Keikakudoori vs. John Dickson Carr : “The Three Coffins / The Hollow Man”

The following problem is put to the reader: Two murders were committed in such fashion that the murderer must not only have been invisible, but lighter than air. According to the evidence, this person killed his first victim and literally disappeared. Again according to the evidence, he killed his second victim in the middle of an empty street, with watchers at either end yet not a soul saw him, and no footprint appeared in the snow. – Solution?

I needed a good puzzle to whet my appetite. What better way than to try out one best and hardest mysteries so they say ever created and to indulge in some puzzle action fun? It’ll be no field day, but it would be no fun if it were.

Right from the start there is plenty of information to use to solve this puzzle. I rather like stories that throw enough information for the reader to work with instead of dragging it too much.  The first chapters provide the reader with enough information to work something out. The victim is murdered in his own study then the culprit vanished from the scene.The witnesses outside the room make it locked room thus making the police be unable to make out a theory how the culprit could’ve done it.  Minutes later a second man is shot in another street a couple of minutes after the first murder had occurred by the same weapon that killed the first. According to witnesses there was no other person near the victim. Also according the report it is mentioned the shot was at close range. An impossible double murder and a locked-room.


Starting with the first 1st event in the story, a random illusionist imposes on the future victim and his friends and basically threatens him that he or that his brother (a more dangerous fellow) would call on him and meet him for there is some secret no one is aware of. The puzzle starts with a clear difference on how this character refers to the victim, that is, he doesn’t specifically refer to him as his brother (which is implied) either because he wasn’t his real brother or because he wanted to hide this fact from the rest and only wanted the victim to know what he was referring to this story. The reason is clear he wanted to meet with the victim and he knew something no one else did.

the victim’s locked room

When all is said and done for the 1st coffin, the first crime, it turns into an impossible murder with indications the reason behind the victim’s death was connected to his past. The first point of interest to me is the recently bought painting in the victim’s study in which we’d throw some theories and counter them whenever it applies. Claim: The victim buys a painting to protect himself. Counter: Makes no sense whatsoever except for the following: 1) the victim believed it’d protect him in some way. A weapon? Impossible. It’s a painting. 2) The victim believed that its value would protect him. Possible since as a weapon it is useless, that can only mean that it represented something important either to the victim or to the attacker. Thus the victim was going to stop the culprit .. threaten him with it.. No. Counter: the victim had to lose the most here. If he wanted to get rid of the evidence the victim would destroy the painting and silence whoever knew of it (curious thing how this ultimately worked out). Next.

Claim: The painting was to make it look like the victim was expecting someone. That would mean he wanted to use the painting as collateral – because both the culprit and he, the victim, were involved. That’s the idea one would normally think.  The victim believed buying it from would get him out of the fix. Again, no. Counter:  The painting was a piece of evidence against him. It makes no sense to not destroy it unless the culprit had a use for it. Claim: The painter knew of the victim’s dark secret and buying the painting from him would represent his life would be spared. Counter: Wrong. If that would be the case the victim would be the painter not the 1st actual victim because the victim would have plenty intentions of getting him out-of-the-way. Making him marry his daughter doesn’t completely make him safe. Similarly, it makes little sense for the painter (who would marry the daughter) to kill his future father in law unless there was a strong motive. Also a factor against this was that he, the painter, and the victim’s daughter, were also unable to leave the room they were locked in by the mysterious man who arrived at the victim’s home. The second point against it it’d be difficult for him to the culprit  because he was with the victim’s daughter all the time, if so then it would mean as a result that the victim’s daughter was accomplice. By that train of thought, the killings would be a work of the victim’s daughter and his future son-in-law. Added to the fact this character breaks through the window to go outside as the police arrive to get out of the locked room he was supposedly trapped in? Convincing?

