#439: Nine – and Death Makes Ten, a.k.a. Murder in the Atlantic, a.k.a. Murder in the Submarine Zone (1940) by Carter Dickson

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Yes, this was supposed to be The Spanish Cape Mystery (1935) by Ellery Queen in preparation for the forthcoming spoiler-filled look at Halfway House (1936).  Yes, you all warned me that book was awful, and you were correct.  Let’s instead board a cruise ship stuffed with munitions at the outset of the Second World War and watch the eight — or is it nine? — passengers slowly get to know each other until one of them is found murdered in their cabin, the corpse peppered with fingerprints which do not match those of anyone on board.  Aaah, I feel better already — man, I love the work of John Dickson Carr; the idea of having never discovered it makes me feel a little unwell.

Anyway, first a sort of…thing.  Not a confession as such, more some context.  See, I was aware that Carr had written an ‘impossible fingerprints’ book, though I didn’t know which one it was, and I have carried a secret fear with me ever since learning of it: namely, that the solution would bear a striking resemblance to an episode of Jonathan Creek in which…well, in which there’s similarly an ‘impossible fingerprints’ problem.  And, while it wouldn’t be an exact fit, a part of me upon encountering the impossibility herein spent about 150 pages trying to make the Creek-y answer fit this setup — huge amounts of fun, incidentally, especially as they couldn’t be more different.  I recommend thinking you know the vague shape of an impossibility and turning out to be wrong; the mind turns all manner of corkscrews, and finds clues in the most unusual places…

Boats have been pretty good to Carr; anyone who isn’t impressed by the trick in The Blind Barber (1934) isn’t paying attention, but we can all agree that radio play Cabin B-13 is a little piece of genius.  Here he cranks maximum atmosphere out of the deserted staterooms and empty corridors, the passengers essentially “ghosts wandering about in an over-decorated haunted house”, the surroundings leant the eerie resplendence of the Overlook Hotel vibe long before anyone had heard of the Overlook Hotel:

From the lounge, Max wandered into the Long Gallery that opened out of it.  The Long Gallery was all deep carpets, deep plush chairs, book-cases, and small bronze figures holding lights.  There was nobody here either.

Max Matthews — injured in a fire, now free from hospital following a long recuperation, walking with a cane — is, these details aside, very much ensconced in the habiliments of the typical Carr hero: a bit green, rather keen to jump to a conclusion, and the other character don’t exactly compel themselves to the memory: I kept getting George Hooper and Dr. Reginald Archer mixed up, and Valerie Chatford, the ostensible heroine, seems to be there to act mysterious and pretend like there isn’t going to be a love story.  Interestingly, the crew are the ones who stand out, but of course they also the marine equivalent of servants and really just there to fill in the background.  Which is not to say that Carr falls down in capturing them — one has a mind “like a railway yard, full of bewildering points and switches”, and the Hon. Jerome Kenworthy wearing “a dinner jacket without any dinner to pad it out” is divine — but the focus is so tightly on atmosphere and bafflement that I feel a little short-changed in a way that I didn’t with, say, The Reader is Warned (1939).

But, see, the puzzle is a doozy.  The matter of the fingerprints is very smart, if a bit difficult to get too excited about, but the who and the why must be about the best in the panoply of criminals offered in Carr’s career.  I spotted one clue without even realising it was a clue — I’m wise to the way Carr drops things, even if I don’t know why they’ve been dropped — and, while this probably isn’t strictly fair (it would need a floorplan nowadays) it’s also very entertaining to have the revelations of H.M. initially interrupted by a bunch of crew essentially going “Ooo-er, remember when that thing happened? And to think that I didn’t realise how relevant it was!” because of just how much has been secreted in the prose and how many chances you’ve been given to pick up on key details.

My feeling on this is that it’s right at the peak of second-tier Carr: unmarred by too many filigree’d touches, untroubled by disconnected ideas, and with a watertight and brilliant scheme at the core — as well as possibly the most perfect ‘reverse clue’ in the genre, one I’ll be rhapsodising about with anyone else who’s read this when conversation gets around to it — but also oddly unmemorable in anything striking about the population or their actions.  This is the era of Carr to dive into if you’ve not read him before, and as a companion piece to And So to Murder (1940) it’s even more highly recommended.  Each balances the other while being small, gorgeously formed, and winning through in a way that compensates for the faults in its partner.  And since the years to come would bring The Case of the Constant Suicides (1941), The Emperor’s Snuffbox (1942), She Died a Lady (1943), Till Death Do Us Part (1944), He Wouldn’t Kill Patience (1944), and He Who Whispers (1946) I think we can officially say that Carr has hit his stride!

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See also

Sergio @ Tipping My Fedora: 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.

