obvious. As far as I know, it’s original—unless, maybe, Chesterton got to it first?
  5. The Fourth Door—good but, after all the build-up, not great. The writing is atrocious; several times, I just wanted to put the book down and read, say, a lively stylist like Sabatini or Anthony Hope (hey, I’ve been reading a lot of swashbucklers recently), but I kept 41p7twtKYTL.__BG0,0,0,0_FMpng_AC_UL320_SR214,320_.jpgtrudging on for the sake of the plot. I’m happy that I did, as I fell neatly into the trap Halter has sprung for the unsuspecting reader—being fooled well and fine when the solution is revealed at the end. The solution to the central murder, though not wholly original, is brilliantly done and surprising; with that said, I think the solution to the second murder (close but not identical to Carr’s wonderful “Blind Man’s Hood”) is equally ingenious, though not as “flashy.” I guessed the murderer’s identity without much difficulty, and the semi-postmodernist trick is more facile than clever, but the plot is hyper-ingenious in the best Golden Age way. Still—ugh—the writing, and the lack of atmosphere, and… I’m happy I read this one for the plot, but I don’t want to read it again!
  6. The Seventh Hypothesis—not quite sure what to make of this one. The prologue contains some of Halter’s best writing and is, more than that, extremely Carrian—very much inspired by The Arabian Nights 41B7YQHnF4L._AC_UL320_SR214,320_Murder, in a good way. Carrian also is the way in which incident builds upon incident: the whole thing is made all the wilder, all the more phantasmagorical, the more we know about it. (Poor Constable Watkins!) Genuine atmosphere here, well-conveyed—adventure and mystery entering the humdrum of the everyday. I loved that part, which is why I was so disappointed that the rest of the book didn’t live up to its opening. Twist and Hurst, whom I can’t tell apart, are as colorless and uninteresting as ever, and instead of the freewheeling joy of the opening, we get a curious pastiche of Anthony Shaffer’s Sleuth—which is all well and fine, except that Halter can’t write dialogue as Shaffer could. Whereas Shaffer spaced out his twists, too, Halter throws them at us in a big lump, hoping one will stick—but there’s too much, too soon. The plot becomes slower and slower until the very end, when there is a nice misdirection technique—and an ultimately disappointing solution. The reason for the opening and the impossible-crime trick are clever, but the rest is ho-hum. And why does Pugmire insist on keeping “famous”? (“Ah, yes, Sir George, your famous alibi!” “My ‘famous’ alibi, Dr. Twist? You’re the only one who knows about it.” “Oui, milord, but we were written by a Frenchman. We’ve kept the Gallicisms.”)22341964
  7. The Invisible Circle—rather disappointed to have to put this one so far down—I had more fun reading it than I did The Fourth Door, though  the latter’s plot is cleverer. I love the Arthurian material, though it’s not particularly emphasized, and it’s actually not all that badly written. However, the main impossible crime proves a disappointment, and the identity of the killer is flat-out bonkers (and obvious at that). But I really did have fun reading it, which counts for something.
  8. The Madman’s Room—there was a lot that I liked about this the-madmans-roomone, but I can’t really remember it all that well (and I just read it recently…a bad sign for the book or for me? Yet I can remember Phantom Passage, which I read earlier, perfectly). The explanation for the water patches was very clever; I remember not being all that surprised by the murderer, but here’s another one in which I couldn’t quite differentiate between suspects. Decent. As both JJ and Brad pointed out, probably Halter’s most Christean book.
  9. The Demon of Dartmoor—on the other hand, I have no problem putting this one here. Even Halter’s detractors seem to like this one, but I thought it (1) slow-moving and (2) very disappointing in solution. I’m completely unconvinced that the main trick would work, and I couldn’t get a grip on any of the characters; I really didn’t care who the killer was, as every single person was identical. Also: too many plot-thread15884194s thrown in for no real reason, a common Halter flaw. (“Dr. Twist, here is the famous room in which the Hon. Marcus Aurelius was found strangled. It is also the room in which, twenty years earlier, his mother Lucilla killed herself. It is also the room in which, 150 years earlier, his famous ancestor, the big bad baronet Sir Julius Caesar, engendered the famous anger of the witch of Endor, who put a curse on the family. At the same time, the Hon. Mr. Aurelius’s brother has been seen in two places at once in this room, and his sister is suspected of being the reincarnation of the famous Witch!”)
  10. The Tiger’s Head—supremely disappointing, 18100742especially as it was one of the earliest Halters I read. Two or three (if we count the disappearing items) completely discordant plot lines, unconvincingly brought together, and a very weak handling of a strong idea. The solution to the serial killer part was, intriguingly enough, far more satisfying than the solution to the more traditional genie locked-room problem.
  11. The Seven Wonders of Crime—even more disappointing. Halter’s audacity s14417211hould be applauded, but he can’t make the concept work, and there’s never a sense of fear at the serial killings (as in Christie or Queen—or even, of all things, in David Renwick’s otherwise sub-par “The Coonskin Cap”). The reason for the murders is largely borrowed from Christie; some of the solutions are decent, others are infuriating. To cap it all off, the killer’s identity is—once again—obvious and bonkers!


