"I've always wanted to make the world a more rational place. I'm still working on it."- Penn Jillette
It's impossible to pinpoint how many detective stories and novels were written since Edgar Allan Poe's 1841 inaugural locked room mystery, "The Murders in the Rue Morgue," that contains an impossible crime plot, but the revised edition of Robert Adey's Locked Room Murders and Other Impossible Crimes (1991) managed to gather over two thousand titles – an impressive number, to be sure. Until you realize it was even then an incomplete, and by now outdated, list of stories originally published in English with a few foreign titles tucked away at the end.
The trope still makes a regular appearance in contemporary crime fiction, but the casual mystery reader (and publishers) still appears to be incapable of identifying or differentiating it from other sub-genres. I've seen Jonathan Creek being described as a supernatural cop show, conjuring up a picture of modern day Thomas Carnacki stalking the moonlit churchyards for preternatural shadows, while Agatha Christie is dragged in by hair as the most famous practitioner of the "Locked Room Mystery" whenever a writer takes a stab at the "Closed Circle of Suspects" situation by setting their story in an isolated location. If only John Dickson Carr had written Merrivale's Christmas, the best of the Drawing Room Mysteries from the 1930s, we would now probably be looking forward to John Cleese's final performance as H.M. in a TV adaptation of The Cavalier's Cup (1953).
So I'll be climbing atop my hobbyhorse in an attempt to delineate the "Locked Room Mystery," and because fans like to ride their hobbyhorse and rattle on as they pretend to be giving an actual lecture.
The Locked Room
A room with the door and windows locked and latched from the inside, even dead bolted or sporting steel shuttered or barred windows, containing a victim who clearly died at the hands of someone else – who’s not found within the confines of that space. The question that has to be answered is how the murderer escapes from the scene of the crime without resorting to cheap trickery or the supernatural.
Many of Poe's successors were, retrospectively, guilty of emptying out the entire bag of cheap tricks before the end of the 19th century rolled around: horrifying mechanical contraptions, terrifying natural phenomenon, hidden passageways, unknown poisons and venomous creatures explores plucked from previously unexplored regions of the globe. L.T. Meade and Robert Eustace's A Master of Mysteries (1898) therefore feels like a goodbye to that particular era, in which a professional "Ghost Breaker," John Bell, rationalizes such peculiarities as a room that kills and a talking statue in what essentially is also one of the first collection of short impossible crime stories. The timing was also perfect for a final bow in lieu of Israel Zangwill's landmark novella, The Big Bow Mystery (1894), which moved away from murderous beasts and obscure poisons in order to play with the readers assumptions – a method adopted in Gaston Leroux's influential Le Mystère de la chambre jaune (The Mystery of the Yellow Room, 1907) and G.K. Chesterton's compendium of Golden Age plots The Innocence of Father Brown (1910).
The physical approach to bridge the gap between the impossible-and impossible was not ditched by the side of the road except for the huge human crushing devices and focused more on fiddling with locks, prepping windows and roofs or string everyone along with some wire or a pole. Of course, these are only the basic methods and one favored by today's crop of mystery writers who dabble in them. Good, classic examples of these physical approaches to create the impossible are S.S. van Dine's most readable Philo Vance mystery, The Kennel Murder Case (1933) and Clyde B. Clason's The Man from Tibet (1938).
At the dawn of the Golden Age, the trick of locking a box from the inside evolved along the lines set out by Zangwill, Leroux and Chesterton by playing with their readers assumptions of time, place and even everyday objects as demonstrated in the Father Brown story "The Hammer of God," in which a man's head is shattered to pieces from a single blow from a tiny hammer and the strength involved makes the blacksmith a logical suspect. He's the only one who could've done it. Until Chesterton shows you how everyone, regardless of their physical strength, can yield a tiny hammer with obliterating force and the one (im) possible suspect also found its way into the locked room.
The suspect is discovered alongside the victim inside a room sealed from the inside and/or watched/guarded from the outside and this person appears the only person who could’ve committed the murder – and it's up to the detective to prove otherwise.