That’s a theory that falls apart after the Second Coffin in which the 2nd victim is shot at close range according to evidence only a couple of minutes after the first murder. First, where was everybody at the time it happened? The future son-in-law was talking to the police, daughter was in an ambulance heading to the hospital along with the 1st victim, everyone else seemed to have an alibi. If the theory that both the son-in-law and victim’s daughter were culprits then the daughter would have to be the only to murder the 2nd victim because it was impossible for the accomplice. The only possible way would be for her to get off the ambulance, do the deed and get back in or shoot the target while the vehicle was moving in order to reach the hospital in time. No matter what one could look at it both claims are preposterous. The first implies there were witnesses to her crime who were not connected to the crime and the second would imply the culprit could shoot a moving target in a moving vehicle. What makes it more preposterous is the fact that the 2nd victim was shot at close range making any type of theory like this fall apart when one assumes the culprit of the 2nd crime belongs to the same group of the 1st crime. Ultimately, both of them lack the time and were unable to get remotely close to the 2nd victim to be the culprits.

Back to the painting which was the leading clue along with the closed room in the 1st coffin to crack this puzzle.

The victim is murdered and the painting is slashed twice. The painting is never destroyed. Why? Why exactly it isn’t destroyed? Everything makes more sense if the painting (supposedly), the root of all, is destroyed but it is never destroyed and only damaged. That is one of oddest things in this mystery. The painting should have been destroyed YET it isn’t. That can only mean the culprit or whoever damaged the painting did not care about the painting being damaged but he did not want it to be completely destroyed. He wanted the police to fixate their theories on the painting and delve into the victim’s darker past. This alone would indicate the culprit was not related to those events otherwise he would also draw immense and unwanted suspicion upon him. We get closer to fully disproving the possibility the one who entered the victim’s house could’ve been one of the victim’s “brothers” at all.

The first question is who damaged the painting? A) Indisputably it should be the only one in the room – the victim. That makes the main theory. Why? Because he had the most time to do it, however he is unable to fully go through with it. B) whoever ‘entered’ after him – that’ll mean exactly that, whoever entered the locked room after the victim did. C) Less likely anyone else who was in the house. Question is, how this C character managed to enter the locked room after the police came in? Assuming the locked room was never destroyed once the police entered the building? That’d mean they could’ve done it before the police came in or that the painting was already damaged way before anyone knew. That said, all of this reasoning is based on the idea the painting wasn’t damaged before the culprit came in. That must had to be one of the crucial pieces of the mystery. Why was there ever a need for the incriminating painting? And why was the incriminating piece never destroyed? There was enough time for the culprit to destroy it while he was still inside the locked-room. The answer had to be because it had an use, someone was going to be framed. Regardless of the actual truth behind it that much had to be true.

I put the following second question to the mystery. Why should the 1st crime be a locked room in the first place anyhow? According to it it is a locked room because it remained locked. It is a locked room because until the police opened the room no other person entered or left the room through the door once the police arrived. More importantly it is a locked room because according to witnesses who were on the 2nd floor one directly across the locked room and the other one downstairs both were looking at the door and no one ever left through that door. The mystery extremely emphasizes the witnesses’ statements were not false which would be a disturbing revelation if it was impossible for the culprit to leave through the window. Thus, there were two ways to go about it. Either the story was lying about the witnesses statements and it was a play on words where one of the two witnesses looked away, momentarily left (surely it wouldn’t be the first time) the locked-room thus the culprit had the chance to escape. Since it was unlikely the two will leave the scene it’d mean one of them was in cahoots with the culprit (another curious detail how this also worked out) who then returned to the room where he was in to give himself an alibi.

The culprit, of course, was already in the house before it stopped snowing and only rang the bell to make it look like he came from the outside. There isn’t much reason to believe the culprit wasn’t already in the house to everyone else in the mansion.  Lastly, if we assume what the story tells us can only be the true about the locked room and it remained a locked room until the police arrived then the culprit had to exited through the windows. Assuming that’s a no-no like it was (we can confirm this by the lack of footprints) then he had to leave before the police came in. Otherwise the puzzle becomes impossible because as the story suggests the culprit would have simply vanished in thin air.

Breakdown of the puzzle

The main goal was to call out attention to the eerie painting for the police to connect it to the victim’s dark past. The first flag is triggered the moment illusionist visits the victim and threatens him. The second event is the victim himself buying the incriminating painting. The effect of drawing attention to the painting was created. Two conclusions are reached: The first is that the victim believed the issue (thus the painting) was a matter that could only be about his dark history. And the second is the he was made to believe this to be the case by the culprit(s). Either way the moment that painting was bought and brought to the house the mission was accomplished. It had to have some use and meaning.

