3/6/12

My Favorite Locked Room Mysteries I: The Novels (Updated: June 7, 2013)

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. 

Lou Cameron's Behind the Scarlet Door (1971) 

A very, very pulpy potpourri of outlandish plot elements, twists and turns that includes bodies decomposing at a supernatural speed, voodoo priests, witches, zombies, Welsh legends and even an invisible cat-like creature that attacks one of the policeman inside his locked apartment. I had to include this title because how well Cameron handled this pile-up of apparent supernatural events and explained them without consulting the supernatural.

Joseph Baker Carr's The Man With Bated Breath (1934)

Quality-wise, perhaps not the best title on this list, however, this pot smoke induced rendering of a Dr. Gideon Fell novel simply fascinates me. Ocealo Archer is a gargantuan detective with the demeanor of a jolly Santa Claus and an insatiable appetite, who looks into a remarkable shooting incident at a Georgian plantation. Four members of the family were shot in the locked gable room of the house, leaving two dead and two wounded, but the gun is nowhere to be found and the police officer who stood in the garden below swore that nothing was thrown out of the open window.
 
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 The Bride of Newgate (1950)


The first of John Dickson Carr's swashbuckling, adventure filled historical mysteries and arguably the finest he wrote. The year is 1815 and fencing master Dick Darwent is counting away the final hours of his life in the condemned cell of the filthy and overpopulated New Gate prison, for the murder of Lord Francis Orford during a crooked duel, but Darwent's version tells a story of a murder room that aged with the dust of years over a single night. One of the highlights of Carr's writing career.

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."


Cor Docter's Koude vrouw in Kralingen (Cold Woman in Kralingen, 1970) 
 
A topographical roman policier, situated in a neighborhood of Rotterdam, where the stabbing of a gardener, inspecting his greenhouses during a surging storm, leads Commissioner Vissering to a shadowy society known as Kostbaar Kralingen (Precious Kralingen). During one of their weekly gatherings, one of them dies under breathtaking circumstances in a sealed bedroom. The solution shows Docter was also pulp writer, but this is still one of the better Dutch-language locked room mystery I have read to date.
Note: this is still the "weakest" of the Vissering trilogy, but only because the others were even better.


Paul Doherty's The Spies of Sobeck (2008)


Upon her return from victories in the North, Egypt's Pharaoh-Queen Hatusu has to suppress a Nubian uprising in her sultry kingdom, but a sect of professional assassins, known as the Arites, begin to wage a very personal war against their Egyptian overlords – and the impossible is kind of their trademark. A former chief scout of the spies of Sobeck, Imothep, is found murdered in the Mansion of Silence and the explanation is incredible cheeky, but acceptable in a historical setting. Well played, Mr. Doherty!
 
Paul Doherty's The Mysterium (2010)
 
One of my favorite Doherty yarns to date, because the dark atmosphere and themes gave the story a delightfully Carrian touch. A hooded assassin reappears from the past, after vanishing from a secured and guarded church, twenty years previously, to extract revenge on the ex-Chief Justice who was found dead in his cell – the door barred from both sides and the only window a wafer-thin slit high in the wall. It's not as complex or ingenious as Carr, but there's a lot to like in this book if you love atmospheric detective stories with locked rooms, impossible disappearances, ciphers and clues.

Jan Ekström's Ättestupan (Deadly Reunion, 1975) 
The label "the Swedish John Dickson Carr" is what attracted me to this book, but if you want to draw a classical comparison, I would say Christianna Brand who proved herself as aptly in handling double edged clues and impossible situation as the master himself. This is a dark, character-driven family drama involving the three warring branches of an old family ending in what appears to be a simple murder/suicide (shooting and gassing in a locked bedroom), but things turn out to be slightly more complicated.

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.


Paul Halter's La Septième Hypothèse (The Seventh Hypothesis, 1991)

A story enwrapped in the Baghad-on-the-Thames atmosphere of the long-gone London of John Dickson Carr and Christopher Fowler, where seventeen century plague doctors are seen prowling the streets, a corpse is whisked away in front of a police constable and a man dematerializes halfway down a corridor. And that covers the impossibilities, but the main event is a battle-of-wits between a famous play writer and actor in what's the best Halter novel I have read to date.
 
