The Nine Wrong Answers (1952) by John Dickson Carr

Today is John Dickson Carr’s 110th birthday and JJ at The Invisible Event, who has a passing interest (and by that we read fanatical devotion) in Carr, decided to commemorate the occasion by exhorting fellow bloggers to contribute posts about the man and his work, which he is going to gather up into a summing-up post later today, as well as contributing his own pearls of wisdom. Not being quite so keen on Carr as JJ is (but then who is?), it has been a while since I last read any of his work, though if I had to pick my favourite three reads off the top of my head I would go for The Case of the Constant Suicides (1941), The Emperor’s Snuffbox (1942) and The Judas Window (1938).

The Nine Wrong Answers (1952) begins in New York when Bill Dawson, who is definitely worse for wear and on his uppers, is given the chance of a life time by Larry Hurst. Larry has signed certain documentation which mean that if he wants to be his rich uncle’s heir he has to move back to England straight away and visit his uncle once a week for the next 6 months. The deal is further sweetened by $10,000 in cash. So what’s the catch? Well it seems that Larry’s uncle, Gaylord Hurst, was a figure of terror in his youth, continually frightening him and messing with him psychologically, to the extent that Larry ran away to sea at 16 and hasn’t been back to England in 18 years. Suffice to say the money sounds great but the thought of having to face his uncle is more than he can bear. But his fiancée, Joy Tennent, who you could say is a “practical” person, ultimately pressures him into agreeing. Yet when Larry happens to see Bill a plan formulates in his mind (which Joy is less than pleased about) and he approaches Bill with the following proposal: Bill is to impersonate Larry for the 6 months in exchange for the $10,000. Again so what’s the catch? Larry thinks there is a definite chance his uncle wants to kill him. Envisaging the things he could do with the money, Bill agrees.

The Nine Wrong Answers

Although our suspicions are aroused by a lot of this, the events in the main seem quite straight forward. Yet this is Carr so the plot from this point onwards reshapes the known facts in a consistent fashion, like a kaleidoscope, with many a good twist and surprise, such as Larry being poisoned shortly after organising the subterfuge with Bill, who decides to continue with the plan in order to avenge Larry. There is also Bill’s fortuitous meeting with his old flame, Marjorie Blair and there is the duplicitous Joy Tennent and her mysterious role in events to unravel. When the characters arrives in England the twists and surprises are only just beginning, which I’ll leave unmentioned. Events take a cat and mouse nature, though being Carr, the challenge is to figure out who’s the cat and who’s the mouse. It remains to be seen whether Bill will win and gain the upper hand or whether he will fall prey to the very trap he was trying to avoid…

Overall Thoughts

I didn’t have as much time for reading last week, but the couple of books I read were a bit thin in terms of their puzzle aspect. This is certainly not a criticism which can be levelled at this book and a reader needs to keep their wits about them when reading it. From the beginning there is an immediate sense of uneasiness and lack of trustfulness in what the characters are saying. Added to this Carr, a bit like Gaylord in the book, plays with the readers’ minds with his nine footnotes, which outline a surmise the reader might have just thought based on the narrative, to then indicate that it is wrong. Now this might just seem like Carr being unusually fair and helpful, but be warned! They are far sneakier than you realise. In the main I have never really warmed to either Dr Fell or Sir Henry Merrivale, Carr’s two main serial sleuths, so it is to this book’s advantage that neither appear in it. Consequently because none of these two large personalities are in the book, Carr’s characterisation skills can come to the fore and have a freer hand, creating a complex and engaging set of characters. This complexity comes through in the psychological battles Bill faces with different characters and it is this character complexity, that at times causes some ambiguity and uncertainty on the part of the reader, which also further obfuscates the story’s central mystery.

Image result for the nine wrong answers

Carr is certainly a master of suspense and an expert in throwing a plethora of twists and changes at the reader, without losing control of his plot. I think one thing which I was a little disappointed in when reading this book is that two locations, the BBC studios and the Sherlock Holmes rooms in Baker Street, which the blurb mentions in the book aren’t really used to a great extent. Consequently despite the interest and intrigue they generate, especially the last location, I don’t think they really added much to the plot and felt a bit unnecessary and underused. The solution is a satisfying and clever one and I was pleased that I got one bit right. However, I felt that the delivery of the solution is a bit too fast, considering the complexity of it and it might have been better if it had been given at a slower pace to the reader. This issue combined with the issue over the two locations I mentioned above, meant the ending for me was a bit underwhelming and didn’t match the rest of the book’s suspense and excitement. Nevertheless this was an enjoyable and refreshing read, which I definitely needed.

