How 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.”