Set in snowy London, with hints of people walking out of graves and of three coffins, links to Transylvania, two murders committed by an invisible person, and a solution I didn’t see coming at all, John Dickson Carr’s The Hollow Man made for an enjoyable read, especially in this season.
Our story, the sixth book to feature Carr’s detective Dr Gideon Fell, introduces us to Professor Charles Grimaud, a scholar on all things supernatural but with a view to disproving them. A man of independent means, Grimaud has formed a sort of club with a few others to discuss supernatural subjects in books and otherwise. In one such meeting, an illusionist, Pierre Fley arrives out of the blue threatening Grimaud with his brother who’s in his grave. Grimaud laughs it off but some days later when Fley was to call on Grimaud, he does appear at his home, or so it seems and is shown into Grimaud’s study. Soon after a shot is fired in the locked study. Grimaud is found shot but there is no sign of his murderer, not even footprints in the snow outside. And not 15 minutes later, a second death takes place, once again by an invisible hand, this time in the middle of a street with witnesses who swear there was no one near the victim or indeed, in the street.
Alongside in Dr Fell’s home are gathered Superintendent Hadley and Fell’s friends, the Rampoles; so when the threat to Grimaud is made known to them, all three men rush to his home only to find he has just been shot. While Dr Fell is able to instantly deduce some things about the professor which may relate to his murder, the case is far more complicated than first meets the eye.
This was my introduction to Carr and Dr Gideon Fell, and in the book he came across as rather Holmes-like relying on keen observation and deduction to get to the truth. Seeing the same things as others, he is able to get more out of it, and like Holmes is also into experiments, like in this book to decipher fragments of burnt letters. I enjoyed watching him investigate and also alongside, the Rampoles’ efforts at cracking the case. (I noticed from others’ reviews that they found Fell’s mannerisms somewhat annoying, but these didn’t bother me at all; in fact I hardly noticed).
The book with its winter setting and spooky elements (even when we know and are in fact told from the start that there is nothing magical about the answer but it’s all an illusion) sets up the perfect atmosphere for this mystery since both crimes are committed by a seemingly invisible person.
But how did they make themselves invisible? Not in any way we can think up for the solution of this one was not just ingenious but one it takes some time to get one’s head around in terms of all the little details—in fact there were some I’m still not wholly clear about; there are men in masks and a chameleon overcoat, more than one person with a secret and people aplenty around Grimaud but does any of them have a motive to kill him? There is some ‘magic’ involved certainly but in a different way than we think.
Another distinctive aspect of the book is that in one chapter, breaking the fourth wall so to speak, and to an extent perhaps the usual structure of the detective story,
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.
Dr Fell goes into a detailed discussion on locked room murders examining possible scenarios and identifying different categories but also having warned uninterested readers to simply skip the chapter. I didn’t actually mind this chapter at all; instead I found myself thinking back to any locked room mysteries I could remember and working out which of his categories they would have fitted. Of course, he does mention plenty of detective fiction with some spoilers (as to who- and how- dunit) so you might want to bear that in mind; for me, I’m fairly sure I’ll have forgotten by the time I get to the stories in question 😊
This was the first pick in my Goodreads group’s challenge reading books by members of the detection club; in case any one’s interested in joining in, the list of books and group page is here