Dan @ The Reader is Warned: I confess to not always being that bothered who the killer is when I am reading a Carr, particularly if I am resting in the joys of the impossible elements, but in this instance it was a genuinely shocking and surprising reveal. The whole denouement builds in fast pace, and the ending explanations are very rich. It’s an ending that doesn’t just explain or justify the events of the book, but enriches everything you have read, making the whys and hows all the more clever and all the more harrowing.

Ben @ The Green Capsule: 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.

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For the Follow the Clues Mystery Challenge, this links to Murder on Safari from last week because — ha — of how suddenly the romance between the male and female lead is dropped on you come the closing stages.

And on my Just the Facts Golden Age Bingo card this fulfils the category ah, crap it, nothing I haven’t got already.

91 thoughts on “#439: Nine – and Death Makes Ten, a.k.a. Murder in the Atlantic, a.k.a. Murder in the Submarine Zone (1940) by Carter Dickson

  1. Y’know, I recall enjoying The Spanish Cape Mystery way back when, along with the other “country” Elleries; the only one I thought lesser than the rest was American Gun . . . which I reread more recently and found was better than I’d remembered. I reread Egyptian Cross a few years ago too, and found it bore up pretty well. Clearly I should reread the others at some stage so that, informed, I can say, “Pshaw, JJ!”

  2. I loved re-reading this one a little while ago, held up beautifully. I think it is maybe too good to be considered “second tier” though … 😀 Been too long since I read the Queen, though I remember finding it thin compared with GREEK and SIAMESE, my favourites from their first period.

    • Ah, but, c’mon: when top tier Carr is Till Death, Died a Lady, Green Capsule, Plague Court, Hollow Man, Punch and Judy, possibly Burning Court, possibly Constant Suicides, possibly Judas Window, possibly He Who Whispers…there is no shame in being in the second tier below all that. Most other authors would be delighted to count Eight of Swords, Red Widow, False Weapons, Death Watch, Crooked Hinge, Snuff-Box, Shudder, Castle Skull, Ten Teacups, Unicorn and others as among equal quality to their own work. And this is at the very top of that pile…!

      • Yes I don’t think ‘second tier’ necessarily means worse or lower quality, it’s just a different feel of book. Not one that is epic, or monolithic in it’s aims and it’s achievements (like Till Death or She Died a Lady) but is tighter, claustrophobic, and beautifully balanced in it’s minutiae.

        In many ways I feel like it’s harder to write those type of super ‘closed in’ works than the epics (apart from the difficulty of weaving together a huge plot in a more epic work), as it’s so hard to maintain a smaller cast and small amount of locations and keep the mystery so gripping and thrilling. But the fact that Carr can draw and incredible amount 3, 2 or even 1 location is amazing to me. The Reader is Warned, He Wouldn’t Kill Patience and Wire Cage are perfect examples of that.

        • I still think “second tier” is misleading – like a Carr clue 🙂 – as I think it should be “second stage”, as in the part of Carr’s career when he wrote solid mystery novels without any Gothic trappings and just focused on the problem(s) at hand. They might not have as flabberghasting solutions or audacious setups, but are as satisfying (if not more) than those early trailblazers of the mid 30s.

          • Perhaps, but it’s human nature to want to compare the relative quality of things, and second tier in Carr’s class represents far less of a drop-off than does, say, Christie’s or Marsh’s. Hell, I would love to find someone who had written 20 novels of the quality of Carr’s second tier…another one, I mean 😀

      • I do agree with your controversial statement that this might fall into a second tier of Carr (although that would imply that there are at least five tiers of Carr). I’ve seen this show up on a number of Carr top 10 lists and yet I don’t think it should quite qualify – the competition is just that good. With that said, I lent this to a friend who commented that it was their favorite Carr to date, so what do I know…

        I think for me it is the nature of the mystery. The impossible fingerprint is kind of like the vanishing building – you spend the entire book thinking “oh, he was just on the wrong street” (sorry to spoil half of that sub-sub-genre). But then wham, Carr hits you with this massive twist that you never saw coming. It isn’t even really that the trick is that clever (although it is), but that there is so much going on around the trick that you didn’t realize.

        • I especially enjoy how the impossible nature of the fingerprints leads to all manner of fingerprint-based shenanigans that essentially turns into the plot. The other reveal(s) within have more impact, but the need for and existence of an impossible set of prints is the tentpole on which everythign else hangs perfectly.

          It does make you think, too, just how many authors would go “Well, one of the guys exmaining the fingerprint cards did the murder and pulled some legerdemain and so the other one thought he was examining them all when in fact he wasn’t”. I love how you can trust Carr not to try that sort of bloody nonsense, and perhaps you’re set up for a slight disappointment because of it: you want a brilliant, shocking reveal, you’re reasonable in expecting such, and instead you get merely an exceptionally canny and intelligent reversal….and then we have the gall to feel short-changed!

