Friday, August 16, 2019

"It Is Absolutely Impossible for Anyone Else to Have Reached Him, Let Alone Shot Him"

IT WOULD BE remiss of us if we didn't impart a little-known fact about today's story, JDC's "The Third Bullet". An entire generation of readers (including yours truly), especially those of us on this side of the Atlantic, were under the impression that the version they read in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine (EQMM) back in '48 (or the reprint in '67 or the one they might have seen in The Third Bullet and Other Stories in '54) was the one and only "Third Bullet," when in fact what they'd been reading all those years was an abridgement of a (by all ac-counts) superior 1937 novel that wasn't fully seen again until about 1990 (thanks to Douglas Greene).

In introducing the story, Ellery Queen tells how he accidentally discovered Carr's book and why he wished to publish it ASAP, but he fails to warn the reader about the cuts he has made to make it fit EQMM. Frankly we have no idea what those changes might have been, and we can't imagine how different the story was in its original form or what, if any, useful informa-tion has been lost in the abridgment; therefore, as far as we're concerned, it's a fine enough locked-room problem just as it is . . .

"The Third Bullet."
By John Dickson Carr (1906-77).
First appearance: English book publication (1937).
Reprinted in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, January 1948; MacKill’s Mystery Magazine, February 1953; MacKill’s Mystery Magazine (U.S.), February 1953; and Ellery Queen’s Anthology #13, 1967.

Collected in The Third Bullet and Other Stories (1954; abridged) and Fell and Foul Play (1990; restored version).
Novella (67 pages, with diagram).
Online at The Luminist League Archive (HERE; scroll down to 
text page 4, PDF page 6).
     ". . . if White didn't kill him, the case is a monstrosity. But that's just the trouble. For if White did kill him — well, it's still a monstrosity."

The Mortlake murder case has the police pulling out their hair in frustration (figuratively, of course), with one even willing to resign from the force over it, because, according to all the evidence available to them, the only person who could have done it could not have done it . . .

Characters:
~ Mr. Justice Charles Mortlake, the victim:

  ". . . the judge was dead, right enough. He had been shot through the heart at fairly close range, and death had been almost instantaneous. One of the bullets had killed him. The other bullet had smashed the glass mouth of the speaking tube hung on the dictaphone, and was embedded in the wall behind him."
~ Colonel Marquis, Assistant Commissioner of Metropolitan Police, elderly but sharp:
  ". . . leaned back at ease and smoked a cigarette with an air of doing so cynically. Colonel Marquis was a long, stringy man whose thick and wrinkled eyelids gave him a sardonic look not altogether deserved."
~ Inspector John Page, young and sharp, but smitten:
  "Sergeant Borden and I practically saw the thing done."
~ Ida Mortlake, one of the victim's daughters:
  ". . . had a smile capable of loosening Page's judgment."
~ Gabriel White, not an old lag:
  "Just as I pulled the trigger, I saw the bullet-hole jump up black in the wall behind him."
~ Sir Andrew Travers, the lawyer:
  ". . . had a massive head, a massive chest, a blue jowl, and an inscrutable eye."
~ Dr. Gallatin, the police surgeon:
  "You don't know much about ballistics, do you? It's not only impossible, it's mad."
~ Robinson, the gate-keeper:
  ". . . a little man with a veined forehead and a dogged eye . . ."
~ Davies, the butler:
  "He fitted; you would have expected him."
~ Carolyn Mortlake, the victim's other daughter:
  "There's the gun and you may take it or leave it."
~ Alfred Penney, the clerk:
  "Life works by reason and system. You cannot believe that there were three prospective murderers shut up in that room?"
~ Sergeant Borden, no nonsense:
  "I'm fair sick of bullets. It's raining bullets. And there's no sense in any of 'em."
~ Sara Samuels, the soon-to-be maid:
  ". . . was a woman in the late twenties, short, rather plump, and quietly dressed."
~ Clara McCann, the news-agent:
  "There's no mistake about it now, like there was when I only saw the photograph."


Typo: "Ivor Johnson" is consistently misspelled; it should be "Iver Johnson".
Resources:
- John Dickson Carr was always meticulous in peppering his stories with plausible elements to establish the setting; here are some background details in service of his story: cat-o'-nine tails (HERE), Wormwood Scrubs (HERE), Lyons' teashops (definitely important in setting up an alibi; HERE), and the real-life William Henry Kennedy case (HERE and HERE).

- Our latest contact with Carr was under his alter-alias of Carter Dickson, the classic "The House in Goblin Wood" (HERE).
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4 comments:

  1. Did someone say locked-room problem? Because I heard someone saying locked-room problem.

    I read the 1948 version of “The Third Bullet” in Locked Room Puzzles and remember liking it very much with its proto-type of Colonel Marsh and the cussedness-of-all-things-general solution for the impossible shooting. If anyone else had written it, “The Third Bullet” would be considered a locked room classic worthy of Carr. And would love to read the 1937 novel-length version of the story.

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    1. TomCat - The only place that "The Third Bullet" in its original form is readily available that I know about (apart from the MacKILL's reprint, definitely NOT readily available) is Doug Greene's FELL AND FOUL PLAY, which has somehow eluded me for nearly thirty years. (How about an E-book version? The time is right!). If you can get your hands on it, you might find it interesting to compare the two; as I say in the post, however, I'm perfectly content with the abridged edition—and this despite the fact that I hate READER'S DIGEST versions.

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    1. Thank you. We try to be informative, so if we're interesting as well we figure we've come out ahead!

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