Nine – And Death Makes Ten, aka Murder In The Submarine Zone (1940) by Carter Dickson

In recent weeks, I’ve struggled with the books that I’ve chosen. The point of this blog, other than to keep me reading, is to find new writers of great mysteries – not crime books, but mysteries. The recent attempts have found serial killers and nice historical stories, but generally speaking, the mystery element has been lacking.

So, with one eye on the next letter in the Alphabet of Crime Fiction, I decided to remind myself of the master of the genre, John Dickson Carr, or rather in this case, his pseudonym Carter Dickson.

In Nine – And Death Makes Ten, nine passengers and a number of crew are crossing the Atlantic from New York during late 1939. Soon, one of the passengers has her throat cut, but luckily the murderer has left two very obvious bloody fingerprints at the scene. One thorough examination of the crew and passengers later, and the fingerprints match no-one on board. There are no stowaways, so how were the fingerprints made? And, more importantly, why? Luckily, the Old Man, Sir Henry Merrivale himself, happens to be the ninth passenger…

I rarely see this book in lists of the best of Carr – well, except mine – but re-reading this reminded me as to how great he was at the height of his powers. There are no obvious tricks, a la Agatha Christie, no technical clues that are not explained, as Ellery Queen did on occasion (e.g. here), and plenty of fully rounded characters. There isn’t a feeling that anyone is being ignored, character-wise, due to them being the murderer, and yet the solution seems to make sense, ludicrous as the situation may be. And what is more, the book is littered with clues that point directly at the killer and yet you won’t spot a single one unless you spot the pivot that the mystery hinges on – and I bet that you don’t.

On a minor point, Carr clearly had trouble with the notion that an ocean liner is full of crew even with no passengers, as he has to resort to a foot-note confirming that when the Captain states that he is sure that none of his crew was involved, he is telling the truth. Even then, later on when a third murder is committed, the Captain states that all of his crew were alibied as they were on duty – in the middle of the night? What about the cook, or the barber?

That’s a minor niggle and one that is easily ignored in a book as well-crafted as this. In the space of 170 pages, there is more story going on here than in most 500 page modern thrillers. Highly recommended and re-reading this has prompted me to, once the Alphabet is over, to do a complete Carter Dickson re-read and review. In the meantime, there’s still Night At The Mocking Widow, The Plague Court Murders, The Punch and Judy Murders, The Red Widow Murders, The Reader is Warned… plenty to keep me busy in the weeks to come.


  1. This was my second Dickson ever after THE READER IS WARNED and confirmed, if confirmation were necessary, that Carr really was at the top of the classic mystery tree. Thirty years later and I certainly haven’t changed my mind. Classic stuff and an excellent review as ever – thanks.


  2. Just to say for anyone waiting my complete Carter Dickson reviews, I’ve opted for Ellery Queen first of all. When that marathon is over, then Carter Dickson is next on the list.


  3. Definitely first-class Carr. It’s also effective throughout that there is an external threat not related to the mystery (like the fire in Queen’s Siamese Twin mystery). And good point about the characters having some depth.


  4. Just this second finished this one. Cracking solution, although I wish the danger aspect of it had come to more. I’d have been quite happy if this had been an action-packed spy thriller in the final chapters. I appreciate that Carr is keen to subvert expectations (and then point that out, via his characters!), but I’m not sure that’s always necessary. Sometimes genre stories can be allowed to play out exactly as expected…

    Not sure about the fingerprint business. You’d think if it was possible then it would happen all the time… I think Carr has done his usual thing of getting excited about an obscure entry in one of his reference books and then not bothering to consult anyone else about it.

    Still, highly enjoyable. Probably the best Carter Dickson I’ve read.


    • I certainly think this is one of the most under-appreciated ones, probably because of the questionable bit about the fingerprints. But he says it with such authority, maybe it is possible…?


      • Well I’m definitely going to write my own post about this, because I think it’s interesting how much here really works and how much doesn’t. In many ways I’m reminded of The Crooked Hinge, another severely flawed masterpiece (although I think the problems are far more serious there).

        But in as spoiler-free a way as possible, I think the problem with the fingerprints is this: I’m sure it’s possible, in the sense that it clearly happened at least once. I’m sure Carr’s reference is accurate there. I’m dubious, though, that a fingerprint expert would make the necessary mistake. Every resource I have on taking fingerprints warns about the error that the mystery depends on, although none of them mention quite so interesting a possible consequence. Carr unfortunately, as so often happens, wants it both ways: he has TWO “experts” on fingerprints (not counting H.M.), who are just enough of an authority to assert that there’s a mystery and that the fingerprints are real, but apparently not expert enough to spot the flaw in their own reasoning.