        • Oh, at least 6 levels — it’s a celebration after all. As for Snuff-Box…again, being the second tier is no shame! The difficulty is that it has a single trick, and I saw through it immediately…!

  3. So so glad you got to this and enjoyed it as much as me. The trick is so super clever, and for a smaller, tighter Carr everything works perfectly.

    Agreed on your thoughts about character, although I think I enjoyed Valerie a bit more than you did. I haven’t read And So To Murder but I love the idea that it could be a companion piece to this. I think as time goes on I am loving these types of Carrs more and more.

    And agreed Cabin b-13 is genius.

  4. I thought “Nine” was great – I wasn’t entirely persuaded about the finger prints, but I still enjoyed it very much. A brooding and tightly constructed mystery. But yes, I can see where you are coming from when you say it isn’t the most memorable of Carr’s novels. It has many great ingredients, but stops slightly short from being memorably great.

    But I still would put it above “Judas Window”, “Punch and Judy” and “Burning Court” – I think. 😅 Definitely above “Plague Court”. 😼

    • I’d agree it’s above Judas Window, then then we seem to be the only people who don’t deify that novel 😉

      Burning Court I still can’t work out. I’m hoping Brad has read it when he comes over for Bodies from the Library next year, because I think Brad’s response to that book would help me figure out a lot about how I feel.

      This Plague Court heresy, however, will not stand… 🙂

  5. Not read this one yet myself so I’ve nothing much to add beyond the fact I’m pleased to see you have generally positive feelings about this book and that this appears to be the consensus view.
    And what’s that about giving upon an EQ book! Shame on you!

    • It’s always nice to hold the consensus view — trying to argue your own corner in the face of wider opinion is exhausting. Who knew being right all the time could e so much trouble?

      This is a great, tight plot, and a masterful use of location — but the absence of much in the way of character does feel rather like Carr succumbing to the expectations of crime fiction that his so rallied against in Eight of Swords. Dunno how much that is a) deliberate b) self-knowing or c) accidental, but it’s interesting how rich some of his characters are and how…bland so many of them are herein.

      The central trick, however, is beautifully beyond many of his contemporaries, and I’ll take that kicker over 200 pages of Mrs. Bradley’s “character” any day of the week.

        • Many — including trustworthy and discerning people like Nick Fuller, I’m sure — would encourage you to delve deeper. I…would not. Such is the joy of so much choice.

  6. Nine is one of my favorite Carter Dickson novels. Gorgeous and suffocating atmosphere that slowly tightens and tightens around the book continuously, a shocking end reveal, and an impossibility that is incredibly well explained and fit’s perfectly with the plot.
    I do agree in your statement about this being peak second tier Carr, there is just something about this book that doesn’t quite elevate it to the status of books like The Reader is Warned and She Died a Lady and I can’t quite place my finger on it.
    Blind Barber has a trick to it? I always thought it didn’t have an impossibility and combined with the fact it was said to br filled with horrid humor, I’ve avoided completely.

    • The Blind Barber has a dead body appearing on a cruise ship in the middle of the ocean when no member of crew and no passenger has gone missing, a stowaway is fully ruled out, and no-one could have joined the ship en route. It’s really not as terrible as its reputation suggests — sure, it’s not funny, but it’s not offensively unfunny…it’s just a bit slapstick at times. And the tone works to a certain point because the solution sort of relies on it…well, not realies on it, but would be harder to make work in a more serious-minded Masters-run investigation.

      I’m not claiming it’s an early-career masterpiece, but it’s maligned well and truly past the point that it deserves. Hell, it;s better than Christie’s thrillers [cue sensation].

      As for NADMT, I’m pleased to see we’re pretty much in agreement. It’s very, very, very good, but falls short of Carr’s best. No shame in that, and it’s a books I’d happily recommend, but in context he’s done — and would go on to do — better,

      • Having reread Blind Barber not that long ago, I’d say it was better than I’d remembered it. Not all that good but not a total bust either – although that phonetic dialog, especially from the Scandinavian character, is basically unbearable and drags the book way down.

          • To be honest, I can live with the love story intervals – they may grate a bit but rarely ruin a book. I recently read a non-GAD novel, a Hammond Innes thriller in fact, and found myself tuning out regularly due to constant descent into Cornish dialect.

      • I’m happy to hear that The Blind Barber is respectable, as it’s one of only two pre-1940 Fell books that I have left (the horror!) I kind of imagine it falling in the vein of The Mad Hatter Mystery and The Eight of Swords – a brilliant conclusion no doubt given that it came out at nearly the same time. That it takes place on a ship is intriguing and shakes things up a bit for the era. I actually find the comedy in pre-1943 Carr to be funny most of the time, so we’ll see how I take this one.

