30 April 2007

Book Review: The Hollow Man

The Hollow Man (1935)
U.S. Title: The Three Coffins
By John Dickson Car

I have an odd relationship with the classic murder mystery.

The first adult books I read, starting in sixth grade, were murder mystery stories of the Golden Age, principally from Agatha Christie. I was as shocked as anybody by the bizarre solution to Murder on the Orient Express, but it was Death on the Nile that I first read and first hooked me. Eventually I discovered And Then There Were None (or Ten Little Indians; I've never settled on which title I prefer more, although I certainly don't like the original and now buried racist title), which I still think is Christie's masterpiece: not only a murder mystery, but a genuine suspense tale that has influenced every genre since. After all, Alien uses the same suspense device as And Then There Were None, the burning question "which one of us is next?" I also read the complete stories of Sherlock Holmes. This was around the time that PBS was broadcasting those tremendous Granada Television adaptations of the stories starring Jeremy Brent, and it was a golden time to be discovering the Great Detective.

The reason I gravitated directly toward murder mysteries when I started reading mature novels was that in elementary school I, like a lot of other boys my age that weren't into sports and instead were into books, read a lot of juvenile mystery series. Of course I cut my teeth on "The Hardy Boys" (this was my first encounter with the concept of a pseudonym, and was later disappointed to discover there was no such person as Franklin W. Dixon) and got a thrill from the "solve-it-yourself" puzzles of "Encyclopedia Brown." But I soon discovered "The Three Investigators," another juvenile detective series that at the time had Alfred Hitchcock's name attached to it. I na├»vely believed that Hitchcock had actually written the novels, and not just loaned his name and trademark to it. "The Three Investigators" felt more modern and creepy to me than the Hardy Boys, and their adventures revolved around more supernatural and gothic mysteries—all explained away in the end, of course, but quite terrifying when they first appeared. The first novel, The Castle of Terror, genuinely frightened me as a ten-year-old.

But sometime in early high school, my interest in the classic mystery novel faded away. I stopped reading Agatha Christie and her school of British mystery-makers. My interests turned elsewhere, mostly to classical and medieval literature, Elizabethan drama, Kurt Vonnegut, history books, and The Lord of the Rings. When in college, I read Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett for the first time, I was hooked on the noir form of the mystery, which I have stayed with ever since. (And it was at this time that the specter of Cornell Woolrich, my favorite American author, crawled out of the dark corners of the world.)

But I do occasionally return to the "ratiocination" (love that word) murder mystery out of a sense of nostalgia and to broaden my genre scope. Although I mostly write and read fantasy and science fiction, I believe I benefit from dabbling in many other genres and literary forms. Last year I read the first Agatha Christie novel I had probably picked up since…eighth grade, wow. The ABC Murders was pleasantly cozy entertainment, and Christie's usual clever solution left me the with same sense of admiration I had for her structuring as I did when I was eleven. But the coziness of the murder mystery is perhaps why I don't read much in the way of classic whodunits anymore. I prefer the messy and violent world of the descendants of Dashiell Hammett, and amoral web of Raymond Chandler, the casual killings of Jim Thompson, the cosmic bleakness of Cornell Woolrich, and the sheer ugliness of James Elroy and Mickey Spillane. I prefer character, atmosphere, and action over the puzzle itself. Chandler's mysteries often don't make much sense (let's all say it together: "Who killed the Sternwood Chauffeur?"), but it's the noir world, odd characters, riveting dialogue, and hypnotic internal monologue that make his novels such great works of literature.

Yet this week I was back for another annual visit to the parlor room variety of murder, with John Dickson Carr's The Hollow Man. The U.S. title is The Three Coffins, but even though Carr was an American writer, he lived in England, set his novels there, and first published them there, so I will stick with the original title and assume that nobody will confuse it with a mediocre 2001 Paul Verhoeven film starring Kevin Bacon. This is perhaps the classic of the "locked-room mystery," or better stated as the "impossible murder," since a locked room isn't always a requirement. Here we have two impossible murders: a man shot dead inside a locked room, with no way the murderer could have escaped without leaving a trail; and a man shot to death in a snowy alley at point-blank range, but witnesses saw no one near him at the time. Carr's customary detective, rotund Dr. Gideon Fell, handily solves the crime and spends two chapters explaining the absolutely crazy series of coincidences and magician's tricks that created the illusion of impossibility. The revelations are certainly thrilling when they come, but almost immediately my skepticism kicked in. I won't reveal the secrets, of course, but they are so far-fetched and ridiculous that to think any criminal imagined he could get away with it is mind-boggling. Raymond Chandler referred to this as "having God sit in your lap." Naturally, nobody else but Dr. Fell can puzzle it out, but the real police would have cracked this case wide open very quickly with more thorough investigations than the rather clueless lot we have here does. They mostly hang on Dr. Fell and wait for him to tell them what he apparently figured out a hundred pages ago.

But what truly makes this the classic of the "locked-room" subgenre is the chapter entitled "The Locked Room Lecture," where Dr. Gideon Fell suddenly decides to give a primer for mystery writers on the history of the device and the various manners it can be executed. It's really Carr turning out a nonfiction chapter, with references to other classic detective novels. But perhaps most astonishing about the chapter is that it "breaks the fourth wall" with the reader and turns into meta-fiction: Dr. Gideon Fell admits that they are all characters in a novel and need to analyze what this sort of novel is all about. For a supposedly traditional, mainstream book, this is a bizarre but giddy turn of events, and what I found most fascinating about it. The chapter makes fine independent reading on its own.

Carr also creates the whiff of the Gothic in his book, with a ghastly past history for the murders and the symbol of three open graves outside a Hungarian prison. Even though the story occurs in the 1930s London, it seems like a very Victorian London. I appreciate these atmospheric touches in what is otherwise a Rube Goldberg contraption of a novel.

Okay, back to noir.