Sunday, December 11, 2011

A Challenge to the Reader

John Dickson Carr was one of the finest grandmasters in what he called “the grandest game in the world”. For years, he stumped mystery readers with his locked room murders and various impossible problems. In the 1950s, he turned to the historical mystery after deciding he neither understood nor liked the direction the modern world was taking. You could say this began in 1950 with The Bride of Newgate. The 1952 novel The Nine Wrong Answers, although set in modern day, reflects Carr’s dislike of the times. However, the Master never loses focus on his story, and these feelings don’t come across as spiteful (as they do at times in the messy The Cavalier’s Cup). That's a good thing, because plot-wise, the book is one of Carr’s finest later efforts.

Our hero is Bill Dawson, who comes to the lawyers’ firm of Amberley, Sloane & Amberley. They have placed an ad in the newspapers asking for him to step forward— his grandmother has died and left him a small legacy of about 100 pounds. Bill is grateful that the old lady remembered him in the first place, but at the lawyer’s office, he meets Larry Hurst and Joy Tennent. Larry seems keenly interested in him, and when Bill leaves, Larry rushes out after him with $10,000, telling Bill he can have it all for six months’ work.

For Bill, who is broke, $10,000 means a return to England and his family, and a chance to go back to the university and finish his studies. The job, Larry explains, is for Bill to go to England in Larry’s place and spend six months there. He will visit Larry’s uncle once a week and keep up the deception. Larry was given the $10,000 under condition that he does this, but the truth is, his uncle terrorized him as a child and he’s too scared to go. Eventually, Bill and Larry, with Joy in tow, go to a bar. Joy is upset and pretends she isn’t with the two men. It seems like a harmless thing to have done, until Larry drops to the floor, poisoned with cyanide. Bill notices that Joy is nowhere to be seen—he rushes out with the money before anyone can ask any questions, and learns with relief later that Larry’s identity was not discovered.

More determined to carry off the impersonation than ever before, Bill sets off to dupe Uncle Gaylord Hurst. Along the way, there’s plenty of romance and adventure, as Carr expands the plot of his radio play Will You Make a Bet with Death? into novel form. As for the nine wrong answers, these are nine footnotes that Carr includes in the text, where he gives the reader nothing but the truth, supposedly a kind gesture to guide the reader to the correct solution. But if Carr is your guide, you’d best watch your step! Despite the footnotes and impeccably fair clues, Carr manages to pull one over the reader. The solution is one of his best triumphs, even though there’s no locked room mystery in sight.

Carr, however, did not feel that way about the book. He wrote it while ill, at around the same time he wrote two sub-par Henry Merrivale novels: Behind the Crimson Blind and The Cavalier’s Cup. As Doug Greene reports in his marvellous biography of Carr, he wrote that the novels were “indifferent”— a far too harsh judgement of The Nine Wrong Answers, in my opinion. The plot is simply wonderful, and the footnotes are the perfection of an experiment he had tried out a few times before, most notably in The Reader is Warned, one of my personal favourite Sir Henry Merrivale adventures.

That being said, if you write ultimatums demanding Realism in your mysteries, you’re in the wrong place. Carr is extremely melodramatic in this book, and his romance is more unconvincing than usual. The female romantic lead, Bill’s ex-fiancée What’s-her-name, is a very forgettable character who really doesn’t do much except look lovely and tell Bill how much she loves him. (Marjorie Blair is her real name if you’re really interested.) The story of their separation and the way they reunite is just silly. For my money, Carr’s best romantic subplots can be found in The Devil in Velvet, Fear is the Same, The Bride of Newgate, He Who Whispers, and Till Death Do Us Part. This romance doesn’t hold a candle to either of them. I also found it laughable how Larry Hurst, as he is due to expire due to cyanide poisoning, takes careful time to explain that he must have swallowed at least two-and-a-half grains of the stuff. How could he possibly know? (The problem of Larry's poisoning appears impossible at first, but the solution is so ridiculous I won't count it as an impossible crime.)