So, what do I say? When there’s a Halter I like, I really like it—The Phantom Passage, for one. In spite of my jibes at his style, he’s a far better writer (and plotter) than Eric Keith, who gave us the egregious Nine Man’s Murder. With that said, I’d say that he disappoints me more often than not. Partially that’s because of writing quality, partially that’s because I love the detective story as part-adventure, part-game, partially that’s because I like good characters (“good,” let me note once and for all, does not mean “drowning in self-pity, incessant navel-gazing, and constantly brooding”).

In that way, I think we have all (myself included) done Halter an injustice in the constant Carr comparisons, as Halter is a very different writer—much more modern, much more cynical, with much more basic prose. At this point, to be honest, I read a Carr for the style, plot (viz., story), and characters first and the puzzle-plot second (I suppose this gets into the question of why we read detective-stories in the first place); with Halter, I do the opposite, which I wouldn’t mind as much if he delivered on the plotting more often. As Nick Fuller put it:

He has a brilliant knack for thinking up situations – a keeper burnt to death in an inaccessible lighthouse in the middle of a storm, a maharajah assassinated in his palace behind three locked doors.  Often, though, the solutions are disappointing.  Some are mechanical; others are poorly motivated, not integrated into the story, or rely on the victims doing the psychologically impossible.

So where does that leave me? Well, somewhat disappointed, and not altogether considering Halter the great modern puzzle-plot writer (Renwick holds that honor, methinks, even if he’s writing in a different medium), yet still hoping to read La mort derrière les rideaux, À 139 pas de la mort, and Le cri de la sirène one of these days… 🙂

(I’m going to have to track down a Halter in French one of these days; I’m not perfectly fluent, but I can read it fairly well and have read a number of books in it so far—my only problem is finding the French-language versions!)

Posted in Authors, John Dickson Carr, Paul Halter | Tagged , , , , , | 17 Comments

The Verdict of You All…

This is a question I’ve mused over for a while, but it’s one of those times in which it may well be more difficult to formulate question rather than answer! (Socrates would be proud.) Simply put, it would be “who are your favorite detective characters?” but I believe the question is slightly more complicated than that. Do we include TV sleuths, or limit it to books? Do we base it on how enjoyable we find the character (I find Dr. Fell delightful) or on how well-characterized he or she is? What of the characters who changed so much over time—Ellery Queen, most notably, or even Miss Marple (from “the worst cat in the village” to a saint!).

cropped-cropped-lord-peter-wimsey-gideon-fell-jules-maigret-sherlock-holmes-charlie-chan-ellery-queen-jane-marple-father-brown-auguste-dupin-hercule-poirot-nero-wolfe.jpgSo many uses for this image…

These are all excellent questions, so naturally yours truly will neatly try to sidestep them and instead leave it up to you: based on whatever criteria you may deem relevant, whom would you consider your favorite sleuths in fiction? I’d love to read and compare lists—it’s something I find especially interesting in view of detective fiction’s oft-cited “characterization problem.” Go at it, ladies and gents! (A top-10 list would be practical, I think.) Then, if you’d like, we can pick which top 5 or so receive the most votes…

My own choices:

Sherlock Holmes (literary, Arthur Conan Doyle)

Lt. Columbo (television, William Link and Richard Levinson)

Matt Cobb (literary, William DeAndrea)

Ellery Queen (literary, Ellery Queen)

Patrick Butler (literary, John Dickson Carr)

Tommy & Tuppence Beresford (literary, Agatha Christie)

Father Brown (literary, G.K. Chesterton)

Thackeray Phin (literary, John Sladek)

Philip Marlowe (literary, Raymond Chandler)

Nick and Nora Charles (film, portrayed by William Powell and Myrna Loy)
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Posted in Authors, Musings, Questions | Tagged , , , , , | 7 Comments

Helen McCloy

At the risk of making a somewhat unceremonious return… 😉

I recently finished Helen McCloy’s The Slayer and the Slain and was inspired, I suppose (it’s really a marvellous book), to write the following. I posted it elsewhere, but I’ll post it here too; I hope you enjoy it. I will try—I promise!—to get some more blog-posts in, and—JJ—I haven’t forgotten about trying to come up with another solution to The Three Coffins! Anyhoo, in the meanwhile…

Helen McCloy was undoubtedly one of the greatest of all mystery writers and may well have been the single greatest American writer of detective stories were it not for Ellery Queen (and, of course, if we’re counting Carr as British, or at least Transatlantic). So, naturally, no one really knows her name anymore!

Indeed, as a writer, she may be even greater than Queen: her prose is sublime, her images evoking long-forgotten memories as her words plumb our unconscious. In that respect, she’s rather like Fitzgerald, who used lyricism and imagery that approached poetry to evoke—less emotion than a sense of awe, or even haunting, Proustian memory. “So we beat on, boats against  the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past…”

Her themes are unique, though in some ways recalling Hitchcock—most obviously in both’s use of the Doppelgänger motif. She is intrigued by psychology, and nearly all of her lead characters are psychoanalysts or psychologists: she began with the kind of orthodox Freudianism that was in vogue in the ‘40s, and, while her opinion of psychoanalysis might have changed somewhat throughout her career, it never really left her. Unlike later Rendell, though, she never gave way to the specious belief that we’re all either lunatics or sex-maniacs; and, however faint it may seem, there is still hope and good left in her world.

