The Five Matchboxes – John Russell Fearn (1950)

TheFiveMatchBoxesAn anonymous letter tips police off that a man will be killed at an exact time and place.  The police stake out the location, even posting a man in a hall right out the murder room.  Right on time, a shot rings out, and as police break down the door, they find a victim lies dead of a gunshot in an airtight locked room.  And sitting there, on the table, are ten teacups.

Er, actually it’s five matchboxes.  Forgive me though if I make the obvious comparison to The Ten Teacups by John Dickson Carr.  John Russell Fearn’s novel was published thirteen years after Carr’s, and it checks all of the boxes when it comes to the set up.  Man shot in a locked room?  Check.  Detective posted directly outside the door, with even more police watching the building from outside?  Check.  Mysterious note announcing the exact circumstances of the murder?  Check.  Puzzling collection of objects found at the crime scene (five matchboxes rather than ten teacups)?  Check.

While I may be tempted to scoff at such an obvious “homage” to Carr’s work, I have to admit that the similarity had me hooked.  I first learned about the obscure locked room mystery at, where else, Beneath the Stains of Time.  Although this sounded like an obvious rip off, I admit I was curious to see what another author could do with the set up to one of the better John Dickson Carr novels.  To be open about things, The Ten Teacups has received its share of detractors as of late, but for me it boasts one of the most beguiling locked room setups, as well as a torrent of twists at the end.  If John Russell Fearn’s variation offered even a quarter of the satisfaction fo the Carr novel, I’d be more than happy.

I’ve covered the set up to the novel already to an extent.  An anonymous note tips police that Granville Collins will be shot in his office between 9-9:30 am on June 11th.  The police naturally don’t bother to actually warn Collins, but instead stake out the scene so that they can catch the killer in the act.  Despite the building being surrounded by police, and a detective stashed in a water closet across the hall, a gunshot rings out, and Collins is found within his locked office, shot through the heart.

Fearn does an excellent job assuring the reader of the impossibility of the crime.  Over the course of the book, various methods of getting at the victim are ruled out.  To me, this is key to a locked room mystery.  Don’t simply declare that we’re dealing with a hermetically sealed crime scene.  Work with the reader to cross out any avenue for the crime to have been committed.  Allow the reader to flex their creativity, yet stymie them every time a solution emerges

I’ll admit, at first I was a bit worried about this one.  Several chapters in, we have two suspects and one of them is reeking of guilt.  Thankfully the story expands over time, and by the midway point we easily had a dozen viable suspects on our hands.  We’re also introduced to an unsolved crime from fifteen years earlier, in which a woman was found hanged in a wardrobe.

Although I can see parallels with Carr in Fearn’s writing, I have to say that the comparison that really leapt to mind was Freeman Wills Crofts.  Similar to The Sea Mystery, The Five Matchboxes ends seemingly miles from where it began.  To look back simply on the confines of that initial crime scene seems to do the subsequent story poor justice.  Also similar to Crofts, the investigation provided by Fearn reflects the countless hours of footwork put in by innumerable investigators as they build a case by tracking down each minor detail of evidence.

Fearn does provide a focal detective – Inspector Garth – along with a foil side kick, Sergeant Whittaker.  Garth isn’t especially memorable, aside from his frequently referenced indigestion, but is an enjoyable to read character nonetheless.  Here I can somewhat see a Carr analogy – Fatal Descent, in which duo authors John Rhodes and Carr provided a solid, yet possibly forgettable, detective in the form of Dr Horatio Glass.

The comparison to Carr should honestly end there though.  Fearn is a readable author in his own right, and with this one I’ll acknowledge his capability to move a story along.  At about midway point, The Five Matchboxes shifts into solution phase, and it never really stops.  Numerous threads of mystery unravel throughout the rest of the story, making it a brisk read.  I don’t know that there’s ever an earth shattering revelation – you’ll pretty much solve this one along with the detective – but it was engaging throughout.  By midpoint you’ll have some key answers to the initial puzzle, although Fearn does well in opening up new realms of possibility.  The one downside to the stream of discoveries is that I doubt anyone will walk into the denouement without most of it figured out.  Still, Fearn provides a nice stitching together of all of the pieces, meaning I was still peeling pages at a frantic rate up until the end.

