The Hollow Man (1935) by John Dickson Carr

Vintage Mystery Scavenger Hunt Item: Town scene

The Hollow Man

Continuing the impossible crime theme from Rupert Penny’s Sealed Room Murder (1941), which I reviewed on Monday, I decided to tackle John Dickson Carr’s The Hollow Man (1935), which has been sitting on my TBR for a few months now.

The story begins by foreshadowing the two crimes of the novel, that of Professor Grimaud’s murder and a fantastical crime which occurs in Cagliostro Street. To add to the impossibility of the crimes there is the suggestion of an H G Wells Invisible Man (another book in my TBR pile) figure being responsible. It is said that:

the invisible man

‘the murderer must not only have been invisible, but lighter than air. According to the evidence, he killed his first victim and literally disappeared… he killed his second victim in the middle of an empty street, with watchers at either end; yet not a soul saw him, and no footprint appeared in the snow.’

The narrative though then shifts to prior both of the crimes, focusing on a suspicious circumstance in a pub where Grimaud drinks with his friends, Stuart Mills, Anthony Pettis, Boyd Mangan and Jerome Burnaby. One night whilst in the pub, Grimaud is threatened by an illusionist called Pierre Fley hinting that his brother is after him. He also makes the seemingly impossible suggestion that he along with his two brothers managed to cheat the grave.

This tale reaches Dr Fell’s ears through him having a mutual friend with Mangan called Ted Rampole, who also adds that aside from the threat in the pub, Grimaud has also had threatening letters and that he is to be called on by Fley that very night and plans to defend himself using an oversized picture painted by Burnaby. Yes you did read the last part of that sentence correctly. Slightly alarmed, but mostly curious, Dr Fell accompanied by his friend Superintendent Hadley and Rampole head out to Grimaud’s house, only to discover on arrival that minutes before a gunshot was heard in Grimaud’s study, which is locked from the inside. To add to the impossibilities of the crime there is no weapon in study, the chimney is too small to climb up, neither the snow on the roof or the ground outside is broken with footprints and the study door, since the arrival of a man believed to be Fley wearing an eerie papier-mâché mask, was watched by both his secretary Mills and his once lover and house keeper Dumont. Grimaud’s final words, as he lies dying, due to injuries to his lung, also cause a lot of confusion with witnesses hearing radically different words.

Of course the obvious suspect is Fley, the man expected that night, yet when a constable is despatched to collect him it turns out that he too had been murdered in a seemingly impossible way, in the middle of a street, with witnesses at either end to attest no one else was there. This is a mystery where both the who and the how are baffling as finding suspects available for both killings is difficult. Moreover, the case seems to have its origins in Grimaud’s less than reputable past, in the atmospherically gothic and medieval country of Hungary. As the saying goes old sins cast long shadows. Fley’s brother becomes a key focus of the investigation and the detecting characters think they have struck gold when they apparently find this brother’s lodgings. Yet will this resolve the mystery, provide another spoke in the wheel or is it a red herring?

Something I enjoyed about this mystery was how it comes across as a never ending puzzle, as one more bizarre thing or event keeps on being added to the original crimes and I imagine this is one of the ways Carr manages to bamboozle his readers so effectively in this story. The solution when it is finally reached is definitely brilliant, ingenious and original (to me anyways) and again like in the Sealed Room Murder I enjoyed how the crimes did not go according to plan for the killer. Moreover, I found the solution to be interestingly told, despite being complex. Although I do query one element of the second murder in terms of plausibility, though not to the extent of losing any sleep over it. Carr’s descriptive powers are also evident in the text and I particularly liked his description of the mysterious lodgings they come across:

‘Somebody’s personality permeated those rooms like the sickly yellow of the electric lights; like the chilly chemical smell which was not quite obliterated by the strong tobacco O’ Rourke smoked.’

Of course another big hit with me was the famous Locked Room Lecture chapter, which I definitely enjoyed. It is begun with Dr Fell breaking the fourth wall:

‘Why discuss detective fiction?’

‘Because 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.’

Aside from enumerating the various ways of pulling off a locked room or impossible crime stunt, Dr Fell also touches upon the improbabilities of detective fiction and how readers should not complain about improbabilities as after all they are possibilities and without them detective stories would be rather dull, and I can see where he is coming from. He also looks at the different types of characters used as killers, intimating that there was currently a trend for having secretaries as killers. Is this the case for mid-1930s detective fiction? (Answers on a postcard please or alternatively in the comments section below).