        • I was able to read it without knowing it was supposed to be dreck, and I really enjoyed it. Flawed, clealy an experiment, and we can be thankful Carr didn’t go too much further down that road, but by no means an out-and-out fustercluck. Will be interested in your thoughts when you get to it.

          • Thanks for the information and the suggestion! The Blind Barber await’s me in ebook form at this very moment ( I didn’t buy it, I just borrowed it from my library), I’ll look at it in the next week or so.
            A interesting little tidbit: After publishing TBB, Carr sent his publishers a letter asking if he should either continue writing mystery novels with normal atmospheres or if he should start writing comedy. Thankfully, mystery was chosen, but I shudder to think about an alternate universe where Carr started writing only comedy novels after 1934 ( I feel bad for the poor detective fiction fans stuck in that universe).

            • There’s a fascinating parallel universe in which Till Death Do Us Part has a genius plot filled out by terrible slapstick, or the vampire mythology at the heart of He Who Whispers is interspersed with fat men rolling down hills in wheelbarrows.

              I think, has Carr persisted with comedy, he would have son realised where his heart and tlents lie. But its an intriguing notion to ponder!

  7. I always read the reviews of the ones I haven’t read with my eyes half closed, for fear of spoilage. Isn’t it odd that I feel rather superior to you all, or maybe just super lucky, that I have so many JDC books – well, most of them are CD – left to read? 🤗

    If Cabin B13 isn’t gasp-inducing in the same way as “The House in Goblin Wood,” it might very well be my favorite radio play of all time! The buildup of terror for the young bride and the ultimate simplicity of the solution as to how a husband and wife can walk up a gangplank together and nobody see him is – okay, yeah, Carr is a genius.

    • After my experience of The Burning Court, I’m actively avoiding any and all reviews of any books I’ve not myself read (and intend to read at some future point, of course). It’s not that I worry that any one person will give too much away — that wold make me some kind of hypocrite — but I do find that enough little hints from enough reviews can usually give you an indication of certain events, and I’d much rather go in completely blank.

      That’s why I didn’t mention the bit in this one where they load the cow in the catapult. and then accidentally cover it in marmalade. Everyone should come to that not knowing it’s in there.

  8. The impossible-fingerprints mystery held my interest throughout, but the solution was a bit of a letdown… it was more a case of “I guess it could have been done that way” rather than the “damn it, I should have seen that!!” I got from, say, She Died a Lady or (sorry) The Judas Window. (I feel the same way about the locked room in Till Death Do Us Part.) In retrospect, my main interest is in the final-chapter revelations about what was really going on behind the scenes without my knowing. That and the World War Two setting that was based on Carr’s real-life experiences.

    The Blind Barber was the third Carr novel I ever read, and I had no idea what kind of reputation it had when I opened my copy. The humour was not the greatest, but I enjoyed how Dr. Fell actually named the clues (“The Clue of Terse Style”) before explaining what the hell he was talking about, and yet I was still baffled until he did elucidate. I think Carr was wise to have him function as an armchair detective in that one, separated in time and space from the shenanigans.

    • Yeah, it’s true that the fingerprint explanation is more “Huh, how about that?” than “OMFG£)(YSKSKN)J!!!!!” — but, at the same time, it shows a perception of and possibility within events that most people would overlook, and that’s what makes great clewing and detection. I liked it but, as you say, intelligence and wow aren’t always the same thing.

      I’m amused by the notion of Fell running around on that ship in The Blind Barber. Had that been the case, I guarantee everyone would be pointing to that book and going “Well, clearly this is where he got the idea for Henry Merrivale…”

      • The “how” of the impossible fingerprints is a clever little bit worthy of a short story. The “why” is absolutely gold. This may be Carr’s best “why” for any impossibility. It is both so simple and at the same time so complex. If you ask the question “why is there a pair of fingerprints on the boat that don’t match any of the passengers?”, I have to think most people who have read the book would say “oh, that’s simple, because…” But then you realize that it isn’t such an easy question to answer. In fact, a brief answer would lead to yet another puzzling question. Ugh, anyway, I have this whole conversation in my head about it but I obviously can’t type it out here because it would be full of spoilers. I’ll just assume you get where I’m going.

        • For sheer “why did event X at the start happen and how did it give rise to the rest of the plot?” this is probably on par with Till Death Do Us Part. Everything builds out of one deliberate action in a perfect and marvellous way. The same is true of The Emperor’s Snuff-Box, I’d suggest. Interesting that these came in a little cluster, eh?

  9. I’ll go with the general consensus here and say that this is a very good Carr book, but probably not in his top 10. I have to say I’m a little dubious about whether the fingerprint trick would work in real life, although of course Carr claims to have dug up a case where it did happen. I haven’t seen the Jonathan Creek episode in question, but Joseph Commings’ short story “Fingerprint Ghost” is an impossible-fingerprints mystery with (I think) a more ingenious method.