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.

Ed McBain's Killer's Wedge (1959)


The squad room of the 87th Precinct becomes the scene of a high-tense hostage situation, but the person the hostage taker is after, Steve Carella, is on a job somewhere else – looking into the supposed suicide of a business tycoon. It's a face-paced read interlacing suspense with a traditional locked room mystery. 
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.


Roman McDougald's The Blushing Monkey (1953)
 
An unusual take on the locked room mystery, in which the question is not a murderer managed to escape from a room or place that was hermitically locked from the inside or guarded on the outside, but why a mortally wounded victim remained at the unlock crime scene – instead of fleeing away from his attacker. A private investigator, named Philip Cabbot, also has to look into a more traditional locked room, when a victim is found dead inside a sealed bathroom.

Marcia Muller's The Tree of Death (1983)

The Museum of Mexican Arts in Santa Barbara becomes the stage of a murder when the unlikable director and fundraiser, Frank de Palma, is found crushed to death between the debris of (garish) ceramic tree. The locks and alarm system were not tempered with and the solution puts this locked room mystery in the same league as the best from Muller's late contemporary, Herbert Resnicow.

W. Shepard Pleasants' The Stingaree Murders (1932)


Agatha Christie meets John Dickson Carr when an invisible killer strikes again, and again, among the well heeled guests aboard of the Terrapin, scudding across the Louisiana marsh land during a fishing trip, which added no less than three new and very original scenarios to the locked room story: 1) a man is stabbed to death while fishing alone in a skiff 2) a knife that was hammered into the woodwork of the deck like Excalibur was effortlessly retrieved with apparent supernatural strength 3) a force unseen pulls a man into the water and drowns him. 

Zelda Popkin's Dead Man's Gift (1941)


A group of strangers, whose only commonality is being a relative of the late and eccentric Michael Carmichael, are gathered at a mansion for a reading of the will, and as to be expected, there's a catch to accepting the will. A stock-in-trade scenario, true, but the freak flood that is slowly driving the party to roof puts an unusual spin on the story and the finishing touch is that solution reveals an ingeniously hidden murder of the impossible variety.  
 
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.

Bill Pronzini's Scattershot (1982) 
This book details a hellish week for the "Nameless Detective" and a direct follow up to the events in Hoodwink (1981), in which personal and professional problem may end up breaking the man and his business. And at the root of his problem are impossibilities. Sheer impossibilities! A man he had been shadowing disappears from a locked car and his client files a suit for criminal negligence. The woman he had serve a subpoena ends up murdered in a locked cabin with her secretary looking very guilty, and if that isn't enough, an expensive ring is stolen from a secured room full of wedding gifts that he was suppose to be guarding. Together with Hoodwink, my favorite chapters in this on-going biography of Pronzini's gumshoe. 


Bill Pronzini and Marcia Muller's The Bughouse Affair (2013)

The first in a new series of full-length historical mysteries about Carpenter and Quincannon, Professional Detective Services, and they've quite a workload piled up on their desks before the halfway mark of the book. Sabina has to roam the Cocktail Route to snuff out a pickpocket, while Quincannon is setting up a trap for a burglar and trying to shake off a character known as the bughouse Holmes. Naturally, someone ends up dead between the confines of four walls and a couple of locked doors and windows in what amount to a great new start to a series that was already well established as a series of short stories.


Richard Purtill's Murdercon (1982)


A Science-Fiction and Fantasy convention at a respectable hotel turns murderous when a panel is disrupted by Darth Vader with a sparkle gun, which, somehow, resulted in the death of a panel member, but a second murder carried out in front of witnesses is even more daring. Not very difficult to solve to the seasoned locked room reader, but a nice read nonetheless. 

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.


