Nine – And Death Makes Ten: Carter Dickson (1940)

This Golden Age classic wins the award for my favourite title for a crime novel ever, closely followed by Murder Is Easy by Christie (so chilling). And Carter Dickson, pseudonym of the master of the impossible crime John Dickson Carr, has excelled himself in my eyes again.

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Set against the backdrop of WWII aboard the ‘HM Edwardic’, this monstrous ship opens the story, pulling out from New York city carrying a huge amount of ammunitions in it’s hold, ‘a floating powder-magazine’. Forcibly on blackout in protection against German attacks, the windows in every room are to be shut and covered at all times and the deck itself becomes a eerie pitch black obstacle course. None of the 9 passengers on board are allowed to know the ship’s destination for the sake of national security, only that they are heading to ‘a British port’. Theses passengers slowly reveal themselves as the days pass, forced together, they make quick assumptions of one another, friendships begin and angers arise. But when one of the nine has their throat viciously cut open in their cabin, the atmosphere moves to fever pitch. A set of bloody fingerprints are left in the victim’s room, but when the prints of all passengers and crew are taken, they match no one on board the ship. Was the victim killed by a ghostly hand, or is there a much more devious plot at work? This seething atmosphere, with the madness of the war bubbling beneath, grows and grows. Not knowing who the killer is each of the nine become worried about ‘meeting each other alone in the corridors’.

The setting Carr works is brilliant. Literal and figurative darkness cast over the ship by the enforced blackout creates an almost other worldly tension. The constant, buzzing of artificial lamps as the only source of light blends and confuses night and day, creating a dream or nightmare like setting. This is magnified by Carr’s descriptions of the constant rocking and groaning of the ship as it creaks and snaps under the movement of the sea. The narrow corridors, the stuffy overheated cabins and the over-decorated gaudy dining rooms all become part of the metaphor for things closing in. Both with the intents of the murderer as well as the continuous unspoken reminders of possible enemy attack as they enter the ‘submarine zone’. This setting is so well observed by Carr because, as he reveals in his pre-book disclaimer, he actually lived something of this trip out. Although it wasn’t the harrowing murderous ride as in the book, he took a similar journey to ‘a British port’. There is a great line that claims ‘everything except the atmosphere’ is fictitious.

The story is seen through the eyes of Englishman Max Mathews, injured in battle (presumably, we never fully know) and having spent the last 11 months confined to a hospital bed, now walking with a cane and limp. This is a great character to travel with, as his adapting back to ‘normal’ life with the constant nagging pain of injury, and worries about his future, puts him in this irate, mental, between space. This is reflected in the tense life of the ship floating in the middle of the empty sea, between lands, submitted to the dream-like state of the blackout.

The rest of the cast is also memorable, the humorous and flippant played out against the serious or aloof, although at one point I definitely became confused between a few of the male leads and had to go back a few pages. Carr is on comedy form in his writing of the magnanimous Henry Merrivale, his Carter Dickson series detective. The scenes in the ship’s barber shop are particularly laugh out loud, as well as important in more ways than one. The character of Valerie Chatford is particularly well placed, and how her role is constantly subverted is both powerful and touching.

The plotting is tight and rises in pace as each chapter reveals and conceals, layering mystery to continually build the atmosphere. Big pieces of information keep you changing suspicions and little clues become maddening details. There is also a lovely use of foreboding time in the first third. Just after H.M has come on the scene, himself and Max hear a gunshot ring out in the pitch darkness of the upper deck which ends the chapter. Carr then takes us back in time to see the run up to the shot from another set of characters, filling those subsequent scenes with another level of charged atmosphere.

The impossibility of the fingerprints is subdued, but with a spot-on and simple explanation, although in many ways I wish the murder could have been in a locked or watched room, as I felt that would have upped the stakes that extra notch. That may have enlivened the slower parts of deduction in the middle third, but we can’t have it all (unless your reading Till Death Do Us Part). The killer is also very well hidden. I confess to not always being that bothered who the killer is when I am reading a Carr, particularly if I am resting in the joys of the impossible elements, but in this instance it was a genuinely shocking and surprising reveal. The whole denouement builds in fast pace, and the ending explanations are very rich. It’s an ending that doesn’t just explain or justify the events of the book, but enriches everything you have read, making the whys and hows all the more clever and all the more harrowing. This will be one I will definitely be re-reading just to see how Carr laced and weaved the pattern of the plot, the clues and the obsessions of the killer.