    BTW, Leo Bruce blatantly swiped the twist ending of this novel (the identity and scheme of the murderer, not the fingerprints angle) for one of his Carolus Deene books a few decades later. I like some of Bruce’s books, but that wasn’t exactly his finest hour.

    I’m another of those who think THE BLIND BARBER gets a bad rap; it’s got a great mystery plot hidden under all of the slapstick.

    • The Jonathan Creek episode — no spoielrs, fear not — has fingerprints on a gun which don’t match anyone who is involved in the shooting. It’s not technically and impossibility since the shooter could have fled the scene, but given the closed-circle nature of that sort of show it would have been a gigantic disappointment if the solution was “And here’s Ted, who killed that guy and has been off-screen the whole time!”.

      Thanks for the heads-up on the Commings story, I’ll keep an eye out for it. I’m about the only person in existence who thinks ‘The X Street Murders’ is the worst kind of guff imaginable, so I’ve not invested too heavily in him yet. All in good time. Him and everyone else (Ed Hoch, William Brittain, Arthur Porges, James Yaffe…man there are a lot of highly-regarded short story specialists in this genre).

      • I’m not sure I’d second the recommendation for Commings’s “Fingerprint Ghost” – I think the solution’s a bit “ooookaaaay?” – but since I like “X Street Murders”, what do I know? 🙂

        Though my favourite Commings stories are probably “Ghost in the Gallery” and “Death by Black Magic”.

        • Well, if ‘Ghost’ is not as good as ‘X Street’…jeepers, now what do I do? Obviously what I do is read it and come to my own opinion, of course, but it seems fraught with more peril than strictly makes me comfortable.

          Incidentally, Christian, many congratulations no getting your translation of White Priory published — I can’t comment on your post because I do not have (and do not wish to sign up for) a Google account. But it’s a great achievement, and more power to you. Here’s hoping Scandi fiction is still a hot thing in UK publishing circles and someone goes “Hmmm, who’s this Carter Dickson getting so much traction over in Sweden?” and then pays for your translation to be translated into English (I offer my services!) and gives it some literal translation of your Swedish title.

          Hell, if that’s what it takes to get Carr republished over here, I’m all for it…!

          • Thanks a lot. It really feels like an achievement. Not a huge one, but still.

            Incidentally, the title is probably the least impressive thing about it – it translates literally into “The Vanished Footprints”.

            • The guy who has published a new translation of a book by the single finest proponent of detective fiction so that a new multitude can discover him casually shrugs and goes “Well, it’s no big deal, is it?”

              Christian, it terrifies me to think what you must have accomplished in your life to be this blase. If I’d got Carr published again in English, people wouldn’t hear the end of it… 🤣

      • Oh, you’re not the only one who thinks The X Street Murders isn’t very good. A great opening situation, but the solution just didn’t live up to it. And Commings had a pretty awkward writing style. I remember reading that he was never able to sell a story to Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, and I’m not surprised; any randomly selected story from the Dannay years would have a 100% chance of being better written than X Street. It’s too bad Commings didn’t have his own “Manny Lee,” a collaborator who could write as well as, say, Hoch or Porges. All that said, I would like to read that collection of his “Senator Banner” impossible-crime stories that came out a number of years ago.

        • Yeah, the Brooks U. Banner collection interests me, I won’t deny, despite holding the same reservations about Commings’ writing that you cite above. I’m interested to see if ‘X Street’ is his Hollow Man: the one everyone knows that doesn’t really deserves the <i<de facto assumption of it being the best. All in good time…

            • For some people it probably is, but that’s the beauty of subjectivity: others will have the pleasure of discovering something they enjoy more, and some will find pleasure in none of it. Hell, my late-in-life discovery of the joys of Freeman Wills Crofts bear testament to never jumping in two-footed without at least dipping a toe first — maybe you and I would find everything else significantly below the questionable standards of ‘X Street’, but a great many others, some of who comment on and write the blogs in this community, have a lot of respect for Commings’ stories. More power to them, thankfully we’rer all grown-up enought to recognise pluracy when we see it 🙂

            • All right – now I’m all fired up to get my hands on a copy of Banner Deadlines and see for myself what I think of a larger dose of Commings, and how X Street stacks up against a batch of his other stories. One review on Amazon lists the impossibilities (but not the solutions) and some of them sound interesting.

              Another review appears to be where I had read that Commings could never crack the EQMM market.

              Also, it seems one of the stories actually is a collaboration with Hoch… I will be interested to see if it reads more smoothly than the others.

              I’m going to start by trying to get the book via inter-library loan… no sense paying an arm and a leg for it if I don’t have to. So this may take a while!

