Nine — and Death Makes Ten – Carter Dickson (1940)

nineanddeathHow unfair is it for me to have to write about a book featuring a dash in the title?  Or, I suppose, how awkward is it for you to have to read it?  I’ve already done my time with the comma in Fire, Burn, and now I take another turn with Nine — and Death Makes Ten.  I could of course refer to it by it’s alternative titles – Murder in the Submarine Zone and Murder in the Atlantic – but, hey, that would be confusing because of the edition that I own, so here we go.

I’ve been holding off on reading this one for quite some time.  In fact, a post about my Carr To Be Read pile from seven months ago features this in the fourth position, and about eight books have since passed it by.  I’ve held off for a reason.  With only 25 Carr titles left to go, this is one of the last great ones.  At least that’s what popular opinion would leave me to believe.  Nine — and Death Makes Ten crops up on enough Top 10 Carr lists that I’ve been holding out hope that this will be a true classic.

The story unfolds in a somewhat unusual setting for a Carr novel.  Not a country mansion, not a posh hotel, not a stormy castle, nor the streets of London.  Instead we find ourselves onboard a nearly deserted ocean liner discreetly carrying ammunition through the dangerous Atlantic waters of World War 2.  The threat of a torpedo from a German submarine is constant, and so the passengers and crew are forced to endure full blackout conditions.  No lights are allowed on deck, not even a cigarette.  All portals and windows are fully covered, and access is gained to the compartments from the deck through double sets of doors.  It’s all an effort to keep even the slightest glimmer of light from escaping.  The danger isn’t limited to the waters though.  Among the nine passengers onboard the ship lurks a killer.

“These blackout conditions were made to order for the convenience of a murderer”

The setting that Carr creates is eerie before we even get to any murder.  What would normally be a bustling ocean liner becomes an empty maze of halls bereft of passengers.  The oily darkness outside the walls is offset by the surreal setting within.  From the very first pages there’s a definite sense of cold dark atmosphere and danger.

The story moves with a brisk pace throughout (this one clocks in at just 170 pages) and before long a passenger is found murdered in their cabin, their throat slit in gruesome fashion.  The identity of the victim was somewhat of a jolt for me, but the crime itself seems straight forward by Carr standards.  Somebody apparently entered the victim’s cabin, killed them, and then slipped out unobserved – a task easy enough to accomplish in a nearly deserted ship.  No locked rooms, no vanishing footprints, no inexplicable murder method.

As interesting as the setting is, the story appears to come down to simply figuring out which of the remaining eight passengers committed the murder.  Merrivale is among their ranks, so we can rule him out.  That leaves us seven suspects.

Well, to be straight about it, there are well more than nine passengers on the ship – there are several hundred crew members.  But, just as we know that a proper country house murder can only be committed by the upper crust and not the help, we can afford the assumption that the two hundred sailors, stewards, and various other employees of the ship are among the innocent.

As vanilla as the crime seems, there is a bit of a seeming impossibility.  A set of well defined fingerprints has been left in blood at the scene of the crime.  Yet, after painstakingly taking and comparing the fingerprints of all occupants of the ship, the prints are without a match.  We’re provided enough background on fingerprints to learn that they aren’t faked, a conclusion that Carr confirms via footnotes – a method that he uses to rule out several other obvious explanations.

The unexplainable fingerprints are interesting enough, but aside from that we appear to have a simple question of alibi.  Given the vast empty ship, no character really has a solid explanation for where they were at the time of the murder – one was swimming in the pool, another asleep in a lounge, another alone in their quarters, etc.  There seems to be little room for the typical brilliance that you would expect from the author.

I’ll admit – as enthralled as I was by the atmosphere, especially as the boat entered the perilous “submarine zone”, I found myself questioning how the book could have any hope of swerving towards classic-Carr.  The problem of the fingerprints just wasn’t on the same level as a locked room or vanishing footprints in the snow.  My mind had turned over a number of possible answers, and I decided that even if the solution came out of left field, it still couldn’t be that amazing.

Of course, Carr had me right where he wanted me.  I should have known better than to second guess the strength of a JDC mystery published one year after The Reader is Warned, The Problem of the Green Capsule, and The Problem of the Wire Cage, and published a year before The Case of the Constant Suicides.

