Review: The Three Coffins
by John Dickson Carr
A keeper? Meh. Maybe.
In its favor: It’s very short (so it doesn’t take much shelf space). If you don’t let yourself think about plausibility, it’s got a nicely eerie atmosphere. Against it – well, let’s continue with the review.
It’s the early 1930s in London. Professor Grimaud and his friends are gathered at their usual pub when a gaunt stranger pushes into the group and starts talking about “three coffins” and tells Grimaud that “my brother” wants the Professor’s life. Does Grimaud call the police? No. He tells his friends that he’ll deal with this by…buying a painting!
After that, things get stranger. About 10 o’clock one snowy evening, a looming figure arrives at Grimaud’s house; soon after he enters the Professor’s office people hear what sounds like a gunshot. They break down the locked door and find the professor dying – but what became of the intruder? He seems to have disappeared. Stranger yet, he left no footmarks in the snow either coming or going!
The police, of course, want to talk to the man, known as Pierre Fley, who threatened Grimaud in the pub. And they succeed in finding out where he lives, not far from Grimaud. But when they get to his street, Fley is dead too. At 10:25 by the clock in a jeweler’s window, witnesses saw him walking alone down the middle of the street; they heard a gunshot and saw Fley collapse, all alone. But when a doctor examines him, there are powder burns on his coat – so whoever shot him must have been within arms’ length!
There’s more weirdness. Various witnesses tell us that the afternoon before he was shot, Fley quit his job (he was a stage magician) and told the theater manager “I am going back to my grave.” The – figure – who was last seen going into Grimaud’s office was wearing a full-face mask, so nobody can say what he looked like. Grimaud’s oldest friend tells a strange story of how, thirty years ago, he rescued the Professor from being buried alive near a Hungarian prison.
Alas, this is a John Dickson Carr story, so everything has to be untangled with a matter-of-fact real world explanation in the end. It all turns out to be a sad tale of blackmail and betrayal and revenge, with one impossible murder carefully planned and the other accidental. And yet, it’s the murder that was thought out in detail ahead of time that I don’t believe in.
I’ve read that Carr liked to set up models to demonstrate that his impossible situations could really happen. I can easily picture him chuckling over this Rube Goldberg setup with his cronies, utterly satisfied that It Could Be Done and never stopping to ask if it would be done. I just don’t believe that a man in danger of his life would take a chance that nothing would go wrong (and in fact, things do go horribly wrong). Not when he could do the same thing he had already done once to escape danger: disappear and restart his life someplace else. (If this is confusing, I apologize. I can’t go into more details without giving away the whole mystery. *If you want an explanation, go to the bottom of this post and follow instructions.)
There are other odds and ends that annoy me about the story, especially Carr’s dismissive attitude toward the young women in his books. Is this just a typical thirties attitude, or a typical male attitude? No, I think it’s Carr. Authors like Rex Stout and Erle Stanley Gardner, writing at the same time, don’t come up with anything half as hostile as this remark (it’s said by a young woman talking to her husband about Grimaud’s daughter): “If I had ever treated you the way she treats Boyd Mangan, and you hadn’t landed me a sock under the jaw, I’d never have spoken to either of us again.”
But there’s one sentence that I truly love. Doctor Fell – Carr’s great detective – announces at one point that he is now going to discuss locked-room mystery stories. The other characters protest, and one asks him why. Says Doctor Fell:
“Because we’re in a detective story, and we don’t fool the reader by pretending we’re not.”
Unfortunately, the rest of his lecture doesn’t live up to that sentence, but it’s still a wonderful line.
* Hmmm – maybe I’ll rot13 a complete explanation of what Carr says happened. (Copy the rest of the post, go to www.rot13.com, paste the gibberish into the box and decipher it by clicking the “Cypher” button.) Tevznhq naq Syrl ner oebguref. Lrnef ntb, jvgu gurve guveq oebgure, gurl gevrq gb rfpncr sebz wnvy ol snxvat gurve qrnguf – Tevznhq, gur fgebatrfg, jnf fhccbfrq gb oernx bhg bs uvf syvzfl pbssva naq qvt hc gur bgure gjb. Vafgrnq ur nonaqbarq gurz. Gur guveq oebgure fhssbpngrq orsber ur naq Syrl jrer sbhaq. Syrl vf oynpxznvyvat Tevznhq, naq Tevznhq qrpvqrf gb xvyy uvf oebgure. (Ntnva.)
Tevznhq tbrf gb Syrl’f ebbzf naq fubbgf uvz, gura ehaf sbe vg. Syrl vf sngnyyl jbhaqrq ohg abg dhvgr qrnq; ur’f gelvat gb trg gb n qbpgbe jura ur frrf Tevznhq ng n qvfgnapr naq fubbgf uvz. Tevznhq fgvpxf gb uvf bevtvany cyna – ur znl abg or irel onqyl uheg ng guvf cbvag – naq znxrf uvf jnl ubzr. Gur ubhfrxrrcre vf uvf nppbzcyvpr. (Gurl jrer ybiref bapr.)
Tevznhq unf yrsg n ovt zveebe cebccrq hc vafvqr gur qbbe bs uvf ebbz fb gung jura gur ubhfrxrrcre bcraf gur qbbe, Tevznhq’f frpergnel frrf Tevznhq’f (ersyrpgrq) snpr nccebnpuvat gur “vagehqre’f” onpx – gur frpergnel oryvrirf Tevznhq unf yrg gur fgenatre vagb gur ebbz, ohg bs pbhefr gurer arire jnf n frpbaq zna – bayl Tevznhq. Tevznhq urnirf gur rabezbhf zveebe hc vagb gur svercynpr puvzarl bhg bs fvtug, ohg guvf pnhfrf gur urzbeeuntr gung xvyyf uvz.
Naq jul qvq gur jvgarffrf fnl gung Syrl jnf xvyyrq nsgre Tevznhq? Orpnhfr gur wrjryre’f pybpx jnf jebat! 😉