          • Count me as one who actually likes “The X Street Murders!” But then, it was like the eighth or ninth impossible crime I read, so there’s that factor. Why don’t you like it?

            I enjoy the Banner stories, and if you dig back in my blog and can handle my horrible writing you can find the review of it (“It Ain’t Over Till the Fat Man Sings,” ironically right before I went on hiatus for like two years). I don’t know if Commings always hits fair play, but he’s certainly inventive in his impossibilities.

            • Why don’t I like it? Well, if I didn’t have to do some research for a post tomorrow I’d have time to tell you. As it is, I just find the setup, execution, and motivation too ridiculous — like why would you go to that much effort for zero real gain? And the clue of the…oh, let’s not get started,

              Maybe I’d like it more now, I dunno — it’s been a number of years since I read it — but I remember the whole thing leaving a distinctly unpleasant taste in my mouth,

  10. So a lot of comments here on whether or not Nine-and Death Makes Ten is a top or second-tier Carr novel. Well, I really liked the book from start to finish, but have to side with the people who rank it among the second-tier titles. However, I also agree with the people who place it in their top 10, because there’s a logical reason for this. Shipboard mysteries are a popular sub-category and in this category Nine-and Death Makes Ten is a first-tier detective novel.

    So by Carr’s own standards, this is a second-tier mystery, but, as a shipboard mystery, it ranks with the best.

    On a side note, there’s radio play from The New Adventures of Nero Wolfe, entitled “The Case of the Phantom Fingers,” which uses exactly the same impossible scenario. The episode also has some great dialogue and banter between Wolfe and Archie. Wolfe has a great line when Archie informed him that there was a man lying in the middle of the road.

    • Inevitably, then, the question turns to: what are the great shipboard mysteries? I’ve read Murder in Pastiche by Marion Mainwaring (which was…uh, fine), and I suppose Death on the Nile qualifies…but I can’t honestly think of much I’ve come across beyond Blind Barber.

      All that comes to mind is The Widow’s Cruise by Nicholas Blake, which I’ll get to when I have the courage to tackle Strangeways again, and…yeah, no I draw a blank. So recommend me something! What else is in the pile that Nine–and Death Makes Ten tops?

      • You want recommendations of shipboard titles as good as Nine-and Death Makes Ten or recommendations of lesser titles that show it worthy of a top ten spot?

        I suppose in the top ten column you have Christie’s Death on the Nile taking the #1 slot (Brad can back me on that) followed by Nine-and Death Makes Ten. W. Shepard Pleasants’ controversial The Stingaree Murders deserves a spot for its original and somewhat prophetic plot. James Holding’s The Zanzibar Shirt Mystery and Other Stories is collection of linked short stories that take place during a round-the-world cruise. Q. Patrick’s S.S. Murder is another good one and C. Daly King’s Obelists at Sea is probably eligible, but a re-read is in order. Some would probably also add Rufus King’s Murder by Latitude to the list and Robin Forsythe’s The Pleasure Cruise Mystery should probably be on it as well. And Voyage into Violance by Frances and Richard Lockridge makes ten. But Carr and Christie stand together at the top of the list.

        As for the lesser titles, P. Walker Taylor’s Murder in the Suez Canal had all the potential in the world, but the solution was unsatisfactory and unfair. Ed McBain’s Death of a Nurse was disappointing. Peter Drax’s High Seas Murder was interesting and well-written, but more a character study than a detective story. Elizabeth Gill’s Crime de Luxe, K.K. Beck’s Death in a Deck Chair and Herbert Brean’s Traces of Merrilee are all good reads, but not outstanding in any way. I liked Max Allan Collins’ The Titanic Murders and The Lusitania Murders a lot, but would probably not make the cut for a top 10 (#11 and #12).

        I banged this out as it came to me. Hope it helps.

        • Wonderful as always, thank-you so much for this.

          Puzzle Doctor has loaned me a copy of The Stingaree Murders and I’ foolishly forgotten about that (not the book — don’t worry, Doc, I know exactly where it is — but it’s being shipboard) and I have Brean’s Traces of Brillhart (another of your recommendations, I seem to remember) and would have doubtless found Merrilee if I enjoy that one.

          As for C. Daly King…yeesh, after Obelists Fly High I don’t know if I’m ready to saddle up that horse any time soon. Thankfully I’m unlikely to stumble over a copy any time soon, either, so that can be a quandary for another day.

          • I’ll second the recommendations for the Patrick, Brean and Christie, half-hearted as one of them is. The Mainwaring and Blake are all right, nothing more.

            Then I’ll second the non-recommendation of Rufus King’s story, it’s a bit too Rufus King. And finally I’ll warn anyone away from Brand’s “Honey Harlot” which is a dead boring retelling of the Mary Celeste story, no detection whatsoever.

