Seems appropriate given the subject matter of my blog that this is the third “Nine” book in a row – that won’t make much sense for non-UK readers, but never mind. Anyway, this one is my entry for the letter N in the Alphabet of Crime Fiction, John Dickson Carr’s crossword-puzzle of a thriller, The Nine Wrong Answers. If you’d like an alternative choice, then Nine – And Death Makes Ten by the same author (well, his pseudonym) is available too. Do pop over to the Mysteries in Paradise website to have a look at other people’s choices for the letter N.
Bill Dawson is persuaded by Larry Hurst to return to England and impersonate him to claim an inheritance from Hurst’s mad old uncle Gaylord. Before he can leave, Larry is poisoned in a bar but Dawson decides to go through with the matter. When he meets the uncle, however, he is rather dumbstruck by the deal on the table – he can have the inheritance provided Gaylord hasn’t managed to murder him in the next six months.
Where the book comes into its own is in the Wrong Answers. At various points throughout the book, a footnote disabuses the reader of a supposition that they may have made about the events in the story up to that point. On the face of it, they are intended to help the reader move in the right direction in their deductions. In fact, they are a very cunning piece of misdirection.
This book has to be read in the right way – it’s full of coincidences and fairly ludicrous situations, although some of these are less ludicrous when the scheme is revealed, so reading it as a straight thriller might mean that the reader will not appreciate it in its elegance. The characters are well-written, although goodness knows why Bill Dawson and his old fiancée Majorie ever put up with each other, as they always seem to be arguing. Unlike most of Carr’s books, there isn’t really an impossibility – Larry’s poisoning is, sort of, but it’s not dwelt on at all, and it’s not so much a whodunit as a whatwasdunandwhodunit.
And then we come to the footnotes – the Nine Wrong Answers. I’ll go for them being a work of genius and misdirection, but I can imagine others calling them direct cheats. It’s notable that the ninth Wrong Answer is “No, the author wasn’t cheating earlier with the first eight answers and here’s why” but more than in any other book, Carr is scrupulously careful to not to actually lie in any way, shape or form.
This is very different from most of Carr’s output – most of his modern day stuff features Carr or Merrivale – the other exceptions that I can think of are The Burning Court, which, like this, wouldn’t work as part of a series or Patrick Butler for the Defence, which, I suspect, was an unsuccessful attempt to launch a new series. The closest thing in Carr’s bibliography is probably The Punch and Judy Murders. It feels more like an adventure than a detective story, but be assured, this is a first rate mystery. Whether you sit back at the end and applaud the author’s cleverness or throw the book at the wall and call him a cheat, that’s up to you.