7/18/12

My Favorite Locked Room Mysteries II: Short Stories and Novellas

"The inside is a maze of doors. Anyone wishing to know it must dare to enter it."
- Grograman, the Many-Colored Death (The Never-Ending Story, 1983).
Well, I have not been granted an opportunity to (slow) burn through another detective novel and slapping together the second installment of locked room favorites may appear as a lame attempt to come across as productive, but I have noticed that people appreciate them and have been providing two bloggers with reading material (On the Threshold of Chaos and Lay on the Crime).

I have to mention, before taking them down from the top, that I'm not the biggest consumer of short stories and this list may lack the depth and obscure gems of my list of full-length locked room mysteries

Robert Arthur's "The Glass Bridge."

A well-known mystery novelist, Mark Hillyer, makes a female blackmailer disappear from his home and the lack of footprints in the snow show that she never left the premise, but the house is completely empty – and Hillyer's fragile condition makes it unlikely that he buried or chopped-up the body. A story that should be better known.

Robert Arthur's "The 51st Sealed Room."

A copious writer of locked room mysteries is found decapitated inside a sealed cabin, propped up in front of his type writer and his severed head overseeing the scene from atop a book case, but the many cameos from MWA members is what really makes this story as most of the clues turn out to be nothing more than red herrings. Still a fun and solid read, though. 

William Brittain's "The Man Who Read John Dickson Carr."
(see my previous post for a synopsis and opinion)

Fredric Brown's "The Spherical Ghoul."

The only thing that the narrator of this story is sure of, is that something slinked into a locked mortuary and gnawed off the face of one of the corpses, but what and how? A classic!

John Dickson Carr & Adrian Conan Doyle's "The Adventure of the Gold Hunter."

Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson look into the deaths of a squire and a man who apparently died from a supernatural bedside visitation, because the presence of a human murder seems impossible.

John Dickson Carr & Adrian Conan Doyle's "The Adventure of the Sealed Room."

The previously untold story of Colonel Warburton's madness, who wounded his wife and then shot himself in his study, which was locked and bolted from the inside, but Holmes builds up an impressive case against a third party from such clues as cigar smoke and broken glass. 

John Dickson Carr's "The Dead Sleep Lightly."

Originally written as a radio play for Suspense, this is one of Carr's most eerie tales of a man haunted by the ghost of his ex-wife and the impossibility is not just a nagging wife from beyond the grave who refuses to accept that death parted them, but also a spectral voice that speaks the following chilling words over a dead telephone: "But the dead sleep lightly. And they can be lonely too." I recommend the version with Dr. Gideon Fell and was published in the collection The Dead Sleep Lightly (1983). 

G.K. Chesterton's "The Arrow from Heaven."

A millionaire is shot to death in a locked room with an arrow and the solution for this puzzle introduces one the authors classic, and often copied, gambits that toys with the readers presumptions – famously revisited in one of Agatha Christie's more well-known novels.

G.K. Chesterton's "The Oracle of the Dog."

A man is stabbed to death in a watched summerhouse and the wrong man is about to be collared, based on the testimony of a dog, but, of course, Father Brown is the only one who was really listening to what the dog had to say.

G.K. Chesterton's "The Miracle of Moon Cresent."

For one reason or another, this has always been one of my favorite Father Brown stories and always thought it was grossly underrated as a locked room mystery – which is that of the disappearance of a man from a watched room and was later found hanging in the gardens below. The solution is what you can expect from Chesterton.

G.K. Chesterton's "The Secret Garden."

This eerie tale of a dark, impenetrable garden and a beheading anticipates early Carr and seems to have been a model for the Japanese-style of plotting – especially of locked room mysteries.

G.K. Chesterton's "The Invisible Man."

Only here because of its pedigree and to keep you from asking why I didn’t include it in this list.

G.K. Chesterton's "The Fairytale of Father Brown."

Plot-wise, not his best story, but what a fantastic premise! Father Brown assumes the role of armchair detective to explain how a man could've been shot in a country without guns.
 
Agatha Christie's "The Dream."

My favorite of the Poirot short stories, in which Christie perfectly knitted two impossibilities, a predictive dream and a murder in a watched room, in a fascinating pattern and with a satisfying solution.

Joseph Commings' "Bones for Davy Jones."

An excellent story of a diver who was stabbed while alone in a shipwreck. 

Joseph Commings' "Murder Under Glass."

