The Hollow Man (Dr Gideon Fell 6) by John Dickson Carr

Impossible…

🙂 🙂 😐

Professor Charles Grimaud is found shot to death in his room one night. The murderer couldn’t have left by the door since it was in the view of Grimaud’s secretary all through the relevant time. But the murderer also couldn’t have escaped through the window, since there had been a deep snowfall that evening, and the snow was undisturbed. It’s up to Gideon Fell to work out how the murder was done in the hope that that will also reveal whodunit. But just to complicate matters, another “impossible crime” is committed the same evening – a man is shot in an empty street in front of reliable witnesses, but the shooter is nowhere to be seen and again there is an absence of footprints in the snow.

I’ve long known that impossible crimes only interest me when they are packaged into a traditional whodunit with good characterisation, a range of suspects and plenty of motives. This would appear not to be how Carr works in the Gideon Fell stories – the emphasis is almost entirely on the way the crimes are committed, and frankly, in this one at least, the background story of why the murders were committed is a bit of a mish-mash of horror tropes and a convoluted and incredible motive backed up by a bunch of cartoonishly drawn mysterious characters. I loved his early Bencolin books, but this is my second Fell and they’re proving not to be my kind of thing, unfortunately.

Book 86 of 90

John Dickson Carr

Apparently what makes this one a classic for impossible crime aficionados is that, in the middle of the book, Carr pulls his characters right out of the story, has them admit that they are in fact characters in a book rather than real people, and then has Fell give a lecture on the history of the impossible crime mystery, including many examples, complete with spoilers, of other books in the genre. While I fully accept that this is interesting as an essay, it felt entirely out of place to me within the novel, and the spoilers annoyed me since I don’t feel that any author has the right to give spoilers in his book for the books of other authors. Therefore the very thing that many people praise this book for was the part that I liked least.

I wish I had enjoyed this more and because I enjoyed some of Carr’s earlier books so much I’m not yet ready to give up on him, so will continue to read at least a couple more of the Fell novels to see if by any chance I can get back in synch with him. I certainly recommend this one to anyone who enjoys the impossible crime style of mystery, but less so to people who prefer the traditional whodunit.

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46 thoughts on “The Hollow Man (Dr Gideon Fell 6) by John Dickson Carr

    • Does he do it too? I think it’s a real cheek! Happily I’ve already read most of the books Carr mentions but they were still newish books at the time and the authors must have been furious at having their big surprises revealed.

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    • At least I usually understand Carr’s solutions even if I don’t believe them. Sometimes the “impossible crime” solution involves all kinds of technical stuff that goes right over my head – like how electricity works, or different types of catches on windows! 💤

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  1. The spoilers would annoy me too! I was recently reading one of the later Christies – maybe Hallowe’en Party? – and she gave a lot of spoilers for her *own* books, which I found strange enough (fortunately all ones I’d read). Giving spoilers for other authors’ work is a definite no!

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  2. I’ve read one of the Bencolin books – It Walks by Night – but I haven’t tried any of the Fell novels yet. It always annoys me when I come across spoilers and I think it’s definitely wrong to spoil other authors’ books! I’ll probably leave this one for now and maybe try another one in the series.

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    • I loved the horror aspects of the Bencolin books and it seemed to me the stories in them made more sense than the couple of Fell books I’ve read so far. Those spoilers really annoyed me though – it seems so rude! And having the characters admit they’re characters in a book was a quirk too far…

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  3. I’m sorry to hear you’re not liking Fell more than you are, FictionFan. I have to admit I like him. That said, though, I know what you mean about Carr’s focus on the ‘how’ of the mystery; he does do that at times, and it’s not for everyone. Well, hey, you gave it a try, and you’ve not completely given up on Fell. There may be hope yet!

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    • Hopefully I’ll find a Fell that works for me and become a fan, but “impossible crimes” rarely work for me unless there’s a traditional plot running alongside. If it’s only about the how then I lose interest…

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  4. I wonder why Carr chose to go down the Metafiction road half way through the novel? It sounds as though he suddenly wished to write a piece of Literary Criticism, which is fair enough of course, but an odd choice to place it within a crime novel. I can’t say he is a writer who has especially appealed to me anyway, and this review hasn’t changed my mind.

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    • I don’t know. I know there wasn’t such an emphasis on realism back in those days but throwing his characters out of the story and having them admit they were in a book made the whole thing seem too much like a game for my taste. I have enjoyed his early books but these Fell ones simply aren’t working for me so far.

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    • To be fair, I think it’s really that he’s changed direction into a subgenre I don’t like. He seems to be regarded as one of the best of the impossible crime writers, but it’s just not my kind of thing unfortunately.

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  5. I enjoyed this one more than you did; the horror stuff–the graves and Transylvania were fun, and quite liked the solution as well; I can understand the spoilers annoying you though. They did a lot of the group I read it with as well but with my (lately) sieve like memory I didn’t find it that much of a bother.

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    • Ha, yes, my memory’s unlikely to retain the info too, but I know some readers remember pretty much everything they read! I do like the way he gets horror into his stories, but this one didn’t feel as well done to me as the horror aspects of the Bencolin books.

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  6. I’ve never read anything like this and it would really annoy me to get spoilers. I have two of Carr’s mysteries on my wishlist, but both are from the other series.

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    • As you can tell, it annoyed me! I wonder what the authors of the other books thought about it. I do think he’s a good writer and I loved the Bencolin books, so I hope you enjoy those – but I’m afraid these “impossible crimes” never really interest me.

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    • I always find the solutions in these impossible crime novels ridiculous. I can never imagine a murderer sitting down and working out all the intricacies and then getting a lucky snowfall at just the right moment! Pretty sure bashing someone over the head with a baseball bat would be much easier and just as effective… 😉

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    • I find more and more that the books that are considered classics in crime and SF aren’t necessarily the ones I enjoy most! They always seem to get that status by being quirky. But hopefully he’ll win me back with the next one I try… 🤞

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    • I know – given that the only important thing in an impossible crime novel is how it was done, giving that secret away is unforgivable surely! Ha, my memory for books gets shorter every year – but at least that allows plenty of scope for re-reading… 😉

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  7. Fell has never appealed to me as much as Bencolin. Blogosphere in general is partial towards the former and harsh towards the latter, so I am glad to find that somebody shares my opinion.😄 This was the first Carr I read and found it disappointing. Thankfully I didn’t give up on him.

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    • I’m also glad to find another weird person who prefers Bencolin – I no longer feel so alone! 😉 I’m glad I read Bencolin first – this one wouldn’t have encouraged me to keep reading him.

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