The Hollow Man
Shabby Tricks in The Hollow Man (a slapdash review)
A disappointing and, from the literary point of view, badly written detective novel in the traditional "Golden Age" style of a "locked-room mystery".
The novel's first flaw, from the mystery point of view, is that it deceives the reader into thinking it depicts one of those locked-room mysteries so elaborately analyzed in a famed lecture in one of the novel's chapters. However, no crime whatsoever is committed in the locked room; this is as disappointing as if you were reading a detective novel describing a murder investigation, only to learn in the end that the "crime" was, in fact, a suicide.
The inconsistencies and improbabilities of the plot have already been widely criticized elsewhere; many things on which the novel's plot hinges are so far-fetched as to make you shake your head. The two most glaring examples: a street clock is 50 (!) – 50, not 5 – minutes fast without anyone, even a trained policeman, noticing the discrepancy; that's absurd. And, although the narrator keeps reassuring the reader there was no way anyone could enter or leave the snowbound house at the time the murder was supposed to have been committed – in the dénouement you in fact learn there was an "area-way entrance" comfortably used by the main culprit without anyone, the police or the amateur sleuth Dr. Fell, ever investigating the possibility. Again, an absurdity and, to be honest, a shabby way to keep the whodunit's solution away from the reader until the very end.
The novel has some redeeming qualities as far as detection goes: Dr. Fell shows his ingenuity not only in the final few chapters of the novel while disclosing the ultimate solution, but there are nice illustrations of his detective ability interspersed throughout the novel, even in some of the earliest chapters, to keep the reader interested in the mystery's unravelling.
As to the novel's literary qualities, I would say there are almost none. "Cardboard characters" indeed come to mind as you peruse The Hollow Man. The characters of the three investigators – Dr. Fell, the policeman Hadley, and the "Dr. Watson" character Rampole (an American in London, and probably a reflection of the writer himself) – are boring and, really, if there had been only two of them instead of three; of even if there had been a single detective communicating all his contemplations in a first-person narrative, we wouldn't lose much. Yes, there are at least minimal attempts at distinctive characterization of the principal characters of the mystery, and we are grateful for that. However, none of the investigators, suspects, culprits, or victims in the story really stands out as a unique character.
In addition, Carr commits a gaffe by repeatedly referring to people from Hungary as "Slavic characters", although ethnically Hungarians are anything but Slavs and are generally perceived, also in their looks, as very different from Slavs.
The novel is supposed to communicate the atmosphere of the 1930s London, but there really is not much of it; only streets submerged in snow, with Dr. Fell and his companions driving around between the venues of the crimes.
Finally, I found the famed locked-room mysteries lecture unremarkable as well; it may even become a source of consternation for many readers because, without any warning, it gives away the spoilers to some of the mystery genre's best-known stories.
To sum up: The Hollow Man, published as The Three Coffins in the United States, is not recommended reading. (Rating: D- on a scale from A+ to F-.)
--Faterson 11:42, 18 February 2007 (CET)
[original writing time between 09:34:57 & 09:55:41 (CET) on Sunday, 18 February 2007, with subsequent edits until 10:10:23 & 10:21:56 (CET)]
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