Review 1000 – The Hollow Man by John Dickson Carr

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.

But…

… 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;

all disappoint.

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…

11 comments

  1. A worthy choice.

    It’s been so long since I read it but it’s on my short list for rereading soon. As I recall I did like Spectacles more, and of course The Judas Window, and a couple of the better Merrivales, but the lecture really was a treat.

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  2. I think I am probably of a similar mind to you with this book. Lots to admire in this book but it’s not one of my favourites nor one I am eager to re-read, given the quite dry prose style. Well done on reaching your 1000th review and here’s to the next 1000! Also very excited to see what you make of the next Horowitz book…

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  3. I did wonder if this might be the one chum. A great choice. Yes it’s flawed, but the atmosphere is amazing and I love the central gimmick, and then there’s the lecture – so, overall I still think it’s a wonderful detective story all the same. Well done on your amazing staying power Steve and heartiest congratulations. I can’t wait for the next thousand!

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  4. Thanks for the review, and I can’t help but agree that ‘Hollow Man’, while good, doesn’t quite live up to the hype built up around it. I found it slightly dry in parts, and somewhat fanciful in the intricacies of its solution. But I enjoyed it nonetheless – just not as much as I enjoyed one or two of the other titles. And yes, I definitely agree that ‘Crooked Hinge’ has its own set of problems too. I’m looking forward to saving the best for the last: ‘He Who Whispers’ and ‘Reader is Warned’ have been put to the back of the stash of Carr novels on my shelf… 🤩

    Thanks for the countdown – I enjoyed reading how you worked your way through to the 1000th post. A pity that not more of the titles were Highly Recommended.

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  5. Congrats for 1000 reviews! This was my first Carr and it’s still my favourite. I agree that there is a needless cheat involving the murders but otherwise the book is perfect.

    The second murder is probably my all-time favourite impossibility along with the second death in Whistle Up the Devil!

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  6. Yeah, I think you’ve summed this up pretty fairly. I mean, I love it, and it was the book which introduced me to Carr, but I can’t deny the flaws are there for the casual reader and that the scheme at its heart — brilliantly clever, no doubt — has quite a few holes in it. Something of a cracked diamond, but still a diamond.

    Congrats on the milestone, too. Very much looking forward to the next 1000.

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  7. Hi Puzzle Doctor, well done.Your reviews have been very helpful.Mind you, I’ve still got to catch on all Kate Elise’s novels.I will try and read more golden age novels as well.

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  8. Congratulations on reaching one thousand, PD! I’m grateful that you are not a dirty spoiler (unlike me!) because you inevitably get to the books I want to read long before I get to them. (Case in point: the Horowitz!) I have nothing new to add to the way people feel about THM: second murder is cool, plot is complex as heck!, great book that leaves me a bit cold and will never be in my top ten, no matter how much it deserves the accolades. My favorite part was the meta-bit in the lecture where Dr. Fell says, “Come on, fellas, we’re all fictional characters, right?” Still, this was the perfect choice for this milestone. JDC is going to be a BIG part of my life next year, and your post confirmed that decision.

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  9. Congratulations on reaching this mighty milestone. As others have noted, you picked a fine book to mark the occasion. And like others, I am hard-pressed to disagree with you about the book’s flaws—although, on the whole, I have a more charitable view of it. That’s largely because the atmospherics that Carr weaves around his flawed plot are (to my taste) darn near perfect. So I said when I reviewed the novel several years ago:
    https://onlydetect.wordpress.com/2010/03/16/john-dickson-carr-the-three-coffins-1935/

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