Professor Charles Grimaud received his visitor in his study. No one seem to bat an eyelid that the visitor had a papier-mache face, and left no footprints in the snow, but they admitted the visitor anyway. But when a gunshot is heard from the study, the alarm is raised – the door is broken down and Grimaud is found, shot dead. Alone…
Nobody could have escaped from the room – the only access was through a window with a sheer drop and with undisturbed snow underneath. But just as nobody could have left that room, nobody could have murdered Pierre Fley in Cagliostro Street, shot at close range in front of witnesses but with nobody in sight and again, surrounded by more undisturbed snow. Fley had threatened Grimaud in front of witnesses – but did they have a common enemy? And was it a hollow man?
Yes, my 1000th review is finally here (so I’ll stop banging on about it) and as correctly guessed by Neil, it’s the classic from John Dickson Carr that more often than not walks away with the title of Best Locked Room Mystery. And while I’ve made some general comments about it from time to time, they’ve mostly been about it being a bit over-rated. But it’s the obvious title that I felt that I really ought to have reviewed by now and as such, what better time to take another look.
And yes, I still think it’s overrated…
There is a lot to like here. The atmosphere and overall impossibility of the puzzle is stunning, as is the set-up. The mystery of the past secret linking Grimaud, Fley and the possible Hollow Man is very effectively drip-fed throughout the tale and there’s a genuine feeling of tension. Gideon Fell and Hadley are on fine form and the clues hidden in Grimaud’s dying words are beautifully constructed. The murder of Fley is impressively done – the impossibility has a rational explanation that makes perfect sense.
And then there’s Chapter 17, the locked room lecture, which doesn’t seem as jarring as I recalled. It’s an interesting diversion from the plot but does make sense in the setting. And it’s a good trick from Carr that despite him describing how many ways there are of doing a locked room, the solution still comes as a surprise.
… there are aspects that don’t work for me. First off all – and this has always bugged me – the fact that nobody seems bothered by the masked stranger. Someone walks into the house wearing a papier-mache mask and no one bats an eyelid. Moreover, there are flaws with the solution. Now without spoiling things:
- the reason for the central misconception concerning the crimes;
- the explanation for the lack of footprints in the snow around the house;
- the method for the locked room;
As a general rule, potential authors out there, any method that requires a diagram that wouldn’t be out of place in a Physics textbook probably wouldn’t work. Any sort of method that requires bonus justification on the lines of “honest, it would work” – Van Dine had a similar problem in The Greene Murder Case – is by necessity so complex that the reader could never have worked it out. Which a) doesn’t play fair and b) leaves the reader still not convinced that it would have worked. Because it wouldn’t, would it?
There is plenty to like, but it’s hardly Carr’s finest work. He’d already written the superior Plague Court Murders and White Priory Murders and there was better to come, notably Till Death Do Us Part, She Died A Lady, He Who Whispers, The Reader Is Warned, The Black Spectacles and so on (and no, not The Crooked Hinge – that’s even more flawed by this one). Anyway, this is still a book that needs to be read, despite its flaws, and as such, it’s Recommended. But not as much as the better ones…