 

12 thoughts on “Nine – And Death Makes Ten: Carter Dickson (1940)”

  1. I bought this recently — in fact it was you who directed me to it under the title Murder in the Atlantic — and I’m pleased to hear it’s a good one. It’s one of the gaps I’m trying to fill so that I’ve done all of his 1930s and 40s stuff before taking on the remainder of his later work, and this reinforces my feeling that the 40s were simply the absolute pinnacle of his career. I shall get to it eagerly and eventually!

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    1. Super shocked to hear you haven’t read this yet! I’m sure you’ll love it, but I’ll try not to speak too soon. It’s again one of those Carrs that sticks with you for days, and as you remember it, it gets better.

      Look forward to your thoughts on it (eventually).

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      1. Keep it to yourself, but I haven’t actually read any John Dickson Carr — this whole “I love JDC! He’s amazing! Everyone should read him!” thing is a bluff that has got wildly out of hand…

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  2. Thanks for reviewing this title, as I liked it – though I wasn’t sure I felt entirely/ thoroughly/ absolutely persuaded by the explanation behind the fingerprint conundrum…

    Then again, I definitely agree that the gloomy atmosphere was done very well, and that the culprit was hidden, with some devious touches to the mechanics of the crime. Merrivale was also, thankfully, not as prone to histrionics as he tends to be. I think of all the Merrivale titles I liked this best – yes, more than ‘Judas Window’ and ‘She Died a Lady’… *dodges bullets*

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    1. Thanks JFW. I agree the fingerprint solution is a bit like if you know it you know it and if you don’t you don’t. And as TomCat has highlighted below, it’s been used a few times. I think it’s then how Carr uses it that makes it work, and why that method was used from the killer’s perspective.

      And I don’t think you are wrong to see this as better than Judas Window or or She Died a Lady, it is a great book. Although, the pace of Judas Window excels.

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      1. Yes, I can see why the pace of ‘Judas Window’ is preferable. ‘Nine’ is quite a moody work, and makes the reader feel like he or she is stranded on the boat amidst mounting tension. 🙂

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  3. Keep it to yourself, but I haven’t actually read any John Dickson Carr — this whole “I love JDC! He’s amazing! Everyone should read him!” thing is a bluff that has got wildly out of hand…

    Burn him! Burn him at the stake!

    By the way, this is one of Carr’s most underrated books and one of the best shipboard mysteries. So you won’t be shot, JFW. It’s completely understandable you prefer this over The Judas Window and She Died a Lady, which may very well be my personal favorite from the H.M. series. Oh, the fingerprint gimmick turns up in the strangest places. There’s a Nero Wolfe radio-play that employs it and there’s a very obscure locked room novel that used the trick repeatedly. Commings used a more original variation on this trick in one of short stories about Brooks U. Banner, which was turned up in a Jonathan Creek episode.

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    1. I agree this is totally underrated, and just grows in brilliance in my mind as I think on all the threads pulling together.

      Interesting to hear that the finger print method has been used on numerous occasions. As I was saying to JFW, it seems Carr used it as a starting block for making richer connections elsewhere.

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  4. One of my favourite jd Carr/Carter Dickson books. I’m re-reading my copies of his books and filling in the gaps as I come to them. I always preferred this to the Blind Barber another transatlantic liner story. The sense of real danger is much more prevalent, BB is a bit of a knockabout farce sometimes. Again 1940s perhaps his best period , more mature and with the actuality of real war darkening the atmosphere. Off to read He Who Whispers now which I have bought thanks to the recommendations on here.

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    1. Glad you like this one Stanton. Blind Barber is totally farcical! I had to take breaks from it just to make it through the madness.

      Indeed the darkness and madness of war colours these books so richly. The same tension is played well in She Died A Lady. And the beginning of He Who Whispers speaks into the realities of war, and is one of my favourite Carr openings.

      HWW is an absolute must, Hope you enjoy it.

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