Of mystery authors, she’s closest to two who are rather unconnected: John Dickson Carr and Ngaio Marsh. In the latter case, one can make even  a few one-on-one comparisons between Marsh and McCloy, and in nearly every case McCloy comes out on top (and I write this as a Marsh fan). Dance of Death, McCloy’s remarkably accomplished first novel, cross-references neatly with Marsh’s Death in a White Tie; McCloy’s The Goblin Market with Marsh’s Colour Scheme; and McCloy’s Mr. Splitfoot with Marsh’s Off with His Head.

In all cases, the plots are vaguely similar, the detectives professionals, not amateurs, and the trace of the Van Dine school (blue-bloods, poison, unusual murder methods, carefully-sketched backgrounds) present in both. Yet Marsh clearly delineates the two sections of her books: the pre-murder takes up about 4 chapters or 70 pages (as Mike Grost noted) and then the murder and investigation for the rest of the 200-page book. Because Marsh’s gifts were more for character and light badinage, the investigation portions of her books can seem rather dull in comparison to the openings—so much so that some readers will be very disappointed.

McCloy, on the other hand, is like Carr in this regard: she unites strong prose, dialogue, and characterization, and a fast pace, with the investigation, and she’s so thoroughly bored by that normal bane of the detective story, the never-ending suspect interviews, that she leaves it out entirely. Thus, in some ways both she and Carr unite the thriller and the detective-story by virtue of simply being good storytellers. It’s a remarkable gift and one that, sadly, few detective-story authors had or have. (It was also key for Gladys Mitchell, whose books resemble McCloy’s in psychology and supernaturalism, and mid-to-late Ellery Queen.)

Also like Carr, McCloy loved the concept of the apparently-supernatural, or more accurately preternatural: it brings forth ancient mysteries, beliefs that we would prefer that we’ve forgotten, and scares us with what we continually deny. In this regard, both Carr and McCloy achieve fright with understatement, the most effective means of all—what M.R. James so accurately deemed “a pleasing terror,” atmosphere that engulfs us without a single “shock.” Carr and McCloy both believed that there is more to the world than what Carr called “the thump of the janitor’s mop”; indeed, what are the secrets that our humdrum, conventional lives seek to repress, that tug at the very edges of our consciousness? As Carr put it (in The Burning Court):

We huddle together in cities, we make bonfires of a million lights, we can get a voice from across the ocean to sing to us so that we needn’t feel lonely… But suppose you, Ted, in your apartment in New York… or John Smith in his house anywhere in the world—suppose you went home at night, and opened the ordinary door, and heard another kind of voice. Suppose you didn’t want to look behind the umbrella-stand, or go down to attend to the furnace at night, because you might see something climbing up?

Unlike the conservative Carr, however, and like Queen and Anthony Boucher, McCloy was very much a liberal, and she wore it on her sleeve; even so, both Carr and McCloy loved the past, albeit with different opinions of it, and attempted almost to unite past with present (Carr directly in, say, the historical novels; McCloy indirectly through musings on psychology). Even Carr’s beloved swashbucklers return with McCloy’s swashbuckling sleuth Dr. Basil Willing, and it’s intriguing how, in spite of their distinct political opinions, they end up at more or less the same place. I wonder if Russell Kirk would have thought them both Bohemian Tories.


As noted above, the Doppelgänger is central to McCloy’s worldview: the idea of two or more sides to a person unites the psychology and the supernaturalism, and it recurs over and over again throughout her works. In her masterpiece, Through a Glass, Darkly, she writes:

You enter a room, a street, a country road. You see a figure ahead of you, solid, three-dimensional, brightly colored. Moving and obeying all the laws of optics. Its clothing and posture are vaguely familiar. You hurry toward the figure for a closer view. It turns its head and—you are looking at yourself. Or rather a perfect mirror-image of yourself, only—there is no mirror. So you know it is your double. And that frightens you, for tradition tells you that he who sees his own double is about to die.

Thus the fear of the Doppelgänger, the double-walker, the death-fetch—that which is dually natural and supernatural, normal and abnormal, the self but not the self—you as seen through the sinister mirror.

I can go on further—I originally intended to talk about how much The Slayer and the Slain had points in common with Hitchcock’s Marnie—but I’ve gone on way too much (apologies) and will break off here. I hope, though, that I can inspire some interest in this wonderful writer; she deserves it.

Posted in Authors, Ellery Queen, Helen McCloy, Musings | Tagged , , , | 6 Comments

Notes for the Curious (Part 2)

A more appropriately Carrian title, no? 🙂


First things first: I’ve been investigating whether or not Lady Pamela Hoyt was a real person and have found that, to the knowledge of every historian I know (not many), a history-connected forum, and the Google corporation, no such figure actually existed.

