NINE-AND DEATH MAKES TEN (1941) by Carter Dickson

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”

I submit this review for Bev’s Golden Age Vintage Mystery Scavenger Hunt; and Friday’s Forgotten Books meme run by Patti Abbott at her fab Pattinase blog.

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 passenger 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 a 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 again 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:

***** (5 fedora tips out of 5)

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This entry was posted in 2017 Golden Age Vintage Mystery Scavenger Hunt, Carter Dickson, Five Star review, Friday's Forgotten Book, Henry Merrivale, John Dickson Carr, Locked Room Mystery. Bookmark the permalink.

92 Responses to NINE-AND DEATH MAKES TEN (1941) by Carter Dickson

  1. Colin says:

    This is one of Carr’s books that I’ve yet to read and have held back on to have for a rainy day. As such, I’m delighted to hear it still stands up to a reread and that you, and others, rate it so highly. The nautical setting always promises much – I feel Carr largely squandered its possibilities in The Blind Barber so it’s encouraging that he didn’t repeat that mistake here.

    • This is such more sober book than BARBER, in every sense. When it rains, go get it! 😀

      • Colin says:

        Weather forecast isn’t too encouraging right now, but I’m going to hold back for another bit. I want to save it for a tie when I can concentrate on it and, hopefully, enjoy it more – at the moment there’s too much vying for my attention for me to get the most from it.

    • JJ says:

      Blind Barber is not a good book, but the use of the shipboard setting is, in my humble opinion, exploited in a genius way — if you removed the awkward and ponderous comedy from that book, it would be considered among Carr’s masterpieces for how he misleads you, and it wouldn’t work in any other setting. I do think the central “impossible appearance of a corspe on a ship without anyone going missing” trick is often downplayed because of how unfunny the alleged humour in that book is.

  2. There’s nothing like a Carr, is there, Sergio? He was incredibly talented, especially when it came to creating those ‘impossible-but-not-impossible’ mysteries. Little wonder you were as impressed this time as you were when you first read it.

  3. realthog says:

    Oh, damn. Just yesterday I was looking at the pile and thinking I must read this Real Soon, like, y’know, maybe next. So much for that now, dammit.

    Great review, as always, and as always many thanks for it, But you do realize you’ve doomed me to next reading ERB’s A Princess of Mars, complete with fulsome admiration (oops, shouldn’t have left that shoe open-side-up next to my study chair) for good ol’ Confederate cavalryman John Carter?

    • Noooooo! But you must get to it soon, it is awesome (as my nieces would exclaim and verify). Never read Burroughs actually (ducks for cover) or Robert E Howard or Lester Dent or … well, you can see where I am not going here…

  4. tracybham says:

    This one sounds especially good, Sergio. Five fedora tips! I love the wartime setting. I will have to look for this. I will be reading The Emperor’s Snuff-box soon, really soon.

  5. I love being reminded of how good this book is. The 45 minute back track as you say is perfect, and what a cliff hanger to precede it too.

    • Thanks Daniel – I had put off re-reading this in a way just because it came so early in my Carr books that I was worried it might not stand up. I needn’t have worried 🙂

      • I think there is always very little to worry about with Carr. But I know the feeling, when you have a precious memory of a book you don’t want it to be dashed!

        • Well, I agree regarding Carr – for me he’s the best Golden Age detective story writer there ever was and pretty much anything from the 30s and 40s is pretty bullet-proof anyway. There are a few from the 60s that I have delayed reading, I admit … But picking up this book after 30 years and still being so delighted and surprised by it was an uncommonly good feeling. One could maybe question to finger-print gimmick, but it is clever all the same and complete plausibility would be the wrong thing to look for. And the mis-direction about the German spy is so nicely done too!

          • Absolutely. I think the finger print impossibility takes a back seat, but I feel almost like he puts it in for the atmosphere of the mystery and not the solution. Although I still like the solution for sure.

          • I like how crucial the “impossible” element is made part of the overall plan, really nicely dovetailed. I don’t think the surprise villain’s plot is guessable, but there are proper clues. Even the bit with the gas mask pays off!

          • Oh man yes it’s so brilliant! In fact, I hasn’t really thought about this before, but the solution to the impossible finger prints can be seen as one big meta-clue in itself.

          • Yes, I was also thinking that in fact – the whole thing is just so carefully worked out on both levels, it’s what makes it such a satisfying read.

  6. Sounds just brilliant! I’ve been reading and appreciating a lot of Carr recently – and boy, does he do atmosphere well! – and I love being bamboozled by him. Time to seek out some Carter Dickson it seems!

