John Dickson Carr's The Three Coffins

John Dickson Carr, the prolific author of numerous mystery novels, short stories, articles, and introductions to works, was a member of England’s prestigious Detective Club and president of the Mystery Writers of America. Carr also wrote Arthur Conan Doyle’s official biography, by all accounts an insightful and highly readable narrative of Doyle’s life. During World War II, he wrote scripts for the BBC’s “Suspense” and “Appointment with Fear” series – radio plays that Toshi considers “some of the most vivid and thrilling works in his entire oeuvre” (1990, 80). Carr wrote three detective series (Dr. Gideon Fell, Sir Henry Merrivale, and Henri Bencolin) as well as numerous historical mysteries.

Dr. Gideon Fell, the amateur detective in The Three Coffins (British title: The Hollow Man), is, as Dirda observes, “a wheezing, larger-than-life Dickensian figure” (1998, 116). Based on the detective writer, G. K. Chesterton, Fell is an eccentric and colourful figure, a man of gusto and animation. His partner and foil, Superintendent Hadley, is a coolly rational detective who methodically investigates details of the murders.

The Three Coffins was written at the height of Carr’s creativity and is considered by many his best work. It was chosen as one of the 100 Favorite Mysteries of the 20th Century by the Independent Mystery Booksellers Association. The story begins with a description of murders that seem to have been supernaturally executed:
Two murders were committed, in such a fashion that the murderer must not only have been invisible, but lighter than air. According to the evidence, this person killed his first victim and literally disappeared. Again according to the evidence, 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. (3)
The first victim, Professor Grimaud, is shot in his locked study. Two witnesses hear the shot but observe no one leaving the study. The steep drop from the room’s only window and the absence of footprints in the snow below eliminate the window as a means of escape.

The Three Coffins is an excellent example of the locked-room mystery, a sub-genre in which a murderer appears to have no means of escape from a crime room. This type of mystery was introduced by Poe and perfected by Carr, its undisputed master. In fact one of the most famous essays on locked-room mysteries appears in this novel’s 17th chapter: “The Locked-Room Lecture.” The appeal of this type of mystery is the impossible nature of the crime. “The essence of the locked room formula,” claims Dove, “is paradox: the thing could not happen, but it has happened” (1986, 34).

The plotting of the mystery is ingenious, best appreciated after a second reading of the text. The ending of The Three Coffins is cleverly worked out and truly surprising. The novel is divided into three sections: First Coffin, Second Coffin, and Third Coffin, corresponding with the three brothers at the center of the mystery. It is fitting that in a novel filled with deceptions, tricks, and sleight-of-hand, one of the main characters is an illusionist.

What makes Carr’s locked-room mystery so successful is the creation of an eerie, ghostly atmosphere. The Times observed that Carr is “superb at conveying sinister and scary atmosphere, verging on the supernatural” (Berlins 2008). Indeed hints of the spectral and the uncanny dominate the story. Professor Grimaud lives in an exotic Gothic-like house and tells his friends stories of witchcraft and old-world superstitions. His friend Pettis is a collector of ghost stories, and the murderer appears to be a ghostly figure who haunts his victims. The story of the three coffins, with its Transylvanian setting and characters rising from their graves, adds to the Gothic atmosphere of the novel. As Toshi points out, “The supernatural (or quasi-supernatural) functions, in Carr’s novels, as a sort of analogue to the locked room; it is really a variation of the ‘impossible’ crime – i. e., the crime that is shown ultimately not to be impossible” (1990, 124).

In her 1935 New York Times’s review of the novel, Irvin wrote that when Carr created “an ingenious plot, a thoroughly ‘creepy’ atmosphere and a really likeable investigator,” he produced “an uncommonly successful thriller, which will keep the reader’s hair standing happily on end until the last page is reached.”

Berlins, Marcel. “The 50 Greatest Crime Writers.” The Times. April 19, 2008.
Carr, John Dickson Carr. The Three Coffins. 1935. In A John Dickson Carr Trio, 1-173. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1957.

Dove, George N. “The Locked Room Mystique.” Clues 7, no. 2 (1986): 33-38

Dirda, Michael. “John Dickson Carr (1906-1977).” In Mystery and Suspense Writers: The Literature of Crime, Detection, and Espionage, edited by Robin W. Winks, vol. 1: 113-129. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1998.

Irvin, Kay. “The Three Coffins.” New York Times. October 6, 1935.

Toshi, S. T. John Dickson Carr: A Critical Study. Bowling Green, OH: Bowling Green State University Popular Press, 1990.