These were the links that were active with a FB at 8:30. I will be back after two to pick up the rest.
R. Narvaez was most recently published in Black Heart Magazine’s Noir issue.
THE HOLLOW MAN, John Dickson Carr
The Hollow Man would make Raymond Chandler kick a hole in a stained glass window. The book’s protagonist, Dr. Gideon Fell, is one of those idiosyncratic, overly clever characters who exist only in cozy mysteries, someone you would never want to know socially in real life — because wherever he goes someone dies. He is also exactly the kind of fellow Chandler decries in his essay “The Simple Art of Murder”: “The hero’s tie may be a little off the mode and the good gray inspector may arrive in a dogcart instead of a streamlined sedan . . . but what he does when he gets there is the same old futzing around with timetables and bits of charred paper and who trampled the jolly old flowering arbutus under the library window.”
But in trying to write my own crime fiction, I have been intrigued by the idea of clues, of leaving evidence around to engage and perplex the reader. TV’s Columbo is one of those types of clue-strewn mysteries. After Columbo, ahem, I mean Peter Falk died, I read an interview with one of the shows co-creators, William Link. Link mentioned that his writing partner Richard Levinson and he were influenced by Carr, someone I’d never heard of. Curious, I Googled Carr and found that he was quite popular in his the 1930s and ‘40s and that one of his best known works was The Hollow Man (aka The Three Coffins), originally published in 1935. I had to read it. After some legwork, I tracked down a UK paperback.
The book begins with teasing at the supernatural (vampires), but soon settles into the classic locked room mystery. In this case, a Dr. Grimaud lies dead in his locked study. There only way out is the window — but the freshly fallen snow on the sill and the ground below is untouched. The killer has evaporated. Dr. Fell deduces a suspect, Grimaud’s long-lost brother, but that person is found dead, shot at close range, in the middle of a street covered with fresh snow — and, alas, no footprints but the victim’s. Two impossible murders! Chandler would have thrown his pipe across the room. Then, Dr. Fell and his Lestrade, Inspector Hadley, volley theories back and forth, with Fell alternately announcing that he has solved it and then stating how he almost made a huge mistake. And, yes, he futzes around with timetables and bits of charred paper.
And then just before the big reveal, Dr. Fell takes time out from capturing a killer to lecture on the conventions of locked room mysteries — for an entire chapter. It’s a humorous bit of meta-narrative, and here I could feel Carr shamelessly bragging about his mastery of the genre.
Overall, I find The Hollow Man’s greatest value is as a textbook for mystery writers in what to do as much as what not to do. It is incessantly logical, gives lessons in subtle clue dropping (ah yes, the firecrackers!), and has mischievous fun with misdirection. But at the same time there is far too much exposition (complete with two diagrams) and most of the characters are merely names — Dr. Fell himself is little more than girth, unkempt hair, and a shovel hat. So, yes, it a flawed but entertaining puzzle, a diversion, of course, not for all tastes; but in it the patient student of mystery fiction will find many rewards.
Steve Lewis/Dan Stumpf