Friday, August 19, 2011

Friday's Forgotten Books, Friday, August 19, 2011

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.

Yvette Banek

Joe Barone
Paul Bishop
Bill Crider
Scott Cupp
Martin Edwards
Cullen Gallagher
Jerry House
Randy Johnson
George Kelley
Margot Kinberg
Kate Laity
B.V. Lawson
Evan Lewis
Steve Lewis/Dan Stumpf
Todd Mason
J.F. Norris
Richard Pangburn
Eric Peterson
David Rachels
James Reasoner
Richard Robinson
Gerard Saylor
Ron Scheer
Kerrie Smith
Kevin Tipple


Kevin R. Tipple said...

I'm here with EARLY'S PRIDE by Bobby Jaye Allen.


Dorte H said...

I know that John Dickson Carr may seem dated, but I think I have read one or two of them, and I do like mysteries with clues scattered around.

Small wonder that I like the occasional cosy, but then I have never tried to hide the fact that reading & writing crime fiction is my hobby, something I do to relax after having taught Shakespeare and Hawthorne to young people for a living.

Charles Gramlich said...

You'd think there could hardly be any more to be done with the locked door mystery. Folks are so creative.

Anonymous said...

Nice selection this week. Thanks as always for doing this. I know it's a lot of work and it's really appreciated!

J F Norris said...

THE HOLLOW MAN is flawed? Sacrilege! Maybe to a modern reader for whom this is not his regular cup of tea because he really likes a shot of whiskey straight up. For me and hundreds of others the book is a landmark and something of a masterpiece of its kind. It still amazes me that people say things like "I've never heard of John Dickson Carr or "Ellery Queen? Who's that?" [grumble, grumble] If you had done a little more research you would've learned that the original title is THE THREE COFFINS and that is how it was released in the US. You probably could've found a copy on-line for $5 or less.

RNarvaez said...

Haha. Actually, yes, in its day Carr's book was a masterpiece, but I fear tastes and expectations have changed. I did note that it was also known as Three Coffins -- and alas, I did get the book online and cheaply (I had not wanted to mention it, lest I sadden my local bookshops). Our culture is endlessly self-consuming, so it's inevitable that artists, authors, etc., get lost over time, even the most popular ones of their day (poor old Johnny Ray) or the highly talented, like Carr. In any case, I'm very glad I found out about him and have since read "The Emperor's Snuff Box," which I enjoyed as well.

Richard L. Pangburn said...

My entry is now up. A. B. Guthie's THE GENUINE ARTICLE, a cross genre mystery set in the contemporary west. Here's the link:

Kevin R. Tipple said...

Barry Ergang's A PLAY OF LIGHT AND SHADOW is one of the best locked room mysteries I have ever read.

pattinase (abbott) said...

My pleasure.

Anonymous said...

Patti - Wow! Thanks for including my post! That's so kind of you :-)

TomCat said...

I also have an entry for today's FFB: John W. Vandercook's Murder in Fiji (1936).

Todd Mason said...

Kate Laity's hair is on fire (why she wears all the hats) while trying to square away for her transoceanic move, but Mary of Nijmeghen is going to serve as her FFB today, I think...