Monday, December 23, 2019

The Ten Carrs of Christmas: The 9 Wrong Answers (1952), by John Dickson Carr

One the ninth day of Christmas my true love gave to me
Nine Answers Deceiving

What John Dickson Carr calls the "fair-play duel of wits between reader and writer" is--to my mind at least--one of the noblest and most enjoyable pursuits in which either reader or writer can indulge; and it's doubtful that even Ellery Queen or Agatha Christie has ever excelled Mr. Carr's virtuosity in that pursuit.  Among dozens of Carr classics, you will particularly recall "The Reader Is Warned" (by Carter Dickson"), with its running footnotes rigorously limiting the problem...and at the same time making it all the more fiendishly impossible to solve.

It's the same sort of trick that Carr attempts in The Nine Wrong Answers; but something has happened to the Master's touch.  Judged purely as fiction, this is an exceedingly long (almost 120,000 words!) and ponderous novel, superficially and even inconsistently characterized.  It will not be read as a story; it must stand or fall as a pure technical puzzle.  And the regrettable fact is that it is not well or honestly constructed.


Now this sort of thing is...wanton shenanigans unworthy of any novelist of integrity.  It takes no craftsmanship to "deceive" a reader by introducing irrelevancies and not even bothering to explains them away.  The basic puzzle here is a good one...but the inordinate length, the exasperating hero...and above all the pretense at a non-existing "duel of wits" add up to something well below Mr. Carr's usual standard.  The reader is warned.  

--Anthony Boucher, contemporary review of John Dickson Carr's The 9 Wrong Answers (1952)

If only the novel, especially in its
original, unabridged edition
were as good as its dust jacket
I by no means always agree with Anthony Boucher, distinguished critics that he was, but I must admit that when I first read The 9 Wrong Answers about twenty years ago, I didn't like it.  And having reread it this weekend, I still don't like it.

In crafting The 9 Wrong Answers, Carr grafted onto one of his brilliant little radio suspense plays, "Will You Make a Bet with Death?," a daring (if not brazen) murder puzzle, but the two parts fail, for me anyway, to add up to an agreeable whole.

This is the one where emigre Englishman Leonard Hurst persuades emigre Englishman Bill Dawson to travel from New York to London to impersonate Leonard. 

Why, you ask?  Because Leonard's awful old uncle, Gaylord Hurst, has offered to make Leonard the heir to his vast fortune, but only if Leonard returns to England and visits with him every week. 

Why does Leonard not want to make this family excursion himself?  Well, it seems that "Uncle Gay" is a horrid sadist who tormented Leonard all through his childhood; and Leonard simply isn't up to meeting him again.  This incenses Leonard's mercenary girlfriend, beautiful brunette Joy Tennent, who thinks that Leonard should just man up and go to England himself.  (We know Joy is bad news for males, sexually enticing as she is, because she has perceptible "jaw muscles"--Carr hated this in a woman, apparently because he deemed it provokingly indicative of female aggression.  Men with strong jaws are A-OK, of course!)

In spite of Joy, Leonard goes with his own plan and soon--actually though it's not soon, it's not until page 112, a third of the way into this long, 345 page, novel--his new pal Bill is in England, pretending to be Leonard.  There his "Uncle Gay" proves to be a very nasty figure indeed, as does his manservant Hatto, a former wrestler.

What happens during those first 112 pages?  Not a whole hell of a lot, actually.  To be sure, a poisoning occurs halfway into this section, but otherwise there's not much going on here.  In the later part of this section Bill's ex-girlfriend, beautiful blonde Marjorie, pops up on his England-bound plane, in what is a truly astounding coincidence even by Carr's standards, unless I missed an alternate explanation of her presence there late in the book. 

Bill and Marjorie are characters the dedicated Carr reader will have seen in scores of books.  At 5'9" and 145 pounds, Bill is yet another male Mary Sue character for the smallish 5'6" Carr, whom Raymond Chandler (six feet and 190 pounds) contemptuously dismissed as a "pipsqueak."  Bill is a wannabe academic (he came to America to get a job and is now extremely hard-up, apparently because he couldn't afford to be educated at Cambridge), who wants to teach history "as it should be taught." (Carr himself knew a great deal about history, as he is at great pains to show in 9 Wrong Answers, though he was interested in facts not theory.)  Bill was also a former RAF pilot in the late war and a talented amateur boxer and a graduate of Harrow.  Basically, he's an all round swell chap who regularly calls bad 'uns swine, just like he's in a gung-ho prewar Sapper thriller.