Carter Dickson's The Judas Window (1938) is the most well-known example, in which Sir Henry Merrivale makes his only appearance in his capacity as a barrister to defend Jimmy Answell from stabbing his prospective father-in-law to death with an arrow while alone with him in his hermitically sealed study. H.M. insists that the real murderer aggressed the room through a Judas window and "there's one in every room." Bill Pronzini explored this premise in Hoodwink (1981) as the Nameless Detective has to bail out an old pulp writer, who has fallen on hard times and was found hovering above a body with a gun after a shot was heard behind the locked door of his hotel room. Giant of the Short Stories, Edward D. Hoch, came up with a solution for "The Leopold Locked Room" as staggering as the situation he put Captain Leopold in: locked with his ex-wife in a room when she suddenly drops dead from a bullet discharged from his gun that he had not pulled from his holster. Robert van Gulik's "The Red Tape Murders," collected in Judge Dee at Work (1967), is perhaps the only trick in the locked room genre that manages to be utterly ridiculous and fairly plausible at the same time as Dee becomes involved with an assassination at a military fortress in the year 663. They've a suspect in custody, but questions have been raised about his guilt and Dee's absurd solution turns the military complex setting into a surrealistic painting by Salvador Dali as your brain is turning the words into mental images. In stark contrast stands Helen Reilly's Dead Man Control (1936), an early American police procedural about a young bride found unconscious next to her slain husband in their locked study with a gun in hand, but the whole story was only slightly more exciting than a bout with insomnia.
The biggest no-no for the one-possible-suspect scenario is if that suspect is innocent and not offered as a surprise twist that renders the whole locked room pointless. A cop-out as condemnable as having the victim designing his death to look like a murder and it guarantees disappointment, because readers expect something from an impossible crime. You can't say you're going to pull a bunny from a top hat, whisk out a sock puppet and expect to get away with it. It's a trick. We get it. But if you promise a bunny (i.e. a locked room) you have to deliver a bunny.
Wide Open Spaces
You'd think wide open spaces would afford more security in a detective story, because snipers and knife-throwers are a rare sight, even there, but there are more than enough stories in which people are knifed, bludgeoned or pushed to their deaths in front of witnesses by invisible entities – making them almost borderline horror novels, if you add the suggestion of the supernatural to the mix.
Carter Dickson's The Unicorn Murders (1935) is a successful collision of universes as the formal detective story and the spy thriller are thrown into a French château alongside the passengers of a stranded airplane, a master criminal, spies and an invisible unicorn roaming the hallways as it gores several people in front of eyewitnesses. Under his own name, Carr mixed spies and adventure again in his historical novel Captain Cut-Throat (1955) that also includes a series of stabbings of Napoleon's sentries in front of witnesses without any of them having seen the perpetrator. Yet another known example from Carr, "The Silver Curtain," collected in The Department of Queer Complaints (1940), gives another example of an invisible assailant striking this time in a cul-de-sac – leaving onlookers baffled.
But the Grandmaster of the Locked Room Mystery was not the only writer who produced noteworthy mysteries of this type. The pages of Anthony Wynne's The Silver Scale Mystery (1931) accommodates no less than three impossible crimes, two of them committed in locked or watched rooms, but the third was done outside in front of a witness and the only thing that was seen was the gleam of a weapon. A year later W. Shepard Pleasants sole mystery novel, The Stingaree Murders (1932), was published, and likewise, contained three seemingly impossible crimes and two of them fit the description of the invisible assailant: a man is stabbed while fishing alone in a skiff and an unseen force drags another from the deck into the water and drowns him. These are not well-known mysteries, but well-worth checking out for their original contributions.
Naturally, these open spaces with witnesses is a perfect conditions for a murder during a stage performance with Christianna Brand's Death of Jezebel (1948) and Ngaio Marsh's Off With His Head (1957) being the most well known classical examples. During the 1980s, however, these open-air, theatrical locked rooms became the specialty of Herbert Resnicow and nobody did them better. Nobody! The Gold Curse (1986) is perhaps the most conventional one in setting and execution as one of the actresses in Rigoletto is fatally stabbed during the final act of the play, but The Gold Deadline (1984) is the most ingenious one of them all – involving another stabbing during a ballet performance of the troupe’s manager in an inaccessible box seat shared with the detectives of the story! The solution may raise some eyebrows, but Resnicow does provide a motive why anyone would go through such insane and risky length to commit a murder under those conditions. Resnicow showcased his background as a civil engineer and using his knowledge to create locked room illusions on a architectural level like in his other masterpiece, The Dead Room (1987), in which the scene of the crime is a guarded, multi-level archaic chamber of a company producing audio equipment and delivers a tailor-made answer that only works in that particular room.