            And I’d like to add everyone’s favourite Ngaio Marsh, “Singing in the Shrouds” and “Clutch of Constables”, both of which are among her most enjoyable stories. Helen McCloy has written another enjoyable one, “She Walks Alone”. And there’s also C.P. Snow’s minor classic, the rather droll “Death under Sail”.

            • Fabulous, thank-you.

              Does the Brand not offer up an interesting reasno for why the marie Celeste was found that way? I was under the impression it might be enjoyable to see her turning the facts into speculatively-interesting fiction.

            • She does offer a reason, but since that reason is more or less obvious from the very start of the book it’s all a bit “this is heading exactly where I imagined it to go from the very beginning”. As in not particularly interesting. I’m not totally well-read on the whole Mary Celeste mystery so I cannot speak as to whether her solution is actually realistic and workable.

              To me, the novel also suffers from not being very similar to the things Brand had written before.

              Though also bear in mind that I’m not partial to historical mysteries which have their main focus on the history before the mystery, so I’m sure that others will take other things away from the novel. But I was very disappointed. When doing my re-read it was the one Brand title I dreaded having to go through again. I seem to remember it was at least a fairly quick read.

            • Admittedly I’m less of a Brand fan than the typical GAD nerd — see my recent spoiler filled post re: Fog of Doubt, and Green for Danger failed to impress me when I read it — but I’d held out slim hopes of a) finding this one and b) it being rather fabulous. Which, of course, may be the case for me, in spite of your tepid response — I’m a contrarian like that. But, of course, I’d have to find the bloody thing first, and you mae me hesitate somewhat, meaning I’m unlikely to pay what people are likely to be askig for it.

              Ah, well, ever onwards…!

          • And one more reason *not* to read OBELISTS AT SEA: the constant references to a female character as “the Jewess.” She is rarely ever called by her name. I still haven’t finished that book. Yeech!

            • Oh, hey, on an entirely unrelated note — I’m unable to tell you on your site because I can no longer comment there, since most Blogspot blogs now seem to require a Google account — I have a review up tomorrow of a book you put me onto. I’ll say o more at this stage, but I imagine you could guess without too many tries…

        • JDC’s Panic in Box C has a dreadful beginning portion that takes place on an Atlantic crossing, but I suppose that hardly counts. I haven’t read Christianna Brand’s The Honey Harlot, but I believe that is a take on the Marie Celeste mystery.

          I really enjoyed the whole of Death on the Nile, but I have to rank Nine — and Death Makes Ten ahead of it. I can understand that plot and characters of Death on the Nile might appeal to a wider audience, but Carr wins this one for me with an incredibly clever stack of misdirection.

            • I’ll side with Tomcat and Brad. We can argue endlessly on the remaining 9 spots on the top 10 shipboard mystery list but the top spot obviously belongs to Death on the nile !

            • And you know what delusion stands for, don’t you:

              Definitive
              Elucidation
              Lovingly and
              Unselfishly
              Showing
              Insight
              abOut
              Novels

            • In the shipboard whodunit stakes, I’ll throw in my own Murder on the High C’s, a shipboard musical whodunit, part Anything Goes, part And Then There Were None, that makes The Blind Barber look like an excercise in sober austerity by contrast. Silly beyond compare, I doubt it would make anyone’s top ten, but it does contain a surprising level of Golden Age type clueing (including a Queenian dying message clue with four distinct interpretations) and it’s the only musical in town to reference J. D. Carr, Cabin B-13, Philo Vance… and of course, it all takes place aboard the S.S. Van Dine!

            • I see there are several extracts from a performance of Murder on the High C’s on YouTube. Fun stuff! I’ll watch the collection this evening after I’ve finished the day’s toil.

    • The fingerprint gambit (I guess we can call it that?) turns up so often because it was a “miracle ” problem in real life in France and was documented in that text book mentioned in Carr’s novel. I guess lots of mystery writers read that book because so far I’ve encountered this plot device three times (I guess it would be four if I had read the Stout book) and it’s pretty tiresome to me. I think it’s a case of a once in a lifetime kind of impossibility and not something that could be reproduced on purpose, let alone repeatedly. In a book I read by American pulp writer Kendell Foster Crossen the idea is extended to an entire handprint and that just set my eyes rolling in a roller coaster of spins.

      My favorite part of the book was learning about the blackout rules that were used on board ships just as they were on land. I agree that the shipboard aspects of the novel make it a standout, but as a mystery novel it relies too heavily on gimmickry and in the end is not surprising at all. I didn’t think the second “murder” was up to Carr’s standard. I figured it out easily and that led me to the culprit by default without having to deal with anything related to the fingerprint hocus pocus.

      • One peril of being so well-read in this genre, I guess: to encounter this sort of thing once is to enjoy it, but three or four or five times will take the flavour away pretty sharpish.

