When you’ve read enough mysteries, the possible patterns of deception become increasingly obvious with each new novel. A good plotter will keep this under consideration. Sure, there will be readers who are venturing into the unknown for the first time. (the sort of newbie for whom a twin sister with a voice box, contact lenses, and links to a two-hundred-year-old legend is surprising) The true mystery writer, however, writes for the fans and has at least a vague notion of what they are thinking.
Take me for instance. Once the set-up of a murderous plot has been accomplished, I’m immediately on the look out for collusion, lies, the oddly framed line of dialogue, etc. I’m always wrong, but I enjoy playing. (And by always wrong, I mean not 100% right. Someone who reads the occasional mystery can get 75% of the solution and the book is ruined. A fan can get 90% right and the book is a success. IMHO)
John Dickson Carr’s The Wrong Nine Answers attempts to introduce a wrinkle into the formula. He’s just gonna tell you where not to look. It’s an audacious strategy, and one that improves on the similarly meta device in The Reader is Warned. (Though that novel’s sublime mystery and suspense trump this one rather easily.) The tactic raises an interesting question…but let’s get to the plot.
Bill Dawson is a man running from the past. Heart-broken and aimless, he overhears an intriguing conversation through a transom (the least reliable source of information in the history of mystery novels). A lawyer is presenting an offer to Larry Hurst and his m̶a̶n̶t̶r̶a̶p̶ girlfriend Joy Tennent. Hurst’s uncle Gaylord will make him the sole heir to his considerable fortune if he returns to England and pays weekly visits to the uncle.
Larry is nervous about the deal because his uncle is a psychopath. It’s important to note that, with the character of Gaylord Hurst, Carr has fashioned one of his nastiest creations. He’s a man with the devil’s conscience, only regretful of squandered opportunities to inflict pain. We understand Larry’s reticence completely.
Through a bit of contrivance, Bill is led into the room where Larry’s exact plan is devised. He hasn’t seen uncle Gaylord for many years, so the old man has no idea what he looks like. If Bill Dawson could pull off the impersonation, he could go in Larry’s stead. The deal is struck. Bill will receive $10,000, but he will also receive the (possibly) murderous wrath of good-old uncle Gaylord.
Here, we get our first wrong answer. Carr tells us in the footnotes that an astute reader might think Bill was led to the office and this whole thing is a scheme to get him involved. Not true. Soon we get our first surprise in the story, and, once again, Carr point us away from the blind alley.
It’s useless for me to tell you any more of the plot. Things move along quickly; the novel has none of the chamber room conversations designed to lay clues. Instead, it’s more like a breathless adventure yarn, with constant movement from an increasingly harassed protagonist. As such, it contains a weak passage. The scenes at the BBC don’t work at all. The action is confusing (I had to read it a few times to even know what was happening), and the sudden familiarity with characters we’ve never met was jarring in a bad way. The story recovers, but it doesn’t quite reach the heights of suspense it could have if the narrative had been an unbroken thrust–something like The 39 Steps.
More than anything, TNWA is presented as a straight-up challenge to the reader, very much in line with Shimada’s taunting notes and Brand’s flashes of God’s POV. The danger (one I am struggling with myself) is that such a removal from the narrative (the world of the story) will stop the reader from enjoying the novel.
The best comedy is performed straight. The best metaphors are hidden within a natural setting. It would stand to reason that the best mysteries play with the reader while never alluding to that fact.
On the other hand, I know what I’m reading, and Carr knew what he was writing. It’s a game, as someone once said, the grandest game. A little wink is to be expected. Does TNWA go too far?
I vote nay. The narrative is only enhanced by Carr’s notes, which were written with tongue firmly in cheek. Occasionally, the notes make us change tactics. At other times, they present possibilities you haven’t thought of. The end notes don’t work. I was ahead of the game at that point. The most disappointing thing is that we don’t get a big surprise at the end. It would be nice if the note before the final page meant something.
