The Nine Wrong Answers by John Dickson Carr

http://paradise-mysteries.blogspot.com/2011/04/crime-fiction-alphabet-2011-letter-n.htmlSeems 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.

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About Puzzle Doctor

I'm a mathematician by nature and as such have always been drawn to the logical side of things. Hence my two main hobbies being classic mysteries and logical puzzling. Oh, and cats. No logic there, I'm afraid.
This entry was posted in Alphabet of Crime Fiction, Carter Dickson, John Dickson Carr, Locked Rooms and Impossible Murders. Bookmark the permalink.

12 Responses to The Nine Wrong Answers by John Dickson Carr

  1. Fabulous stuff – thanks so much for writing on this brilliantly clever book. I don’t think it has ever had the recognition it deserves as being amongst his finest achievements, probably because, as you say, it doesn’t feature an impossible crime. Wonderfully crafted and very clever stuff – and you are dead right – the footnotes are sheer genius. Apparently many editions of this book are much shorter than the original publication when large chunks were pruned for the first paperback edition and then subsequently reprinted that way – same thing happened with the THIRD BULLET novella apparently. I assume the recent edition from the 1990s (Carrol & Graaf) is correct but the only one I have that expressly states that it is the full length version is a version in Italian which made the point as it was a brand new translation (not much use to most readers I realise).

  2. puzzledoctor says:

    Thanks. I hadn’t heard of an edited version of this one – my edition is a Critic’s Choice paperback from 1986. There’s nothing in it to indicate an abridgement and the page count/type size is the same as my other Carr books, so I’m presuming this is the original as intended. Maybe it’s worth digging up an early hardback to compare it too – that won’t be cheap…

    Any readers out there able to help? Which bits were cut out of the original?

  3. Apparently the shortening, by about 15% compared with the original 1952 hardback, was done with Carr’s cooperation. Amazon currently has a first edition available for about £10 (including postage) … My Italian paperback runs to about 260 pages. A lot of it apparently was taken from the long opening sections of the book before the plot really kicks in. Carr was apparently very ill with fistula at the time and was quite critical of the works he produced while unwell.

    The cutting of THE THIRD BULLET was apparently handled by Fred Dannay for a reprint in EQMM and didn’t get reinstated until the 1990s for Doug Greene’s FELL AND FOUL PLAY anthology for International Polygonics.

  4. puzzledoctor says:

    Well, if the editing was done by Carr, then fair enough. Saves tracking down an expensive second copy.

    I’ve got two copies of The Third Bullet – both are from before 1990 though. Is much missing from that one? It’s not my favourite Carr by a long way, so I probably won’t bother tracking it down.

    • The editing on THIRD BULLET was fairly extensive actually if I remember correctly – If I can I’ll retrieve my two variant copies and try and post a quick comparison this evening.

      • As a PS, let me add what Doug Greene says in his preface to the publication of the full version of THIRD BULLET in his FELL AND FOUL PLAY anthology:

        “[Dannay] omitted large chunks of the story, including in several instances entire pages. Character descriptions, details of the murder site, red herrings, and even some clues to the solution – all disappeared”.

        As far as I am aware, that book is the only place to get this longer version of the novella – the longer version is better, no question, but it’s not exactly a deal breaker either.

        All the best,
        Sergio

  5. Kerrie says:

    Thanks for this contribution to this week’s CFA. Sounds an interesting book.

  6. Les Blatt says:

    “The Nine Wrong Answers has long been a favorite of mine, largely (as you say) because of the remarkably clever footnotes. In his biography of Carr, Doug Greene notes that Carr wasn’t crazy about the book, nor were many critics; Greene notes that “it takes almost one hundred pages for the story really to begin.” I’ve only come across the abridged versions, which I think move into the action much more quickly, but it’s still a book that I recommend heartily to friends.

    • puzzledoctor says:

      I was a bit disappointed when I found out about the abridgement, but, as I’ve been told, Carr did it himself, so it’s not the butcher job that The Third Bullet was. I think the whole book is a lovely bit of misdirection, but I’m not sure how I’d have felt if it spent too much time faffing around at the start.

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