"How often have I said to you that when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth?"- Sherlock Holmes (Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's The Sign of Four, 1890)
Martin Edwards is a decorated crime novelist, genre-historian and author of the award-winning The Golden Age of Murder (2015), which I still haven't read, but currently he's also engaged as the resident anthologist of the British Library – compiling such themed anthologies as Resorting to Murder: Holiday Mysteries (2015) and Crimson Snow: Winter Mysteries (2016). Last week, the greatest title in the series yet rolled off the printing presses.
Yes, that's my personal, opinionated bias bleeding through. I love locked room mysteries. Deal with it.
Miraculous Mysteries: Locked Room Murders and Impossible Crimes (2017) gathered sixteen short stories that were never, or rarely, collected in similar themed anthologies. A good portion of the stories came from the hands of such luminaries as Conan Doyle, G.K. Chesterton and Dorothy L. Sayers, but Edwards complemented their work with several obscure, long-overlooked impossible crime tales by Grenville Robbins, Christopher St. John Sprigg and E. Charles Vivian – resulting in a pleasantly balanced collection of short stories. So let's take a closer look at the content of this newest anthology of miracle crimes.
However, I gave the following handful of stories a pass, because I didn't feel like re-reading them or discussed them previously on this blog: Conan Doyle's "The Lost Special," William Hope Hodgson's "The Thing Invisible," R. Austin Freeman's "The Aluminium Dagger," Nicholas Olde's "The Invisible Weapon" and Michael Innes' "The Sands of Thyme." Even with these stories eliminated from the line-up, this is still going to be one of those bloated blog-posts that grows at the same speed as Erle Stanley Gardner's bibliography. Strap in, everyone. This is going to be a long ride!
So that makes the first story under examination Sax Rohmer's "The Case of the Tragedies in the Greek Room," originally published in the April 1913 issue of The New Magazine, which starred one of his obscure, short-lived series-character, Moris Klaw – whose cases were collected in The Dream Detective (1920). Klaw is an antique dealer and an occult detective who prefers to spend the night at the scene of a crime, which reproduces clue-like images of the victim's last thoughts in his dreams (hence the book-title). Scene of the crime in this series-opener is the Greek Room of the Menzies Museum.
A night attendant got his neck broken in the Greek Room, but how an outsider could've entered and left the premise is a complete mystery. There are only two entrances to the room, a public and a private one, which were both securely locked and the windows were fitted with iron bars. And there was no place where even "a mouse could find shelter." Klaw is allowed to camp out in the room and received a psychic photograph "a woman dressed all in white," but also got the impression the night watchman had a "great fear for the Athenean Harp" - a gemstone in the museum's collection. Honestly, I did not expect too much from this story, but, while dated, the plot was fairly decent and well-put together. Granted, some of the finer details about the exact cause of death and murder method were as ridiculous as they were dated.
However, as much as some aspects of the explanation stretches credulity, they were still surprisingly down to earth for a detective story from an occult mystery series. I also have to earmark the impossible problem, and its solution, as an early example of a particular type of impossibility that would turn up again in the works of John Dickson Carr, Ken Greenwald and David Renwick.
The next entry is one of favorite stories from G.K. Chesterton's celebrated Father Brown series, "The Miracle of Moon Crescent," which came from a collection of short stories saturated with impossible crime material – aptly titled The Incredulity of Father Brown (1926). I've always been fond of this story on account of the originality and brilliance of its locked room problem.
A problem concerning the miraculous disappearance of an American philanthropist, Warren Wynd, who vanished from a watched room on the fourteenth floor of the apartment complex called Moon Crescent. Equally inexplicable is his reappearance at the end of a rope in the garden below. Luckily, Father Brown is at hand to alleviate the minds of the baffled, "hard-shelled materialists" that were present outside of Wynd's room and explain this apparent miracle. The priest based his explanation on a madman he had seen firing a blank at the building, which told him how the philanthropist was whisked away from a closely observed room and why he was found hanging from a tree branch. Absolutely ingenious! Only weakness of the plot is the rather silly, far-fetched motive, but even that was somewhat original.
Marten Cumberland's "The Diary of Death" was first published in The Strand Magazine of January, 1928, which has a premise that should've been explored at novel length: a once popular musical singer, Lilian Hope, had disappeared from the spotlight into "obscurity and direst poverty" - where "she died in a miserable garret." During her waning years, Hope kept a diary in which she poured out "vindictive and bitter accusations" against her former friends. Naming everyone who she felt had abandoned her and refused any kind of help. Someone got a hold of this diary and begins to extract revenge on everyone mentioned in it. Leaving behind a torn page from the diary after every murder.