Why, then, did Carr invent her?

Certainly, her story sets the stage for Carr’s ending (which I shall not spoil here), but it is entirely possible that JDC could have chosen a real historical figure for the same purpose.  I must say that I’m genuinely stumped on this one; if anyone has any suggestions, I’m more than open to hearing them.

He Who Whispers, then (brief spoilers):


Carr did genuine work in investigating the various unusual and sundry details of the vampire legend, which, we know from Douglas Greene’s biography, he learned largely from the works of the Rev. Montague Summers, an eccentric figure (a less forgiving writer may deem him a lunatic, plain and simple) who might or might not have actually been an ordained Catholic priest. (We do know that he was an ordained Anglican deacon, which gives him the right to the “reverend” title, but his claim to the Catholic priesthood is is uncertain, to say the least.)


The good padre himself

Summers wrote two books on vampirism–The Vampire: His Kith and Kin (1928) and The Vampire in Europe (1929)–and he recounts numerous tales with similarity to Carr’s, including the Croglin Grange account.


Carr’s lengthy quotation from a book on the subject–pg. 86 in my edition–is fictional, as was Grimaud’s book on witchcraft in The Burning Court, but it is quite similar to several passages from Summers:

…there is, especially in Slavonic tradition, a very great distinction, for the Slavonic vampire is precisely defined and it is the incorrupt and re-animated dead body which returns from its grave…

It is difficult to say, however, whence Carr derives this notion:

In Western Europe, notably in France, the vampire is a demon living outwardly a normal life in the community, but capable during sleep or trance of projecting its soul in the form of straw or spinning mist to take visible bodily shape.

It too reads like Summers, but Summers goes out of his way to emphasize how little France has contributed to the vampire myth (well–Summers wouldn’t have called it a “myth,” but then he was a little off):

As in England and in Ireland, in France the records of Vampirism are few; one might say not untruthfully designedly few. 

My first thought, then, was that Carr wrote that passage and changed the legend to fit his plot, but “straw or spinning mist” seems oddly specific. After doing some more research, I came to the conclusion that Carr has [probably purposely] conflated several legends here.


There is an old French legend, with similarities to the vampire tale, about a water-spirit, Melusine (or Melusina), a beautiful woman who was cursed to take the form of a dragon or sea-serpent from the waist down (shadows of Medusa). (On a less grandiose note: the Melusine is actually a major inspiration [along with the Siren] for the two-tailed mermaid in the Starbucks logo. Yup. See what you learn when doing this kind of research?) Wherefore the vampire, then?

In western France, Luxembourg, and Germany, Melusine is considered a succubus, a female demon descended from Lilith–who, while not appearing in the Torah, is Adam’s first wife in the Talmud–who seduces men and often drinks their blood.

In Romanian mythology, there is another spirit that Summers does analyze, a vampire called the varacolaci.  This creature is less the reanimated corpse well-known nowadays than a being that projects its spirit from beyond the grave by a process called “night-spinning.”

Interesting points connecting the varacolaci and Melusine: both are recorded as taking on the form of a dragon, and both are believed to derive from the succubus. Both the varacolaci and the succubus, by the way, are known for this:

In addition, the night-stalkers could take the form of inanimate objects such as straw, beams of light, or wisps of smoke.

There, methinks, is our smoking gun. (Pun intended.)

But why would Carr have gotten the idea to conflate these two legends? I think there’s a source for that, too: Alexandre Dumas’s “The Pale Lady” (1849), which, though not set in France, similarly brings together these stories. Dumas, as we know, was one of Carr’s favorite writers; by what is probably more than happenstance, he also wrote one of the first significant stories about our old friend Mme. de Brinvilliers.


Carr is not conflating but rather recording legends, however, with this following line:

The physical characteristics, the red hair and the slender figure and the blue eyes, are always in folklore associated with the vampire…

Yes, indeed: no matter which country in Europe you investigate, every national folklore associates red hair and blue eyes with vampirism. (The “slender figure” came later–early legends in Romania, Hungary, and Greece have the vampire as bloated with blood–but one can find it, especially in western Europe.) Red hair was, in the classical tradition, associated naturally with blood, one of the four humors, and believed to cause “…fieriness and a desire for sexual dominance” (Rhodes 95). The implications of both points seem clear; and, interestingly, Lilith, a postlapsarian Eve, and Judas Iscariot are all commonly depicted with fiery red hair (96).

According to folklorist Chloe Rhodes in her book Black Cats and Evil Eyes, to which I am indebted,

Distrust of redheads was exacerbated by their rarity. Only four per cent of the world’s population have red hair and in many parts of the world it’s barely even seen. (96)

The various sources I’ve consulted are less clear on the subject of why blue eyes were also a sign of vampirism, however. Perhaps their mythological status derives from their relative rarity as well? I should also note that, in mythology, blue- and green-eyed children are often considered more likely to possess the evil eye, from which Prof. Georges Rigaud defends himself when he sees Fay Seton for the first time at Miles Hammond’s house.

