The Three Coffins by John Dickson Carr (1935)

“You do not believe then that a man can get up out of his coffin; that he can move anywhere invisibly; that four walls are nothing to him; and that he is as dangerous as anything out of hell?”

” I do not,” Grimaud answered harshly. “Do you?”

“Yes. I have done it. But more! I have a brother who can do much more than I can , and is very dangerous to you. I don’t want your life, he does. But if he calls on you…”

Professor Grimaud is threated by a stranger and three days later is shot by a masked man inside a locked room. But when the door is broken down no trace of the killer can be found and the snow surrounding the house is untouched. Dr Gideon Fell begins to make some sense of the dying man’s final words before news of a second impossible murder is received.

Although Carr’s most well-known and most celebrated work – N0. 1 on Edward D. Hoch’s 1981 Top 15 Locked Room Mysteries – a number of blogs I have read consider it overrated and definitely not his best. Possibly this is because the realisation that Dr Fell has that opens up the case would have been had by someone before too long and various things inevitably follow from it.

The other reason for its fame is because Gideon Fell admits that he is in a detective story and therefore does not need to make excuses for discussing the history of detective fiction. He begins by defending detective fiction in general before moving onto the locked room mystery. He has no truck with any secret passages or panels and having defined  his rules of what constitutes a locked room proceeds to discuss seven general scenarios by which it can appear that a murderer has escaped from a locked room followed by five scenarios of how it can be made to appear that a door was locked.

This has been a re-read of the only JDC title that I’ve ever read, although I am very much looking forward to rectifying that situation in the next couple of months with the other two cases in this volume and the four in the Dr Fell Omnibus.

Notes on the locked room lecture

Chapter 17 where Dr Fell discourses on murders committed in “hermetically sealed chambers” is quite spoilerific in relation to specific scenarios both with and without to particular titles. Apart from a section between items 1.7 and 2.1 and the last couple of paragraphs which relate to the case itself, this can be skipped by the reader if they so wish.

The works mentioned by name or author are:

The Adventure of the Crooked Man by Arthur Conan Doyle (1893)

The Mystery of the Yellow Room by Gaston Leroux (1907) – described here as the best detective tale ever written

Initials Only by Anna Katherine Green (1911) and an unnamed work by the same author

An unnamed story by Edgar Allan Poe

The Man of the Forty Faces by Thomas W. and Mary E. Hanshew (1910)

The following four works described as “the most brilliant short detective stories in the history of detective fiction”:

The Hands of Mr. Ottermole by Thomas Burke

The Man in the Passage by G. K. Chesterton (1913)

The Problem of Cell 13 by Jacques Futrelle (1905)

The Doomdorf Mystery by Melville Davisson Post

An unnamed story by Israel Zangwill

An unnamed story involving Philo Vance (by S. S. Van Dine)

An unnamed story by Ellery Queen

This is besides the numerous methods mentioned without reference to a particular, some of which I recognised from GAD fiction and the TV series Jonathan Creek.

You have been warned!

Vintage Mystery Challenge

Fulfils “Where – In a locked room”.


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