“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)
My undying adoration for the traditional whodunit has been well-chronicled on this blog and my heart has taken a real fancy in the locked room mystery, which somehow seems appropriate for an organ that is composed of four chambers, but what I find particular alluring is that they (with assistance of some smoke and mirrors) show a reflection of our potential to turn fantasy into reality. Our modern, everyday world consists now of many things that people were dreaming about a hundred years ago: a borderless world known as the internet, satellites probing the unknown universe around us and planting eyes and ears on the surface of Mars.
I see a glimpse of this talent for dreaming in the best kind of impossible crime stories, in which enterprising minds devise ingenious schemes to defy every natural law known to man and conjure up demon-infested nightmares where a shadowy murderer can evaporate from a sealed room or trod over a field of virgin snow without leaving footprints in his wake. Even more unbelievable feats include a miraculous mid-air stroll, spiriting away an entire house and a homicidal snowman being magically endowed with life – among other supernatural creatures whose unnerving presence grace the pages of these stories.
But I also find them intellectually stimulating and provide a mystery novel with an extra layer or two for its plot. It's fun to deduce who laced Madame Willborough's cough syrup with cyanide or whose guilty hands plunged an ornamental dagger in the neck of Sir Linnaeus, but a well-conceived and executed impossible crime is the real challenge to the reader in this grand game of ours – which sometimes also gives you that child-like feeling that you are surreptitiously rummaging through the props of a stage magician for his trade secrets. I always try to come up with my own explanation to explain the apparent unexplainable and sometimes my incorrect, but nonetheless ingenious, answers resurface in my reviews.
Anyway, I thought it was finally time to compile a list of my favorite locked room mysteries and impossible crime stories and I apologize in advance: it's a long, long, long read.
So let’s take them down from the top:
M.P.O. Books' De blikvanger (The Eye-Catcher, 2010)
Right off the bat, I throw a curve ball that takes the form of a novel that, perhaps, does not qualify for a spot on this list, but it's a delightfully complex detective story (centering on the murder of a GP and an attempt on the life of a local alderman) and there's a genuine locked room mystery towards the end. To be fair, it's not a staggeringly knotted problem and Marco Books was very modest about it, but this little side puzzle, tucked away between the pages of an excellent mystery, gives me another excuse to drop his name to an international audience. His other book, De laatste kans (The Last Chance, 2011), deserves, at least, a translation.
Anthony Boucher's The Case of the Solid Key (1941)
The fiery haired shamus, Fergus O'Breen, drapes himself in the theatrical garb of a wishful actor as he attempt to pick the lock that keeps the murder of a theatrical manager, found in his workshop with the door and windows locked from the inside, a genuine mystery. A simple solution, but the inclusion of the solid key handle was a novel and original idea.
I know, I know, I should have gone for the more conventional Nine Times Nine (1940), but the method never entirely convinced me in that one. Still a good locked room, though!
Christianna Brand's Death of Jezebel (1948)
A fairly rare and hard-to-find impossible crime novel, in which Cockrill and Charlesworth have front row seats at a pageant where a vengeful killer took the stage and struck one of the players down without being seen – and the two policemen in attendance have to unsnarl this problem by untangling such clues as shining armors, colored cloaks and coils of rope. Overly complex, perhaps, but absolutely brilliant.
Herbert Brean's The Traces of Brillhart (1961)
This novel turns a fresh page on the impossible problem: a song writer who's known as the biggest heel to hit New York City in four decades and suppose to be dead at the opening of this book, but for a dead man he's very animated and enjoys the night life. A writer of magazine articles looks into the apparent immortality of the music composer.
Leo Bruce's Case for Three Detectives (1936)
Pasquinades of Hercule Poirot, Lord Peter Wimsey and Father Brown all attempt to explain away another one of those locked door problems, which also wonderfully satirizes the detectives personality and the plotting techniques of their creators, but it’s Sgt. Beef who explains this miracle away in a delightfully simple manner.
John Dickson Carr's The Hollow Man (1935)
A fabulous Chestertonian tale about the seemingly impossible murder of Professor Grimaud, shot in his locked and watched study from which his murderer miraculously disappeared, "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." You can argue against the fairness of certain components of the solution, but that takes, IMHO, very little away from the story and it will remain the standard bearer for the locked room mystery for many more decades to come.