Mack Reynolds' The Case of the Little Green Men (1951)
 
A comedic private-eye novel set against the backdrop of the Science Fiction and Fantasy fan community of the mid 20th century, in which a hapless private detective is asked by a group of SF fans to investigate extraterrestrial interference in Earth affairs – who begin zapping at them with rays guns or chucking them from flying saucers. A very fun and unusual mystery novel and an alien threat was a nice chance from the usual ancient curses and vengeful ghosts in impossible crime stories.
   
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! 

Derek Smith's Whistle Up the Devil (1954)
This is a locked room enthusiasts' locked room mystery, and a fiendishly clever one at that, in which a vigil in a locked and haunted room ending with what could've been another chapter to an old family legend – where it not for the intervention of a dilettante detective named Algy Lawrence. There are many references to other mystery writers specializing in impossible crimes and there's even a locked room lecture. 


Kay Cleaver Strahan's Death Traps (1930)
 
A story told between two elderly, neighboring men and the remarkable crimes that took place in their respective homes, which consists of a dubious shooting incident in a sun room and two people found dead in their bed in a completely sealed house that was not piped for gas! 
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.

Jean-Paul Török's L'enigme du Monte Verita (The Riddle of Monte Verita, 2007)

An unabashed homage to the Master of the Locked Room Mystery, John Dickson Carr a.k.a. Carter Dickson, which is tightly woven and complex affair drawing on the work of the master himself. 
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. 

15 comments:

  1. I would personally add "He Wouldn't Kill Patience", not because the mystery is that brilliant - it's not - but because in a wonderfully cocky moment of bravado Carr pretty much gives away how the crime is done in a separate scene. It's such a brilliantly offhand moment, you can't help but admire him for hiding the solution in very plain view.

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  2. I like lists. People tend to say they are meaningleass due to subjectiveness and every work having its share of good aspects anyway, but the more people rank, the more opinions can overlap and reveal certain gems.

    I have to admit I still have to read cornerstones like The Mystery of the Yellow Room, but I plan on reading that one together with one or two Carrs in the next weeks. Somewhere between my two papers I have to write...

    And you reminded me, that being a dilettante audiophile I've wanted to get a copy of The Dead Room since you discussed it here. If only many of these books were not so rare and... you know the drill.

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  3. I personally don't love coming up with lists, but I do love reading them, especially when people give some brief reasons for why this book was included and this one wasn't.

    It's an interesting list. I wouldn't agree with all of the entries (I've always found "the Curse of the Bronze Lamp" nothing but supreme silliness with a cop-out happy ending) but there are definitely books of interest on there.

    But where, oh where is LE DIABLE DE DARTMOOR? I expect it to appear on this list as soon as it is published in English! ;)

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  4. I've read only 22 of these (a little more than half) and I agree with many of them as being noteworthy - especially the two Japanese books you listed. Glad to see THE SLEEPING BACCHUS made your list which has become one of my all time favorites in the whole genre. I don't think, however, CURSE OF THE BRONZE LAMP deserves being put on any list. To me it's a retread of a famous Chesterton tale. I agree with Patrick, too. I dislike the ending - almost as big an anticlimax as the ending in THE WYCHFORD POISONING CASE by Berkeley.

    One of these days I'll make a list of the worst locked room/impossible crime books. I've certainly read a lot of them and I'd have a ball writing that up!

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  5. Interesting list! I will add my John Street locked room favorites, Invisible Weapons (1938), Death Leaves No Card (1939) and The Cat Jumps (1946). He has some other true and demi locked room situations, but these are my favorites.

    Freeman Wills Crofts' locked room in Sudden Death is quite disappointing, I think. He has a better one in The End of Andrew Harrison, though it's a comparatively minor element.

    Connington has a good impossible crime element in Tragedy at Ravensthorpe.

    Of course in the Streets the "how" or means element, while usually not strictly impossible, often is so involved and fascinating that it has much of the same intrinsic interest as a locked room problem, I think. It also may help explain the great friendship that Street and Carr had (along with their hatred of Puritanism and their love of drink). Carr however combined this with a near Christie level skill at clueing that Street mostly lacked (with some notable exceptions like Murder M.D.).