Commings had one of the most versatile minds when it came to finding new variations and perspectives on the impossible problem: like putting a corpse on display in a glass room that's bolted on the inside and delivering the kind of solution you expect from such an original premise. 

Joseph Commings' "The X Street Murders."

His most celebrated short story and often tagged as his master piece, in which someone is shot in an office under constant observation and the smoking gun is delivered within minutes inside a sealed envelope. I have to re-read and review that collection one of these days.

Edmund Crispin's "The Name on the Window."

A dead man is found inside a house and the only footprints leading up to it belong to the unfortunate victim.

David Stuart Davies' "The Curzon Street Conundrum."

A shipping magnate is murdered at his Curzon Street mansion, again, inside a locked room, and the solution is incredible cheeky, but clever, and a trick I had never seen before – which is why I still remember it after all these years.

Carter Dickson's "The House in Goblin Wood."

Twenty years before the opening of this story, a young girl, named Vicky, disappeared from a house that was locked and bolted from the inside – only to reappear a week later with a story that she had been living with the fairies. When she returns to the house two decades later, she disappears again under similar circumstances, but this time it becomes a grim fairy-tale.

Carter Dickson's "The Silver Curtain."

A young man looses everything, except his ticket to return home, in a French casino and is approached by a shady characters who offers him a wad of money in exchange for a favor: he has to sneak a bottle of pills pass custom services. However, the entire plan collapses like a house of cards when he witnesses how an invisible assailant stabs his new employer in an empty cul-de-sac. I have to come to the conclusion that this is perhaps one of my favorite tricks for this kind of impossible crime. So simple and effective.

Lois H. Gresh & Robert Weinberg's "Death Rides the Elevator."

This story almost reads like a homage to Rex Stout and John Dickson Carr, in which a man is decapitated while riding alone in his private elevator and Penelope Peters, a female Nero Wolfe, and Sean O'Brien, her Archie Goodwin, look into the matter.

Note: I solved the locked room before reading the story. I'm that good. :)

Susanna Gregory's "Ice Elation."

A research team on the Antarctic Continent are about to drill their way to an ancient repository of water, sealed between the rocks and ice since the dawn of men, and who knows what evolution concocted and created in that natural "locked room" – which is a fear that is becoming reality when members of the team begin to disappear one after another under baffling circumstances. Scooby Doo for grown ups!

Paul Halter's "The Abominable Snowman."

A seemingly innocent snowman, dressed up as a soldier, is magically endowed with life and witnesses see him savaging a man with a rifle before resuming an innocent posture.

Paul Halter's "The Flower Girl."

This is perhaps my favorite Paul Halter story, in which Santa Claus may have murdered an extremely unpleasant, Scrooge-like man. Pure Gladys Mitchell, if she had written locked room mysteries.

Edward D. Hoch's "The Impossible Murder."

A man is murdered, while alone in his car, in the middle of a traffic jam and the explanation is wonderfully simple. Hoch's brain must have been a beehive of crime with all those plot ideas buzzing around. It's unbelievable he penned close to a 1000 stories in his lifetime and it's a shame he was not given a few more years to reach that magical number. It would've been more than deserving!

Edward D. Hoch's "The Long Way Down." 

Here's another example of that devilish brain of his: a man falls from a skyscraper and does not mess up the pavement until a few hours later. Realism be damned; more of this please!

Edward D. Hoch's "The Problem of the Crowded Cemetery."

My first meeting with Edward Hoch and Dr. Hawthorne, who's specialized in taking away those feverish hallucinations of hobgoblins, invisible men and curses that can often be the side effect of an impossible crime. This time a fresh corpse is found in a coffin that lay undisturbed in the soil for decades. Hoch was much closer to Commings than to Carr, IMO.

H. Edward Hunsburger's "Eternally Yours."

This is one of my all-time favorite detective stories, in which an artist for hard covers uncovers the secrets of his new apartment. The previous tenant died behind locked doors after an apparent domestic accident, but his ghost keeps sending letters to a chess buddy from beyond the grave.

MacKinlay Kantor's "The Strange Case of Steinkelwintz."

The disappearance of a baby grand piano from a top-floor apartment presents a poor-man's amateur detective with an opportunity of a lifetime. The ending is simply perfect.

H.R.F. Keating's "The Legs That Walked."

A pair of severed legs from a murdered man vanish from a locked and guarded tent and it's up the downtrodden Ghote to find a logical explanation.