(A brief sidenote: Carr has chosen his character names well. Fay’s Christian name refers to the word fay, meaning fairy–a connection which has significance both to her character and to the vampire legend as a whole.)


It is difficult to discuss the next part without spoilers, but I shall try. Still, those who haven’t read He Who Whispers may wish to read it and then return here.


Count Alessando di Cagliostro was the cognomen of one of the more unusual characters in history, Giuseppe Balsamo (1743-1795), a magician, adventurer, and con artist (Carlyle called him “the prince of the quacks”) who was involved in the lead-up to the French Revolution. Indeed, Cagliostro convinced various crowned heads of Europe of his psychic powers until he was exiled from France because of the Affair of the Diamond Necklace and, because of it, sentenced first to the Bastille in ’85 and later, because of his Freemasonry, to Italy’s Sant’Angelo and San Leone prisons in ’89.

Speaking of his Freemasonry, it is this point which is so vital to Carr’s book. I shall try to be as circumspect as possible because of the spoiler question, but Carr was completely accurate as regards the Banquet of the Dead, which Cagliostro hosted in his “mysterious house in the rue St. Claude,” and London’s claim on Signor Balsamo. He was initiated into the Esperance Lodge of Masons in 1777 at the King’s Head pub in Gerrard Street, London [as Carr records], from which he [Cagliostro] brought the Egyptian Rite to France and there founded his own secret society, which also borrowed elements from Swedenborgianism and Rosicrucianism. Readers of He Who Whispers will want to know if a certain fact is true, and they will be happy to know that it is. Said readers will probably know what I’m talking about. 🙂 (Sources at the links.)

Interestingly enough, can you guess who referenced Cagliostro in several novels? That’s right, Dumas again!


Now, the question of Dumas’ influence on Carr is an excellent one, and I’d say the influence is indeed significant, if infrequently noted.

OK, then: is there anything else?

There is indeed a river Eure in northwest France, and it seems aptly eerie for the setting of the ruined tower in Carr’s story.


I spent so much time on the vampire legend–mea culpa, but, like Prof. Grimaud in The Three Coffins, the topic interests me–that I think I’ll save The Crooked Hinge for another time, because there’s a lot of material there.

Hope you’re enjoying these “investigations” at least somewhat–I like all of these topics, so I enjoy finding out the details behind them. I hope to have The Crooked Hinge covered soon, though Lord knows when “soon” is, now that I’m reluctant to set myself to a hard and fast date again… 🙂


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Brief Interrupting Mystery

I know I promised to do Part 2 of “Notes for the Curious” yesterday; I apologize that I didn’t follow through with it. (I actually got very sick on Thursday and am still recovering now.)

Still, my apologies, and I hope to have the article written as soon as possible.

In the meanwhile, perhaps all of you can help me with a mystery that’s related to Carr’s epigraphs: I recently finished re-reading He Who Whispers, and I noted that historian-hero Miles Hammond has a very important-to-the-his-character dream involving Lady Pamela Hoyt, whom Carr describes as “a sprightly court beauty of a hundred and forty years gone by, no better than she should be, and perhaps a murderess.”


The question, then: was Lady Pamela a real person?

I know the question may sound daft, but I’m completely unable to find any evidence on her. To be sure, one of the characters–Barbara Morell–has equal trouble finding her (she’s not in the encyclopedia, Barbara says)–but I don’t know if Lady Pamela is a real historical personage or someone Carr invented. The latter option seems unlikely, as there would be no logical reason (JDC could have found some other historical figure to play the same role), and she is paired (in the book) with Agnès Sorel, the real-life maîtresse-en-titre of King Charles VII of France.

Any historians out there, amateur or professional? I cannot find any information on Lady Pamela, and I’d like to know if she were real or not before posting Part Two.

Thanks to everyone, and–again–my sincerest apologies for missing yesterday’s “deadline”!


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Notes for the Curious

Crime and the occult! These were the only hobbies for a man of taste!

I just had to start with that. This may seem a strange topic for a post, I know, but John Dickson Carr’s epigraphs and sources have long interested me for any number of reasons, including the fact that he and I have many of the same interests. (When Patrick Gore lists his favorite books in The Crooked Hinge, I always find myself cheering whenever I read the book.)

I’m currently re-reading many of my favorite Carrs–I’ve read The Crooked Hinge and The Burning Court and have just started He Who Whispers–which is probably what has prompted this idle musing. Nonetheless, there are some very interesting discoveries in looking into Carrian sources. Now, Carr quoted a wide variety of sources in his career, so we’ll only look at four–the aforementioned three and Beneath Suspicion. Of these, I’ll tackle Beneath Suspicion and The Burning Court today and The Crooked Hinge and He Who Whispers Friday (I have appointments all day tomorrow).


In Beneath Suspicion, for example, Carr (via Dr. Fell) quotes extensively from Margaret Murray (1863-1963), and he refers to her in several other books. (Douglas Greene devotes a chapter to these references.) With my own interest in “crime and the occult,” I naturally had to take a look at Murray’s work, and luckily interlibrary loan had me covered: I was able to read both The Witch-Cult in Western Europe (1921) and The God of the Witches (1933).