One more example worthy to mention here is Paul Halter's Le Diable de Dartmoor (The Demon of Dartmoor, 1993), set in the desolate landscape of Conan Doyle's The Hound of the Baskervilles (1902), in which malicious, but invisible, entity is throwing local girls from a granite spur or from an open window.
Arguably the hardest of all impossibilities to pull off is figuring out how someone was killed at close range while standing in the middle of a field of virgin snow, unbroken mud or wet sand – and only the victim's foot prints lead up to the body. A variation on this theme is a house surrounded with unscathed snow or mud.
John Dickson Carr himself produced only original and really good example in She Died a Lady (1943), written under the Carter Dickson byline, set during those dark days of WWII in which two lovers decide to jump off a cliff together, but they were shot when they were standing at the edge of the cliff. The murderer must have hovered in mid-air, because the only footprints in the sand belonged to the victims! In my opinion, She Died a Lady was Carr's most successful treatment of the no-footprints variety for the simple reason that it was a new idea in a book that was also one of the authors' best attempts at writing a crime novel.
One of Carr's imitators, Herbert Brean, wrote a rather famous book among impossible crime enthusiasts, Wilders Walk Away (1948), about a town dating back to the Pre-Civil War era and some members of the town's leading family don’t die – they simply fade away. One of the impossible disappearances happens on a stretch of beach where the footprints simply stop. Unfortunately, the second part fell a bit flat after the first and the solutions were tad bit disappointing, to be honest. The anime series Tantei Gakuen Q used the framework of this novel for The Kamikakushi Village Murder Case (episodes 16-21), but the impossible crimes were much better done.
My favorite "no-footprints" are a short story by Arthur Porges, "No Killer Has Wings," in which Dr. Joel Hoffman has to figure out how a man was clubbed to the death on a beach covered with only foot-and paw prints of the victim and his dog. The solution is a gem! The Jonathan Creek television special, The Black Canary (1998), is another personal favorite that unfolds in your living room like a dramatized stage illusion as you try to figure out how the limping man in rags could've trudged through several inches of snow and leave a blanket of unbroken snow behind him.
There are many variations on the impossibility of footprints as William DeAndrea demonstrated in Killed on the Rocks (1990), when he deposited a recently murdered person on the titular, white-capped rocks – encompassed by a blanket of pristine snow. Clayton Rawson had yet another approach in the self explanatorily titled book The Footprints on the Ceiling (1939), but revisited the premise in a short story, "Nothing is Impossible," in which paw-prints of a two-feet, three-toed alien creature are found on the dusty surface of a filing cabinet in the office of a murdered UFO investigator. Rawson's ideas were interesting experiments that were, alas, not good enough to become master copies, but interesting ideas nonetheless.
In an ironic twist worthy of the best Golden Age mysteries, the most famous disappearance mysteries of all is lost if self, or rather, it doesn't really exist. Dr. Watson mentioned in "The Problem of Thor Bridge," from The Casebook of Sherlock Holmes (1922), that among his "unfinished tales is that of Mr. James Phillimore, who, stepping back into his own home to get his umbrella, was never seen more in this world." Doyle never implied there was anything impossible about Phillimore’s disappearance, but this single reference spawned many pastiches. Adrian Conan Doyle and John Dickson Carr co-wrote a semi-official continuation of the canon with The Exploits of Sherlock Holmes (1954), which touched upon this problem in "The Adventure of the Highgate Miracle" and has Carr's fingerprints all over it.
