The Three Coffins/The Hollow Man by John Dickson Carr (1935)

The Three Coffins (American title)/ The Hollow Man (British title) by John Dickson Carr is a classic locked-room fictional mystery. John Dickson Carr wrote this whodunit novel in 1935, with his common themes of contrasting comfortable security of English life with the terror of seemingly supernatural crime in mind.

One of the many covers of The Hollow Man

Fley, an illusionist, tells Professor Grimaud about how he escaped a coffin. Additionally, Fley tells Prof. Grimaud that someone will call him and asks if Grimaud would prefer the caller to be himself or his brother. Unwisely, Grimaud deregards what Fley says and later when his friends Dr. Fell, Rampole and Mangan express worry for Grimaud, Grimaud perculiarly purchases a painting to protect himself. Luckily, Mangan learns more about Fley from an acrobat who had worked with Fley. Fley is indeed “looney”. Chief Inspector Hadley and friends Rampole and Mangan drive to Grimaud’s house when they are informed that Grimaud has been in fact shot. When they arrive to the house, Grimaud is dying. Dumont, Grimaud’s housekeeper and Mills, Grimaud’s secretary say that Fley killed Grimaud. However, the room that Grimaud died in is locked. In fact, the door had been locked from the inside. There are no footprints in the snow. How did Fley escape? But wait… Fley’s body is found… dead… covered in snow… with only his own tracks surrounding him.

One of the many covers of The Three Coffins

Main Characters

There are several main characters. For starters, Dr. Fell is an amateur sleuth, who is often contacted by the police for assistance. He solves mysteries by disclosing all information until he has solved the mystery. He goes to check on the safety of Grimaud and is then reeled into the situation at hand. Interestingly, he was modeled after Chesterton’s “Father Brown”.  Professor Grimaud is the central victim (or at least that is what the reader thinks). He is involved with low magic which is the involvement of supernatural devilry such as vampirism. He is alone and almost dead when he is found. Fley is the central suspect, and is also an illusionist. He is thoroughly, increasingly sketchy. His name is actually Middle English for “frighten”. Chief Inspector Hadley who is not surprisingly the inspector. He becomes involved in this murder the same way Dr. Fell does, which by going to check on the well-being of their friend, Prof. Grimaud. Additionally, Rampole, a friend of Dr. Fell’s also goes to check on Grimaud after hearing about Fley’s reputation. Mills is Grimaud’s secretary, and plays a key role in determining the whereabouts of Prof. Grimaud before the murder. Ernestine Dumont is Grimaud’s housekeeper who, in addition to Mills, knows the whereabouts of Grimaud. Mangan, whose occupation is that of a journalist, does his research on Fley and finds out that Fley is “looney”. He is the character to tell Fell, Rampole and Hadley about the murder itself. O’Rourke is an acrobat that knows Fley from when they both worked together in their illusion shows. He informs Mangan about Fley’s escape from the coffin, as well as Fley’s crazy personality. 

“Locked-Room Lecture” by Dr. Fells

This lecture is included in a chapter of the novel, in which Dr. Fell talks to the reader about how to write locked-room mysteries, but not how to solve murders. Additionally, he notes that the reader is not just the reader but also a character within the book. The reader is a necessity to the plot of the novel. This lecture is one of a kind, thus making  The Three CoffinsThe Hollow Man most famous for its Locked-Room Lecture.


This is the classic mystery of the cozy style. Within this novel, violence is downplayed and is even thought to be a result of illusion and magic at some points. The setting is in “paradise”, in which there is no other mention of other societal struggles. The plot also follows the  tradition, in which the detective is introduced, then the crime and clues, then the investigation. After the investigation, the announcement of solution, then explanation and finally the denouement. Additionally, the main detective, Dr. Fell is a gifted amateur. He is male, unmarried (or at least his wife is not mentioned), and moral.


There is the central theme of illusion integrated within the novel. One of the main characters, Fley is an illusionist. The murders occur through mass illusion. This theme keeps readers involved and on edge for what is going to happen next. The peculiarity of Fley’s presence as well as Prof. Grimaud’s interests  keeps the readers thinking of the possibility of these murders happening on supernatural terms.  


This is an outstanding book. John Dickson Carr set a high standard for his locked-room successors. The incorporation of illusion throws all readers for a loop. Two impossible murders were made possible through the writing of Carr. His work, a locked-room classic stumps the reader, but in that makes the reader really think about how these murders could have possibly taken place. This novel is pure genius. I would highly recommend this book.

“The novel presents what is perhaps Carr’s cleverest locked-room scenario. This is one of several–perhaps many–Carr novels that one ought to read twice in succession: the first to be bamboozled, the second to see how it was done.” –T.S. Joshi 



Carr, John Dickson. Trio. New York, Harper & Brothers, 1957. Print.

Cook, Michael. Narratives of Enclosure in Detective Fiction : The Locked Room Mystery. Houndmills, Basingstoke, Hampshire [England] ; New York : Palgrave Macmillan, 2011. Print.

Joshi, S. T. John Dickson Carr : A Critical Study. Bowling Green, Ohio : Bowling Green State University Popular Press, 1990. Print.



Gray, Mike. “Ontos.” November 2013. 01 Jan. 1970. Web.

Harvey, Ryan. “Book Review: The Hollow Man.” The Realm of Ryan. 30 Apr. 2007. Web.

Kralik, Ann. “Criminal Minds.” Pinterest. 13 Aug. 2014. Web.

“The Three Coffins (Dr. Gideon Fell, #6).” The Three Coffins (Dr. Gideon Fell, #6) by John Dickson Carr. Web.

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