Friday, 22 May 2015

The Third Bullet, 1937 - John Dickson Carr

The Third Bullet is one of the most astonishing but undervalued works written by John Dickson Carr. Carr, an american detective writer who published over seventy novels in his superb career, was one of the most important exponents of the Golden Age of detective fiction, as well as the king of the locked room mystery. He introduced an essentially american view into a literary genre dominated by British writers: because of these motives he is almost forgotten by the genre scholars nowadays, with the exception of such critics as Roland Lacourbe, S.T. Joshi, and, obviously, Douglas Greene, who wrote the Carr’s biography in 1995. In a world in which scholars have divided the Golden Age between male American hard-boiled writers and female British writers, there is no space for Carr, who led the British detective novel to an unreachable level of ingenuity and complexity.
In 1937, for the first time in his career, Carr decided to follow the 20 rules written by S.S. Van Dine: in The Third Bullet there are no descriptions, no atmosphere nor characterization, but only the exposition of the events. 
Mr. Justice Mortlake was murdered in a pavillon, apparently by Gabriel White, a member of a radical society called the Utopians. He wanted the revenge against the Justice who had convicted him to a terrible corporal punishment for a banal steal (or probably because White was in love with Ida, one of the Justice’s daughters). 
When the corpse of the judge was discovered by Inspector Page, White was holding a caliber 38 gun from which one bullet had been fired. But the bullet shot by his gun missed the target and struck the wall behind Mr. Mortlake. In a vase was found another gun, from which one bullet had been recently fired. But the impossibilities were not enough: the post-mortem shows that neither the gun in the vase nor the caliber 38 had fired the fatal bullet. It’s impossible!   There is clearly no way that anyone else could have entered and exited, except White. Who did it? Where did the third bullet come from?
The deus ex machina is the Colonel Marquis, described by Carr as “a mental forerunner of Colonel March”, who appeared in nine fantastic short stories signed by Carter Dickson starting from 1938. As Douglas Green points out in the Carr’s biography, “the only similarity between Marquis and March is their name […] Carr based the personality and physical appearance of Colonel March on his friend, the detective story writer John Rhode” (John Dickson Carr: The Man who Explained Miracles p. 225). 
In The Third Bullet, Colonel Marquis is capable to explain with pure reason one of the most ingenious impossible crimes devised by the master in the 1930s: the plot is incredibly elaborate, full of psychological and also physical clues. It’s the triumph of impossibilities, as well as a superb challenge to the reader: even though some explanations are very Machiavellian, the final result is brilliant.
The story, written under the Carter Dickson pseudonym, was published in 1937 for a short-lived paperback series called New-at-Ninepence. After this publication, the novella was essentially forgotten. In 1946 Frederic Dannay made arrangements with Carr to print it in the Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine: the text was abridged by about 20 percent and it was printed in the January 1948 issue of the review under the John Dickson Carr name. 
Douglas Greene in the biography claimed that Carr not only gave Dannay permission to abridge the story but even begged him to do so! Carr wrote to Dannay: “Look here, don't you think you had better do a lot of cutting in The Third bullet? I haven't seen the story since I wrote it; but I remember being uncomfortably verbose in those days”. (see John Dickson Carr: The Man who Explained Miracles, p. 224).
For the majority of the critics, the shorter version is not as good as the longer: Barzun & Taylor deemed the shorter version as “ingenious but told without vim” (A Catalogue of Crime, p. 592); S.T. Joshi wrote that Marquis “remains nebulous through-out the work” (John Dickson Carr: A Critical Study, p. 55), and Douglas Greene claimed that Dannay “omitted large chunks of the story, including in several instances entire pages. Character descriptions, detail of the murder site, red herrings, and even some clues to the solution - all disappeared” (Fell and Foul Play, p. 293).
The story is very rare: when Carr decided to reprinted it in 1954, in The Third Bullet and Other Stories, only the shorter version was available. Only in 1991 Douglas Greene published the complete edition in the excellent book Fell and Foul Play. In France the story appeared inside Mystère À Huis Clos (2007), translated by Maurice-Bernard Endrébe. The French scholar Roland Lacourbe defined the story “un essai brillant, confondant d’habileté, et un chef-d’œuvre expérimental” (p. 569).
Needles to say, I subscribe to Lacourbe’s claim.

1 comment:

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