Note: Keating ripped-off Edmund Crispin for the solution, but also improved it and neatly tied it in with Indian culture and I hated that Crispin story anyway. So I can forgive him for taking something lousy and turning into something great, which this story is.

Ronald Knox's "Solved by Inspection."

The closest anyone ever came to writing a story that feels like it could've been penned by G.K. Chesterton, in which a man starved himself to death in his locked bedroom while he was surrounded with food. Knox's series detective, Miles Bredon, proves that the man was murdered under extremely cruel circumstances.

William Krohn's "The Impossible Murder of Dr. Satanus."
(see my previous post for a synopsis and opinion)

Keith McCarthy's "The Invisible Gunman."

A master clock maker is shot to death in his shop and the murderer must have been his brother, who had a shop of his own across the street and he hated his brother, but he had a cast-iron alibi for the time of the murder. A story that fits together like the innards of a Swiss watch and has a nifty twist on an otherwise hackneyed plot-device.

Hugh Pentecost's "The Day the Children Vanished."

A small town is thrown into a panic when a bus full of children drive into a dugway and failed to show up on the other end. It's just a very satisfying mystery, but also a very well told story with a smash ending and a great detective.

Arthur Porges' "No Killer Has Wings."

The body of a man is found on a small beach and the only footprints on the beach are those of the victim and his dog. Porges provides this problem with one of the best solutions for the no-footprints tricks. Absolutely brilliant!

Arthur Porges' "The Scientist and the Wife Killer."

A man under grave suspicion of having buried his previous wives prematurely electrocutes his latest wife, inside a bolted bathroom, without any electric appliances in the room and her husband was miles away at the time of her death. One of those rare, but successful, inverted mysteries in which the impossible situation replaces the whodunit aspect.

Bill Pronzini's "The Arrowmont Prison Riddle."

One of the most complex short stories in this particular sub-genre, in which a convicted murderer disappears from a locked and guarded execution shack less than a minute after he was dropped through its roof with a stiff rope around his neck. Improbably? Yes, but also absolutely awesome.

Bill Pronzini's "Booktaker."

Nameless takes on an undercover assignment at a bookstore where a wraithlike thief has been smuggling valuable maps past a perfect operating security system. The solution is uncomplicated, workable and first class.

Bill Pronzini's "Medium Rare."

Arguably the best story in this collection, in which Quincannon and Carpenter, masquerading as the fictitious Mr. and Mrs. John Quinn, set-out to expose professor Vargas, head of the Unified College of the Attuned Impulses, as a fraudulent medium – who made an art out of financially draining the grieving. The professor puts on a fantastic spook show in his locked and darkened séance room, where tables move on their own accord and luminous faces from the spirit world take a peek at our plain of existence, but then the Grim Reaper puts in an appearance – and Vargas is stabbed while everyone was holding hands and the locked door prevented any outsider from coming in!

I have a sneaking suspicion that this tale was penned as a tribute to John Dickson Carr. The story has an atmospheric setting and a premise that revolves around apparently supernatural occurrences and an impossible stabbing, but there were also a few laugh-out-loud moments – as Carpenter and Quincannon were channeling the spirit of Sir Henry Merrivale when it was their turn to ask the spirits questions! Full marks for this story!

Bill Pronzini's "Where Have You Gone, Sam Spade?"

Nameless is laboring under the naïve assumption that he's earning an easy fee, when he agrees to fill-in as a temporary night watchman for an importing company. The facility he has to guard already resembles an impenetrable fortress, where he can kick back with a pulp magazine most of the time, but it takes more than locks and shuttered windows to stop the detective curse – and before long he has to find an explanation as to how a body could be introduced into a building that is the equal to a sealed box. The solution to the reversed locked room problem is as simple as it's clever as well as the identity and motive of the murderer. Great title, by the way!

Ellery Queen's “The Lamp of God.” 

The miracle problem was not a specialty of Ellery Queen, but when they dabbled into it it was nearly always memorable, if not always successful. A locked room that turned inside out, a train that disappears between two stations or, in this case, an entire house.

Edogawa Rampo's "The Stalker in the Attic."

One of those rare, but successful, inverted locked room mysteries from the Japanese father of the detective story and perhaps the most interesting mystery from his hand that has thus far appeared in the English language. 

Clayton Rawson's "From Another World."