So the police have their hands full with the "Death Diary Murders," but the one who gets an opportunity to put a stop to the killings is an amateur criminologist, Loreto Santos. At a house party, Santos is approached by the person who's "next on the list," Sir George Frame. He used be a friend of Hope, but the money he mailed to the poor woman was intercepted by his wife. So she never received an answer or a penny and dedicated some bitter words to Sir George in her diary. And now he has received a torn page in the mail.
Sadly, Santos is unable to avert Sir George's impending doom, because the following morning they've to batter down the locked-and bolted door of his bedroom door with a Crusader's mace and they find his body in the middle of the room – a knife-handle protruding from his back. A story with an intriguing and solid premise, however, its resolution was a bit too simplistic. I easily spotted the murderer and the problem of the locked room hinged on an old trick (c.f. "The Locked Room Lecture" from Carr's The Hollow Man, 1935), but still found it an enjoyable story.
Grenville Robbins' "The Broadcast Murder," originally published in Pearson's Magazine of July, 1928, which is one of the earliest examples of a detective story set in the world of radio. I think the story also demonstrate that mystery writers from the first half of the twentieth century had no problem incorporating new technologies into their plot. In this case, hundreds of thousands listeners heard how the radio announcer suddenly yelled "help!" followed by "the lights have gone out" and "someone's trying to strangle me," but the fate of the announcer remains unknown – since his body disappeared from "a hermetically sealed studio." The trick is relatively simple one, using old-fashioned misdirection, but the reason for staging such an illusion at a radio studio shows the Golden Age was about to go in full bloom.
Robert Adey's Locked Room Murders (1991) lists a second short story by Robbins, "The Broadcast Body," which was published in the June, 1934, issue of 20-Story Magazine and deals with a professor who vanished from a guarded room "in which he was carrying out a matter-transference experiment." So that might be a potential candidate for inclusion in a future anthology of this kind.
The next story, "The Music Room," was lifted from the pages of the pseudonymous Sapper's Ask for Ronald Standish (1936), which reportedly collects some of his more detective-orientated crime-fiction and features his second-string sleuth, Standish.
Standish is a guest at a, sort of, house warming party during which the host, Sir John Crawsham, entertains the party by telling about an unsolved mystery that came with the property. Nearly half a century ago, the then lodge-keeper found the body of an unknown man in the music-room, "lower part of his face had literally been battered into a pulp," but the real mystery is how his assailant could have entered or left the room – because the door had to be broken open and the key was on the inside of the door. As to be expected, someone else dies inside the locked music-room, crushed by a chandelier, before too long.
However, the explanation is hardly inventive and even a bit disappointing, but appreciated how the potential presence of a hidden passage was used. Otherwise, it's not really a remarkable story at all.
Back in 2015, Christopher St. John Sprigg's Death of an Airman (1935) was republished as a British Library Crime Classic and this brand new edition was as well received as the original edition. So readers might be glad to know that this anthology contains one of his obscure short stories.
"Death at 8:30" was salvaged from the pages of the May 25, 1935, issue of Detective Fiction Weekly and can be classified as a sensationalist thriller with a mild puzzle plot, similar to Anthony Berkeley's Death in the House (1939), but superior in every way imaginable – one of them being is that this story does not overstay its welcome. A murderous blackmailer, known only as "X.K.," demanded exorbitant sums of money in exchange to be left alone, but, when a victim refused, they would be swiftly dispatched to the Great Hereafter. There were three men who refused to comply with the demands and they were all murdered under mysterious circumstances. The fourth person who refuses to pay is no less a figure than the Home Secretary, Sir Richard Jauntley, which demands extreme and extraordinary security precautions.
The vaults of the Bank of England was put at their disposal and the Home Secretary was encased in "a cell of thick bullet-proof glass," surrounded by armed men, but, at the time announced by “X.K.,” the Home Secretary began to writhe in agony and died within mere seconds – poisoned! However, there were no apparent ways of how the poison could have been introduced inside the sealed, bullet-proof and air-filtered glass tube. One that was located in a sealed and heavily guarded bank vault. I suppose I've been reading too many impossible crime stories, because I immediately spotted the tale-tell clue that told me how it was done. But how the murderer was dealt with was something else all together. So, yes, not bad for a sensational thriller story.
G.D.H. and Margaret Cole's "Too Clever by Half" was included in The Detection Club's Detection Medley (1939) and is a semi-inverted mystery, in which the narrator, Dr. Benjamin Tancred, tells about a clever murderer he once met.