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  6. What do you think of Christie's Hercule Poirot's Christmas, by the way?

    I liked the comment in one Ngaio Marsh story, from Alleyn: "Don't let's have any nonsense about locked rooms." Georgette Heyer hated Carr too, though she has one herself in Envious Casca.

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  7. A great list, TomCat, but I'll have to side with the anti-Curse of the Bronze Lamp lobbyists! I'd personally put The Reader Is Warned quite a way ahead of it.

    And being vaguely controversial, I'd bump He Who Whispers because, much as I love it as a novel, part of the solution always felt ludicrous to me - what someone physically has to do (if you've read it, you know what I mean) and that soured it a little for me. Personally, I'd add in Til Death Do Us Part and The Black Spectacles/Problem of the Green Capsule... possibly above the theatricality of The Hollow Man.

    Must get round to reading Captain Cutthroat now...

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  8. Well, I guess I did a pretty good job at this list when the only real complaint is the inclusion of The Curse of the Bronze Lamp. :)

    Quick notes:

    @mousoukyoko:

    I like lists, too, but the problem they give me is that I constantly want to revise them. When I look back at the one with my favorite detective novels, compiled only last year, I want to delete it and start from scratch again – as there are so many glaring omissions and new titles to add.

    Herbert Resnicow is all but forgotten today, but his books, thankfully, are fairly easy to obtain and not all that expensive, either – especially the paperback editions. So you should be able to get your hands on The Dead Room without much of a problem or a huge financial setback. ;) And I hope you will enjoy the book as much as I have.

    @Patrick:

    Your recommendation will be taken under review later this year! ;)

    @John:

    I think you would do us all a huge favor if you would compile that list as soon as possible, but before you do you have to read Dead Box!

    @Curt (The Passing Tramp):

    I have read Death Leaves No Card and reviewed it here, but reading back my comments it's safe to say that I was not impressed.

    Hercule Poirot's Christmas is OK as a detective story, however, I never understood why people think it's one her trickiest whodunits (I solved this one when I was newbe) and the immediate, off-hand explanation of the locked room angle disqualifies it, IMHO, as an impossible crime story. Has anyone ever notice Nicholas Blake gave the locked room the same treatment in The Case of the Abominable Snowman, which, also, happens to be Christmas mystery? I think either Strangeways or one of the policemen even jokes about it ("oh did the murderer really uses such an obvious trick," or something along similar lines).

    @Puzzle Doctor:

    To be honest, I could've filled this entire list with Carr alone and it still would've been a great list. So picking only a few of them was the hardest part in compiling this list.

    Looking forward to reading your thoughts on Captain Cut-Throat.

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  9. Incidentally, I just noticed this but I believe the Martin Meroy title should be spelled "Meurtre en chambre noir".

    As for disagreements, I could go and list some more. Don't think you're just getting away by throwing THE CURSE OF THE BRONZE LAMP at us! I refuse to accept WHAT A BODY! We've had this discussion before, but I think that while the situation is ingenious, the clueing is inept. The author stresses the incredible superhuman feats a murderer would have to achieve to commit the murder so much, that he only draws attention to the *real* way the murder was committed. And all the false solutions are half-realizible, shaky ones that are thrown at you in a bunch in an alcoholic stupor. Hardly "one-of-the-best-locked-room-stories" material.

    Clayton Rawson is... interesting. He keeps flip-flopping between brilliant ideas and ideas that make me wonder what on earth he'd been drinking at the time. THE HEADLESS LADY is worth reading for two thigng: (1) the beginning (2) a great escape by The Great Merlini from prison. Apart from that, it's very unremarkable to say the least. THE FOOTPRINTS ON THE CEILING has a great opening and a great discussion on poisons, but by the end the twist is rather obvious. DEATH FROM A TOP HAT is a masterpiece of plotting, with only one flaw in the whole patchwork, and that is the ridiculous explanation of the second locked room when Merlini had a perfectly acceptable explanation ready, that was only rendered invalid by the author's say-so.

