Saturday, January 3, 2009

Book Review: John Dickson Carr, The Three Coffins [a.k.a. The Hollow Man] (1935)

If you like traditional whodunits, you may well love this book. In my case, The Three Coffins served to remind me why I quit reading traditional whodunits.

The best part of the book is its famous twenty-seventh chapter, "The Locked-Room Lecture." This disquisition could be read with enjoyment apart from the rest of the novel. (Indeed, this is what I wish I had done myself.) Here, John Dickson Carr's detective-hero, Dr. Gideon Fell, gives an entertaining history and theory of locked-room mysteries. Dr. Fell, aware that he is participating in one of the more ridiculous examples in the history of an often ridiculous genre, argues, "A great part of our liking for detective fiction," he says, "is
based on a liking for improbablity." But Dr. Fell speaks only for fans of certain types of mysteries (not including, obviously, me). In some cases, I do not mind improbable plots, but these stories must compensate with memorable characters. (See, for example, Sherlock Holmes.) In The Three Coffins, however, the characters are thin, and all they ever do is talk, trading their tedious theories back and forth. After the first chapter, all the action takes place off stage, and we are treated to page after page after page of talk, talk, talk. Who cares? Not me. Grade: D+

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