The ending of Nine — and Death Makes Ten is long and sweet – drawn out over the course of 35 glorious pages.  In those pages, Merrivale pulls back the curtain on a jaw dropping amount of misdirection.  We get the identity of the killer, which I personally didn’t see coming.  We get the solution to the fingerprints mystery, and it was better than I could have ever imagined.  And then we get… a whole lot more.

Of all of the revelations, perhaps my favorite is the reason for even having an impossibility – a theme that Carr returns to time and again in his books.  It’s easy as a fan of the genre to get so fascinated by the “how” of the impossibility, that we sometimes don’t question why the impossibility needed to exist in the first place.  Why murder someone in a locked room?  Why leave a body surrounded by untouched snow.  And in the case of Nine — and Death Makes Ten, why is there a set of unmatchable fingerprints?  In pretty much every case where Carr addresses these questions, it’s that answer that is the savoriest part of the whole puzzle.

Merrivale is in great form throughout the book, and it served as a reminder of what I enjoyed about the detective in the early novels.  Aside from The Plague Court Murders (which Merrivale is hardly in), it had been over a year since I read a 1930’s Merrivale story.  I had almost forgotten that he wasn’t always about the slapstick comedy that started to show itself in The Gilded Man and snowballed out of control in titles like Night at the Mocking Widow.  There is humor in the Merrivale of Nine — and Death Makes Ten, but it’s more about the way that people interact with him, including this deft description from a ship’s officer:

“Looks like a boiled owl”

Is Nine — and Death Makes Ten worthy of a seat in a Carr Top 10 list?  Honestly, I’ll need to wait a few months to really think that through.  The pace was fast, the atmosphere was tense, and we’re gifted with a thoroughly satisfying solution.  If I were to dock points, it’s because the brilliance of the puzzle isn’t as apparent up front, although that seems like a silly criticism in hindsight – especially since the same comment could be applied to other solid books like Death Watch, The Emperor’s Snuff Box, and The Nine Wrong Answers.  In fact, The Nine Wrong Answers is probably the best comparison that I can make for a Carr story in terms of “gee, I didn’t realize all of that was going on.”  That’s the beauty of a book like this – watching the events unfold before your very eyes without ever realizing it, only to be bowled over by the resolution.

There are some clues that rely on pretty obscure knowledge, especially in this modern time.  Still, I don’t mind – in the end, I want to be fooled by a book like this, and Nine — and Death Makes Ten does an excellent job of that.  As Brad recently commented over at Ah Sweet Mystery while reviewing a Helen McCloy title: “I’d venture to say that the solution plays fair, but you have to possess a lot of esoteric knowledge in order to solve it. I’m happy to say that, being as ignorant as the next man, I remained clueless until the end . . . and that’s the way I like it.”

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27 thoughts on “Nine — and Death Makes Ten – Carter Dickson (1940)”

  1. I thought that comment would bring a smile to your face, Ben . . . we both do love to be hogswiped! (Or whatever getting fooled by a mystery is called!) I still have this one on the TBR, along with White Priory and quite a lot of Merrivales, actually! Much to savor! 🙂

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    1. I know that we have slightly different tastes, but I envy you. If only I could read those early Merrivale books again for the first time – The Plague Court Murders, The Red Widow Murders, The White Priory Murders, The Unicorn Murders, The Ten Teacups, The Reader is Warned, The Judas Window… Those are some of my fondest memories of reading Carr. He was on an absolute tear with his first decade of Carter Dickson stories, and then I feel the stories changed a bit. Thankfully I still have three left to go from that time period.

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  2. This one is like the dark and stormy version of The Blind Barber. I don’t know what it was, but JDC really enjoyed writing shipboard mysteries. I suspect his contemporary audience in 1940 would have been even more thrilled to have the story of what it’s like to cross the Atlantic on such a scary voyage. He did such a great job building and sustaining that suspense it almost seems uncharitable to say that for me, the central “trick” of the book is kind of meh. It’s one of those things that you either know or you don’t and if you do, the mystery is solved. There’s a Rex Stout short story that turns on the definition of a technical word that I happened to know, and pfft, the story was over for me. (Trying hard not to spoil it for anyone, but if you’ve read it you know the one.)
    But holy moly 9&DMT is one suspenseful book, isn’t it? I can totally see it as a black and white movie.