I had been worried when starting this novel that it would be too focused on the puzzle aspect and that the narrative style would suffer. However I was pleasantly surprised to find this was not necessarily the case, with Carr still being able to tell a good story. The only place where the narrative suffered the most was in the beginning where the writing style is a bit clunky, but as the investigation and questioning commences, the narrative style picks up a lot. The characterisation of Rosette Girmaud, Grimaud’s daughter, was a little troubling at points, but since she is not overly present in the novel it is a minor niggle.

Rating: 4/5

See also:

https://pastoffences.wordpress.com/2015/07/09/john-dickson-carr-the-hollow-man-aka-the-three-coffins/

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20 comments

  1. Off hand, I remember one novel published in 1922 and a short story by Agatha Christie where the secretary is the murderer.
    In his book Bloody Murder, Julian Symons writes: “John Dickson Carr, writing in 1935,
    thought that statistics would show the secretary to be still the most common murderer in crime
    fiction, although no doubt members of the murderee’s family would have come first if they
    had been admitted as a category” (chapter 7)

    Liked by 1 person

  2. This is a brilliant novel, a must reading for mystery fans. However, I have 2 niggles.

    SPOILER ALERT

    One is the time mix up of 40 minutes—clearly absurd.
    The other is the explanation of how he entered his house towards the end without leaving tracks. We are told of an entrance-way into the basement of the house that is sheltered from the snow by a projection. We were never previously told about this.Hence I regard this as a cheat.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I definitely share your first niggle and is the one I hint at in my review. I hadn’t thought of your second one but I can see how it is sneaky part of the solution. Would this novel be one of your favourite Carr novels?

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      • Yes, this is one of my favourites, though I rate He Who Whispers higher than this. My top 5 Gideon Fell books are He Who Whispers, The Hollow Man, The Problem Of The Green Capsule, Till Death Do Us Part, and The Mad Hatter Mystery.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. I am skipping the responses until I finish this one – IF I ever finish it. I cannot remember a Carr novel taking me so long, and that is spoiling everything about it for me. But I am sure I will marvel at the solution (if I still care), and I will definitely enjoy the locked room lecture! I still plan on reviewing this in March – for JJ AND for the Tuesday Night Bloggers’ month of Carr – but I cannot ever see this one becoming a favorite based on how much the prose for this one has felt like molasses.

    Maybe it’s just me . . .

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hmm its strange you finding the prose so hard to get along with, as I was worried I would too, seeing as our reading tastes/attitudes are quite similar. Depends how far through the story you are I guess, as the beginning was a bit tough going at some points. It may well be the circumstances in which you have being trying to read the book, which are making it a harder read and more of an effort. Hope you make it to the end.

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      • As I said when I reviewed this on my site, I found the prose really quite suffocating at the first attempt – it was my first Carr, which isn’t the case with yourself or Brad, but that’s the memory I still have of it now. I’m very pleased to hear you enoyed the solution to this, too; it’s an exemplary piece of mental gymnastics to fit it all together, and possibly a bit of a struggle for anyone unused to the contortions often required by this subgenre. But it’s absolutely a piece of genius, your understandable problem with the death of Fley notwithstanding.

        Excited to see you’re taking on a Lorac next; the Ramble House Loracs are high on my TBB and it was going to be either Black Beadle or The Case in the Clinic. Will be very interested to see what you make of her.

        Liked by 1 person

      • The prose wasn’t as trialling as I thought it would be. A case of forewarned, forearmed maybe? Also I think you are right that it not being my first Carr might also have made a difference. But yes definitely impressed with the solution on the whole and the locked room lecture is certainly a gem. Looking forward to trying out Lorac and hopefully I won’t be taking any bullets for you with this one.

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  4. This was my first full length John Dickson Carr Novel. It bugged me for the same reason it did the reviewer above. Noticed those two points and they seemed to make the solution a bit unfair. However the thing about the entrance and footprints is very typical of how Carr withholds information from the reader.One thing of is less likeable qualities as a writer.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. My theory is that the novel is more famous for the lecture on locked rooms than it is for the mystery itself. Some reviewer on the internet pointed out it really is not a locked room mystery once you know what really happened. People probably forget the details of the solution and remember lecture and therefore it became known as the classic locked room murder.

    Any thoughts?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hmm yes I probably am one of those people who forget most of the details of the solution itself, though I recall the rough outline of it. But then I probably recall about as much of the lecture. But I imagine the lecture is one of the elements which has kept it on best of list down the years.

      Like

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