"The detectives who explain miracles, even more than their colleagues who clarify more secular matters, play the Promethean role of asserting man's intellect and inventiveness even against the gods."- Anthony Boucher (introduction to Hake Talbot's Rim of the Pit, 1944)
It's been almost three years since I posted the first version of this list and the first update stems from nearly two years ago, which made it about time for a thorough rewrite of the list. I've added some new titles, but omitted the links this time. You can find a good deal of my reviews, on a significant portion, of these titles on the page called "The Muniment Room," which is where every post on this blog is alphabetically listed.
I choose to drop the link to keep the post tidy after the next up, whenever that will be, because it became quite a mess after the previous update, but for now, lets take the list down from the top.
Een afgesloten huis (A Sealed House, 2013) by M.P.O. Books
A figurehead of the Dutch criminal underworld is brutally slaughtered in the comfort of his tightly secured, fortress-like home. The windows were covered with steel shutters and the grounds around the house are monitored with motion-and pressure sensors that trigger overhead lights, back and forth, and cameras – which only captured a man claiming to be innocent entering and leaving the premise at the time of murder. One of the best in this series!
The Case of the Solid Key (1948) by Anthony Boucher
The "Ellery Queen of the West Coast," Fergus O'Breen, is on an undercover assignment in a theater group when the unpleasant manager of the troupe is bumped off in his locked workshop. Boucher was known for his contribution to the impossible crime genre with novels such as Nine Times Nine (1940) and Rocket to the Morgue (1942), but I think Solid Key is the best – 'cause he kept it simple.
Death of Jezebel (1948) by Christianna Brand
A once rare, nearly impossible-to-find mystery novel, in which the reader is given a front row seat to a seemingly inexplicably murder at a medieval-like pageant. One of the actresses was struck down in full view of audience and Cockrill has to piece to puzzle together with such clues as shining armors, colored cloaks and coils of rope. You can accuse the solution of being overly complex, but that doesn't make it any less brilliant.
The Traces of Brillhart (1961) by Herbert Brean
This novel has a different take on the impossible problem: a famous song writer and biggest heel to hit New York City in four decades and suppose to be dead at the start of this story, but for a dead man he's very animated and enjoys the nightlife. A writer of magazine articles, Bill Deacon, looks into the apparently immortality of the composer.
Case for Three Detectives (1936) by Leo Bruce
Hercule Poirot, Lord Peter Wimsey and Father Brown are mercilessly being parodied as their avatars try to solve one of those locked-door problems, which satirizes the personalities and the plotting technique of their creators. In the end, it's Sgt. Beef who explains the miracle away with a delightfully simple solution.
The Man With Bated Breath (1934) by Joseph B. Carr
Quality-wise, there are better locked room mysteries on this list, but this novel reads a John Dickson Carr mystery from an alternative reality, in which a megaverse version of Dr. Gideon Fell, Ocealo Archer, solves an impossible shooting incident at a Georgian plantation.
The Hollow Man (1935) by John Dickson Carr
A fabulous Chestertonian tale of the seemingly impossible murder of Professor Grimaud, shot in his locked and watched study, "and later the equally incredible crime in Cagliostro Street," where the murderer "killed his second victim in the middle of an empty street, with watchers at either end; yet not a soul saw him, and no footprints appeared in the snow." A genuine classic worthy of the name.
He Who Whispers (1946) by John Dickson Carr
Some would argue this is a better mystery novel that his much praised masterpiece, The Hollow Man. What's not to like about the slow building up of a dark, atmospheric persecution story of a young woman, Fey Seton, who may be a vampire and a deadly stabbing on top of a natural tower in France – under seemingly impossible circumstances. It has everything you'd hope to find when picking up one of Dr. Gideon Fell strange cases.
Captain Cut-Throat (1955) by John Dickson Carr
A strange and under appreciated hybrid sewing together elements from the historical novel, spy-and adventures yarns and wrapped in layers of mysterious events – set during the Napoleonic Wars. There's a murderer on the loose, referring to himself as Captain Cut-Throat, among the sentries and has apparently mastered the art of invisibility. The impossible crime elements are understated here, but the story as a whole deserves to be better known.