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  10. RE: DEAD BOX and David Louis Marsh. I read one of Mr. Marsh's short stories at his website and it was utterly incomprehensible. It began with a puerile sex scene between a doctor and nurse hiding in a supply closet and kissing each other like two horny adolescents while the woman character writhed and groaned like some pulp magazine nympho. But all they did was kiss. No sex described at all. I get the feeling from what I read that Mr. Marsh is a devout Christian (he goes out of his way to point out that the Brown family reads the Bible after dinner in one scene) and I guess writing about sex beyond rabid frenzied kissing would be too much for him. I also get the feeling he is very young or very naive. I'd like to imagine that the story was written by someone in junior high school and NOT an adult, but you never know these days. A sampling of the first chapter of DEAD BOX was too painful to get through after the mess of his short story which by the way does not solve any of the purported "impossibilities" in the tale. A "mystery" with no solution - what's the point? (Is Mr. Marsh emulating Kay Cleaver Strahan? Bet he never heard of her.) But it didn't really matter since the story wasn't even a story. To paraphrase Truman Capote: it's not writing, it's just typing.

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  11. Patrick, I was somewhat disappointed with the Merlini novels too.

    I liked Bronze Lamp, myself, though the impossible part isn't his greatest.

    TomCat, I liked the "comedy of manners" stuff in Death Leaves No Card. There's actually quite a bit of satire in there (the "Insititute for Incurable Imbeciles").

    Granted, Arnold is not a thilling detective. I was amused when Merrion sent him the telegram saying he couldn't solve his case for him this time because he had flu. Didn't that ever happen to Campion or Wimsey? I think Street must have started to wonder whether Arnold could ever solve a case on his own. He has three solos without Merrion as I recollect and this one is the most complex (there's an earlier one he appears in with another amateur tec type, though he's a lot smarted and sophisticated in that one--Arnold got dumbed down over the course of the Burton series).

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  12. No, THE LOCKED ROOM by Sjowal and Wahloo? I remember it as great but I was twenty then. Maybe not.

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  13. I am curious just where the Kelley Roos book, Sailor, Take Warning! fits in with this list. I know you regard it quite highly, so I was surprised by its absence.

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  14. Some late, late responses:

    @Patrick:

    Yes, we had this discussion before and I stand by my opinion that What a Body! is not only an original ripple in the locked room genre, but also a masterpiece (see pass discussions for supporting arguments).

    @John:

    Incomprehensible is one way of describing Dead Box, but I very much doubt that Marsh could fall back on being a high school student as an excuse for creating this thing.

    According to the back cover of the paperback edition we are dealing with a man who authored over a 100 newspaper columns dealing with crime and lives in Salt Lake City with his wife, son and a cat named Patchwork. So unless he started this family during his school career we're dealing here with a thoroughly bad writer instead of an inexperienced one.

    I still think you should read the book, though. The review would be hilarious! ;)

    @Curt:

    I'm afraid that particular book just didn't do it for me.

    @Pattinase:

    When I was just getting into detective stories, I gave them a shot and I despised them so much that I almost turned my back on the genre before I had really begun exploring the field. Thankfully, I had already began picking up Christie at the time and had pretty much read everything by Baantjer - who kept me in the game.

    So no Sjowal and Wahloo for this mystery addict.

    @JIM:

    I have been tempted to add Kelley Roos to this list, but the impossible crime from Sailor, Take Warning! is literarily a redressing of one of the oldest tricks in the book and thought the semi-impossible situation in The Frightened Stiff was not enough to justify a spot on this list.

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  15. A great list TC though there are limitations for me for those titles not available in Italian or English so I'm afraid that I can't say I've read more than 14 of them, though I do have a couple more on the shelves at least. Yet to take the plunge with Halter, a pleasure I am saving for a rainy day. I'm such a sucker for John Dickson Carr that I wouldn't want to do without any of your choices, though I might add HE WOULDN'T KILL PATIENCE and TEN TEACUPS / PEACOCK FEATHER MYSTERY which I remain inordinately fond of.

    If you ever decide to give the Martin beck series again, THE ABOMINABLE MAN is a really, really strong entry.

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