John Dickson Carr's He Who Whispers (1946)
This novel is arguably even better than his much-touted masterpiece, The Hollow Man, in which a dark and grim atmosphere slowly, but surely, builds up around a well-characterized woman, named Fey Seton, who may be a vampire and an extraordinary crime of the impossible variety on top of a natural tower in France.
John Dickson Carr's Captain Cut-Throat (1955)
A strange hybrid sewn together from the elements of a historical romance, espionage thriller and a proper detective story set during the Napoleonic Wars – on the eve of the invasion of Britain. A murderer who refers to himself as the titular Captain Cut-Throat is dispatching sentries under seemingly impossible circumstances to their graves and the method is as clever as it's simple, however, they are not the main focus of the novel. But read the book for yourself. It deserves to be better known.
Clyde Clason's The Man from Tibet (1938)
An opulent collector of Tibetan artifacts, Adam Merriweather, comes into possession of a rare and valuable eight-century manuscript and as a result he finds a monk, who comes to claim the bundle of paper on behalf of his people, on his doorstep, but refuses to relinquish it – and as a result a curse seems to have gotten an stranglehold on his heart when he was alone in his locked Tibetan room. Not very difficult to solve, though, but nonetheless a fascinating story and the opening chapters had one of the characters recounting his adventures in the Tibetan mountains that showed some shades of James Hilton’s wonderful Lost Horizon (1933).
Willy Corsari's De voetstappen op de trap (Footsteps on the Stairs, 1937)
Sir John Judge, a Dutchman born as Jan Rechter, left his native country behind him to amass a fortune in Britain, but when comes back home a demon from his past is waiting for him – and ends up eating a bullet behind the tightly locked door of his study. This book is a splendid homage to the English country house mystery and her overseas colleagues.
William DeAndrea's Killed on the Rocks (1990)
The televisions networks vice-president of Special Projects, which takes care of everything that’s too insecure for security and too private for Public Relations, Matt Cobb is assigned to oversee the negotiations between The Network and a billionaire who wants to buy the station, but the location is an ill-chosen mansion in the snowcapped mountains – and his detective curse immediately kicks in. On the morning after their first night they find a mangled corpse making a macabre composition in red and white smack in the middle of a field of unbroken snow. DeAndrea and Cobb prove here that a classic never goes out of style!
Carter Dickson's The Plague Court Murders (1934)
This is the book that turned me into one of the grandmasters disciples and the story is easily one of the best from this series, which concerns itself with the impossible stabbing of a fraudulent medium on the premise of a haunted house, but perhaps even better is how perfectly John Dickson Carr balanced himself on a fine tightrope and managed to reach the ending without stumbling. The murderer is neatly tucked away from the reader, but all the clues are there and note his superb combination of a dark, thick atmosphere with comedic bits without reducing the impact of either. However, as the late Grobius Shortling noted, you have to take the locked room solution with a grain of salt.
Carter Dickson's The Judas Window (1938)
An excellent courtroom drama set at the Old Bailey, in which the curmudgeonly Sir Henry Merrivale assumes the role of barrister in order to exonerate an innocent man of a murder only he could've committed. The solution to the locked room is as clever as it's simple.
Carter Dickson's She Died a Lady (1943)
An outstanding and interesting achievement from a mystery writer who was not particular well known for in-depth characterization, but here he takes a more serious approach to the detective story without abandoning it. The characters are far more believable as people and evokes that desolate feeling the war brought with it and the well worked out, underlying relationships that led to a double murder with the allurement of the impossible crime (of the no-footprints variety) and H.M. antics still being present.
Carter Dickson's The Curse of the Bronze Lamp (1945)
This is, IMHO, the last great performance of the Old Man and perhaps of his literary father, as well, as the unruly Merrivale dispels a curse that comes with the possession of an ancient bronze lamp that is held responsible for making two people disappear into thin air, "blown to dust as though they never existed," and he does so in a sane and rational manner – reasoning from such clues as a missing painting and a bowl of daffodils.