        And, yeah, the second murder is a little hokey, now you mention it — I’d sort of let that slide from memory because I enjoyed everything that followed, but the way it is accomplished is very…dare I say amateurish? For such a key part of the book, you’d hope Carr would have resolved it better. Thank-you, John, I knew there was something about this that gave me pause, and this is what held it back from the top tier for me.

  11. Apologies if I missed you already explain it, but what happens now with Queen? I assume you go forward with Halfway House, but what then? Do you continue to attempt to read the books in order?

    I personally recommend at this point that you jump right into The Tragedy of Y. Enjoy Queen for once!

    • I…don’t know! Halfway House will be next, then perhaps Siamese Twin and The Lamp of God purely to finish off the First Period. I have a lovely green Penguin copy of The Door Between, which is the next book after HH, so I’ll definitely read that, and then…who knows? Maybe I’ll take suggestions and hop around a bit, maybe I’ll love the Second Period and all will be plain sailing.

      I feel I should do all the Barnaby Ross books, but your eagerness to see me hate on Tragedy of X dissuades me at present (I have only so much spleen, and it must be carefully monitored). So HH, then some mixture of the above, then we’ll see.

      Or possibly not even that. Life is a rollercoaster once again.

      • I’d recommend you read the following Queens, in any order you choose:

        Siamese Twin
        Door Between
        Four of Hearts
        Calamity Town
        There Was an Old Woman
        Cat of Nine Tails
        The Player on the Other Side
        Face to Face

        These are all above average in the Queen canon, and from there it should be easy to direct you towards what you would probably like and what you probably won’t.

          • Do please read the Wrightsville books, when you get to them, in order of publication… Calamity Town, then The Murderer is a Fox, then Ten Days’ Wonder, then Double, Double. (Assuming you like CT and want to keep going.) A richer reading experience that way, and DD has a couple of passages that spoil some events in TDW.

            • I had heard the need to read Wrightsville in order, and I don’t think Brad would let me do otherwise, but thanks for the reminder.

              But let’s not get too far ahead of ourselves: Halfway House, Siamese Twin, and Door Between and then we’ll see how things stand.

  12. There’s a Charlie Chan mystery set on a voyage, Charlie Chan Carries On. I recently bought all the Chan mysteries in a one-volume set. I have always had a little trouble getting into them, but one of these days . . . Meanwhile, I love the movies, especially those with Warner Oland and the early Sidney Toler films. They are snappy little mysteries, each containing a clear clue (usually one clear clue!) that gives the murderer away.

  13. DEATH UNDER SAIL is definitely one of the best shipboard mysteries I’ve read from the Golden Age. I think it has a better plot than DEATH ON THE NILE actually. TOO MUCH OF WATER by Bruce Hamilton is highly recommended (as are all of the crime novels of Patrick Hamilton’s older and less accoladed brother). Rufus King’s best shipboard mystery I think is THE LESSER ANTILLES CASE (aka MURDER CHALLENGES VALCOUR) or maybe MURDER ON THE YACHT. One of Mary Roberts Rinehart’s detective novels , THE AFTER HOUSE, was terrifying when I first read it as a teen. It’s a whodunit about an ax murderer roaming the decks of a luxury yacht. A shipboard slasher movie script, as it were, but written in 1914. It may seem old-fashioned to a lot of people these days and the ending taking place in a courtroom is often criticized as lots of rehash. Originally published in serial format it was obviously not very well edited when it was reprinted as a book. Such is the fate of many newspaper and magazine serials that were published as novels between 1910 and 1930.

    Other shipboard mysteries worth your time are crime and suspense novels from the 50s and 60s. None of them are detective novels per se (so maybe you’ll skip them altogether): COLD WATERS by P. M. Hubbard, DEAD CALM by Charles Williams (made into a movie, but the book is better), A DEATH AT SEA by Lionel White, THE SAILCLOTH SHROUD also by Charles Williams (he wrote a lot of books with sailing and crime).

    • This is a fabulous list, thanks, John. I didn’t realise how few shipboard mysteries I’d read, so it’s good to know there’s so much worth reading out there.

      You might even encourage me into some 1950s suspense, who knows…?

  14. I’ve now adjusted my blog settings at Pretty Sinister Books to allow comments from anyone regardless of what type of blog you have. I’ll keep my comment moderation on in order to combat the bothersome spammers who were attacking me daily back in August. This adjustment ought to solve the comment issues for those of you who use WordPress. I had no idea that the I had defaulted to “Google users only” until I checked today.

  15. Replying to your above comment, I didn’t mean NaDMT won’t be on the list. It definitely will be, but we can argue about its position. Maybe it will be No.2, maybe No.3 or 4, but certainly not No.1! 🙂

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