The Man from Tibet (1938) by Clyde B. Clason
An opulent collector of Tibetan artifacts, Adam Merriweather, succumbs in his locked Tibetan room of a heart attack, but the elderly and gentle Professor Theocritus Lucius Westborough believes there's more to the death of the collector than meets the eye. The locked room is not the most difficult to solve, but this book and Clason are at the top of the class of the Van Dine-Queen School of Detection.
Killed on the Rocks (1990) by William L. DeAndrea
A luxurious, snow-capped mountain retreat is the décor of negotiations between the Network and a billionaire, who wants to buy the TV station. However, the discovery of a mangled corpse in a field of unbroken field of snow unsettles the schedule. DeAndrea showed here that a classic never goes out of style and that there's always place on the printed page for the Great Detectives.
The Plague Court Murders (1934) by Carter Dickson (a.k.a John Dickson Carr)
This is the book that turned me in a disciple of the Grand Master of the Locked Room Mystery, in which a fraudulent medium is stabbed to death on the premises of a haunted house. However, even better is how perfectly Carr balanced on the fine tightrope towards the ending without falling. The murderer is neatly tugged away from the reader, but all the clues are there hidden in the dark, brooding atmosphere with comedic bits – without reducing the impact of either. But, as the late "Grobius Shortling" noted, you have to take the solution to the locked room with a pinch of salt.
The Poison Oracle (1974) by Peter Dickinson
Now here's a tale that would've bought Sheherazade another reprieve from the executioner's sword. A tale of the imaginary sultanate of Q'Kut. A strip of land in cloud-cuckoo land where the Arab rulers share a special bond with the native Marshmen, an isolated tribe with their own unique language, reaffirmed every year in a verbal treaty, "The Bond," which is an epic song telling their history. Dickinson builds a completely new civilization with a history, language, social structure, political system and used as a framework for a first-rate detective story – involving a pre-verbal chimpanzee, a skyjacked airliner and an impossible poisoning in the Sultan's private zoo.
The Judas Window (1938) by Carter Dickson
A book that seems to have become the classic locked room mystery for the locked room reader of this century and it's understandable why, because how can you not love Sir Henry Merrivale acting as a barrister and addressing the jury with: "Well, my dear fatheads." The solution to the locked room murder may also be one of Carr's best and most original trick.
Koude vrouw in Kralingen (Cold Woman in Kralingen, 1970) by Cor Docter
A topographical roman policier, situated in a neighborhood of Rotterdam, where the stabbing of a gardener, inspecting his greenhouses during a surging storm, leads Commissioner Vissering to a shadowy society known as Kostbaar Kralingen (Precious Kralingen). During one of their weekly gatherings, one of them dies under breathtaking circumstances in a sealed bedroom. The solution shows Docter was a pulp writer, but this is still one of the better Dutch-language locked room mystery I have read to date and it was the "weakest" in the Vissering-trilogy.
The Spies of Sobeck (2008) by Paul Doherty
Upon her return from victories in the North, Egypt's Pharaoh-Queen Hatusu has to suppress a Nubian uprising in her sultry kingdom, but a sect of professional assassins, known as the Arites, begin to wage a very personal war against their Egyptian overlords – and the impossible is kind of their trademark. A former chief scout of the spies, Imothep, is murdered in Mansion of Silence and the explanation is incredible cheeky, but absolutely acceptable in a historical setting.
The Mysterium (2010) by Paul Doherty
One of my favorite Doherty novels to date, because the atmosphere, themes and types of crimes gave the story a delightfully Carrian touch. A hooded assassin, who disappeared twenty years previously from a watched and guarded church, returns to extract revenge on the ex-Chief Justice and the man is soon found murdered – with the door barred from the inside and only a wafer-thin slit for a window.
