I fell in love with John Dickson Carr’s work via his ‘Carter Dickson’ alter ego when I chanced across his classic The Reader is Warned back when I was 14. Nine and Death Makes Ten (aka Murder in the Submarine Zone) was the next book of his I was able to find, and it confirmed for me what a great author he was. Here’s why (without spoilers):
“They are not the finger-prints of anybody aboard this ship”
The setting for this classic wartime mystery is an absolute corker: a passenger liner leaves New York bound for England with a mere eight passengers – or is it nine? Why so few? Because it is loaded to the brim with munitions to help the war effort in Europe (it is January 1940 and the phoney war will soon be over) and so any skirmish could see it instantly blown sky-high. The passengers on board are all so desperate to get back to England that they are prepared to risk this very dangerous voyage – and it turns out that being sunk by U-Boats is the least of their worries as there is a cunning murderer on board (well, of course).
“These black-out conditions were made to order for the convenience of a murderer.”
Journalist Max Matthews has spent several months in hospital after being badly burned while reporting a fire that saw his photographer killed. His straight-laced brother is the ship’s captain and he is heading home to be of some use in the war. In typical Carr fashion, he finds himself drawn to both the women passengers, both of whom are holding back important information about themselves. Estelle Zia Bey is a woman of the world, a mighty drinker and a fab dresser too – but what is she keeping in her purse? And what is the secret she hints at when she is in her cups? And what of the young woman who calls herself ‘Valerie Chatford’ with a less impressive wardrobe but who seems to be lying about everything to just about everybody? There is a rumour in fact that there may be a spy in their midst.
Before long one of the women is found with her throat cut in her cabin, and the other starts behaving very strangely and is quickly considered a major suspect. Two clear finger-prints are found in the victim’s blood at the scene – but here is the kicker: even though the entire crew of the ship and the passengers have their prints taken, none of them match! Then there is another murder. Just as well that Sir Henry Merrivale is on hand to clear things up
“I should rather like to know who is practising knife-throwing in the passages at two o’clock in the morning”
I hadn’t re-read this one since first coming across it in the 1980s – but at a certain point I thought I knew who the murderer might be. And then, to my delight, realised that this is what I thought all those decades ago, and that Carr had bamboozled me then and had just done it yet again! The atmosphere of the liner travelling in a blackout, fearing attack from within and without, is wonderfully eerie and Carr’s construction is pretty much flawless. Chapter 11 is especially notable for how he turns the clock back 45 minutes to show us two sides of an event that lead to pandemonium and the dramatic disappearance overboard of one of the suspects during a submarine attack. The impossible crime element is always an extra joy in Carr’s work, and here is beautifully dovetailed into the plot. But it is his dexterity at dealing with clues and suspects that is so awe-inspiring. As in all his best work, the final reveal of the villain is a gigantic surprise despite a surprisingly small pool of suspects. I tried really hard to figure this one out and there were lots of clues it turns out – but I stood no chance against HM (and Carr). Go out and get this one – it’s an absolute classic. And don’t just take my word for it – see what the Puzzle Doctor has to say about it at In Search of the Classic Mystery Novel and Daniel at The Reader is Warned.
For my microsite devoted to John Dickson Carr (and Carter Dickson), click here.
I submit this review for Bev’s Golden Age Vintage Mystery Scavenger Hunt in the ‘skull’ category: