The Hollow Man (Carr novel)

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The Hollow Man
The Hollow Man (1935 novel) first edition coverart.jpg
First UK edition
AuthorJohn Dickson Carr
CountryUnited Kingdom
SeriesGideon Fell
GenreMystery, Detective
PublisherHamish Hamilton (UK) & Harper (USA)
Publication date
Media typePrint (hardback & paperback)
Preceded byDeath-Watch (1935) 
Followed byThe Arabian Nights Murder (1936) 

The Hollow Man is a locked room mystery novel by the American writer John Dickson Carr, published in 1935. It was published in the US under the title The Three Coffins and in 1981 was selected as the best locked room mystery of all time by a panel of 17 mystery authors and reviewers.[1]

Plot summary[edit]

Professor Charles Grimaud and his circle are meeting at a tavern when they are interrupted by a mysterious stranger who claims that men can arise from their graves and walk through walls. The stranger, illusionist Pierre Fley, claims to have done it himself, and that he has an even more dangerous brother who wants Grimaud's life. He tells Grimaud to choose which of the two brothers he wants to call on him, and Grimaud angrily tells him to send his brother and be damned.

A few nights later, Grimaud awaits an anticipated visitor in his study. The visitor arrives, wearing a false face, and is escorted to the study by Grimaud's housekeeper. A witness sees Grimaud let the stranger into his study and close the door, and continues to observe the door until a few minutes later when shots from the study are heard. The locked door to the study is broken down and Grimaud is found dying from a gunshot wound, but both the stranger and a weapon are missing, and both the ground below the only window and the roof above it covered with unbroken snow. Taken to a hospital, Grimaud on his deathbed later identifies his brother as his killer and confirms his inexplicable disappearance ("God knows how he got out of that room"), but dies before he can identify the aforementioned brother. Dr. Fell soon discovers that Grimaud and his two brothers (Fley and an unknown person Fell refers to as "brother Henri") had, years earlier, escaped from forced labor in a Transylvanian salt mine by faking their deaths and being buried alive in their coffins.

The next day, the newspaper reports that minutes after Grimaud's shooting, two tourists and a police constable witnessed Pierre Fley walking alone down a broad, deserted, fully enclosed cul-de-sac (looking behind him as if frightened), and they shortly thereafter hear a voice shout "The second bullet is for you!", followed by a gunshot. Fley is found shot in the back at close range, the revolver that killed him (and Grimaud) lying in the snow nearby, with no tracks in the snow but his. Investigation reveals Fley left a note that night saying that he was leaving his performing career and "going back to my grave."

Fell engages in a long investigation, discovering that Grimaud had purchased a large painting of three coffins set in a Transylvanian landscape, in order to deal with his anticipated visitor. Fell also receives confirmation from Transylvanian authorities that years ago, Grimaud and his brothers were imprisoned for committing a large bank robbery, and that in their escape attempt, Grimaud had escaped his coffin but left his brothers to die in theirs. Pierre Fley had been returned to prison to serve out his sentence, but their third brother had died in his coffin.


Gideon Fell reveals that it was Grimaud who had planned to kill Fley, not the other way round, since Fley was blackmailing him for the death of their brother whom Grimaud had left to die. His intention was to create the illusion that Fley had called on him and shot him in the study, escaping out the window, and that Fley then returned to his own flat and committed suicide.

Grimaud had agreed to pay off Fley, tricking him into writing an ambiguous, mysterious note that might appear as a suicide note. Then he shot Fley in his own flat, leaving him for dead with the gun in his hand. Grimaud then had gone to a neighboring house and after putting on his disguise (a fake cardboard overcoat and mask), opened the door to the street. Meanwhile, Fley had recovered and was walking slowly up the street to the office of a doctor; on seeing Grimaud in the doorway, Fley screamed "The second bullet is for you!" and shot Grimaud, dying from the effort. Though wounded, Grimaud managed to return to his own house unobserved and proceeded with his planned impersonation of Fley. He used a large mirror hidden in the painting to create the illusion (for the benefit of the arranged witness) that he was greeting a stranger (actually himself) at the entrance to his study. Once locked inside the study, he burned the cardboard overcoat and mask in the fireplace (along with squibs to simulate gunshots) and hid the heavy mirror up in the narrow, flat flue of his chimney, bringing on his final hemorrhage and death. As the exertion tears his gunshot wound further open, he has just enough time to set off a firecracker, thus faking a gunshot.

Grimaud had tried to tell the truth of what had happened, but his words were misunderstood in various ways; for example, "God knows how he got out of that room" referred not to his study but to Fley's leaving his own room. The seeming impossibility of the crimes had arisen entirely by accident; for example, he had not anticipated snow (making Fley's escape from the study impossible), and Fley's shooting (which was not intended to be witnessed) appeared to happen some minutes after Grimaud's because of an incorrectly set clock in a shop window, visible to all the eyewitnesses.

After Fell's explanation, Grimaud's housekeeper (who was his accomplice and lover) enters the room, confirms the correctness of the solution, and kills herself.

Literary significance and criticism[edit]

This novel is especially famous for the "locked room lecture", Dr. Fell's explanation of the various ways a person can commit a near-perfect murder in an apparently locked room or otherwise impossible situation. Thus, it became a kind of "textbook for crime writers". In the course of his discourse, Dr. Fell states, off-handedly, that he and his listeners are, of course, characters in a book.

The book was placed at No. 40 on the Crime Writers' Association's list of The Top 100 Crime Novels of All Time[2] and No. 96 on the Mystery Writers of America's Top 100 Mystery Novels of All Time.[3] It was also selected in 1981 as the best locked room mystery of all time by a panel of 17 mystery authors and reviewers.[4]


  1. ^ "Ranking of Impossible Crimes by Experts".
  2. ^ Susan Moody, editor (1990). Hatchards Crime Companion: The Top 100 Crime Novels Selected by the Crime Writers' Association. London. ISBN 0-904030-02-4.CS1 maint: extra text: authors list (link)
  3. ^ Mickey Friedman, Compiler; Otto Penzler, Annotations (1995). The Crown Crime Companion: The Top 100 Mystery Novels of All Time, selected by the Mystery Writers of America. New York. ISBN 0-517-88115-2.
  4. ^ "Ranking of Impossible Crimes by Experts".

External links[edit]