5/24/11

Nothing is Impossible!

"The human mind; what a magnificent mechanism! Properly applied it creates miracles. Nothing, basically, is impossible..."
- Brooke (The Newtonian Egg).
Open any anthology of detective stories, published in the pass thirty years, and chances are that most of them contain one or more stories penned by the unequalled Edward D. Hoch – one of the last giants of the genre until he passed away in 2008. He wrote over 900 (!!!) short stories and appeared in every issue of the Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine from May 1973 until several months after his death. That's an unbroken streak of publications lasting nearly four decades! But his real legacy will be that of the modern master of the impossible crime story.

He was probably more prolific than John Dickson Carr himself, the acknowledged master of all things impossible, and was just as original as Joseph Commings when it came to finding new ways to dispatch people to the great hereafter that completely flies in the face of reality.

Hoch put his prodigious mind and diabolic creativity to use to create such baffling situations as a man jumping from a skyscraper on the top-floor, disappears in mid-air, and hits the ground several hours later; fresh corpses turning up in recently unearthed coffins and time capsules; an old haunted oak tree with branches that strangles everyone going near it; a man sitting alone in his car is murdered while stuck in a traffic jam and a shower that miraculously starts spitting daggers are only a few examples.

In All But Impossible! (1981), however, he gives the stage to his fellow composers in crime and allows them to show what tricks are hidden up their sleeves. Unfortunately, this collection turned out to be the usual mixed bag of treats and subsequently touches on all the weak and strong points of a short story collection. There are a handful of stories that you'll absolutely love, some will make you want to chuck the darn book across the room, a couple you've probably seen one time too many in other collections and a few of them have no business being there.

But enough of this palaver, let's take them down from the top:

The Shadow of the Goat by John Dickson Carr

This is one of the first impossible crime stories that John Dickson Carr put to paper, for his school news sheet during his undergraduate days, and introduces the first of his recurring detectives: M. Henri Bencolin. He's a cunning prefect of the Parisian police whose coal black eyes, pointed beard and hair parted in the middle and turned up like horns gives him a Mephistophelean appearance – and his menacing ambience strikes fear in the heart of many. However, he has not yet morphed into the theatrical devil of the novels here and merely provides the answer as to how a man could've vanished from a watched room, commit a murder, and disappear a second time during a disturbed attempt at a second murder. The story has all the familiar elements of later day Carr, but misses its refinement. 

There are more of John Dickson Carr's earlier forays into the mystery genre collected in The Door to Doom and Other Detections (1980) – a posthumous compilation showing him grow as a writer from infancy to adulthood. Highly recommended!

The Little House at Croix-Rousse by Georges Simenon (translated by Anthony Boucher)

The literary father of Inspector Maigret wasn't really known for honoring the traditional detective story, but one of his first tales was a full-fledged locked room mystery – in which a man is shot in an empty house surrounded by an observant battalion of policemen. The solution, easily deduced, anticipates John Dickson Carr by nearly a decade, but the whodunit angle leaves its reader with an unnecessary sense of disappointment.

The Problem of the Emperor's Mushrooms by James Yaffe

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 and sagacious story! 

Douglas Greene had the following to say about this series when I asked if the stories were ever collected in a book: "Emperor's Mushrooms is far and away the best of the lot" and "the others have their moments but I don't think the series as a whole is worthy of being bookformed."  

Still, I wish stories like those from the Department of Impossible Crimes were more easily available for sampling to us that represent the next generation of enthusiastic mystery addicts.

From Another World by Clayton Rawson

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.

Through a Glass, Darkly by Helen McCloy

A carefully crafted persecution story, in which a young woman lost two great teaching jobs because students and staff were frightened by her ghost-like doppelganger haunting the school grounds. It's an innovative approach to the impossible problem, but like vanishing houses and trains the possible solutions are limited – and every observant reader will stumble to the identity of the perpetrator and motive before the end of the story. However, you can't help but take pleasure in how expertly all the plot threads are tightly woven together. Helen McCloy was an excellent plotter!

This story was extended into a full-length novel and published under the same title in 1950. 

Snowball in July by Ellery Queen

As far as I can tell, finding a logical and rational explanation as to how an entire train, including its cargo of passengers, could've evaporated in between two train stations hasn't been attempted since Sir Arthur Conan Doyle broached the idea in his 1898 short story, "The Lost Special." The solution in this story isn't as spectacular as the one in Doyle's story, but it's one of the few, if not the only, alternative solution to this problem – and it's a workable one at that! 

The Newtonian Egg by Peter Godfrey

The smallest of all locked room mysteries, in which a terminal ill man lectures from his hospital bed on Jacques Futrelle and John Dickson Carr – eats a spoonful of egg, after cracking its perfectly sealed shell, and almost immediately succumbs of cyanide poisoning. So how could poison be introduced in a sealed egg without penetrating its exterior? The answer isn't half as clever as you might expect from such a tantalizing premise and left me a little bit disappointed. The problem required a grander solution.