But the novel’s biggest flaw is its beginning. Frankly put, it is too long. I can now see why Carr gave permission for an abridgment— in fact, it seems that every paperback edition of the book is abridged, even if some don’t admit the fact. The first several chapters walk in circles without getting very far— we get scenes of Bill hallucinating or imagining conversations he will eventually have; we get far too long passages where he manages to get through customs or fool the scrutiny of Mr. Amberley. They’re not bad scenes, they’re not even poorly written… but they are too long for their own sake.

It’s only when Chapter 10 rolls along and Bill crosses the threshold of Gaylord Hurst’s residence that the fun well and truly begins. It starts as a battle of wits between Bill and his pseudo-uncle, and it soon escalates into full-out warfare. It is bizarre beyond belief, and by the end of the evening, Bill has to deal with everything from a script dispute at the BBC to a homicidal photographer. Once this part of the book is underway, Carr builds up steam and doesn’t stop. I hope the cuts made were mainly from the opening section, because it’s got the most expendable material. The finale, which takes place at the London Sherlock Holmes Exhibit at 221B Baker Street, is an absolutely priceless moment that ends these 321 pages with a bang.

Overall, The Nine Wrong Answers is an excellent book once it gets going, but it does take a while. I think the first 10 chapters were too long for their own good, but when the book recovers, it’s a blast right to the end. I can see why it’s been abridged, but the purist inside me wanted to read the original version anyway, and I’m glad I did so. It’s Carr at his trickiest. Try and outguess him— if you can… The reader is warned.


  1. One of my favorites, Patrick. I was completely taken in by the plot, yet Carr is scrupulously fair in his clues. And the way he uses his footnotes is incredibly clever. I must admit that I've only read the abridged version - I think. I have a hardback Harper which claims to be a first edition and doesn't say "abridged" but it seems to match up with a Carroll & Graf paperback. Bill gets to Gay's house in Chapter 10, I believe, in both editions. You're right, however - the last 2/3 is remarkably tight and well put together. And those answers...

  2. Great review, as always, Patrick. This one is among the last of JDC novels that are waiting on the shelves to be read and it's good to know that this late story reflects the grand old JDC we all know and love.

    You mention that the story lacks a locked room problem, but isn't there suppose to be an impossible poisoning in this one or am I confusing it with another book?

  3. @Les
    I think we're more or less in agreement here. I've checked my abridged edition (for I have one sitting on my shelf) and Bill crosses the threshhold into Gay's house in Chapter 10. As soon as that happens, you step into a bizarre alternate dimension of sorts that makes everything worthwhile.

    Yes, there's a supposedly impossible poisoning which I touched briefly upon, but the solution is unworthy of Carr, IMO. It's a very silly solution that doesn't hold much water, so my solution to the problem is just to focus on the other parts of the story. It's Carr's solution too.

  4. I read this first in an abridged paperback, then years later in the original form. This is a case where the abridgement is far superior.

    >> The story of their separation and the way they reunite is just silly.

    The 'reunite' part is well beyond silly.

    That said, I very much like this book. The nine footnotes blew me away when I first read it. He knew exactly what false idea he had planted in my head at each point in the book.

  5. Patrick, mea culpa, mea culpa! I read your review too hastily, but I was curious since the poisoning trick from this book is suppose to be identical to an impossible crime plot from another novel I like and there the trick was handled reasonable well.

  6. @Bob Houk
    I more or less agree. I'm willing to ignore the silliness of the romantic angle somewhat, since I am an unshamed romantic, but at the same time, "silly" is not an adequate adjective...

    I don't think I'd like this trick in any setting. It's just so unreliable unless you happen to be a master at this-or-that, which you're never given reason to believe.

  7. Just discovered John Dickson Carr this year. Am looking forward to finding and reading all his books!