Therefore this should mean the culprit was blatantly using this as a cover up for the crime. The wide space, the double slashes to the painting was a powerful way to call out attention to the painting meaning to the victim’s past meaning connecting it to a long dead brother. Of course, there wasn’t much need for the story to corroborate at any point that his other brother was dead a long time ago for that would mean that the victim’s brother (possibly, I take it close in age) MUST be someone in this story. The victim didn’t have any brothers according to his ‘new life’ and according to the tale of how he escaped and how he betrayed his other brothers by letting them die would imply that none of them would get along well. Meaning either these brothers never approached the victim again or that the victim never recognized his own brother(s). The second one is impossible therefore it should be someone not closed to him meaning someone who isn’t a close friend but somebody new – someone the victim just met. The most decisive piece of evidence is that by tests or the appropriate background checking the police would find his identity – leading to the victim’s brother identity being revealed, thus the culprit would be caught. A careless mistake by the culprit to purposely attract attention to the very fact that could incriminate him were he to not destroy the painting. This does not make any sense unless the culprit is planning on a crime where (s)he will be ultimately caught. That way the identity of the man who entered the victim’s home at night disguised could not have been the victim’s dead brother.  The logical deduction is that the culprit was not the victim’s brother. Could the culprit be so careless to carry out such intricate plan and miss something that obvious? I doubt it. It had to be somebody who wanted to draw attention to the victim’s past more than anything. We come to the conclusion the culprit blatantly used this story to cover up the crime so the police would go on circle looking for someone who was already dead.

But there’s that piece of evidence after the victim’s death. After the victim is taken to a clinic before he dies the victim’s dying word were to spare a close somebody else (assumed at this point), in this case a closed friend out of the police’s suspicion. There’s some pieces of evidence to be looked at. Not by what the victim did, but what he didn’t. The first is that the victim outright he didn’t say who did kill him but instead he cleared someone up.  Awfully strange. By the following the following is deduced: Either the victim in fact knew his attacker’s identity was not the person he was clearing up but somebody else. The second is that the victim was forced to clear his killer who, in fact, WAS whoever he supposedly spared, because of a premeditated agreement (unknown motive. Possibly scandal). The other one would that the victim never had much of an intention of revealing the culprit’s identity because he was protecting someone extremely closed to him – a relative, a lover, a daughter. The last would be that in reality the victim did try to tell the police the culprit’s identity, however he dies before doing so. This theory loses credibility because that’d mean the victim was going to frame somebody who wasn’t the culprit (unlikely) or because supposed exonerated character, in fact wasn’t the culprit. The answer is then reduced to two. The first is the victim was unable to tell the police who his killer was. The second is that the victim was covering up for the culprit. The part of the puzzle that destroys the second theory is that if the victim was really covering up for someone he would not have said a word. The first theory takes the lead.

It should go without saying under no circumstances I considered the possibility of a real person flying or climbing any building at all. Should there be any type of contractions or devices connecting buildings it should have been restricted to tools and weapons. No man with feline reflexes and no acrobats no matter how skillful should be involved in the murder of the victim because the lack of footprints made it impossible in the first place. The more proof there was it couldn’t have been committed by people, the more it proved the crime had to be committed by people.  Said people had to be restricted to people inside the house who would be the culprits. The other one would be that it’d mean the culprit had to reach the house before the snow stopped snowing without a doubt. Those are the theories reached.

only with snow

The 2nd death was as much mysterious as the first. The bizarre illusionist, how did he fit in the story? From the pieces gathered there were two solutions. The first would be he was in fact the victim’s brother and not simply someone who knew his secret. The second would be that he was paid a large amount of money to play the part. The way how one could explain his death in either situation was that ultimately he was betrayed and killed. The circumstances would be the following: The 2nd victim was going to call “brother Henry”, whoever that person represented, to get his share that night, so he thought he no longer needed to work thus why he quit his job. The other possibility was that there was something really wrong with him.  Maybe being imprisoned and working at the mines affected his mind and suffered from episodes of dementia or the like making him believe he was someone’s brother. Negative. We’re getting off track with this type of reasoning and trying too hard to give meaning to this character’s odd behavior. I wasn’t thrilled by this theory but it made more sense with the appropriate tweaking. In the end, even though the victim showed some lack interest in money and it conflicted with the theory which suggested he was in for the money. It fits why he quit his job and went home early that night, thus the assumption was likely right. He was in for the money and was betrayed and killed by the culprit was the right one.