Speaking of pages – I’ve been trying to track this book down for about two years and finally nailed a cheap copy.  I was a bit disappointed when I received it to find that it was a Linford Mystery Library large print edition, meaning that a story I’m guessing would have normally run 180 pages unfolded across 367.  In reading it, though, it was perfectly fine.  There’s a bit of a weirdness when you see that you have six pages to a chapter’s end, or forty pages left in the book, yet the subsequent reading flies by in record time.

It’s interesting that over 20 Fearn novels are available in these large print editions.  Why?  Perhaps that was the most economical way to go when these prints were created around 2008.  I’m glad for it though – it means that more Fearn novels are available on the market.  Fearn is no John Dickson Carr or Christianna Brand, but this book suggests that he might be Patrick Quentin territory.  There’s no unforgettable misdirection in The Five Matchboxes, but I’ve read much more forgettable books by authors far more prominent.

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8 thoughts on “The Five Matchboxes – John Russell Fearn (1950)”

  1. By the end of your first sentence I was thinking “Ten Teacups,” so I’m glad to hear it turned out to be a very different novel!

    this book suggests that he might be Patrick Quentin territory

    If you hear a noise from the window, you might want to check in case it’s an army of Patrick Quentin fans, wielding brands and pitchforks as they advance up the hillside toward your home with the intent of effecting some “correctional therapy.”

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    1. The Patrick Quentin analogy was meant to be a measured two way compliment. Quentin wins at the moment for Death and the Maiden, but it doesn’t elevate him (them) to the level of my top authors. Both Fearn and Quentin are both writers that I’m curious about at the moment and more reading will be necessary before I come to any real opinion.

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  2. Finally! Someone else has read The Five Matchboxes and such an interesting review with an entirely different perspective on plot and storytelling.

    Your comparison to Crofts and Quentin caught me by surprise, because the plot and story, with all its strengths and weaknesses, struck me as a proto-Paul Halter. I found this very interesting at the time as both Fearn and Halter are huge John Dickson Carr fanboys.

    I agree Fearn is not on the same level, as a writer and plotter, as Brand or Carr. He was a second-string mystery writer who has his roots in pulp magazines, but I find him to be very entertaining and came up with some good ideas – including several fresh and original locked room-tricks. So take him on his own terms and you’ll be able to enjoy one of the most prolific writers of impossible crime stories from the 1940-and 50s.

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    1. I definitely had a sense of proto-Halter while reading The Five Matchboxes. There is something about the way that Fearn writes that is very similar – perhaps a muted version of Carr’s flourish of the pen.

      The Quentin comparison wasn’t in terms of style, but more saying that this might be an enjoyable second stringer, as you put it. Of course, this comment will apparently bring me torches and pitchforks.

      On the back of this read I did go out and buy three more Fearn titles. Unfortunately I still haven’t been able to track down an affordable copy of Thy Arm Alone.

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  3. I picked out another Fearn to read following TomCat’s excitement and every time I o to open it I’m like, Errr, why don’t I read this instead? 🤣 No reason that I can pin down except that your very muted response — a sort of shrug in review form — is how I expect to feel afterwards and I’m looking for something a little…more.

    Of course, I’ll eventually get round to it, love it, and set up a fan site as a result…but for the time being I’m just struggling to want to put him ahead of the 300 other authors on my TBR.

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    1. I had cold feet for the first 60 or so pages (keeping in mind this was a large print book) and was questioning whether I should just put it back on the shelf. I’m glad that I persisted though since it ended up being an interesting enough read. As you note though, this was far from a classic.

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      1. You’re not encouraging me…

        Trust me, JJ. From all of Fearn’s locked room mysteries, you’re most likely to enjoy The Five Matchboxes the most, because it really feels like a proto-Paul Halter. If you can take Halter on his own terms, you should at least give this one a shot, if only as comparison material. After all, Fearn was, like Halter, a professional JDC fanboy.

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