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  3. Thanks for the review. 🙂 I liked this one, which I found moody. I think I know what you mean about requiring specialist knowledge, and to date I’m still sceptical about the explanation for the fingerprint conundrum. Anyway, I’m sorry to hear that you’ve completed the last great Carr novel of the remaining 25 or so titles… Having been burnt by reading all the great Brand titles before the mediocre ones, I’ve deliberately kept aside some great Carr novels to be read only after the mediocre titles.

    But looking at the photo of your two stacks of Carr novels, ‘Three Coffins’, ‘Death Turns the Tables’, ‘Death in Five Boxes’ and ‘He Wouldn’t Kill Patience’ are meant to be good, if not great?

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    1. Well, I spoiled The Three Coffins and He Wouldn’t Kill Patience for myself. It was back when I first heard that there was even a genre of locked room mysteries and I was curious how they were pulled off. Such an unfortunate mistake…

      I’m banking on Death in Five Boxes being pretty good – given its position in the run of early Merrivale titles, I have to think it will be. Plus, JJ did a pretty appealing review of it about two years ago.

      Death Turns the Tables is one that kind of flies under the radar – I hardly ever see it mentioned. It is a 1941 title, which could suggest that it’s a hidden gem. At the worst, I suppose it could be akin to The Man Who Could Not Shudder (published the year before) and I enjoyed that one enough.

      I have somewhat been considering shifting my pile around so that I do go out on a high note. Do I really want to finish Carr with Papa La-Bas followed by Deadly Hall? I suspect those novels aren’t as bad as many make them to be, but I doubt I want them to be my final impression. Of course, I do have the short stories in the end…

      Well, shoot, I could practically write an entire post on going out on Carr…

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      1. Yes, I would recommend leaving ‘Five Boxes’ and Tables’ till the very end… If I recall correctly, JJ Liked ‘Five Boxes’, and Martin Edwards described ‘Tables’ as very good.

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      2. Ben: “I have somewhat been considering shifting my pile around so that I do go out on a high note. Do I really want to finish Carr with Papa La-Bas followed by Deadly Hall?”

        To be honest, are you really going to let the enjoyment of 70+ books be coloured by the fact that the last one you read was a disappointment? I actually don’t think it’s that much of a problem.

        My final book by Carr was “The Hungry Goblin”. Doesn’t spoil my enjoyment of any of his other books I liked none.
        My final book by Christie was probably “Passenger to Frankfurt”. That doesn’t spoil my enjoyment of her other books either.
        With Ellery Queen it was “The Last Woman of His Life”. See a pattern? 🙂

        Yes, those choices were not deliberate but more by necessity – they were simply harder to find than their other works. So if I had had all of them, I’d probably have done as you do – try to mix the supposedly good with the supposedly bad, and try to finish with something good. But really, it doesn’t matter all that much. You’ll still have enjoyed the books you enjoyed. (And better yet, you can always re-read them.)

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      3. Oddly enough, I occasionally find the sudden passion to read a particular “lesser” title – a luxury typically afforded after reading a string of really solid books. I’m high off of a good run of Carr, Brand, and Christie lately, and I’ve been eying Deadly Hall. I know absolutely nothing about it, and that intrigues me.

        As I’ve discussed elsewhere, the books that everyone describes as being “dreadful” have actually been fairly enjoyable for me. The Hungry Goblin is certainly not Carr in his prime, but I was shocked that it was very much in line with his 1950s era historical novels. Other than solving the impossible crime while it was still unfolding, I really enjoyed it.

        I actually think that Dark of the Moon might be the perfect last stop on a Carr readers journey. You certainly wouldn’t be saving the best for last, not by a long shot. Yet you’d end with a perfect taste of the Carr misdirection, and I think that’s what anyone would really want.

        To choose more of a classic book as the final stop may risk putting too much stake into it. I’d worry that I’d finish and think “well, it was good, but not that good.

        But, as you say, the way that you close out isn’t going to color the journey. It’s been a dream so far and I’m happy to say that I’ve still a few miles left to go.

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  4. As the brief foreword makes clear, the background is authentic – John Dickson Carr took a similar voyage (minus the murder parts) on a ship called the Georgic (the one in the book is called the Edwardic). I can imagine how it got the wheels turning in his mind.

    (Partial spoiler)

    The fact that the solution to the impossible situation relies on obscure knowledge is a weak spot for me. It’s not like, say, The Judas Window, where you slap your forehead and say, “Why didn’t I see that coming?” As well (being as vague as possible), I have to wonder how easy it would have been for the murderer to do what he’d meant to do if he hadn’t been prevented by someone else’s unexpected action… although I suppose he would have had the chance to practice in private before he boarded the ship.