However Bill is a jealous type, don't you know, as is Marjorie; and a few years back they had a big, though entirely silly and pointless, fight on New Years Eve that led to them breaking up and to Bill coming to America.  Carr gets quite sentimental about it, even quoting, several times, the lines of Auld Lang Syne, surely about the most banally obvious heartstrings tugger he could have chosen.  I agree with Boucher here: these are not characters who can carry a long novel.  Bill is an ass, Joy a cold, malicious tart and Marjorie ultimately an insipid doormat or "good sport," as Carr puts it.  You know, the kind of girl who doesn't mind when her man spends most of his time on drunken rambles with the boys and even helps him get his pants and shoes off and into bed.  That kind of jolly, sporting girl.

And a long novel it is--about 117, 000 words by my estimate, in its first edition.  Anthony Boucher wasn't the only person, evidently, who expressed dissatisfaction with the novel's extreme and suspense-killing length.  Bantam Books received Carr's permission to trim the novel for paperback publication by 15%, says Doug Greene in his biography of Carr, and future editions have used this abridgment; though by my count the Carroll and Graf pb edition is less than 80,000 words, which would be a more drastic cut of about a third.  Fine by me if so!

What you lose in the abridged versions are some nice descriptive words, but also things like Carr discoursing about airlines, his hatred of bureaucracy and jazz and American films, the state of England in the early Fifties (he likes it better with Labor out of power), the hero's intense admiration for Conservatives and the Confederate States of America, and the state of the BBC.  It amazed me how Carr can be such an adept at suspense in radio plays and so deadly dull here.

Malevolent Uncle Gay graces
the cover of the Harper edition
of The Nine (as they spell it)
Wrong Answers (rental library edition.)
Which isn't to say their aren't some good episodes.  When Bill encounters Hatto and "Uncle Gay," both of the latter men make splendid sneering villains (Swine!), who would have been at home in Carr's regency mystery The Bride of Newgate, published two years earlier.  But we don't get to spend enough time with this pair of malevolent brutes, because they ultimately are subservient to the murder problem from early in the book. 

Supposedly helping us are nine footnotes Carr appends (the titular nine wrong answers), but as Doug Greene has pointed out, the ninth note actually fibs, which irked Boucher too--for good reason, in a novel purporting to be "fair play."  Overall too, I find the murderer's scheme really a stretch.  I'd sooner believe the scenario in Carr's The Three Coffins.  It's most definitely bookish, to put it charitably.

When "Uncle Gay" bets Bill that he can kill him at some point in a three month period, things look to pick up, but there really isn't much of the novel left over for this suspenseful scenario (which comes from the radio play).  And then Bill is off to the BBC where they are putting on a play, for some reason, about the Civil War. (In the US, there was much interest at the time in the Civil War, or War Between the States as Confederate sympathizer Carr calls it, as the ninetieth anniversary of the start of the war had come and the last veterans of the war were expiring--did this interest extend to England?)

In the original edition of the book, we get this passage, among many, many others:

Having always favoured the South in the great war, it occurred to [Bill] that it would be a brilliant idea to hide here and suddenly imitate the hoofbeats of Jubal Early's horse tearing up Pennsylvania Avenue to the very steps of the Capitol.

Was it Jubal Early, or somebody else?  His mind wouldn't focus.  Anyway, it would be fine to shove the actors aside and play Stonewall Jackson--had he finished his coffee yet--on the night they rolled the Union Army into the Potomac, and Old Jack swore--no; he didn't swear--that with ten thousand fresh troops he would take Washington that night.  Or was it ten thousand...

I'm glad Carr was enjoying reading about the Civil War, but none of this verbiage belongs in this book and it was unsurprisingly removed from later editions.  (Sixteen years later he would publish a mystery novel, Papa La-bas, set in the antebellum American South.) 

Also removed from 9 Wrong Answers was some of the jealous lovers' bickering between Bill and Marjorie.  I especially hated the part where Bill gets formal and all seventeenth century on her, suddenly insisting on addressing  her as "Madam" (though maybe that's better than "my wench").  Walking out on Bill was the smartest day's work Marjorie ever did, in my view, but in the end of course she can't resist Bill's charms, as Carr imagines them.  After all, he has been to Harrow and knows all about Jubal Early.  What more could a girl want?

Then there's this luvverly language between our pair of cooing turtledoves:

"Bill.  Bill.  Bill!"
"Marjorie, do you really love me?"
"You know I do!  You know I do!"

Cue Auld Lang Syne.  And pluck the heartstrings!  Maybe it's better when they're fighting.

And of course Bill bests his "Uncle Gay" in a duel of wits (concerning who knows more about French and English history and literature) and he pummels Hatto is a physical contest, being the male Mary Sue that he is.  In what I imagine is a shot at American hard-boiled mystery, Carr several times berates the "hashish philosophy that fists cured all troubles from financial to marital," but in fact Bill's fists prove quite useful to him against Hatto, just as they do with other Carr characters in the Fifties and Sixties in his historical mysteries. 

