Tuesday, June 24, 2008

John Dickson Carr - Man of Mystery

In my last post about John Dickson Carr (one of my favorite mystery writers), I conceded that I didn't really do the author justice. The concept of the "locked room" mystery has somewhat fallen out of favor, and so many potential readers may not know quite what I'm talking about.

While almost all of Carr's novels center around some sort of impossible crime, I think his novella, "The Third Bullet" would be the one I'd suggest a prospective reader start with. Over the course of this 80-page story (in the paperback edition), Carr throws out a dizzying array of plot twists and curves that keep the reader guessing. And yet, in the end, all is explained in a logical, straightforward fashion.

Gabriel White, recently released from prison, vows to kill Judge Mortlake who put him there. Since he used to date the judge's youngest daughter, there's a question of the judge's motivations in sentencing him. Inspector Page and another officer are called in and arrive at the estate mere minutes after White. He's seen charging towards the little two-room pavilion where the judge regularly retires to work on his memoirs.

Mortlake, hearing the commotion, comes to the window. White enters the room and shuts and locks the door. The policeman is right behind him, begins breaking down the door. Page makes for the open window. Two shots ring out seconds before he comes through the window.

The door gives way and the other officer rushes in. White stands in the middle of the room with a smoking gun. The judge lies dead, felled by a single bullet. There's only one door into the room (which the police came through). Two of the four windows are locked and shuttered, rusted shut and undisturbed. The other two face the front. Page came through one and had the other under observation the entire time.

The small room is immediately searched, and there's no one hiding anywhere (such as behind the door), nor are there any secret panels. With the only two ways out being physically blocked by police, the room is effectively sealed.

And yet the gun in White's hand didn't kill the judge. White says he heard a shot behind him, and a second recently fired gun is found in an urn next to one of the boarded up windows. A reenactment confirms for the police that someone could have stood in the corner unseen -- but how did they get out?

The coroner confirms that Mortlake died around the time of the shooting (so he couldn't have been murdered earlier -- besides, the officer saw him come to the window).

And then things get complicated.

The first bullet from White's gun is nowhere to be found. The second bullet from the discarded gun is buried in the wall. And then the topper -- the third bullet (of the title) that killed the judge came from the gun that Mortlake kept in his desk.

Who fired the second gun? And who killed Mortlake? And how did this impossible crime happen?

There's a lot more to this story then I've outlined (because I don't want to spoil it), but hopefully, you get the idea. The surprises and plot turns come fast and furious until the very end. And by the third page, you have all the information you really need to solve the crime yourself. If that is, you can find it amid everything else that's going on in the story.

With Carr, the puzzle's the thing.

Old-fashioned? Perhaps. But great fun, nonetheless.

To me, the real mystery is why any mystery lover wouldn't want to give Carr a try.

- Ralph

Day 13 of the WJMA Web Watch.

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