    (Partial spoiler ends)

    This novel has one of Carr’s best-concealed murderers, and that’s up against some tough competition. Diverting our attention from the guilty suspect, without making it someone who appears once on page 87, was one of his greatest strengths.

    The love story seemed perfunctory – Valerie goes from despising Max to loving him without much happening to change her mind about him. And I didn’t see what she had going for her besides being beautiful.

    Not a top 10 for me, but possibly a top 20.

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    1. Yeah, the love story is a bit weak and just sort of turns on a dime with no reason.

      One of the best-concealed murderers? Hmm… I may be a poor judge of that – Carr shocks me with the killer in about 80% of his books. As well known as he is for the “how done it”, it is the “who done it” that he really excels at. I’ve actually been sitting on a fully written blog post about this topic for nearly a year. I haven’t published it because it’s such a hard subject to discuss without giving things away for certain books. There are a few titles that really hinge on just how well hidden the killer is, and if you go in questioning who the least likely killer is, you might stumble onto the entire solution. I’d raise a few examples, but, well… I don’t want to give things away.

      Regardless, the killer in Nine – And Death Makes Ten is well hidden and I think it’s fair to discuss that openly without risk of spoiler. I certainly was surprised.

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      1. Yeah, the spoiler business is a delicate balancing act. The only really safe way to do it that I can think of is to do an essay on a single book, warn the reader at the outset that the piece contains spoilers for it, and not allude to any other books even where there are similarities. Or write one like your “well-hidden killers” article, and have a warning at the beginning saying, “If you haven’t read all of Carr, don’t read this!” And even then, since there are books of his you, thegreencapsule, haven’t read, you don’t want to write something about similarities between Books A, B and C, and then have someone comment with “Yeah, and the solution to Book D was like that too!” when that’s one you haven’t got to yet. If someone has a better way to handle all this, I’d love to hear it.

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      2. Yeah, it’s the ultimate conundrum for us fans, isn’t it? It’s so tempting to take a book like Hag’s Nook and discuss how it relies on a form of misdirection similar to X, Y, and Z. Or to debate the merits of the solution to The Witch of the Low Tide with XX. Those are the conversations that I’m dying to have and I can’t!

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      3. I think once you have read all of Carr you should publish these essays with the kind of spoiler warning I mention…”if you’re only part way through the canon, this is not for you, and here’s why…” I for one would like to read and discuss the books this way!

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  5. So so glad you finally got round to this one, been waiting for you to get to it! It really is all about the atmosphere, and you are totally right about the ‘I didn’t know all that was going on’ feeling. For me its of the best reveals of Carr with all that you get out of it. Have you ever listened to the Cabin B-13 radio play by Carr? It’s another ship bound mystery and was so popular at the time that the BBC commissioned a whole series of he back of it. I look forward to more discussion on the hidden killer in Carr’s oeuvre, there is a lot to discuss there. And this one is a real shocker for sure.

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    1. I’ve listened to the Cabin B-13 radio play, as well as The Dead Sleep Lightly. They were fun to listen to, but I personally don’t think that the radio medium conveys the essence of a mystery nearly as well as the written page. I have a few of the radio plays collected in The Door to Doom and I’m looking forward to reading them as opposed to listening to them.

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      1. Agreed, the acting is very war time melo-drama and there isn’t really any nuance. Although I have a dream of one day making all of Carr’s radio plays available to listen to. I am not sure what was written first, the radio play or this. There seems to be a lineage of ideas here.

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      2. …although in saying my previous comment, I do like a bit of war time melo-drama now and again. And programs like Suspense always give me a laugh for their faux-creepiness, love that kind of stuff.

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  6. I have this one waiting to be read, so you’ve thoroughly whetted my appetite for it. John Dickson Carr is very hit and miss for me, but this sounds like it plays – mostly, at least – to his strengths.

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  7. For narrative and style interest, special note re Chapter 11, where Carr reverses time to show the lead up to the cliffhanger from Chapter 10 from another point of view. Wonderfully done.

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  8. Just remember that you run the opposite risk by saving something that’s supposed to be good for last. What if you don’t enjoy that novel? It is, after all, possible that you’re not going to like it even though “everyone else” does. 🙂

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