Note that the book was dedicated to Ellery Queen, "in memory of those times when far into the night we discussed detective stories."
Paul Doherty's The Anubis Slayings (2000)
The theft of a holy amethyst, known as The Glory of Anubis, and the murder of the monk who was guarding the stone inside a sealed chapel, situated in a guarded temple, threatens a peace treaty between Egypt and Mitanni – and fanning the fires of war. When it comes to locked rooms, Doherty can come up with situations that are either simply clever or disappointingly simple and this one definitely belongs to the former.
Paul Gallico's Too Many Ghosts (1961)
Alexander Hero has made a career out of "de-haunting" houses and his latest investigation brings him the Paradine Hall, where furniture moves itself around and invisible hands pluck on strings of a harp in a locked music room, but everything seems to indicate that Hero is finally confronted with a genuine haunting – or is it? The trick of the locked music room is both clever and original.
Michael Gilbert's The Danger Within (1952)
This is one of my all-time favorite detective stories, especially from the post-WWII era, and perhaps one of the most successful blends of the formal detective story with thriller elements – as well as being semi-autobiographical. The setting is an Italian POW camp and has a neat impossible murder: a man is found dead in a secret escape tunnel and the entrance was blocked with a furnace that needs the combined strength of half a dozen men to budge as much as an inch.
Alan Green's What a Body! (1949)
A breezily and comically told story of a murdered health guru, whose departure from this spinning globe was received with cheers that were heard around the world and the impossible situation is truly original. The victim was shot from an impossible angle with a bullet that left his pajamas undamaged and the solution was tailor-made to fit the circumstances. A one of a kind locked room mystery.
Robert van Gulik's The Chinese Gold Murders (1959)
Chronologically, this is the first book in the series 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 for a perfect backdrop for tales of the dead who refuse to slumber in their graves – one of them being Dee's predecessor who died under mysterious circumstances in his locked library. More on this book either this or next month.
Paul Halter's La Quatrième porte (The Fourth Door, 1987)
A staggering complex locked room novel, in which a haunted attic room becomes the scene of an impossible murder after a botched spiritualistic experiment and one of the suspects appears to have been in two places at the same time – as well as a second murder committed in a house whose surroundings were carpeted in a vast expanse of un-trodden snow! Halter has his fair share faults, but it's hard to care about such trifles as characterization when you watch the intricate patterns, that emanate from its plot, take shape.
Gaston Leroux's Le Mystère de la Chambre Jaune (The Mystery of the Yellow Room, 1907)
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.
Peter Lovesey's Bloodhounds (1996)
The focus of this book is on a recognizable group of ardent mystery lovers, but one of them appears to have gone against Milne's observation that "all really nice people" have a weakness for detective stories as one of turned up murdered in a locked houseboat. I have to admit that the trick in this one isn't entirely original, but it uses it perfectly and even derives a second possible answer from it that functions as a false solution.
Martin Méroy’s Meartre en Chambre Noir (Murder in a Darkened Room, 1965)
A successful attempt at unraveling an orthodox detective plot with the narrative voice of the Hardboiled School. In this case, the reader tags along with a private eye, also named Martin Méroy, doubling as a bodyguard for a well-known stage magician – who's nonetheless murdered, under inexplicable circumstances, during one of his famous escape tricks from a sealed bank vault. Not the best book on this list, but I remember being entertained.
Helen McCloy's Mr. Splitfoot (1968)
Two unruly, but likeable, teenagers decide to pull a malicious prank on the neglectful adults by evoking a local legend, but the folkloric Mr. Splitfoot seems to have been genuinely responsive to their call and when a body turns up in an inhospitable guestroom that has history of murdering its occupants it's time for the gifted amateur to take the stage – who conveniently stranded in the snow with his wife the night before and took shelter at the home. I recommend you read my full review of this book to get an impression of how much I enjoyed this book.
Bill Pronzini's Hoodwink (1981)
When the “Nameless Detective” accepts an invitation for a pulp convention, he was not unaware that it included an investigation into two seemingly impossible murders, one of them ascribed to an ex-pulp writer, named Russell Dancer, who was found hovering over a bleeding corpse with a smoking gun in his hand – after the doors of his bolted hotel room came crashing down. One of my favorite chapters in this on-going biography of Pronzini's gumshoe.
