At Gabriel White’s trial for robbery with violence, Mr. Justice Mortlake found him guilty and sentenced him to 18 months’ imprisonment and fifteen strokes of the cat (which means a whipping; this was back in the 1930s, when this was still a form of judicial punishment). White swore vengeance, which isn’t unusual for a convicted man, but after he was paroled he came calling at the Mortlake home. In short order, White was found standing over the judge’s dead body with a gun in one hand. An open-and-shut case, right? Wrong, of course, given who wrote this story!
Every exit from the building where the murder took place was either sealed shut or under observation by the police (who were chasing White and got into the room just too late). White went in; nobody else went in or came out; nobody was hiding inside. But while there were two guns found in the room (one held by White and one hidden in a vase), ballistic evidence shows neither one fired the bullet that killed the judge. Colonel Marquis, Assistant Commissioner of the C.I.D., takes over the investigation…
The Third Bullet has some things in common with The Problem of the Wire Cage, which was published a year later, although the impossible crimes are very different. Both take place in upper-class domestic settings. Both are set in suburban London. Both have someone found right by the body, but are they guilty? However, while I always thought Wire Cage was padded out to book length and should have been a novella, The Third Bullet is just long enough for a story of its complexity.
And the impossible crime is a beauty, one of Carr’s best. It seems there is no way either White or anyone else could have killed the judge, and yet when Colonel Marquis explains what really happened (“There is one thing, my lads, you have forgotten…”) you realize all the clues were there if only you’d had the wit to spot them. (If you did spot them, you’re a better detective than I am!)
Two criticisms, though… There are a couple of coincidences as we go along, which for me is one coincidence too many for a detective story. But they didn’t get in the way of my enjoying the story as I read it.
Also, something we find out partway through the story makes me dubious that the White trial would have proceeded as described… can’t say more without risking a spoiler.
This novella has a curious publishing history. It was originally published in 1937 under the Carter Dickson byline, as a standalone book in a line of thrillers called “New at Ninepence”. There were several works by different authors in the same series, but apparently it was not a success.
A shorter version, about 80% as long as the original, was published in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine in 1947 as by John Dickson Carr. Frederic Dannay did the abridgement with Carr’s blessing; he thought he had been “uncomfortably verbose” around the time he wrote it.
The abridged version was the one included in The Third Bullet and Other Stories, which is where I first read it. The longer version was included in the posthumous anthology Fell and Foul Play (1991). I read that version several years ago and from what I can remember, Dannay did a good job of abridging, because I didn’t remember feeling the condensation left out anything crucial, nor did the pace feel choppy. I don’t have a copy of the longer version handy, so consider this a review of the shorter one. At some point I will have to compare the two and see if my memory is accurate.
Some random notes:
- Do the Carr and Dickson books take place in the same universe? Sir Edward Gordon-Bates is a famous barrister mentioned in a couple of Dr. Fell books (including Wire Cage), and here there’s a barrister with the same surname who’s briefly name-checked. Dr. Blaine, the police surgeon in a few H.M. novels, is also mentioned as “doing the post-mortem,” although the physician who actually reports on its findings is a Dr. Gallatin. An error in editing?
- I doubt anyone writing a story nowadays would create a “super-gigolo” character and name him Ralph.
- Colonel Marquis is obviously a prototype of Colonel March of the Department of Queer Complaints, who would make his debut a year later. The main difference between them is that Marquis’ physique is described as “stringy” while March is a big fat man like Dr. Fell and H.M. Did Carr prefer that his series characters be overweight?
- It’s a shame Carr didn’t write more at this length, as it seems to me a natural for him; I can think of several of his novels that would have been better as novellas. Rex Stout wrote lots of stories about this long, but most were originally published in the general-interest American Magazine, and I get the feeling its readers weren’t the natural audience for brain-crackers of the Carr variety. (Some Ellery Queen novels weren’t serialized before book publication simply because no magazine wanted them.)