book review

Nine-and Death Makes Ten

The setting for John Dickson Carr’s Nine-and Death Makes Ten is certainly atmospheric. The rolling fog horns, the unsteadiness of the ocean, and the cold, oppressive darkness give us the appropriate apprehension required by murder mysteries. Of course, it’s the functionality of such a setting that I most appreciate. Nine passengers (and a largely faceless crew) set sail on the Edwardic from New York to an unnamed British port. The journey is fraught with risk; if spotted by German submarines, the ship will be torpedoed. The liner has strict rules about lights and communication. Not only do the passengers have to deal with the possibility of death at any second, but they are also stranded in darkness without any link to the outside world. A pity then that a murderer is loose on the ship.

Max Matthews is our eyes and ears. Still nursing a leg injury, he’s actually thrilled to be on a dangerous journey. That should give you an indication of where he is in life. On the first day out, he meets some of his fellow passengers, including a femme fatale named Estelle Zia Bey. She’s not the only suspicious dame on the trip. Of course, there’s a suspicious figure in a gas mask running around that might be female. Have I mentioned there are 9 passengers?

THE PROBLEM: One of the passengers is found with her throat cut. The killer left a perfect bloody thumbprint on her dress. The impossibility here has nothing to do with a locked room, but rather with a killer that does not exist. The passengers are all fingerprinted, yet none of them match the killer. As an additional bonus, there is a person seen leaving the room, but that person can’t be the killer because (redacted). I actually deduced an aspect of the killer. (Go, James!) Carr, however, pushed the trick a little further than I had taken it. (Boo!)

THE INVESTIGATION: Merrivale, a secret stowaway, is on the case. He does his usual cantankerous act while ruminating over saturated ink pads and French army standards. The murders continue during his investigation. It’s a shame he refuses to share any info with Max, aka us. NaDMT gets better as it goes along. Carr doesn’t necessarily squeeze the most out of his situation, but the murder enlivens things (as they usually do) and by the time H.M. is on the case, I was quite invested which leads us to:

THE SOLUTION: Absolutely fantastic. It’s not just the method, it’s how all the details fall in line to give us a complete picture. Sure there are bits about one of the character’s backstories that are rushed to get from A to B, but the killer’s actions and the result of those actions (including results he/she did not expect) are superbly laid bare. I’m especially thinking of how the killer’s intended plot makes perfect sense while the way things actually happened has to be considered in light of a mistake. I think this solution and its rollout are as good as anything Carr wrote including The Problem with the Green Capsule.

Part of me feels like this is too slight to be considered a masterpiece–some of the early character work is rough going. Few of the characters, including the villain, stand out. The other half of me understands that this is a tight little thriller with a great central idea and perfect measurement. Some day, I’ll do a Carr top 10. It wouldn’t surprise me if this book makes it. Highly recommended.

3 thoughts on “Nine-and Death Makes Ten”

  1. I remember being nervous that the solution to this would be the same as the “but the fingerprint doesn’t match anyone!” problem in the first ever episode of Jonathan Creek — and I was absolutely delighted when it wasn’t — what superb ingenuity two writers shows with the essential same small problem — man, I love this genre.


    1. As good as the fingerprint trick was, I was actually more impressed with the overall scheme. Carr did this with The Nine Wrong Answers a bit lazily (but still entertainingly). Here, he set it up brilliantly. It’s a magnificent misdirection.


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