Carroll and Graf gives the novel the
Cornell Woolrich treatment in their ed.
Would that Woolrich had written it!
Carr at this time had more in common with hard-boiled mystery writers than he may have thought.  Indeed he had more in common with his mortal aesthetic enemy, Raymond Chandler, than he thought.  Both Chandler and Carr were romantics who created male Mary Sue protagonists and had weird hangups about women. 

Sure, Carr thought Chandler's mean California city streets were merely dirty and nasty, but to Chandler they were as every bit as romantic as Carr's rodent- and plague-ridden seventeenth-century London byways were to Carr.  Both men tried desperately to live more exciting lives through their fictional male heroes.  Both were hyper-individualists who hated the modern collectivism of Communism while they admired--and somehow ignored the state institutionalized racism of--a Confederate nation that lay smoldering upon the ash heap of history.

The writer who really should have tried his hand at The 9 Wrong Answers was neither Carr nor Chandler, in my estimation, but rather master noirist Cornell Woolrich. I think Woolrich really could have made something of this material.  In his hands it would have made a darker and altogether more compelling tome.  Maybe he could have called it The Nine Black Answers.  The Reader Is Warned.

To be fair I know there are readers and bloggers too who utterly disagree with me about this novel, holding it in high esteem indeed.  I don't know that there are nine admiring blog reviews out there (see this one here, for example), but if there are, just call it a case of The Nine Wrong Bloggers.  I'll leave you to work out some footnotes for that one.


  1. Hi Curtis, tried posting a comment but it may have gone astray. I think you are being way to harsh on this actually - the nitpicks could apply to do many books of the period whether ot he romantic overdoses or straying from the point. He was very unwell at the time according to Greene and was not happy with the result either. As for Woolrich, I think you would have to be crazy to think that in 1952 he could compose an even remotely coherent novel by that point. But if you want more purple prose ... :)

    1. Hi again Sergio, well, Carr's spirit can have the satisfaction of knowing I'm in the minority on this one. But I'm with Boucher here. I imagine you're right that Fifties Woolrich would not have been up to the job, but I was thinking of an earlier Woolrich. Of course an earlier Carr might have done better by it too.

      But, no, I think Carr's characters are too lightweight for true suspense. I couldn't care about them at all. I think Woolrich, in his prime anyway, could have made me care about their fates, purple prose or no. He had a sense of tragedy, Carr usually not. (Though I would say there might be some exceptions to that--He Who Whispers and The Devil in Velvet, perhaps, from just the year before?)

    2. Carr does do good suspense within the traditional detective novel framework though. Frankly I found The Ten Teacups more suspenseful than the The 9 Wrong Answers. But as pure suspense I just don't think 9 Wrong Answers works, especially in the original version. And the puzzle, while it fooled me when I first read the book two decades or so ago, I do think is a strettttch. Can't get into cause of spoilers. It's easy to fool people, however, when you throw plausibility out the window and willfully mislead the reader. I challenge Footnote #9!

    3. I had a similar issue with Carr's Seeing Is Believing. Too clever by harf!

  2. By the way, I hope I don't offend Carr fans by speaking forthrightly about their man. I love a great many of his books, but dislike others, sometimes very much. I find the man himself fascinating but frustrating, just like I do his nemesis Chandler.

  3. I'm intrigued to see how this sequence will continue - there are obvious entries for 3, 4, 5 and 8, but the others are surely going to be tricky!

  4. Not all of those will be what you might think!

  5. As a Carr fan, I’m certainly not offended; I agree with most of what you say (and Boucher, who was of course a Carr admirer). Carr’s characters can be irritating even when the plot is enthralling; especially in the later books, they sometimes speak and act like no humans I’ve ever encountered. I enjoyed The Nine Wrong Answers for its plot (I figured the footnotes were designed to mislead the reader, so that didn’t bother me). But it’s far too long (especially compared to “Will You Make a Bet with Death?”), and the characters’ actions and attitudes sometimes baffling. I could even accept the coincidence of the two ex-lovers being on the same plane, but Marjorie’s reasons for pretending to mistake Bill for the man he was impersonating had me gritting my teeth. Another thing that baffled me: in Chapter 4 a character, having been poisoned, says “Must have been two and a half gr—” I thought this must be staged, since how could anyone, even if he knew he’d been poisoned, know how many grains he’d been poisoned with? Yet it turns out he really was poisoned with two and a half grains of potassium cyanide, and hadn’t taken it himself. How did he know? (Is that a tenth wrong question?).

    1. Characters' actions and attitudes are sometimes baffling because they are jerked around by the plot. It's a tendency in Carr, especially later Carr, where to explain away bizarre, mystifying events in the book he has to stretch credibility to the breaking point. It's a common rap with mystery, of course, but definitely present Carr's writing.