Clayton Rawson's Death from a Top Hat (1938)
A magician gone mad would be a good description of this book because I remember Rawson pulling one seemingly impossible trick after another from his top hat, but the inclusion for this list comes from the first locked room trick – which is perhaps the best thing I have read of him in a full-length novel. He was a much better and cleverer mystery writer when penning short stories (e.g. "From Another World").
Herbert Resnicow's The Gold Deadline (1984)
Alexander and Norma Gold receive an invitation from an influential billionaire to discuss business under the cover of a social engagement during a performance of the Boguslav Ballet, but halfway through the show the impresario of the company is stabbed to death in his theatre box and the only one who could've killed him is the son of their prospective client – who gives them three days to exonerate his son and cash in on the biggest paycheck of their life. It sports a clever and intricate solution, which is, perhaps, a bit over ambitious and stretches credulity, however, Resnicow supplied a motive why anyone would go through such insane lengths to commit murder.
Herbert Resnicow's The Dead Room (1987)
The anechoic chamber at Hamilcar HI-FI reverberates with murder after death sneaked into the watched and locked room unseen and knifed the seventy-year-old inventor of a revolutionary new sound speaker to death on the second, netted-floor partition of the room – and has a solution as original as the architecture of the room and custom-made to fit its conditions. Simply brilliant.
Theodore Roscoe's Murder on the Way! (1935)
Perhaps one of the wildest, fastest and unapologetic flights of fancy in this sub-genre, in which a dead patriarch turns a decaying mansion, situated in Haiti, into a savage playground for a bizarre cast of gargoyles to vie over his earthly possessions. This book has everything: locked rooms, impossible disappearances, zombies and voodoo rituals!
Hilary St. George Saunders' The Sleeping Bacchus (1951)
This story plucks the gentleman thief, represented here in a person who refers to himself as "Zeb," from its familiar environment of the Rogue School and shoves him on the playing field of the Grandest Game in the World – and the result is a whole slew of miracle crimes.
Soji Shimada's The Tokyo Zodiac Murders (1981)
A perfect example of a successful marriage between the contemporary thriller and the orthodox detective story, in which the focus is on a 40-year-old crime that continues to baffle the nations, gruesome dismemberments, a murder in a locked room and two challenges to the reader. To put it simply: a bloody tour-de-force!
John Sladek's Black Aura (1974)
This is arguably one of the grandest impossible crime novels I ever had the pleasure of reading with a plot that centers on a fraudulent medium and her odd-assortment of live-in clients, but soon things begin to happen in the house that can only be described as supernatural: a man disappears from a locked lavatory and another man is impaled on a fence after apparently strolling around in mid-air! A masterpiece, plain and simple!
Akimitsu Takagi's The Tattoo Murder Case (1949)
I have to admit that this book is not quite in same league as some of the other gems that reached the shores of the English language, but is nonetheless a very interesting detective story, drawing for its plot on mythology and tattoo art, with an off-the-wall impossible situations – in which a murderer dumped a severed head and limbs in a locked bathroom.
Hake Talbot's Rim of the Pit (1944)
A group of snowbound people are under siege from a mythical creature, commonly known as a Wendigo, who can pounce on its victim from the sky – not to mention that the story opens with a full body materialization of a ghost during a séance! One of the few books that can compete with John Dickson Carr when it comes to conjuring up a terrifying atmosphere and dragging the reader into a demon haunted world.
Anthony Wynne's The Silver Scale Mystery (1931)
An unofficial matriarch, sister of the laird, of an old Scottish clan, who reigned over her relatives with a suffocating and poisonous kindness, is found dead behind the bolted door of her bedroom and the investigation is made more difficult when two of the investigating officers are murdered under equally baffling circumstances – and silver fish scales found on the bodies suggests to the locals the involvement of the legendary fish-like creatures referred to as The Swimmers. The solutions are simple, but convincing, which is the hallmark of a good locked room mystery. More could've been done with the legend of the swimmers, though.