Suicide was not possible then it had to be murder. The “burned” mark on the coat was made to make it look like the culprit shot him at a close distance. Just for a moment I remembered the “missing coat” business at the victim’s home. My theory would be that culprit hid the weapon on the coat for any of the murders and the second was that he had the coat burned before the incident to make it look like it was from a close distance when it wasn’t.  Any other uses for the coat were possible though not many of them made much sense unless the coat had some use and it had to do with taking it out outside the house.  Anything else was rather vague. I easily created a counter theory where the culprit gave the 2nd victim the coat, but it started to be torn to pieces the moment it is revealed there was not anyone near the 2nd victim at the time the shot was fired, meaning that if the 2nd victim wasn’t shot from a distance then the burned mark on the victim’s clothes were actually from a close distance.

All statements are easily put in doubt when there is confirmation that the light was dim and it was at night, thus hard to see. The greatest point in favor of the culprit is the lack of footprints other than the victim’s making it look like it was done by a ghost.  A possible theory would be that the culprit borrowed without knowing or was given the coat by the culprit. What do we do about the gun laying 10 feet from the victim if wasn’t suicide? The way to bypass this could have been the victim being killed before everyone thought he was killed. The reason why the victim was seen still walking was because he was injured. The weapon he was carrying was his own because he feared he might be betrayed. That would be tje solution assuming there really was nobody in the same street near the victim and the idea the victim was not shot from a long distance. The first crime’s solution is connected to the two witness who made the locked room. The 2nd crime’s solution is the victim being injured before he was actually died.

The 1st coffin and now the 2nd coffin are done. The rest is to piece all the pieces together. There’s the culprit.

Heretic rant (spoiler)

A couple of things I have to say no matter what.
– Info only Dr. Fell knew about, therefore had to be explained to the reader such as the salt mines. It was impossible for the reader to knew any of that.
– There was no blood found at the scenes from the the wound the 1st victim suffered , thus making the theory that the 2nd victim was killed by the 1st victim hard to think of. They should’ve hinted at this.
– The illusion lecture was great. Huge mirror killed it a bit.
– The culprit lived for far too long. Though I can see where Dr. Fell’s lecture was getting at.
– Relied heavily on Luck. I simply rather not have stories rely too heavily on it. For example, the clock on that street was fast. Now. How was anyone going to think of that? It’d make more sense if the culprit own the place or was the one who messed with the clock.
– Many other and I don’t seem to the alone in this one but these are main ones. Everything else was great and most of it could be worked out by making theories which was the most important factor.

Puzzle Success Rate: 65%

Solid read, morbidly intriguing mystery. Impossible crime was intricate as it could get. Not a bad score for attempting to solve one of the best ‘locked-room’ plot ever written according to the world, but giving myself more than this will not do because the mystery went into far more detail. Managed to crack most of the tricks and was in the right track in most part. Yet ultimately Dr. Fell boomed through the room and had the last say on this one. Best out of the three Locked Rooms: The Three Coffins; To Wake the Dead; The Skeleton in the Clock (Mystery Guild Lost Classics Omnibus). It will difficult to top this off.

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2 Responses to Keikakudoori vs. John Dickson Carr : “The Three Coffins / The Hollow Man”

  1. Always nice to see people reading The Three Coffins for the first time. It’s one of Carr’s best, but frankly almost all of his novels are amazing. He Who Whispers features impossibilities accompanied by an amazing atmosphere. Green Capsule is also a pretty good Carr novel. Really, if I began listing all good Carr novels I would end up listing just about everything he ever wrote.

    There is a reason he was referred to as “The Man Who Could Explain Miracles.”

    • keikakudoori says:

      I’ve seen many popular titles around such as The Crooked hinge, The case of constant suicides, the man who could not shudder, but since I’m picking up random popular works I read whatever sounds more intriguing. That’s why I’m raising the priority of “He Who Whispers” based on this recommendation next time I pick up a Carr mystery.

      Also based on this first three specially The Hollow Man Carr’s mysteries prove to be quite complex and mystifying that further reading is in order.

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