Ättestupan (Deadly Reunion, 1975) by Jan Ekström
I would say "the Swedish John Dickson Carr" was closer to Christianna Brand than to Carr, but the combination made for a darkly memorable, character-driven mystery of the impossible kind. The three warring branches of a family are brought to together and the reunion ends with a double murder/suicide (shooting and gassing in a locked bedroom), but things turn out to be slightly more complicated than that.
Too Many Ghosts (1961) by Paul Gallico
Alexander Hero has made name for himself by "de-haunting" houses, but his latest investigation at Paradine Hall may've him up against genuine, supernatural entities. Furniture moves around itself and invisible hands pluck at the strings of a harp in a locked music room, which has a clever and original solution.
The Danger Within (1952) by Michael Gilbert
This is one of my all-time favorite mystery novel from the post-WWII era and of the best blends of the formal detective story, thriller elements and a semi-autobiographic at the same time. The setting is a POW camp in Italy and has a nifty impossible situation: a man has been found dead in a secret escape tunnel and the entrance was blocked with a furnace, which needed the combined strength of half a dozen men to budge as much as an inch.
What a Body! (1949) by Alan Green
A breezy, comically told story of a murdered health guru and was shot from this spinning globe by a bullet from an impossible angle and left the pajamas of the victim undamaged. You could say the solution was tailored to fit the situation of the crime. A one of a kind locked room mystery!
Fantoom in Foe-lai (The Chinese Gold Murders, 1959) by Robert van Gulik
Chronologically, this is the first book in the series (not the first to be published) and tells the story of Judge Dee's first post as magistrate of the district of Peng-lai, where the somber skies and mournful atmosphere makes a perfect backdrop for stories of the dead refusing to slumber in their graves – one of them being Dee's predecessor who died under mysterious circumstances in his locked library. One of the better impossible crime novels from my country.
La quatrième porte (The Fourth Door, 1987) by Paul Halter
A staggering complex detective story, in which a haunted attic room becomes the scene of murder all over again when a spiritualistic experiment goes horribly wrong. One of the suspects appears to have been in two different places at the same time. A second murder is committed in a house completely surrounded by a field of untouched snow. Halter has its fair share of faults, but it's hard to care about such things as a sense of time or characterization when these intricate plot patterns begin to appear.
La septième hypothèse (The Seventh Hypothesis, 1991)
A story enwrapped in a thick, Baghdad-on-the-Thames atmosphere of the long-gone London of John Dickson Carr and Christopher Fowler. Plague doctors from the 17th century are seen prowling the streets, a corpse is whisked away from under the nose of a police constable and a man dematerializes halfway down a corridor, but the main attraction is the battle-of-wits between a famous playwright and an actor. One of Halter's best performances.
Le mystère de la chambre jaune (The Mystery of the Yellow Room, 1907) by Gaston Leroux
One of the earliest and perhaps most important of all locked room novels, whose problem of the brutal attack on Mrs. Stangerson in a locked room inspired future grandmasters of the grandest game in the world – like John Dickson Carr and G.K. Chesterton.
Bloodhounds (1996) by Peter Lovesey
The locked room mystery novel for the locked room reader and detective fans in general, because the characters in this book are fans and collectors of all kind of mysteries. They constantly being discussed and Inspector Diamond has to figure out how one of them gets himself murdered, while being in a locked houseboat.
Killer's Wedge (1959) by Ed McBain
The squad room of the 87th Precinct becomes the scene of a tense hostage situation, but the cop the hostage taker is after, Steve Carella, is looking into the supposed suicide of a business tycoon. It's snappy police-thriller with a tradition locked room mystery and it was just fun to have Carella playing detective, while his colleagues were in mortal danger.
Mr. Splitfoot (1968) by Helen McCloy
Two unruly, but likeable, teenagers pull a malicious prank on the neglectful adults by invoking a local legend, however, they seem to have gotten a response and reawakened the inhospitable guest room in the home – which has unsavory reputation of snuffing the life out of its lonely occupants. I really, really enjoyed this one.