Murray’s work is fascinating. She lays out a remarkably convincing case that the accused witches of the Middle Ages were in fact members of an elaborate pre-Christian fertility cult–“the old religion,” as she called it. All the more remarkable because, in fact, the basis of her thesis has been debunked by such later historians and anthropologists as Elliot Rose (A Razor for a Goat, 1962), Keith Thomas (Religion and the Decline of Magic, 1971), and Norman Cohn (Europe’s Inner Demons, 1975). With all that said, Murray’s argument is excellent background material for the writer. I will add, also, that some of Carlo Ginzburg’s works (The Night Battles, Ecstasies: Deciphering the Witches’ Sabbath) have proved that Murray, though sloppy with her sources, might have possessed a “kernel of truth” in her theory.

I should also note, in passing, that the two witchcraft-related locked-room stories that Carr cites in Beneath Suspicion are real, and remain unsolved mysteries.

And now to a similar case, in The Burning Court.

As far as I can tell, the “non-dead”–poisoning witches who came back from the dead to kill–is a Carrian invention. You will find evidence in mythology for witches who return from the dead, but there is nothing about their being poisoners or a particularly different form of magical creature. Moreover, I find no evidence, for example, that, following the execution of the Marquise de Brinvilliers, Maître Nivelle said anything to the Grand Penitentiary akin to “there is something beyond this. I saw them die. They were not ordinary women. They will be restless,” and “Grimaud’s History of Witchcraft” offers no citation, as other quotations in that “book” do. (An interesting note–is the fictional Grimaud here intended to be The Hollow Man‘s Grimaud, who also wrote on superstition and witchcraft? I haven’t seen much commentary on this subject, but it seems logical. By the by, all of Carr’s footnotes in that “book” are real.) With that said, Joseph R. Christopher wrote an intriguing essay on the subject here.

Needless to say, perhaps, Mme. de Brinvilliers (Marie D’Aubray), Capt. Gaudin Sainte-Croix, Maître Nivelle, La Voisin, and Desprez (actually spelt Desgrez) were all real people, participants in the infamous Affair of the Poisons, one of my favorite subjects in history to study. I have found no evidence, however, of a later girl also named Thérèse La Voisin in 1737, or of a second Marie D’Aubray guillotined in 1861. Lady Anne Somerset wrote an excellent book (simply titled The Affair of the Poisons) on the affair in 2003, and Prof. Holly Tucker wrote a book as recently as this year entitled City of Light, City of Poison.


Let me add, too, that the Black Mass, which was performed in and around Versailles during the Affair, was as gruesome as Carr made it out to be–the details revealed by Etienne Guibourg and the others are, in fact, difficult to read.

Now to move on to the epigraphs. There are four in The Burning Court, and they’re all real (unlike, say, Ellery Queen’s epigraphs in The Roman Hat Mystery, which are all from a book by Insp. Queen!).


The first is from Samuel Pepys, the chief secretary to the Admiralty under Charles II and James II, whose diary is one of our most important primary sources for the Restoration.

Here we supped very merry, and late to bed; Sir William telling me that old Edgeborrow, his predecessor, did die and walk in my chamber, did make me somewhat afraid–but not as much as, for mirth sake, I did seem.

This entry is from April 8, 1663. We know that Pepys was very interested in ghosts and spirits–see the diary entry for June 15, 1663–and also that he was somewhat skeptical of their existence. “Sir William,” by the way, is Sir William Batten (Surveyor of the Navy), whom Pepys disliked, and “Edgeborrow” is Kenrick Edisbury.


The second is from the Rev. Richard Harris Barham’s The Ingoldsby Legends, which he wrote under the nom-de-plume of Thomas Ingoldsby. It’s an amusing, witty collections of poems and stories, often regarding such “gallows” subjects as murder and hauntings.

Fly open, lock, to the dead man’s knock,

Fly bolt, and bar, and band!–

By the way, this quotation is from the poem “The Hand of Glory: The Nurse’s Story,” which I believe is a direct inspiration for Gilbert and Sullivan’s “When the Night Wind Howls” (from Ruddigore) and an indirect inspiration (via the G&S song) for Buddy Baker and X Atencio’s “Grim Grinning Ghosts” (used in Disney’s Haunted Mansion). I should also note that Carr used the title–The Dead Man’s Knock–for one of his later books, which indicates (I think) that he was quite fond of this collection.


Our next source probably needs no introduction–M.R. James is probably the greatest writer of ghost stories of them all (at least, tied with Robert Aickman, in my estimation), and he has inspired detective-story writers as different as Carr, Christie, H.C. Bailey, Gladys Mitchell, and Ruth Rendell.

Lawrence was up in the bedroom one day, and picked up a little mask covered with black velvet, and put it on for fun and went to look at himself in the glass. He hadn’t time for a proper look, for old Baxter shouted out to him from the bed: “Put it down, you fool! Do you want to look through a dead man’s eyes?”

