#996: The Nine Wrong Answers (1952) by John Dickson Carr

Nine Wrong Answers

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In order to read the full text of The Nine Wrong Answers (1952) by John Dickson Carr you must read the first edition hardcover, as all paperback printings having been reduced by what Carr’s biographer Douglas Greene estimates to be about 15%. And, having now read the condensed text, it’s difficult not to feel that the book could actually be shortened by about another 30% since, in expanding this up from his radio play ‘Will You Make a Bet with Death?’ (1942), Carr has stretched a thin premise now too thin. A lot of the distractions here are simply that: distractions, and the core excellence of the plot is rendered tedious at times when trying to support so many circumlocutions.

Down to his last sixteen cents, Englishman in New York Bill Dawson sees a notice in a newspaper advising him to call at a firm of solicitors — well, lawyers — and, while waiting his turn, is drawn into the world of Laurence Hurst, similarly English and about to inherit a packet from his despicable uncle Gaylord. But, since “Uncle Gay” tormented young Larry as a boy, Hurst is reluctant to fulfil the old miser’s expectations of a weekly visit upon return to Blighty and so a ruse is dreamt up: Bill will fly to England and impersonate Larry until the requirements of Hurt’s inheritance are met, and be made $10,000 richer for his troubles. Those troubles, however, will prove to be significant…

The fun of The Nine Wrong Answers comes from the conceit in its title: at various points throughout the narrative, Carr interjects with footnoted remarks which anticipate the way the reader’s suspicions may be going and inform said reader that such thinking is erroneous. While some of the conclusions Carr is diverting you from don’t really see that likely as conclusions to draw, or that diverting from the essential thrust of the plot, it is nice to be reassured that one of the genre’s arch game-players is here purely for the sturm und drang of locking horns with a seasoned, suspicious consumer of his craft:

It is the essence of fair-play detective fiction that one guilty person shall deceive a dozen innocents, not that a dozen guilty shall deceive one innocent. In the plot involving Bill there was one master criminal, and only one.

The difficulty springs from the fact that my Bantam edition pictured above is 186 pages long, and the crux of the plot is only reached on page 97. And, once the terms are stated, we really just divert into a series of colourful asides which allow Carr to, for instance, praise the hard-working staff at the BBC’s radio arm, much beloved by the author given his work there during the war — “Every person there was first-rate, doing brilliant programs twelve hours a day for tenth-rate salaries.” — and offer his friends extended cameos that…add nothing to a plot that’s already stumbling. I’m trying to preserve as many of the handful of great surprises this contains as possible, but in reality it feels like a series of fascinating one act plays strung together by bits of travelogue and inconsequential arguing, family dynamics, and some overweening coincidences.

I couldn’t help feeling how much better this would have been if written by Cornell Woolrich — and I promise this occurred to me before I read Curtis Evans making the same point. Not only do the coincidences here positively hum of Woolrich’s leaps of faith, Woolrich would throw you in head first, stripping away the 97 pages of build-up that wore on my patience; indeed, told as a series of vignettes in the style of The Bride Wore Black (1940) or Rendezvous in Black (1948) this could well be a masterpiece of terror…something that comes through all the more clearly in the undeniably effective few scenes in which Carr actually engages with his central premise.

‘You–cannot–escape,’ [the footsteps] seemed to beat. ‘I–shall–find–you. I–am–death.’

What saves it — alongside some frankly audaciously open-handed declaration of clues — is that Uncle Gay and his stone-faced manservant Hatto are true horrors, utterly magnificent creations who will live on in the memory for years after you turn the final page. The series of encounters between Bill and these two makes for enthralling reading, not least because of how damn weird and tense things become the moment you set foot into their world (“We’re going to meet something awful before we leave here. But what is it?”). You can see Carr’s interest in the swaggering, brawling hero of lore really creep through, too, which is about the only duff note in these scenes — how wonderful it would have been for Bill to defeat Hatto with his wits rather than his fists — but when a series of question about Louis XIV is filled with as much menace as it is here, there can be no doubt that your author is doing something very right indeed.

In the final instance, for all the intelligence and cunning on display, it’s difficult not to wish there was a little more meat on the very promising bones, the author’s interest perhaps more tightly focussed on the game than on the players. The “Right Answers” of the final chapter are suitably impressive in how they upend what has come before, and Carr finally manages some writing about romance that doesn’t feel like it belongs in the 17th century (“…these two were human, and they had walked a weary road to meet above the Atlantic this night [and] they were incoherently happy.”), but what he’s written here is a great novella saddled with too many words of too little consequence. You have to admire the man’s ability to move with the times into the more suspense-oriented milieu that crime fiction was becoming in this era, but written a decade previously this would have been a masterpiece, and deserved a place alongside the very best that Carr — and, by extension, the genre as a whole — had produced. As it is, file under Promising But Flawed.