  7. JJ says:

    I tracked this down moderately recently (under the title Murder in the Atlantic…I still hope to get a NADMT-titled copy) but am a little way off reading it yet — got Arabian Nights, Burning Court, and Wire Cage to get through first ;so many books… Still, I’m pleased it’s a good ‘un, and will doubtless re-refer to this when I eventually get to it. Watch this space…!

  8. Brad says:

    Aaaaaaaagggghhhhhh!!!! TBR pile dangerously high!!! But I’m happy to say that: 1) I have not read this one yet, and 2) it is sitting on my shelf, along with eight or so other Carr/Dickson titles still to be read. Someday, Sergio, someday . . .

    • What are the others Brad, I am sure you would like some guidance 😉

      • Brad says:

        You know I would, Sergio. I bought a bundle of Dickson titles on eBay. I know they vary in quality. I jumped right in with She Died a Lady and loved that one. The rest, in chronological order, I believe, are:

        Nine – And Death Makes Ten
        Seeing Is Believing
        Death and the Gilded Man
        He Wouldn’t Kill Patience
        The Curse of the Bronze Lamp
        The Skeleton in the Clock
        A Graveyard to Let
        Night at the Mocking Widow

        I’ve also got a copy of The White Priory Murders that I bought separately and two previously unread Carr titles, Death Turns the Tables (which I believe was just spoiled for me), and The Dead Man’s Knock.

        Ain’t life grand?!? 🙂

  9. Thanks for the link. I do think this is a Carr that can get overlooked sometimes – when I reread it a while ago, it still fooled me. A cast-iron classic for sure.

  10. This is one I was inclined to read even before I read your terrific review, Sergio. Yes, I know I said, that I was taking a Carr break for now….But that won’t stop me getting my hands on books I will want to read next month or whenever. Especially when they are so highly praised. AND I love books set on the high seas. I am not totally without redemption. Ha.

  11. When Carr/Dickson was good, he was very very good. I’ve read most of the Carr mysteries and I’m working my way through the Carter Dicksons. He’s the writer who made the Golden Age golden!

  12. MarinaSofia says:

    Wow, top marks from you!? I’ll have to put this one on my list, then.

  13. I’ve had this one in the top 4 positions of my TBR pile for the past year, and I keep moving it down with the logic that I’ll save it for following up a truly bad reading experience. Aside from He Wouldn’t Kill Patience and The Hollow Man, this is the last of the “truly great” Carr’s that I have left to read. Unfortunately I already know the solutions to the other two books, so this is the only classic one that I have left that will be a complete surprise.

    • Sorry that the other two have been spoiled for you, damn unfair! I totally agree with your logic on saving it though, I really do!

    • matxil says:

      I have read The Hollow Man several times, and even though I know the solution, it’s still a enormous pleasure to read. Even after having read it a couple of times, I’d miss some of the clues or still wonder about certain weird details. A true masterpiece. So, don’t wait too long in reading it, is my advice. It’s totally worth it.

  14. Anne H says:

    My copy of this is called Murder in the Atlantic, bought about twenty years ago for 20 cents secondhand, and the cover art is indeed rather lurid.. I’ve always thought of it as a Carr/Dickson also ran, but on the strength of this discussion I’m about to re-read it, and possibly revise this opinion

    • Hope it has improved with time Anne 😀

      • Anne H says:

        I’m still not convinced. There’s something mechanical about the plot – too much of it too carefully worked out for a novel of that length, and the one heart-felt thing about the book is the last sentence – the author hasn’t forgotten his own experience! Must also add, if there’s a worse-written love affair or whatever one would call it in any Carr/Dickson please warn me to avoid re-reading that title!

        • I think in Golden Age detective to suggest that many of the plots are a bit contrived and mechanical is outrageous 🙂 I thought this was incredibly clever and successful. The romantic entanglement is pretty minor here though, not worth getting steamed up about either way I would have though, though that bit when Carr refer s to her Aryan heart really made me smile, such a classic bit of misdirection!

          • Anne H says:

            I was interested that Douglas G Greene commends this plot because it has no fat on it, or words to that effect. Most GA plots are wrapped up a little more than this one, and work the better for it. Yes, it’s all very clever, I agree, so I’ll say no more.

          • Be a shame to ignore its obvious charms though 😀

  15. Mathew Paust says:

    Five tips! That’s enuf for me–I’m downloading it pronto. Killer title and cover, too (the top one).

  16. I’d always felt unbothered by this one – I hated Blind Barber, and didn’t fancy a wartime boat setting at all. But 5 fedora tips and this great review have changed my mind. Off to order it….

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