The story is James’ “A View from a Hill.” There is little more that needs to be said, especially as fans of detective stories tend also to be fans of ghost stories, except that Carr was attempting to emulate James’s style, especially in the matter of saying nothing and suggesting everything, in many of his more supernatural-esque works; and that James wrote what is probably the first detective story/ghost story hybrid in “The Uncommon Prayer-Book.” (By the way, does anyone know if a copy of Carr’s essay on ghost stories–“Things that Go Bump in the Night,” if I’m remembering correctly–is available anywhere?)


The penultimate epigraph is from Cervantes’ Don Quixote. Carr is using it as foreshadowing, as Tom Cecial is describing his trick just as Carr will explain his.

“And where is your nose?” quoth Sancho, seeing him now without disguise. “Here in my pocket,” and so saying, he pulled out the nose of a varnished pasteboard vizard, such as it has been described. … “Blessed Virgin!” quoth Sancho. “Who is this? Thomas Cecial, my friend and neighbor?” “The same, friend Sancho,” quoth the squire. “I will tell you by what tricks and wheedles he was inveigled to come hither.”

I should also note that I believe Sayers used this scene as well as an inspiration for one of her best Wimsey short stories, “The Incredible Elopement of Lord Peter Wimsey,” which I think impossible-crime fanciers will like.


The last epigraph in the book is from Thomas Seccombe’s Twelve Bad Men, a study of twelve villains and scoundrels from history.

The tendency has gone so far that one is led to ask oneself, not without the gravest apprehension, “Is there, then, no evidence of extreme depravity?” For the wholesale elimination of the utter villain from history could hardly be regarded save in the light of an aesthetic calamity.

I confess I haven’t read this one–though, looking it over on Amazon, it’s the sort of thing I like. I will note that, according to Amazon’s synopsis, several of Carr’s favorite historical figures–witch-finder Matthew Hopkins, hanging judge Mr. Justice Jeffreys, “Papist plot” organizer Titus Oates, and “gentleman-highwayman” James MacLaine–appear, so it doesn’t surprise me at all that he liked the book.


One more, and then I’ll pause and leave the rest of it (regarding The Crooked Hinge and He Who Whispers) until Friday, but…

William Makepeace Thackeray is most noted for Vanity Fair (1847-1848), but as a satirist he wrote a parody of the realism of Goethe’s Die Leiden des jungen Werthers (The Sorrows of Young Werther). The hero of Goethe’s novel commits suicide, and Thackeray writes:

Charlotte, having seen his body,/ Just borne by upon a shutter,/ Like a well-conducted maiden,/ Went on cutting bread and butter

–which, Carr writes, went through Ted Stevens’ head as he saw Marie in the kitchen.


Hope my comments serve some kind of purpose–the references have interested me for a long while.

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Review: Nine Man’s Murder

Regular readers of this blog (and thank you immeasurably for that!) know that I don’t usually do reviews. That’s mostly because I simply don’t have the patience for them (oh, how my mind wanders!), which is why my hat is lifted to JJ, Brad, Patrick, TomCat, PuzzleDoctor, and all of you for doing what I cannot!

Well, rules–even un-cemented ones–are made to be broken, and here I am, doing a review.

I feel I have to do it, simply to get it off my chest.

I hated this book, Nine Man’s Murder. Hated hated hated hated hated this book. Hated it.


(And, yes, I could have simply re-phrased Roger Ebert’s entire review of North and had it serve as my review of Nine Man’s Murder.)

Right after I finished it, I wrote down my thoughts and finished it up with “I think I’ll probably forget it as of tomorrow.” Nothing could be further from the truth. I still remember the time I spent on it, and how disappointed I was in every aspect. Not to take anything away from author  Keith, who apparently has a great love of our genre and seems like a nice person from his comments on PuzzleDoctor’s blog. Nor from the people who liked it, including PD and Patrick. Nevertheless, I feel I must be truthful about my reaction, if you’re at all interested. Here goes:

Keith cannot write, plain and simple. Nor can he plot, in the sense of creating a story that keeps one reading on. He can formulate puzzle plots, which are necessary ipso facto for detective stories, but without anything to keep me reading on, I find that it has all the interest of the coldest logic puzzle you can conceive. Suspense, humor, human emotion, clever writing–all missing. I’m skeptical that Keith even understands Ten Little Indians, the book he’s riffing. That book has nail-biting tension as the end approaches, combined with wondering how Christie could ever pull off an ending. This book had me yawning, as I couldn’t give a damn which of these stick figures had murdered the other eight. It’s this kind of book, to be honest, that gave detective stories a bad name.

This is the same flaw I see regarding most of Paul Halter’s works, but Halter seems like the greatest writer on God’s green earth compared to Keith. (And that is something I thought I’d never, ever, say!) The silliness of something like The Invisible Circle, or the lack of characterization in The Tiger’s Head, is nowhere in the same level of badness as something here. I used to be one of those people who thought that Halter’s books read less like detective stories than synopses of detective stories, but that’s nothing compared to Keith. I’m loath even to call what he did “writing.”