The Triple-Lock'd Room by Lillian de la Torre

Dr. Sam Johnson and James Boswell try to protect a woman who has confined her concerns regarding the safety of her jewels to them and fix her door with a triple lock, but that didn't stop this apparently invisible prowler from slipping into the room and stabbing her to death. The idea and characters were promising, but the solution De la Torre flings at her readers is one that should've only been uttered by a very dense Hastings-type of character, before being laughed out of the room, or at best proposed as a tongue-in-cheek false solution.

The Brazen Locked Room by Isaac Asimov

This is one of those gimcrack stories that makes you scratch your head in utter amazement at what the anthologist was thinking in adding it to the lineup. It's a pure fantasy tale, in which a miserable man makes a pact with a demon for 10 years of happiness in exchange of becoming a demon himself, and as a final test he has to escape from a solid bronze room – using his newly acquired demonic powers. I kid you not!

The Martian Crown Jewels

The third real dud in a row and another complete waste of space, that could've been used to reprint one of the many uncollected impossible crime stories by such short story specialists as Joseph Commings and Arthur Porges. But instead we get a pseudo-futuristic acid hallucination about a giant talking space chicken, who fancies himself the Martian equivalent of our Sherlock Holmes, looking into a bunch of purloined stones – and a failure to retrieve them may threaten relations between Earth and Mars. Yeah, I'm tapping out on this one.

The Day the Children Vanished by Hugh Pentecost

Hugh Pentecost picks up the slack in this fascinating story, in which a small town is thrown into panic when a school bus of children drives into a dugway and never comes out on the other side – and the solution is as clever as it is simple. But it's not just another cannily plotted locked room mystery, it's also a very well told story in its own right with a smashing end. I also dug the character Pentecost casted for the role of detective and the way in which he confronted the culprits. Possibly my favorite story of the collection!

As If by Magic by Julian Symons

Well, I learned something from this story: Symons wasn't only a first-class prick but also a hypocrite of the first water! You can't go around passing judgment on your contemporaries, for lacking a sense of realism, and than churn out a two-bit short-short, in which a typical amateur detective just so happens to be present at the same amusement pier where a murderer, before disappearing in the masses, starts stabbing away at someone and is invited by the police to help solve the case. Oh wow, that surely gave the genre a much-needed dose of reality, eh? 

I could've forgiven him this blatant hypocrisy, if he had shown Carr and Talbot how the impossible crime story should've been done and came up with something dazzling. But this is just petty and amateurish at best.

The Impossible Theft John F. Suter

This really pains me to say, but I'm developing a slight aversion for this wonderful story. It's a clever little nugget about a bet that involves the theft of a document from a tightly secured vault. The solution is brilliant and can be explained in one short sentence and the first time you read it you probably want to kick yourself, however, I have seen this story too often – and anthologists really aren't doing us a service by continues reprinting it (clever though it is). We're all very familiar with Poe's "The Murders in the Rue Morgue," Doyle's "The Adventure of the Speckled Band," Futrelle's "The Problem of Cell 13," and Chesterton's "The Oracle of the Dog." Now give us something we haven't read before and haven't already, at least, a dozen copies of in our collection!

Mr. Strange Takes a Field Trip by William Brittain

This pleasant, but minor, diversion tells of a very improbable disappearance of a valuable golden mask from a museum, and the only ones who were swarming that floor at the time was a school teacher and his class. At first, everyone assumes it's a pranks from two boys who sneaked off on their own, but when a search of the floor fails to turn up the missing artifact their protest starts to carry some weight – and there teacher turns detective and comes up with a solution that is both original as well as amusing.

No One Likes To Be Played for a Sucker by Michael Collins

Michael Collins is apparently one of those authors who effortlessly blends hardboiled story telling with a classic locked room puzzle. Here his one-armed private eye, Dan Fortune, is hired to keep taps on someone's business partner, but murder rears its ugly head and it involves a locked room angle. However, Collins takes a turn on that well-trodden path that leads to a slightly different hermitically shut door. The ending involves a particular kind of tough justice fitting for a story about a hardboiled gumshoe.

I really enjoy it when writers like Bill Pronzini and Michael Collins let their private eyes take on a good old-fashioned locked room mystery. It's a nice change of pace from the usual haunted mansions, harboring a boarded up room that kills its occupants, and other supernatural menaces who apparently run amok on this plane of reality.

The Arrowmont Prison Riddle by Bill Pronzini

Bill Pronzini himself also provides a story for this volume of locked room riddles and his impossible problem boosts one of the most convoluted solutions I have ever come across in a short story of this kind, but what a firework display of ingenuity and imagination! The quandary the reader has to ponder over here is how a convicted murderer, a mere minute after his execution, could've vanished from a locked and watched execution shed after being dropped through its roof with a stiff rope pulled tight around his neck. Like I already pointed out, the solution is very convoluted and even knottier than its premise, but you really have to admire anyone who can dream up such a plot. John Dickson Carr would've definitely approved!

