The Three Coffins (John Dickson Carr)

  • By John Dickson Carr
  • First published: US: Harper, 1935; UK: Hamish Hamilton, 1935, as The Hollow Man

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Carr’s most famous book, and modelled closely on the work of G.K. Chesterton.  Like “The Invisible Man” and “The Dagger with Wings”, it conveys an atmosphere of wonder and magic in the snowy streets—with more than a touch of the sinister.  It is the first case in which Dr. Fell tackles an impossible crime, and “those of Dr. Fell’s friends who like impossible situations will not find in his case-book any puzzle more baffling or terrifying” than that of the hollow man who was seen to enter Professor Grimaud’s study, shoot him, and vanish from a locked and watched room, and who shot Pierre Fley dead in the middle of a snowy street without leaving footprints. These crimes have their roots in a sinister episode of treachery in Transylvania, a horrible crime worthy of G.K.C., and, as the wonderfully oracular and obscurantist Dr. Fell realises, have their solution in a painting, a chameleon overcoat, Grimaud’s dying words and (maestro!) the sound of church bells heard the day after the crime. The management of the complex plot is superb, as layer after layer is gradually removed, to the reader’s fascination and mystification. When the solution comes, it is utterly brilliant: a genuine surprise, a complete reversal of the situation as understood by the reader, with every step of the way, once explained by Dr. Fell, utterly logical: this is the Divine Thunderbolt of Revelation in all its glory, and this is Carr’s masterpiece.


Blurb (US)

The murder of Professor Grimaud was one of the most sensational and baffling that Dr. Fell ever met with.  Two people saw the masked figure enter Professor Grimaud’s study and heard the shot.  By the time the police had broken in the door there was no sign of the masked intruder.  The snow on the ground outside was untrammeled; there were no secret doors.  The story involves what appears to be ghosts; men rising from their graves; overcoats with a chameleon-like quality of changing color over night; and the deft tricks of an illusionist.  The book is full of odd and striking characters: secretary Mills, who reduces everything to mathematical formulae; Burnaby, who painted odd landscapes and made a hobby of crime; Rosette, Grimaud’s exotic and erratic daughter, are a few.  And then of course there is Dr. Fell, wheezing and laughing in the wrong places, irritating and amusing at the same time, who puts together the irrelevancies of the case by using his eyes and his brains, and whose solution brings astonishing consequences.

Blurb (UK)

“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 he killed his victim and literally disappeared.  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.”

This is the beginning of the new Dr. Fell mystery – which is not only a thriller of the same eerie quality in which this author excels, but an intellectual puzzle strictly for the connoisseur.  It is the problem of the “hollow man” who visited Professor Grimaud, of the breaking grave in the Hungarian mountains, and of the overcoat which changed colour overnight.  Every connoisseur of detective fiction will be interested in the chapter in which Dr. Fell discusses all the ways by which the “hermetically sealed chamber” has been worked.  It is an Arabian Nights tale of murder and magic, with a group of keen-witted characters to do battle with Dr. Fell.  But it is chiefly a story for those sophisticates who know all the tricks of the trade – and demand to be shown a new one.

Contemporary reviews

Observer (Torquemada, 6th October 1935): DETECTION AND HORROR.


Mr. Dickson Carr can always be relied upon for something out of and above the ordinary in the way of detection.  Like Mr. Anthony Wynne, he aims to make the “impossible” crime not only possible but simple.  In The Hollow Man he allows Dr. Fell (loved, unlike his namesake, and for many reasons) to express, while solving one of the best of them, a personal preference for the “sealed room” murder.  A clever man plans a crime under the cloak of a scientific illusion; everything goes wrong; but, instead of the illusion failing, it takes on, through the very accidents which might have destroyed it, the appearance of a miracle.  The chapter containing Dr. Fell’s “Locked-Room Lecture” is a quite brilliant recapitulation of “hermetic” murders in fiction.

New Statesman & Nation (Ralph Partridge, 12th October 1935): Mr. Dickson Carr is an accomplished hand with incredibilities and in The Hollow Man he sets out to beat his own record in that department.  We meet two familiar settings packed into one plot; one man is killed in a locked room and another in untrodden snow.  To make things worse the last death is witnessed by a policeman and a couple of trustworthy passers-by.  This is piling Pelion upon Ossa with a vengeance.  Any reader who clings to his sanity will firmly expect to see the edifice either collapse under cross-examination or dissolve in illusion beneath the conjurer’s wand.  I warn everyone there is a Transylvanian ancestry behind these figures killed in Bloomsbury, and a strong smell of vampires on some of the pages.  But I now come to the acme of fantasia: Mr. Dickson Carr has actually worked out a system by which these events are made possible—or at least Dr. Fell does so to the satisfaction of Scotland Yard, but I venture to think no one else will swallow the stuff.  My effort to do so nearly made me sick, and I longed to be rescued by a nice homey vampire.

Times Literary Supplement (24th October 1935): Professor Grimaud has achieved a reputation among a certain clique who meet at a tavern in Museum Street four or five nights a week to discuss subjects ranging from vampirism to the Black Mass.  The opening scene is lively enough: a meeting at the tavern on a February night, when suddenly the premonition of unknown terror entered in the shape of a stranger in a shabby black overcoat with the collar turned up and the brim of his hat turned down to hide his face.  That is the beginning of one of the most fantastic stories with an intellectual puzzle that requires all the skill of Dr. Fell to solve.  We are taken behind the scenes of Professor Grimaud’s private life to find scandal, petty cruelties, unhappiness and murder.  Ironically enough, too, a victim marked down for death by Grimaud is the instrument used by Fate to wreck his own life.  Death comes by an agency that has all the appearance of the supernatural, and this naturally brings Superintendent Hadley of the C.I.D. intothe conflict with the unusual methods employed by Dr. Fell, and provides admirable opportunity for the intellectual mind of Dr. Fell to discuss all the ways by which the “hermetically sealed chamber” trick has been worked.  The characters are necessarily boldly drawn, the action swift and the detection adequately subtle.

Sat R of Lit (21st September 1935, 40w): Class A.

NY Times (Kay Irvin, 6th October 1935, 470w): The Three Coffins is an uncommonly successful thriller, which will keep the reader’s hair standing happily on end until the last page is reached.  Distinctly one of the good ones, this tale.

Boston Transcript (16th October 1935, 240w): Mr. Carr manages his plot with a wealth of ingenious material and produces a deftly arranged story.

Daily Herald: This is a brilliant book…written for people who demand as high a standard of workmanship in detective stories as in any other sort of fiction.