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See also

Ben @ The Green Capsule: 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?

Nick @ The Grandest Game in the World: One of the most consistently entertaining late Carrs, reminiscent of classic Hitchcock. Bill Dawson, a young Englishman working in America, is employed by a fellow expatriate to impersonate him for six months in order to inherit his splendidly sadistic uncle’s fortune; the nephew is poisoned, and suspicion falls upon Dawson, who travels to Britain to avenge the crime. Full of excitement and tension, with just a touch of diffuseness in the shift from America to England—note splendid scenes at the B.B.C. and in wicked Uncle Gaylord’s flat. Smash surprise solution given, very aptly, in Sherlock Holmes’s rooms. Catch this Carr.

13 thoughts on “#996: The Nine Wrong Answers (1952) by John Dickson Carr

    • I’m definitely with Nick here – when we next meet up Jim I’ll be happy to lend you my first edition (though I will want it back 🙂 ). One could argue that if you wanted the version that begins ‘in media res’ then just listen to the half-hour radio version. I really enjoy the BBC stuff. On the other hand, the book is a bit long – not going to argue that point. Much as I love Carr and Woolrich, apart for their fondness for the supernatural I can’t pretend I ever think of them in the same sentence – but it’s certainly a fascinating idea.

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      • This is an exceptionally generous offer and I’m very touched to receive it, but I’m not going to need to reread this for at least another six or seven years. Hopefully we shall meet again before then, dude!

        Interesting to have two of you jump in so quickly in favour of the longer version, too. I won’t deny that I’m immensely curious to try it, but not before time.

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    • Interesting, given that the length of time this takes to actually get going is the biggest problem I had with it, and that will likely be only increased in the longer version. But I can see that the experience of the writing might well compel it in spite of this, so I’ll certainly bear this in mind when the time comes to reread it.

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  1. I don’t disagree with your criticisms, but I will say that I remember more of this novel than some of Carr’s other, better work. For me, the worst part of the novel was the introduction to the BBC. It’s such a jarring transition and I recall it ruining some of the book’s momentum. Do you think the longer version eases us into that scene a bit more?

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    • Yes, the radio section is odd…not least because (rot13) Ovyy vf nccneragyl syrrvat sbe uvf yvsr, ohg jr xabj gung Hapyr Tnl unf cebzvfrq gb or gur bar gb xvyy uvz naq pna’g or gur zna sbyybjvat uvz…fb jul gur nccnerag grafvba?

      That it then takes an odd turn into Carr praising his friends isn’t entirely unfitting, but it really does not work with the plot that’s only belatedly just gotten going. There’s so much good in here, but it feels unformed at times like this.

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    • I remember the momentum being ruined as well. It’s been a while, but if I recall, the plot is absolutely peaking and then we’re ripped away for fifteen or so pages before getting the conclusion that Carr had so effectively built up towards.

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      • The whole plot would make a wonderful stage show, of just Bill and Uncle Gay trading barbs and detailing the efforts that the latter has gone through to kill the former. But then maybe I’m just keen to spend as much time in that gloomy flat as possible — Uncle Gay and Hatto are such wonders, it almost seems impossible that they can be confined to just this one book,.

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  2. This was the second Carr novel that I ever read, which I think is kind of funny considering where this sits in his career. It is very much more the neighbor of Below Suspicion or Patrick Butler than any of his other contemporary content, with the step in the direction of the early historical story telling – not exactly a profound observation, as it sits directly between those two books. Thankfully it lacks the problematic writing style that we see as Carr get’s into the late-era Fell novels, although I suppose the out of place BBC content might be an example of it setting in.

    New to Carr, I came in looking for an impossible crime, and while I didn’t quite get that, I really enjoyed the cat and mouse game with the reader. I recall being completely sucked in by the denouement, where Carr flourishes the nine wrong answers, and shows how relevant, if incorrect they were.

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  3. I have only read the unabridged version, and I would not say it drags, so count me as indirect support for the idea that it was poorly abridged. I liked its description of the BBC and the glimpses of the Festival of Britain. (Seems to have been a major event, but I am not aware of any other depiction in detective fiction.)

    The idea with the 9 wrongs answers is interesting, but some of them are a little underwhelming. (Did we really need a footnote telling us which girl he loved?)

    Am I right to think that Conway, the police officer, is in an earlier novel as well?

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    • Can’t help you with Conway, I’m afraid, but I’m glad someone else thought that question about who Bill really loves isn’t exactly key to the whole enterprise 🙂

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