Samuel Bennett was the brainy licensee of the "Golden Eagle," an inn in the remote Willis Hill, where he was in the process of murdering his brother-in-law when Dr. Tancred turned up. The victim was found in an upstairs bedroom, locked from the inside, with a bullet-hole in his head. On the surface, it looks like a simple case of suicide, but Dr. Tancred suspects murder based on the inn-keepers behavior, a lighted keyhole, the angle of the fatal bullet and the smell of gun powder in the corridor.
This is not really a story that allows you to puzzle along with the detective, but it's fun to watch the detective dismantle, what could have been, a clever and near perfect murder without breaking a sweat.
E. Charles Vivian's "Locked In," originally collected in My Best Mystery Story (1939), was a disappointing and forgettable tale of a supposed suicide in a locked room. I did not care for it. Moving on...
Dorothy L. Sayers' "The Haunted Policeman" was first published in the February, 1938, issue of Harper's Bazaar and was posthumously collected in Striding Folly (1971), but remains one of her most criminally underrated pieces of fiction. The story represents one of her most imaginative and strongest puzzle-plot, which could easily have been a Carter Dickson yarn in The Department of Queer Complaints (1940)!
The story opens on the night when Lord Peter Wimsey's first son is born and, shortly thereafter, meets a confused policeman. One who has a very interesting ghost story to tell. P.C. Alfred Burt was pounding pavement in Merriman's End, "a long cul-de-sac," where his eye fell upon "a rough-looking fellow" in "a baggy old coat" was lurking suspicious in the shadow, but when he was about to ask the character what he was doing when someone yelled bloody murder – which seemed to come from Number 13. Nobody answered the door. But the policeman did take a peek through the letter-flap and saw a man laying the hall with a carving-knife in his throat. However, when he returned, alongside a colleague, all of the houses in the street have even numbers. There's no number 13! And none of the house they visited have an interior that resembles what he observed through the letter-flap. The house, alongside the body, vanished into the dark of the night.
The explanation for this apparent impossibility is as satisfying as it's cleverly simple. And, as noted here above, the plot of the story is very Carrish in nature and could have easily been a case for Colonel March of Department D-3. After all, he handled a similar kind of problem in "The Crime in Nobody's Room."
The next story is Edmund Crispin's "Beware of the Trains," originally published in The London Evening Standard in 1949, which has Gervase Fen assisting his policeman friend, Detective-Inspector Humbleby, when a motorman disappeared from a moving train. At the same time, the police had surrounded the small station to collar a burglary. So nobody could have slipped out unobserved. A well-known and competent enough story, but hardly one of Crispin's best impossible crime stories. There are a pair of lesser-known, but far stronger, locked room stories in Crispin's repertoire, namely "A Country to Sell" and "Death Behind Bars," which appeared in a posthumous collection – entitled Fen Country: Twenty-Six Stories (1979). Hopefully, one of them will be considered for a future anthology of locked room mysteries.
Finally, we have the youngest story in the collection, Margery Allingham's "The Villa Marie Celeste," which was first published in the October, 1960, issue of Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine. Personally, I'm not really a big fan of Allingham, but this has to be one of the niftiest domestic mysteries I ever came across. A young couple, married for three years, disappeared from their comely home in Chestnut Grove. They apparent vacated a half-eaten breakfast on a washing-day, took some sheets and vanished "like a stain under a bleach." Technically, this story does not really qualify as an impossible crime, but the quality of the story makes that a forgivable offense.
Some of you might want to know that the unusual, but original, motive makes it a close relative of a genuine locked room mystery from the 1980s, "The Locked Bathroom" by H.R.F. Keating, which I reviewed here. Funnily enough, both stories have a solution that involves laundry.
Mercifully, that brings us at the end of this bloated, drawn out and badly written review!
All in all, the short stories collected in Miraculous Mysteries were very consistent in quality. There were only two real stinkers, Freeman (ripped off a well-known story) and Innes (completely ridiculous), but skipped those two and that left only one (minor) disappointment (i.e. Vivian). All of the other entries were either decent, good or historically interesting. So no real complaints about the overall quality of the collection.
However, it was a small let down that this anthology did not collect any new sparkling classics that were completely unknown to me, but that's the price one pays for consuming ridiculous amounts of impossible crime-fiction. That being said, this anthology is a welcome addition to the slowly growing row of locked room themed short story collections of which there can never, ever, be enough.
So, despite my annoying nitpicking, I do hope this will not be the last locked room anthology Edwards will compile for the British Library, because I really do love impossible crime stories. And I'm only, like, halfway through all of the novels and short stories listed by Adey in Locked Room Murders. I really, really need more anthologies to complete that task and reach full enlightenment.
And, as always, I'll try to keep my next review a whole lot shorter.