All in all, it’s fun, mid-level Carr. I really missed having a detective, but Bill does the job.
Below is the latest version of the cover. Lots of work left to be done but, yeah…I’m not sure about timelines. My schedule’s been…well, you know. You’ve been alive for the last couple month. But I guarantee, I will have a book for sale in 2020. I am a bit hesitant to offer this in October. I’m worried some horror fans might buy it without realizing its genre. But look at it. It’s starting to look pretty.
7 thoughts on “Heading the Reader off at the Pass: The Nine Wrong Answers”
The cover is great – I really like the investigators stooped over the footprints in the snow. It immediately evokes The White Priory Murders, which is an element I was hoping would make its way onto the cover.
The Nine Wrong Answers was my second Carr novel, having previously only read Hag’s Nook. At that point I didn’t have any context for my read, it was just a second experience with an author. It’s strange in retrospect, because at this point in his career, the best of Carr’s contemporary mysteries were behind him and the only really good work that he had left before him was in the historical vein (Patrick Butler for the Defense actually being his strongest traditional work left – which will spin the heads of many a blog reader).
I’m curious at how I’d take the book now. It’s a strong one in my memory, although I can see how Carr has shifted to the more braggadocios hero with a tinge of action – present in Below Suspicion and Patrick Butler, and of course a constant element in his historical fiction.
As a novice reader, Carr spun me around with this one, and I’m tempted to think he’d still spin me around even if I had read it now. Quite possibly his last great pure mystery, although I’ll always hold a spot in my heart for The Witch of the Low Tide – as flawed as it may be in some sense.
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“As a novice reader, Carr spun me around with this one, and I’m tempted to think he’d still spin me around even if I had read it now.”
I’d say so. The hidden mystery works very well, and Carr’s sudden shifts into darkness are as effective as ever. All the stuff inside the uncle’s home is wonderful.
I mentioned that BBC scene because everything else moves so fluidly. Val Gielgud (the dedicatee of TNWA) worked there and I suspect Carr shoehorned in the location regardless of its suitability to a man-on-the-run story.
Glad you like the cover. My designer was questioning whether a magnifying glass made any sense. But how else would you make a blurry figure into a detective? On a side note, I had trouble finding pictures of Chicago parkas from 1920. All the photos I found were of grim men wearing overcoats and hunching their shoulders.
I like the cover too, but for a different reason: the reflection of the face in the window pane. We see the hand directly, but the face only in the reflection, and putting the two together we see a vampire or some-such creature. And by putting the reflection together with the scene outside, we infer that the reflected face sees the same scene !
The hand, though, is bit too large and, consequently, dominating the other two elements in the picture too much (to my taste and in my totally non-expert opinion).
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The proportions, the window, the footprints, and the detectives haven’t been worked on. Matt’s mostly been chipping away at the fingers and the face. He’d probably be annoyed I’m posting unfinished work, but I think it’s a proper topic for my blog.
One problem is that the title will be double in size, almost squeezing the image space to a square. I’m not sure what part of the window will remain. I imaging the hand will have to be shrunk, but I’ll leave that up to the guy with talent.
Yeah, I’m really liking the effect of the reflection as well. I’m also happy this will continue my tradition of a 3-layer image.
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I just started reading this book today, so I only skimmed your review!
However, I do want to say that the cover for your latest book is absolutely stunning. It makes me want to have it in my hands already, but alas, I’ll have to wait til October! Vampire’s are probably my favorite supernatural force to place in a impossible crime novel, simply because they add such an air of horror and the gothic, so I’m ready to see how your’s will stack up, hope we have another He Who Whispers on our hands 😉
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It’s solid. Don’t expect a masterpiece and you’ll be happy. And don’t expect another HWW from me. Talk about pressure! Another Dead Man’s Knock…maybe. Another Under Suspicion, sure. But not HWW.
Below Suspicion is a very good book, so I’ll still be anticipating something decent 🙂