The Blushing Monkey (1953) by Roman McDougald
A very unusual take on the problem of the locked room: the question here's not how someone managed to escape from a hermitically sealed environment, but why a mortally wounded man refused to escape from unlocked room and his attacker. A second murder gives a more traditional scenario for the locked room, when a man gets his throat cut in a sealed bathroom.
The Tree of Death (1983) by Marcia Muller
The unlikable director and fundraiser for the Museum of Mexican Arts in Santa Barbara is crushed by garish, ceramic tree. The locks and alarm-system weren't tempered with and the solution puts this novel in the same league as the best from the hands of her late contemporary, Herbert Resnicow, who debuted in the same year with The Gold Solution (1983).
The Stingaree Murders (1932) by W. Shepard Pleasants
Agatha Christie meets John Dickson Carr when an invisible killer strikes again, and again, among the well heeled guests aboard of the Terrapin, scudding across the Louisiana marsh land during a fishing trip, which added no less than three new and very original scenarios to the locked room story: 1) a man is stabbed to death while fishing alone in a skiff 2) a knife that was hammered into the woodwork of the deck, like Excalibur, was effortlessly retrieved with apparent supernatural strength 3) a force unseen pulls a man into the water and drowns him.
Dead Man's Gift (1941) by Zelda Popkin
A stock-in-trade galore of tropes, from a family gathering to a changed will, brilliantly tossed about by a freak flood forcing them slowly to the roof, but the finishing touch was revealing a clever, original impossible murder in the solution. You've to wait to end to even know what the impossibility was, but the ride towards its is more than worth it!
Hoodwink (1981) & Scattershot (1982) by Bill Pronzini
These novels really form one story and contain together no less than five (!) locked room mysteries, which begins at a pulp convention where an old friend becomes the main suspect in a shooting. A second body turns up with an ex wound to the head in a locked shed. The second novel deals with one of the worst weeks in the life of the Nameless Detective and were (originally) three separate short stories stitched together with bridging material. Nameless has to figure out how a man he was shadowing vanished from his locked car, a woman he served a subpoena to ends up dead in bolted cabin and an expensive wedding ring he was supposed to guard disappears from a secured room.
The Bughouse Affair (2013) by Bill Pronzini & Marcia Muller
The first in a new series of full-length historical mysteries about Carpenter and Quincannon, Professional Detective Services, and they've quite a workload piled up on their desks before the halfway mark of the book. Sabina has to roam the Cocktail Route to snuff out a pickpocket, while Quincannon is setting up a trap for a burglar and trying to shake off a character known as the bughouse Holmes. Naturally, someone ends up dead between the confines of four walls and a couple of locked doors and windows in what amount to a great new start to a series that was already well established as a series of short stories.
Murdercon (1982) by Richard Purtill
A bizarre murder of a penal member at a Science-Fiction convention, presaged by an appearance of Darth Vader with a sparkle gun, but the second impossibility is even better presented – even though they aren't terribly difficult to solve. It was still a nice find!
Death from a Top Hat (1938) by Clayton Rawson
A magician gone mad would've been a good subtite. I remember Rawson pulling one impossibility trick after another from his top hat, but the effect is nothing to sneeze at for locked room enthusiasts.
The Gold Solution (1984) by Herbert Resnicow
Alexander and Norma Gold are invited by an influential billionaire to discuss business, under the cover of social engagement, during a performance of the Boguslav Ballet, but halfway through the show someone is murdered and only the billionaire's son could've done – who gives the Gold's three days to exonerate him in exchange for the biggest paycheck of their life. The solution is really intricate and it's perhaps stretches credulity, but Resnicow supplied a convincing motive/situation why anyone would go through such insane length to murder someone.
The Dead Room (1987) by Herbert Resnicow
The anechoic chamber at Hamilcar HI-FI reverberates with murder after someone managed to sneak in unseen and stabbed the inventor of a new sound speaker to death, which happened on the second, netted floor of the room. The solution is as original to the locked room as the scene of the crime.
