A 1001 MIDNIGHTS Review
by Robert E. Briney

JOHN DICKSON CARR – The Three Coffins. Dr. Gideon Fell #6. Harper & Brothers, US, hardcover, 1935. Published in the UK by H. Hamilton under the title The Hollow Man hardcover, 1935. Reprinted many times, in both hardcover and soft.

   In this Dr. Fell novel, one of the most intricate in the series, the author loses no time in making his intentions clear. In the very first paragraph, two impossible crimes are announced: a locked-room murder and what might be called a “locked-street” murder.

   The victim in the first crime is Professor Charles Grimaud, a lecturer and writer of independent means, whose habit it is to visit a local pub every evening and hold forth to a fascinated audience on magic, the supernatural, vampirism, the Black Mass, and similar topics. One evening the professor’s lecture is interrupted by a man who identifies himself as Pierre Fley, “Illusionist.”

   Although he tries to hide the fact, the professor is terrified by Fley’s cryptically threatening remarks. Some days later, Grimaud is in his study at home when a mysterious visitor arrives, forces his way into the room, and locks the door. The door is thereafter under constant observation; the room has no other exits and no hiding places. A shot is heard, and when the door is forced, Grimaud is found alone in the room, dying of a gunshot wound. His visitor has vanished.

   On that same evening, some distance away, Fley is also shot to death. The crime takes place in the middle of an empty, snow-covered street, with watchers at either end; yet no one sees the murderer, and there are no footprints in the snow.

   It quickly develops that Grimaud and Fley shared a deadly secret, with roots going back to tum-of-the-century Hungary. This connection from the past provides the book’s title: Fley once told an acquaintance, “Three of us were once buried alive. Only one escaped.” When asked how he had escaped, he answered calmly, “I didn’t, you see. I was one of the two who did not escape.”

   It also supplies the motive for the crimes. But Fell must delve into more-modern relationships and unravel some subtle trickery in order to explain the apparently impossible circumstances of the crimes and identify the guilty. When the last piece of the puzzle has fallen into place, with an extra twist in the concluding lines of the book, Fell says, “I have committed another crime, Hadley. I have guessed the truth again.”

   Chapter 17 of the novel has become famous among mystery enthusiasts, and has been reprinted separately. It is “The Locked Room Lecture,” in which Fell systematically classifies the principal types of locked-room situations. Other writers — notably Anthony Boucher and Clayton Rawson — later added to this discussion, and many others have profited from it in constructing their own plot devices.

   This chapter also contains a comment that has disconcerted more than one reader. When Fell brings the topic of detective fiction into his analysis of impossible situations, he is asked why he does so. “‘Because,’ said the doctor frankly, ‘we’re in a detective story, and we don’t fool the reader by pretending we’re not. Let’s not invent elaborate excuses to drag in a discussion of detective stories. Let’s candidly glory in the noblest pursuits possible to characters in a book.'”

   The device of having a character acknowledge that he is a fictional character and comment on the fact has been used more than once in “high” literature. For Carr, it was simply part of playing the game — “the grandest game in the world” — with his readers, and for those readers willing to enter into the spirit of the game, it is a clever and charming touch.

   Reprinted with permission from 1001 Midnights, edited by Bill Pronzini & Marcia Muller and published by The Battered Silicon Dispatch Box, 2007.   Copyright © 1986, 2007 by the Pronzini-Muller Family Trust.