And the puzzle-plot. Ah, yes, the puzzle-plot, that sine qua non of detective stories. John Dickson Carr formulated the central twist here in 1935. Anthony Horowitz invented a creative variant of Carr’s trick in 2004. Keith took Horowitz’s variant and combined it with Christie’s main trick from And Then There Were None. There was some clever locked-room stuff, but nothing that held my interest out of idle curiosity.

As I noted above, despite the unoriginality of the central twist, Keith can create puzzle-plots. The chain of cluing here is good, if (again) dull to read. If Keith desires to go on writing detective stories, he should invest in a collaborator who can do the writing whilst he does the plotting. It would be an improvement for all involved.

Ugh. This is one of the worst detective stories I’ve read in a long time. (Luckily, Hard Tack, the detective story I just finished, is a good remedy.) Anything else in the field, even the unbearable Crofts, is better than this.


P.S. In his [also negative] review, TomCat mentions an alternate solution he dreamt up, and it’s a great one. As I told him, I can only wish that Keith had gone with something like that instead.


What You Should Read/Watch Instead–And Then There Were None

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Open Question

I do intend soon to post something that’s more than filler, folks, but until then…


What books do you know that are comparable to Christie’s And Then There Were None (Ten Little Indians)? On the IMDb v2.0 boards, one poster asked for books with a similar set-up–people invited to an abandoned location, where they’re killed off one-by-one–and theravenking (who has commented on JJ and Brad’s blogs from time to time) and I listed several. The OP listed The Invisible Host (Gwen Bristow and Bruce Manning), but I listed these (of which I’ve only read the Berkeley, the Carr, the Horowitz, and the Queen) —

Panic Party (Anthony Berkeley)

The Unicorn Murders (“Carter Dickson” /John Dickson Carr)

“I Know What You Did Last Wednesday” (Anthony Horowitz)

The House of Brass (Ellery Queen)

Death and the Dancing Footman (Ngaio Marsh)

The Eleventh Little Indian (Jacquemard-Sénécal)

The Ex (Nicholas Sanders)

–and Raven King listed these:

The Frankenstein Factory (Edward D. Hoch)

The Riddle of Sphinx Island (R. T. Raichev)

Nine Man’s Murder (Eric Keith)

Fire Will Freeze (Margaret Millar)

Bertie and the Seven Bodies (Peter Lovesey)

The Dying Game (Asa Avdic).

None of which I’ve read, by the way.

Anyhoo, does anyone know of any more? Both for helping the OP there with her question and for helping me with trying to find alternate solutions for the ATTWN scenario, which I’d like to work on after trying to work out a hypothetical alternate solution to The Hollow Man. (I haven’t forgotten, JJ!) 🙂

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“The Time Has Come…

…,” the walrus said, “to talk of many things. Of shoes and ships and sealing wax, of cabbages and kings.”



Well, the time has come for the solution to “Death in the Sun,” too–so here goes…









I’m trying to decide how to do this one: I’m having a little difficulty writing the dénouement (which, to be perfectly honest, is why I’ve taken so long to write this), so I’ll just do what I did before and describe the solution. (I hope you don’t mind!)

As noted, JJ correctly noted the clue about “being able to see the beach from the house”; in fact, the Arning house is “…right next to the public beach,” according to the sheriff.

Silver Screenings correctly noticed that the shoulder is an odd place to shoot someone with intent to kill–which is indeed a major clue that we should keep in mind.

JJ then suggested that Thurlow could not have been shot outside, but rather that he was shot in the house and then walked out. But–as he wrote–“would there not be a trail of blood along the sand from the gunshot wound?”

“The deed must have been done in the house,” Colin wrote–and, as noted, correct!

What other points should we keep in mind? “Sadly, said hand and not seen fit to deliver him as brazened as the other sardines…” Thus: he could not have been on the beach long, on that very hot day, if he were not sunburned, as is inferrable, also, from his personality. Where could he have come from? The house, obviously, which is right nearby. So why, as Geoff asked, should he have been at the public beach? The point is what JJ noted: that he had been shot in the house and walked out to the public beach so that someone could see him.

Substantiating evidence? Naturally, he could not have been shot at close range on the sandbar, with no one around him. At close range–and that, my friends, is the point.

George Thurlow, remember, was shot twice: once in the shoulder and once in the back. The shot in the shoulder had powder burns–indicating a shot at close range–but the shot in the back did not.

Conclusion: we assumed that both bullets entered the body at the same time because two shots were heard at once.

But there’s the secret: George Thurlow was shot once in one place (close-range) and once in another (long-range).

In other words, he was shot once in the house (in the shoulder) and once, long-range, on the beach, from the house. Substantiation? In the back–he was facing away–long-range. He had recently come from the house; the people on the beach watched him walk out–he’d been shot in the shoulder at this point–and didn’t see anyone, or any kind of weapon, around.

Who could have committed the crime? The person who was standing on the roof when the shot was fired–the person who brought up “golf clubs” when nobody was up there to take any golf clubs–the person who had argued with Mrs. Ball and with his employer over changes to the house–the person who, obviously from his demeanor and attitude, loved and missed his former employer–the person who had only a few minutes before shown that former employer through what had been her home…

To wit, Billy Cummings.














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