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.
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.