Rating: 4.25/5


  1. Great review Kate 🙂 Couple of things that may be worth noting: one, the standard paperback reprints at least until the 1990s are all much shorter than the original hardback (by about 15% I reckon), which may account for a feeling that the ending is a bit rushed, though most of the cuts were to the opening section (it is admittedly one of Carr’s longer novels and he agreed to it being pruned). Secondly, it is a variation on Carr’s wonderful radio play, ‘Will You Make a Bet with Death?’ which you can access here (11th on the list):

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    • Thanks Sergio for this information. I didn’t realise that the story was abridged. My edition is the critics choice one from 1986 so I’m guessing it was also shortened. Makes a lot of sense looking back at it.


      • Yeah, pretty sure will have been shortened – I think all paperbacks were at least until the most recent US edition from mid 1990s. I ended up buying a copy of the hardback, but then I love his work so much I really felt I had to. Not too expensive glad to say …

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  2. I love saving the best for the last, so I shall delay reading ‘Nine Wrong Answers’ – thanks for the review. 🙂 Anyway, it seems to me that the Merrivale titles are weaker than the Fell titles; the only Merrivale outing that I think comes close to, but still falls short of, the best of the Fell novels would be ‘Nine – and Death Makes Ten’.

    As for your top three, have you tried ‘Till Death Do Us Part’? I think it’s one of Carr’s best stories – with a slightly overly-technical explanation to the locked-room conundrum – and I’m of the opinion that it’s better than ‘Judas Window’ and ‘Emperor’s Snuff Box’.

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      • I will quote JJ on ‘Till Death Do Us Part’: although this title, like ‘Case of the Constant Suicides’ deserves a full five-star rating, the stars for ‘Till Death Do Us Part’ are ‘coloured in more fully’. 😛 I’m less certain if it is clearly the superior book, but it is at least just as good.

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  3. This was the first Carr book I ever read and I was hooked. Obviously, not having had any exposure to the author’s major detectives at that point, I didn’t miss their absence. The suspense and atmosphere really got my attention in this one and I’ve never looked back since.

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  4. This is one of my favorite Carrs, Kate, mostly because it so completely and entertainingly keeps the reader headed in the wrong direction and then pulls the rug out from under my feet – and thanks for the very well written review which manages to give nothing away! Carr is among my favorites – I like some of his books much better than others, but I agree with you about the exceptional qualities of Constant Suicides and Judas Window in particular. But this one, to me, is dazzling in its cleverness.

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    • Thanks, I’m glad I haven’t given any secrets away as it is a plot which is hard to summarise. And yes I had the rug pulled out from under my feet quite a few times with this book and its sneaky foot notes!


  5. This was a weird book for me. The footnotes are wonderful: I love when an author like Carr says, “Rest assured, this statement is true!” That’s when you know you’re in trouble. The scenes with Uncle Gaylord and his manservant struck me as a cross between “The Most Dangerous Game” and Goldfinger, but I never once bought either of them as believable characters. The madness seemed forced for the purposes of plot. (Maybe I had just read Halter’s The Invisible Circle and was in a bad mood.) This book also suffers because I figured it out pretty quickly – and one of the hallmarks of Carr is his ability to fool me. I agree with you about the rushed feeling over the ending. I have heard that the longer version is far less readable, though.

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    • Very impressed with your sleuthing skills or maybe mine really are that bad… I guessed one aspect of the mystery early on but was fooled in regards to the main aspect of the mystery shall we say. I blame those pesky footnotes…


  6. Thanks for getting involved, Kate, and I’m delighted you had a good time with this one. I’ve not managed to rrack it down yet myself, but I remember the fact that this get a pruning…as Sergio says, that may be a factor here in the rushed-ness of the conclusion. I don’t know how one tells if their version id the abridger version or not…can anyone offer suggestions of what to look for?

    With regards footnotes, my two favourites from Carr come from early in his career: in It Walks by Night, the very first footnote of Carr’s career is “The floorplan is importat, please study it carefully” which I find so very, very charming. Then in The Bowstring Murders, once the evidecne of the impossibility is presented, he throws in a note along the lines of “Yup, this is definitely true, trust me on this” which, again, I just love…as if he’d mislead us that obviously, eh?

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  7. I personally like the pace of the reveal of the solution to this one. It plays out kind of like a duel, with each answer revealed like thrusts of a weapon. This was an interesting approach for Carr, compared to the more typical ending where Fell or Merrivale replays the events to the narrator after the main plot has concluded.
    The best part of the end is that I just didn’t even see anything of the sort coming. I mean, yeah, you know that you’re going to get answers to questions like how the original murder was accomplished, but I was in no way prepared for this level of deception to be revealed! Well, apparently one commenter above was….wow.

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