I've put aside the book that would have been last year's number 35. There's something satisfying about setting out on New Year's Day to buy your first book of the year, so that's what I did. This is a classic 'locked room' detective novel. Indeed, aside from Poe's The Murders in the Rue Morgue, it is perhaps the classic locked room novel.
On a winter night in London, Dr Grimaud is murdered in his study with witnesses right outside the door. The window is too high up for someone to jump from and, in any case, the snow on the ground remains unbroken, as does the snow on the roof. How did the killer escape?
A second murder occurs in the middle of the street with witnesses at either end. The victim was shot at close range from behind but when the witnesses turned nobody was there and, once again, the snow on the ground was undisturbed.
What follows is a dazzling example of how devious and enjoyable these mysteries can be. The most daring section is chapter 17, The Locked Room Lecture, in which the detective, Gideon Fell, explains, over 13 pages, the various ways in which locked room mysteries work. We're well beyond the cosy fiction of Agatha Christie by this point:
"'But, if you're going to analyse impossible situations,' interrupted Pettis, 'why discuss detective fiction?' 'Because,' said the doctor, frankly, 'we're in a detective story and we don't fool the reader by pretending we're not. Let's not invent elaborate excuses to drag in a discussion of detective stories. Let's candidly glory in the noblest pursuits possible to characters in a book.'"
In this spirit, the characters are developed only as far as they need to be to play their role in the puzzle and reality conveniently conspires to pile one convenience on top of another in the service of the mystery. It's implausible but great fun.
Dickson Carr delights in the puzzle he has set and teases the reader with the notion that the solution will be a disappointment. Music hall performer O'Rourke explains how audiences respond when they're told the secret behind a magic trick:
"...most people are so damned disappointed when they know the secret. Either, in the first place, the thing is so smart and simple - so simple it's funny - that they won't believe they could have been fooled by it. They'll say 'Oh hell! don't tell us that stuff! I'd have seen it in a second.' Or, in the second place, it's a trick worked with a confederate. That disappoints 'em even more. They say, 'Oh, well, if you're going to have somebody to help-!' as though anything was possible then."
It takes a brave writer to set up the idea that the solution to his story will be a let down. Amazingly, the solution to the mystery is every bit as satisfying as one would hope. The secret of the hollow man is ingenious.