Carr’s work typically falls into three categories – impossible crimes investigated by Fell, impossible crimes investigated by Merrivale, and some form of historical novel offering some level of impossible crime. There are a handful of exceptions – The Emperor’s Snuff Box and Poison in Jest being prime examples. Even in these cases, your going to get something somewhat expected – a baffling crime followed by an investigation to find the murderer.
The Nine Wrong Answers stands apart in that it isn’t a whodunnit Despite the plot taking place over the span of many days, the story doesn’t really involve any central murder or investigation. There is no impossible crime, and in a way, there almost isn’t really an outright mystery. Instead, we’re treated to a chess game between the author and the reader. At nine points throughout the novel, Carr sheds the convention of story telling and provides footnotes that speak directly to the reader. Each aside serves as a guide, assuring you that if you were to jump to a predictable conclusion, you would be wrong (hence the book’s name). Although true to his word, Carr uses these comments to ensare the reader, creating a form of mystery simply by ruling out the probable.
I typically don’t go too deep into specifying the details of the plot in my reviews – laying out the characters, giving their backgrounds, etc. I prefer to focus on the core hook that would help someone determine if they’d like to read the story. If this were a typical Carr book, I’d feed you a summary like “a man is shot dead in a locked room surrounded by witnesses but none heard a sound.” What’s tricky in this case is that The Nine Wrong Answers provides no definitive crime like that. It is all pure story, forcing me to get into the details.
My take on it is simply this – Bill Dawson, down on his luck in America, is convinced to travel to England to impersonate Larry Hurst in exchange for a handsome payment. Larry stands to inherit a sizable fortune from his uncle Gaylord, who he hasn’t seen since he was a boy. The uncle, who was a cruel prankster when Larry was young, has one stipulation – Bill (pretending to be Larry), must visit weekly for 6 months. During that time, Bill is openly informed, Gaylord will attempt to murder him.
Weeeell……that is quite the plot, isn’t it? Yeah, it’s far fetched, and the hook requires a bit more explanation than typical Carr. This isn’t an impossible crime story, it’s a bit more of a thriller. Tension is created by the main character being immersed in a situation where he clearly doesn’t have control and there is a definite sense of jeopardy.
The Nine Wrong Answers is ultimately all about the title – the nine instances where Carr speaks directly to the reader. Although his comments can appear to provide clarity, they actually add to the puzzle by ruling out obvious conclusions. Through these nine footnotes, Carr constructs a mystery that goes beyond the simple confines of the plot presented directly by the narrative. The comments force the reader to focus on details that may not have jumped out otherwise. Surely if Carr points out something in one of the nine footnotes, it must have some relevance, but how?
In between those footnotes there is plenty going on – murders, murder attempts, poisonings, spying, chases, and action. One combat scene is reminiscent of the battle between Chevoit and Vulcan during Fire, Burn. In fact, that’s possibly the closest parallel that I can draw to anything else in Carr’s portfolio.
It all comes together beautifully in the end – having been faced with the nine wrong answers, we finally get the nine correct answers in a triumphant lecture that rivals the best of Fell and Merrivale. This is the part of the book that really sticks with me – the sense of “wow, I had no clue all that was going on”, combined with “ok, that was fairly clued but there is no way I could have ever caught that detail.”
The Nine Wrong Answers stands alone in Carr’s work; a weird yet satisfying anomaly. I was hoping that The Reader is Warned would contain similar direct challenges to the reader, but the effect wasn’t even close. In several other previous books, Carr breaks the fourth wall, but in a much more limited sense. I wonder if he had toyed with the idea of writing something like The Nine Wrong Answers and then decided to go full out later in his career.
It’s worth noting that the book was published in the 1950’s, following the two decades where Carr is commonly regarded to have produced his best work. Despite this, the story is a typical fixture on top 10 Carr lists. Although Carr went on to produce other well regarded stories (such as Fire, Burn and Captain Cut Throat), this is probably the final “classic” by the author (the prior being He Who Whispers from 1946).
Is it Top 10 Carr for me? It is so far, although the jury’s still out – I have quite a few well regarded books to go and it faces some stiff competition. If you haven’t gotten to it yet, know that this is Must Read Carr.