This story was the result of a sporting challenge between Clayton Rawson and John Dickson Carr, in which they competed against one another to see who could come up with the best possible solution to the following premise: a murder has taken place in a room that's not only locked from the inside, but also completely sealed shut with tape! It's one of Rawson's finest tales and I think it won him this little wager with the grandmaster himself.

You can find John Dickson Carr's answer to this challenge in He Wouldn't Kill Patience (1944) – published under the byline Carter Dickson.

Craig Rice's "One More Clue."

A straight forward locked room mystery from the Queen of Screwball Comedy with an inventive and original solution.

John Sladek's "By an Unknown Hand."

An award-winning short story that landed the author a contract to pen the locked room classic Black Aura (1974), but in this story his detective, Thackeray Phin, is confronted with a strangulation in a locked and windowless apartment and consults the Dr. Fell and Father Brown stories for a solution.

Hal White's "Murder at An Island Mansion."

The author strings together no less than three murders of the no-footprints variety and they appear to be work of a menacing ghost. Not exactly of the same caliber as Carr or Talbot, atmosphere or plot-wise, but therefore not any less enjoyable. Hopefully, White has not retired from this field. We need neo-orthodox writers like him! 

Hal White's "Murder on a Caribbean Cruise."

Reverend Dean takes a cruise to relax and reflex on his life, but than someone is murdered and the scene of the crime is a locked cabin – turning this pleasure cruise in a regular Busman's Holiday for the modern-day Father Brown.

"Murder on a Carribbean Cruise" would’ve been a great alternative title for this story. Ok. I deserve to be punched in the face for that pun.

Cornell Woolrich's "The Room With Something Wrong."

From all the Rooms-That-Kill stories I have read, this one ranks at the very top and concerns a hotel room with a will of its own and decides when guests have overstayed their welcome by hurdling them out of the window in the dead of night.

James Yaffe's "The Problem of the Emperor's Mushroom."

Paul Dawn, the only member of the Homicide Squad's Department of Impossible Crimes, listens to Professor Bottle's historical account of the murder of the Roman Emperor Claudius – and the impossible angle to his demise. A poison was administered in his favorite dish of mushrooms that didn't affect the Emperor's food-taster, but threw him in a violent convulsion. I reveled at the double layered structure of the story, that runs for only 14 pages, and James Yaffe, who was only sixteen at the time he wrote it, should be commended for it. A thoroughly enjoyable story!

Israel Zangwill's "The Big Bow Mystery."

One of the corner stones of the locked room genre and one of the first stories that rose above the banality of hidden passages, venomous creatures and unknown poisons. Unfortunately, the solution has been copied to death, but that should never reflect back on this story. It may also have introduced the multiple solution ploy that is usually associated Anthony Berkeley and Ellery Queen. 

7 comments:

  1. A great list, TomCat, with my absolute favourite - The House In Goblin Wood - included. Interested in your Hoch choices - are the two non-Hawthornes collected somewhere? And is Crowded Cemetery really the best Hawthorne story? I'd say there are many better - my favourite is the Haunted Bandstand.

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    1. "The Impossible Murder" can be found in the anthology Murder Impossible and "The Long Way Down" in The Locked Room Reader.

      "The Problem of the Crowded Cemetery" is not the best of the Hawthorne stories, but good enough for this list and I have always been fond of it (first Hoch and all).

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  2. Good list with most of the obvious suspects and some more obscure choices!

    I see that you've quite obviously checked out the main anthologies of Locked Rooms, so instead I'll recommend a few stories that haven't been collected in any English anthologies. Quite possibly you've already read them, but if not, I think you'll enjoy them.

    Fredric Brown "The Laughing Butcher"
    Leonard Thompson "Close Shave"
    Cornell Woolrich "Mystery in Room 913"
    Eric Ambler "Case of the Overheated Flat"
    Harry Kemelman "The Man on the Ladder"
    Samuel Hopkins Adams "The Flying Death"
    Edgar Jepson & Robert Eustace "The Tea-Leaf"

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    1. Thanks for the tips, Christian, much appreciated!

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  3. Where can I find the stories by David Stuart Davies, Keith McCarthy, and Egodawa Rampo?

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    1. David Stuart Davies in the anthology Vintage Mystery & Detective Stories, Keith McCarthy in the December, 2011 issue of The Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine and Edogawa Rampo in The Edogawa Rampo Reader (the second half of the book has a few interesting essays by Rampo).

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    2. Thanks! Have found copies of the first two already, but the last one may take a while longer.

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