"The Long Way Down" is a one-off by Ed Hoch, who apparently had grown bored with snatching people away from sealed rooms or under the noses of baffled onlookers, and decided to challenge himself: how do you explain a man falling from a top-floor window of a skyscraper and vanishes in mid-air – only to hit the pavement a few hours later? Hoch handled the explanation with the routine of seasoned magician. Slightly more fantastic is "The Glass Bridge," a story from Robert Arthur's Mystery and More Mystery (1966), in which a venerable mystery writer spirits a blackmailer from his home encircled with unbroken snow indicating that she never left the premise. The mystery is how the murderer made blackmailer disappear when his fragile condition does not allow him to have buried or chopped up the body. A shamefully under appreciated story, IMHO.
Sometimes a disappearance appears impossible, because that what dematerialized is so big that it couldn't have happened. The novella "The Lamp of God," collected in The New Adventures of Ellery Queen (1940), and Edmund Crispin's The Moving Toyshop (1946) are the most well known examples in which respectively an entire house and toyshop vanish over night. Trains vanish into thin air in Conan Doyle's "The Lost Special" and Ellery Queen's "Snowball in July." Hugh Pentecost's "The Day the Children Vanished" has a school bus driving into a dugway and never have them emerge from the other end.
Weapons also have a tendency to fade out of existence after a crime had been committed, but scene had been secured and guarded with nothing turning up on the subsequent search of the place or the suspects. Ellery Queen's The American Gun Mystery (1933) deals with the shooting of a rodeo rider witnessed by twenty thousand witnesses who saw nothing and the murder weapon appears not to exist. I've always thought this could've been one of the classics were it not that the story shot itself in the foot with an utterly ridiculous solution. The Man With Bated Breath (1934) by Joseph B. Carr had a far more successful way to make gun vanish from a secured premise where four people were just shot and alternative, pot-smoke take on John Dickson Carr. Speaking of the master, I think he came up with the best and most elegant solution in "Inspector Silence Takes the Air," a stage-play from 13 to the Gallows (2008), set in a radio studio interrupted by an on-air shooting and an air raid – with the firearm nowhere to be found in that small studio. Blind Drifts (1937) by Clyde B. Clason also deserves a mention for the tantalizing side puzzle of a gun that seems to have dissolved after an attempted murder in a mineshaft.
Of course, these are only basic and popular models of the impossible crime, but everything qualifies as long as its manifestation appears to be breaking the laws of nature and are fairly explained. About the Murder of a Startled Lady (1935) by Anthony Abbot has a spiritualistic medium who claims to be channeling the spirit of an unknown and murdered woman, which leads to a terrifying discovery. Not as good as the spiritualist circle found in John Sladek's Black Aura (1974), who disappear from locked lavatories or plunge to their death after levitating in mid-air and stands with the best impossible crime novels from more noted writers. Joseph Commings had one of the more versatile minds when it came to coming up with new angles to the locked room and bumped off divers while alone in a ship wreck, impaled people on swords that could've only been wielded by giants, ghostly finger prints and even a dome-shaped room made of glass where a murderer managed to escape from. The lion's share of these stories can be found in Banner Deadlines: The Impossible Files of Senator Brooks U. Banner (2004).
There are also eerily predictive dreams (Agatha Christie's "The Dream," Paul Halter's "The Cleaver" and the Jonathan Creek episode The Eyes of Tiresias, 1999), otherworldly creatures praying on humans (Hake Talbot's Rim of the Pit (1944), Mack Reynolds' The Case of the Little Green Men (1951), and America's answer to Christianna Brand, Helen McCloy's Through a Glass, Darkly, 1950) or people who refuse to die (Herbert Brean’s The Traces of Brillhart, 1961), and many, many more variations like SF and fantasy hybrids and locked room capers. But there always has to be a sane, rational explanation that's preferably clever and played fair with the reader.
My Favorite Locked Room Mysteries I: The Novels
My Favorite Locked Room Mysteries II: Short Stories and Novellas
Just About as Strange as Fiction: Day to Day Miracles (real-life locked room mysteries, part I)
Out of the Tidy, Clipped Maze of Fiction (real-life locked room mysteries, part II)
When Oddities of Fiction Encroach on Reality (real-life locked room mysteries, part III)
Sealed Rooms and Ghoulish Laughter: Tributes to John Dickson Carr
A List of Dutch Impossible Crime Novels