If the currents of life strand you on a desert island, then having a “locked room” mystery to read while you’re there—a story about a man or woman who dies violently in a place that appears to offer no means of escape—might not be high on your priority list. Then again, perhaps it would be, since a well-turned story of this type demonstrates the heights that human ingenuity can reach not only in achieving the ostensibly impossible, but also in elucidating how the trick was done. With this book, Carr serves up the quintessential locked-room extravaganza, the one tale of its kind that any detection-loving Crusoe must include in his or her “desert island” collection.
In Chapter 17 of The Three Coffins, star detective Dr. Gideon Fell delivers “The Locked-Room Lecture,” an essay of sorts that more than one anthologist has served up elsewhere as a stand-alone treat. But that much-heralded set piece accounts for only part of this work’s exemplary status. By the time Fell begins his discourse, which concerns the setting and solving of locked-room problems in general, two very specific “impossible” crimes have taken place, both in the Bloomsbury section of London. In one, a visitor enters the study of Dr. Charles Grimaud in the full view of two observers, shuts the study door, and then vanishes, leaving behind the dying body of Grimaud and nary a trace of himself. Freshly fallen snow on the ground outside the study windows and on the roof above indicates that no one could have fled the scene by either route. In the other crime, which occurs on the same night, three unimpeachable witnesses peer into a dead-end street and watch as Pierre Fley, Grimaud’s brother, falls dead from a gunshot wound. Powder marks prove that Fley’s killer fired the murder weapon at close range, yet Fley’s corpse lies in the middle of an expanse of snow, with no footprints other than his own leading up to it. Along with ample use of the impossible-crime motif, meanwhile, there is a double use of the classic “dying message” clue: Both Grimaud and Fley, before they breathe their last, issue cryptic final words that provide additional mystification.
The clues that enable Fell to solve each puzzle are present for any reader to see, although no ordinary reader will be able to follow them in quite the way that Fell does. Likewise, although Fell’s solution in each instance is a marvel of cleverness, it is hardly a model of plausibility. Which is just fine. As Fell notes in his lecture, those who enjoy puzzle-driven mysteries hardly expect them to depict real-world crime-solving. “The word ‘improbable’ is the very last which should ever be used to curse detective fiction in any case,” he says. “A great part of our liking for detective fiction is based on a liking for improbability.” Every locked-room mystery contains a vibrant strain of fantasy; it pushes against the bounds of “reality,” as commonly understood, and tests the rules of literary realism. Its art derives from an embrace of artifice—as when Fell, amid his musings on the locked-room genre, breezily refers to himself as a fictional character.
What makes the artifice of this novel particularly compelling is Carr’s use of myth and mood. Behind the two murdered brothers lies a back story that originates in Transylvania and that features, among other outré elements, a plague scare, a case of live burial, and the specter of fraternal betrayal. It all makes for a mythic substructure that recalls the one deployed in many Sherlock Holmes tales: A man’s youthful misdeeds, committed long ago in some exotic locale, come back to haunt him, right there in prosaic modern England. The mood that hangs over this affair has a Sherlockian flavor as well. At once cozy and thrilling, it suggests a world where the grandest activity of men is to gather in a snug tavern and to speak by firelight of faraway crimes and nearby miracles, while snow blankets the metropolis outside.