This one competes with Huge Pentecost's "The Day the Children Vanished" as the standout story of this anthology.

Box in a Box by Jack Ritchie

This story, in which a man is discovered unconscious next to his dead wife, inside a locked bedroom, and the solution the detective comes up with is only acceptable because Jack Ritchie had his tongue firmly placed in his cheek – and that's how it should be done if you're going to present the reader a hackneyed explanation like that. Yes, I'm looking at you Lillian de la Torre!  

The Number 12 Jinx by Jon L. Breen

I don't know the first thing about baseball, but this story has me intrigued and from what I gather, it’s part of an entire series of puzzle-orientated sports mysteries featuring Ed Gorgan – a major league umpire who regular sheds his sports cap for a deerstalker. In this story he look into a baseball player who, after insisting on playing as the club's jinxed number 12, disappeared under baffling circumstances. Good story, but not the most solvable one of the collection if you're absolutely clueless about the game – like yours truly.

Crippen and Landru (who else?) put out an entire collection under the title Kill the Umpire: The Calls of Ed Gorgan (2003). I think I might take a swing at this collection in the near future. It could be fun and at leasts provides a change of pace

The Magician's Wife by J.F. Peirce

The titular magician makes the equally titular wife disappear in front of a captivated crowd of policeman and their assistant, his sister-in-law, accuses him of having murdered her sister. Nothing really special, but fun enough to read.  

The Problem of the Covered Bridge by Edward D. Hoch

This is the first recorded case of Dr. Sam Hawthorne, a small town medical practitioner who constantly runs into seemingly impossible murders in the small town of Northmont (Jessica Fletcher has nothing on him!), and this story has him arriving in town and setting up his practice. But the problem that requires his attention the most is the inexplicable vanishing of a horse-and-buggy from a covered bridge. The story is OK, but Hoch hadn't found his stride yet with this series. He threw some really good and even more baffling miracle problems at Dr. Hawthorne as the series progressed. I'm particular fond of "The Problem of the Crowded Cemetery," which was also the first Hoch story I ever read.

There are two collections from this series available: Diagnosis: Impossible (1996) and More Things Impossible (2006). A third collection, Nothing is Impossible (20??), is planned for the very near future.

7 comments:

  1. Vincent Cornier couldn't have been included in this collection, as the book is made up only of MWA authors. You may not like the de la Torre solution, but it's based on a real life locked room, and is the probable solution.

    Doug Greene

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  2. Well, her story may be historically accurate, but this is an impossible crime themed anthology and not a compilation of historical mysteries – and should therefore be judged as such.

    Oh, thanks for pointing out the mistake concerning Vincent Cornier. For some reason, I lumped him in with the Americans. I blame Georges Simenon presence for confusing me on this issue. :)

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  3. Thanks for this very thorough review for a collection that really deserves the attention. But why so hard on the late Mr Symons? The Quarles stories are no great shakes, to be sore, being just ultra short little vignettes, originally written for newspaper publication. Definitely not even remotely on the same level as the author's best work, nor meant to be, surely. Symons wrote some excellent puzzles in short story form ('The Tigers of Subtopia' collection springs to mind) and novels (especially THE PLOT AGAINST ROGER RIDER) which are certainly worthy of respect. Of course my profile name is taken from his history of the genre, so make of that what you will ...

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  4. You think I was too hard on Julian Symons? I was merely trying, as someone who's relatively new to reviewing mysteries, to apply the method of the great critical commentator himself – and put him on the receiving end of some harsh and biased criticism (I wasn't that harsh, though).

    It's so hypocritical of him to lambaste his fellow mystery authors for writing these kinds of stories and then turned around and did himself. Even if he wrote a good puzzler it still makes him a hypocrite.

    As you said on your blog, I'm very opinionated. :)

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  5. Good call on the Hoch review - it's good, but not his best by a long way (also not the worst in the series, which I'd probably say is The Problem of Cell 13). Looking forward to the next anthology, even though I've got them all in magazine form.

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  6. Hi TomCat, I've decided I shall have to review some Julian Symons books on my blog and see if I can change you mind (well, i can hope ...)! Having said that ... I am curious as to why you think he deserves such criticism though. I mean, yes he had his personal preference for works that in his view stood up as works of literature rather then just as good puzzle stories, but he does actually say extremely positive things about the puzzles created by Ellery Queen (even devoted a whole book to him/them), Agatha Christie and John Dickson Carr in the 30s and 40s even in Bloody Murder / Mortal Consequences, doesn't he?

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  7. Well, to put it real simple, everything about him just rubs me the wrong way, but I'm not afraid to have views challenged – especially ones based mostly on emotion. Take your best shot! ;)

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