"I do not believe in miracles when murder is being considered..."- Rev. Ebenezer Buckle (Nicholas Brady's The Fair Murder, 1933)
Recently, the independent publisher of impossible crime fiction, Locked Room International, released a massive, 430-page anthology, The Realm of the Impossible (2017), which was edited by John Pugmire and Brian Skupin. This collection comprises of 26 short stories and 12 anecdotes of real-life examples of the locked room problem that came from more than twenty countries scattered across this Pale Blue Dot of ours. Some even crossed time-and space itself. So the assortment of stories in this anthology is genuinely wide and varied.
I've decided to take down its content in a long, drawn out blog-post and won't waste too many words on this introduction. I only want to point out that, if you're reading this on the front-page of the blog, to click on "Read More" for the entire review. Yes, I know. I should not have to point out the obvious, but usually don't break up my reviews. Right, now we got that out of the way, let's get to it.
Paul Halter's "Jacob's Ladder" opens this anthology and places his most well-known series-character, Dr. Alan Twist, in the comfortable seat of an armchair detective and he listens to a peculiar story related by a former French policeman at the Hades Club – a tale so implausible that even the presence of the supernatural can't properly explain it.
The story takes place in the late 1930s, in France, where the broken body of a man, named Jacob Amalric, was found on the stony bank of a pond. His wounds were consistent with a fall from a great height, but the problem is that ten miles in any direction there are were no buildings, cliffs or perches for the victim to have been thrown off of. And to add to mystery, the victim lately had religion on his mind and claimed to have seen "a golden ladder reaching to the sky." A ladder he was intended to climb. It took the teller of the story a week of sleepless nights to work out the solution, but Dr. Twist picked apart this conundrum in less than fifteen minutes and reader can do the same – because the narrator provided the reader with all the necessary information and clues to arrive at the same conclusion as Dr. Twist.
So the combination of scrupulous fair play and the fairly original nature of the impossible crimes makes this a strong opening story. I believe stories like these make the case that Halter is better suited for the short story form, because they highlight his strength (plotting) and underplay his weaknesses (characterization, settings).
A note for the curious: one of the murders in Mack Reynolds' The Case of the Little Green Men (1951) poses a similar impossible problem as "Jacob's Ladder," but have to admit that Halter imagined the better of the two solutions.
The next story comes from the pen of Christianna Brand, titled "Cyanide in the Sun," which had not been reprinted since its original appearance in the now defunct British newspaper The Daily Sketch in 1958. Brand blended the sly, prominent poisoner from the classic detective story with the deranged serial killer of post-WWII crime-fiction, but added an impossible angle to some of the deaths.
Sunnyside Guest House, in Scampton-on-Sea, is the setting of the story and the resort has been the scene of several of the infamous "Cyanide Murders," but the perpetrator had not struck for months and guests only feel uneasy now at the idea of unknown murderer strewing poison about the place – until a warning from the killer arrives ("prepare to meet your end"). Precautions are taken by a group of six guests, who share a hamper of food between them, which excluded any prepared stuff that could be "doctored in advance." Nevertheless, one of them ingested a fatal dose of poison and dies. Brand crafted a slightly unusual story here, lacking a proper detective character, with an even more unusual, but clever, resolution ("left-handed").
My only complaint is that the poisoning method was rather obvious, but, perhaps, I have read too much Paul Doherty. Because this is exactly the kind of impossible poisoning you find in his detective stories.