The Third Bullet and other stories (1954) by John Dickson Carr

Gabriel White was sentenced to “fifteen strokes of the cat and eighteen months hard labour” by Mr Justice Mortlake and it seems he was out for revenge. He entered the outbuilding where the judge was residing – and then things got rather strange. Two shots were heard, one from White’s gun and one from someone else in the room who White, blinded by a light, couldn’t see. But while the second gun is found discarded there is no trace of the second gunman. And there is one further problem – the bullet dug out of Mr Justice Mortlake was not fired by either of the two guns…

Add to that, tales of a barely clothed corpse on a park bench, a girl who can vanish with the fairies, three cases for Gideon Fell and a trip to nineteenth century Paris, and you have a very important collection of the works of John Dickson Carr, in part because it contains the best mystery short story ever written. But how do the rest hold up?

Let’s start with The Third Bullet, a novella that, in this version, was trimmed for publication in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, with Carr’s approval. It features Colonel Maquis, the Assistant Commissioner of Scotland Yard, an odd post to hold for someone who seems to find most crime boring. I think this is his only appearance, as he metamorphosises into Colonel March for The Department of Queer Complaints. It’s a much lauded tale, with a cleverly posed impossibility – it’s been a while since I read it, but it had never struck me as that clever. But look around on the internet, people love it.

People are wrong.

OK, it’s not that bad, but it stretches believability far too much for me. The villain’s original plan is utterly moronic and to think that would have fooled anyone makes the villain out to be an even bigger fool. And why the development that complicates things happens at all – how any rational person thought that would help matters… so it’s a stupid person doing stupid things that leads to the impossibility. Sorry, this is the third time I’ve read the story and I’m still not convinced. Still not as bad as The Crooked Hinge though…

The Clue of the Red Wig has, zut alors, Jacqueline Dubois, a French journalist, helping out Inspector Bell of London CID find out why Hazel Loring, a popular newspaper advice columnist, is found dead on a park bench in her underwear with her clothes folded next to her and a red wig on top of them. It’s not an impossible murder, but it’s clever and fun, if you can tolerate Jacqueline’s “Hot ziggedity damn!” garbled franglais.

The House In Goblin Wood is the finest short story ever written. Enough said – although do take a look at my review for it that I wrote an age ago.

The Wrong Problem kicks of three Fell stories, and is easily the best of the three. A different approach from the standard detective short story, as Fell falls into conversation with a stranger at the lakeside about a murder that took place years previous. The second best story in the collection.

The Proverbial Murder concerns the murder of a German refugee and suspected spy. It’s not too taxing and none-too-original, but it’s fun, although the reader will probably spot the culprit.

The Locked Room promises so much from its title, given that Carr, the master of the locked room, wrote it, but it’s all a bit obvious. The method of how someone is assaulted and murdered inside his locked office is an old chestnut and probably was even when Carr wrote this, so the reader will probably be ten steps ahead of Fell this time. Again, it’s entertaining, but won’t tax some readers who will have seen this done before.

The Gentleman From Paris was one of Carr’s favourite short stories – the other being The House In Goblin Wood – but it only contains a vague impossibility, namely that of a disappearing piece of paper (a will) that really should have been found a lot earlier than it was. I’m guessing the charm comes from the reveal at the end, which I’m guessing means more if you’ve read the short stories of a certain other author – in fact, I’m guessing it gives the whole story more emphasis if you know that author. I don’t, but from what I do know, the mystery plot did feel a bit like Carr trying to find a better solution to one of the other’s stories…

Overall, it’s an entertaining collection, but not for the novella. The Merrivale and Fell tales are good value, and The Clue Of The Red Wig is clever. It’s not just me who thinks it – my paperback copy (illustrated) actually describes that story on the blurb, not The Third Bullet. Or that might be so they have an excuse to put a picture of a woman in her bra and pants on the cover…

4 comments

  1. A fair review, though the original, incur version of the novella is definitely preferable. Gentleman from Paris was turned into a pretty decent movie by the way. I suspect you are correct about the rational behind the cover. My edition, from Bantam, goes the same way though I prefer mine to yours 🙂

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  2. I literally just finished the last story a few days ago. And like you I absolutely adored The House in Goblin Wood, for my money, one of the best impossible crime stories ever written. My introduction to Carr was through some of his weakest short stories in an anthology collections (I think The Wrong Problem might have been one of them), and I left him on my shelf for years for that reason. Why they just don’t put Goblin Wood as an introduction is beyond me: at his best no other GAD writer played with archetypes and expectations like him.

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  3. The House in Goblin Wood is a wonder indeed. (But I conclude you need to read more Chekhov and Maupassant 😉. )

    I think it’s actually Carr’s best mystery, although The Judas Window and The Black Spectacles (and … and … and …) come close.

    I have never come across a copy of this, alas.

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