        So that’s the objective reason why I think it wouldn’t work. But practically that’s not relevant, because most readers, especially in the 40s, won’t know much or anything about fingerprints. So I think the real problem is that Carr doesn’t lay out his terms carefully enough. He forgets that this needs more background than his usual setups. Everyone knows how doors and locks and keys work, but very few people will know much about fingerprints beyond the fact that they exist, are individual to each person and are a sort of swirly pattern of loops and whorls. There’s not enough of an explanation in the book of how fingerPRINTING actually works to give the average reader an entry into the puzzle. Whether it’s possible to get a sufficiently good explanation into the plot without spoiling the mystery or bogging everything down is a different matter.

        But I’m currently working on a little essay about how the impossible crimes are actually Carr’s WEAKPOINT He’s got some blinders, but overall I think he’s just not very good at them, and it’s a shame he got stuck with the reputation for being a master. What he is brilliant at is manipulation of identity-roles, like the impostor situation in Crooked Hinge, the mystery of the third brother in Crooked Hinge, and even the murderer/blackmailer switch in an otherwise dreadful book that I won’t mention for spoiler reasons. This has always been his real strength, I think, and what he does in Nine and Death Makes Ten feels like one of his cleverest and most literal iterations on the theme.


      • Whoops. That second example should be Three Coffins, of course. The Sleeping Sphinx is another obvious example. I think you’d probably find a trick like this in most of his books, and I think that’s really what Carr was most interested in. You definitely get the sense that a lot of his impossible crimes are there a little grudgingly (not here – this one actually has a really good reason for the impossibility and the plot wouldn’t work without it).


      • The similar issue with The Crooked Hinge completely undermines that book for me. And the impossibilty in The Sleeping Sphinx is one of his weakest of all. Too obvious hy half.


    • Agreed. The Sleeping Sphinx impossibility is so feeble and inconsequential, which is .(interestingly) even worse than when the solution makes no sense. It overshadows everything, and diminishes a really quite clever and audacious reversal with the characters of the two sisters (Carr’s general ineptitude with female characters and dialogue notwithstanding). The same goes for most of the late ones, even the otherwise excellent She Died a Lady. Tragic stories of lovers jumping off cliffs are seriously undermined by the thought of someone faffing about in the dark with [REDACTED!].

      If only Carr hadn’t been typecast and sold as a master of the impossible, I think his overall output would have been much stronger. I disagree with a lot of praise for Carr (especially his oft-cited and completely overrated talent for “atmosphere”), and some of his sentences and dialogue are among the most ham-fisted you’ll find in the genre, but I think his ability to play with character archetypes is second only to Chesterton.


      • Now, careful about dissing She Died A Lady! I think that’s one of his finest of all. The REDACTED could easily have been lying around – much more feasible than a lot of his others


      • Perish the thought! Huge respect here for She Died a Lady. Easily top five.

        I certainly didn’t mean it wasn’t feasible. In fact it might be his most feasible. I don’t recall it requiring anything other than care or planning, whereas so many of his others have hidden coincidences that aren’t immediately apparent until you think about them later.

        It’s just the mundanity of the solution that niggles at me. That’s an asset in terms of creating a solvable puzzle (“no weird contraptions here: just ingenious use of everyday items!” “It’s your own fault if you didn’t solve it!” “Clues were right under your nose!” etc. etc.) but as an adjunct to a story of lovers driven to desperation… ? It’s not really on theme…

        But I accept that’s just an aesthetic quibble. It’s a good puzzle; I just think it might be an even better book without it, and I think it’s a shame that Carr basically didn’t have a choice about leaving it out. And that’s nothing compared with the weird feeling I got reading Seeing Is Believing, where it feels like Carr’s just reaching into a bag of unused ideas and smashing them together because his publisher has said that readers only care about the impossible crimes.


  5. […] I hadn’t re-read this one since first coming across it in the 1980s – but at a certain point I thought I knew who the murderer might be. And then, to my delight, realised that this is what I thought all those decades ago, and that Carr had bamboozled me then and had just done it yet again! The atmosphere of the liner travelling in a blackout, fearing attack from within and without, is wonderfully eerie and Carr’s construction is pretty much flawless. Chapter 11 is especially notable for how he turns the clock back 45 minutes to show us two sides of an event that lead to pandemonium and the dramatic disappearance overboard of one of the suspects during a submarine attack. The impossible crime element is always a an extra joy in Carr’s work, and here is beautifully dovetailed into the plot. But it is his dexterity at dealing with clues and suspects that is so awe-inspiring. As in all his best work, the final reveal of the villain is a gigantic surprise despite a surprisingly small pool of suspects. I tried really hard to figure this one out and there were lots of clues it turns out – but I stood no chance again HM (and Carr). Go out and get this one – it’s an absolute classic. And don’t just take my word for it – see what the Puzzle Doctor has to say about it at In Search of the classic Mystery Novel. […]


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