The Case of the Little Green Men (1951) by Mack Reynolds
A comedic private-eye novel set against the backdrop of the Science-Fiction and Fantasy community of the mid-20th century, in which a group of SF fans ask a hapless private-eye to investigate if extraterrestrials are interfering in the affairs of Earth. Apparently, they are, because they're zap these fans with laser guns or tossed them out of a flying saucer. This is a fun read and the alien threat was a nice change from the family curses, haunted rooms and glowing dogs on the moor.
Murder on the Way! (1935) by Theodore Roscoe
Perhaps one of the wildest, fastest and most unapologetic flights of fancy in this sub genre, in which a dead patriarch turned a decaying mansion, situated in Haiti, into a savage playground for a bizarre cast of gargoyles to vie over his earthly possessions. This story has everything: a locked room murder, an impossible disappearance, zombies, voodoo rituals and more!
The Sleeping Bacchus (1951) by Hilary St. George Saunders
This story plucks the gentleman thief, represented here in a person who calls himself "Zeb," from its familiar environment of the Rogue School and shoves him on the playing field of the Grandest Game in the World – which results in a whole slew of miracle crimes.
The Tokyo Zodiac Murders (1981) by Soji Shimada
A textbook example of how you can merge the contemporary thriller with the traditional detective, with a touch of the horror story, in which a gruesome, 40-year-old unsolved mystery is pried open, but also includes a locked room murder, a corpse-puzzle and two challenges to the reader. A bloody tour-de-force!
Black Aura (1974) by John Sladek
One of my favorite titles on this list! The plot centers on a fraudulent medium and an ill-assorted collection of live-in clients, but pretty soon things begin to happen to seem genuinely supernatural. A man disappears from a locked and watched lavatory, while another member of the household is impaled on a fence after being watched walking in mid-air! A masterpiece, plain and simple.
Whistle Up the Devil! (1954) by Derek Smith
A locked room mystery written by one of its biggest admirer, in which a vigil in a haunted, sealed and guarded room ends with the death of its sole occupant, but a second murder in a guarded prison cell poses an equal challenge to Algy Lawrence. The story is littered with references to other mystery writers of impossible crime tales and there's even a locked room lecture!
Death Traps (1930) by Kay Cleaver Strahan
A story of a long, ongoing conversation between two elderly men about the respective incidents that took place in their home, which includes a dubious shooting in a sun room and two people being gassed in a completely sealed house – that wasn't piped for gas. It's not the best or strongest title on the list, but I liked it and the solution to sealed house was actually pretty good.
Shisei satsujin jiken (The Tattoo Murder Case, 1949) by Akimitsu Takagi
This is another story that may not sport the strongest locked room mystery on this list, but the plot is intriguing as it draws on mythology, tattoo lore and dumping a pile of body parts in a locked bathroom. Japanese mystery writers love to play around with severed body parts!
The Hangman's Handyman (1942) by Hake Talbot
The first of two Rogan Kincaid mysteries and takes place on an isolated island, called "The Kraken," where Kincaid finds a body decomposing at a supernatural speed and is attacked in a locked room. You have no idea how much I wished Talbot had written more detective fiction!
Rim of the Pit (1944) by Hake Talbot
Atmosphere-wise, this may be one of few Golden Age mysteries rivaling John Dickson Carr in conjuring up a demon haunted world, which comes here with a galore of seemingly supernatural manifestations. A bodily apparition is seen in the opening chapter of the book and the characters are being stalked by what could be the legendary Windigo.
L'enigme du Monte Verita (The Riddle of Monte Verita, 2007) by Jean-Paul Török
An unabashed homage to John Dickson Carr and presents a complex and tightly woven affair by drawing on the work of the master himself.
Darkness at Pemberley (1932) by T.H. White
The author of the Arthurian fantasy, The Once and Future King (1958), once wrote a detective story and the first half, concerning a murder at St. Bernard's College, is a typical British, drawing room-style mystery – including maps, floor plans and an impossible crime! The second half is a dangerous cat-and-mouse game between the detective and murderer/master criminal, restricted to house, but presented here on the scale of the worldwide manhunt for Carmen Sandiego.
The Silver Scale Mystery (1931) by Anthony Wynne