Throwing Down the Gauntlet: An Insane Locked-Room Puzzle

"There's just something missing."
- Michael Ende (The Never-Ending Story, 1979)
In the on-going series, "Pretending to Post," I have constructed a locked room riddle based on an idea that sort-of popped-up in my head, but the insanity of the explanation probably makes it an insoluble problem. However, the dark annexes forming the crime-ridden corners of the blogosphere teem with inquisitive foxes that'll jump on any challenge. So I hope they have fun sinking their teeth in this one!

Bacherlorhood in Victorian times
The mise-en-scène is a well-attended costume party and two of the attendees, garbed as Jack the Ripper and Tarzan, retreat themselves into a windowless room and bolted the door behind them. On the opposite of the room door is a wide niche, where someone is sitting to take and hand back coats and bags to visitors, generally to keep an eye on things, and swears nobody entered or left the room for quite some time – until the door suddenly opened and a Voodoo priest appears!

This apparition waves around a staff with a skull on top of it and has rug sack-sized, animal skin-type bag slung over his over his other shoulder. There's a bone-fingered necklace hanging from his neck and strings with bones and glass bottles of dark potions clatter around his body. He does a ritual, slow motion dance through the hallway, into the filled-up party hall, and disappears in a crowd of partying monsters. The room is bare except for a roaring fire in the hearth and lifeless furniture. It's as if Jack and Tarzan never entered that room at all.

So what happened? The facts are that two men entered a windowless room and the chimney is too narrow to allow a grown man to climb through it and let the other guy light a fire, change costumes and burn the original one the fire - before leaving the room. If the room would be subjected to a forensic investigation, they would barely find any DNA or cremated remains in the hearth. Except for burned pieces of cloth. Two people entered that room, but only one of them, perhaps even an unknown person, walked out of that sealed and watched room.

But how? If you've a shimmer of an idea, it might be fun to post it before you read further.

SPOILER, highlight text or press CTRL+A to read: upon entering the room, Jack the Ripper stunned Tarzan with his Victorian-era walking stick and took a roll of plastic from his surgeon's kit and covered a piece of the floor. He draped his cloak on top of the plastic and rolled the unconscious Tarzan on top of it.

Yes, but...

SPOILER, (...): Jack the Ripper than proceeded to kill Tarzan and threw his own costume into the fire, after ripping off the buttons, and slipped on the Tarzan slip – after which he gutted and dismembered Tarzan. Remember, the surgical knives are part of the Ripper attire, albeit a personal customization on the murderer's part.  

That still doesn't explain how only one person walked out of windowless and guarded room without leaving any traces!

SPOILER, (...): Oh, ye of little faith! The murderer proceeded to make his macabre ornaments out of the body parts and reusing parts of his own costume. The staff with the skull was the Ripper's walking stick with Tarzan's skinned head on it, and well, you know what he did with the bones. The organs were put in the bottles that were in the kit and wrapped the other stuff up in (more) plastic and put in the kit or the animal-skin, plastic-lined bag that he wore under his cloak when he entered the room. When the body had disappeared and had adorned him with his slain victim, he wrapped up the blood-drenched cloak and plastic – stuffing it in the kit that went in the bag with the rest and that was slung over his shoulder. The murderer than put up his little act in the hallway and strutted into crowd, towards the backdoor and into history.

W-why? Why would anyone do that?! To be completely honest with you, that's kind of the weak point, which is why I threw it out here for the fun of it, but there's a way to properly motivate it in universe where people go through such insane lengths for a disappearing act.

SPOILER, (...): To pull it off in the first place, you've to be a skilled pathologist and so what if the man under the Ripper costume was a well-renowned pathologist with a skeleton or two in closet. Maybe he illegally sold body parts. Who knows. And Tarzan was a blackmailer, a low-level criminal who found out and made the connection, and fixed a rendezvous at the party and felt secure to meet him behind the locked door of that room when there was someone standing guard outside. Nobody knew of his side job or that somebody found out about it, and thus nobody knew he had solid motive for making this person thoroughly disappear. He might have had van park near by where he could chance and carefully remove the remains he's carrying. Safely home, he could practically put the skull on his desk without ever attracting attention.

No. The ghost of Harry Stephen Keeler does not possess me.


  1. Yesterday I thought you were writing a parody of Ed McBain. But today the first thing that came to my mind was indeed that you had channeled Keeler.

    Locked-room mysteries have never made much sense to me, except in those cases where the object of someone being found dead in a locked room is to lead the investigator to believe that the death was an accident or suicide. Another subset of locked room mysteries that makes sense is that the murderer has to get at his victim even though the victim is in a closely-watched location, so that he has to get in and out (effecting an egress, as they say in the literature) without being seen.

    But what I usually see is an obvious murder in a locked room where it would be easier for the murderer to just wait until the victim is at an easier location for killing. So what is the point of having the death in a locked room to begin with? And that is the point you made at the end of your review. I think a lot of locked room mysteries are just written for the pleasure of it, the same way we take pleasure in the skillful illusions of a stage magician.

    Your story by the way reminds me of the famous story by Lord Dunsany with Mr. Linley.

    1. Well, if you look at it like that, you could re-categorize the entire locked room/impossible crime sub-genre with just two labels: realistic and fantastic locked room mysteries. But they still serve the same purpose in that they have to make the crime appear completely impossible, whether it's dressing up a murder as a suicide or if the characters in the book blame it on the boogieman, they're not suppose to have happened – and that's part of the fun in both them. For me, anyway.

      This riddle wasn't meant as a serious locked room, because the solution makes it unusable for any story. It was pointed out in an email that the method would be even more impossible to pull off than the effect of the trick, but it was too fun (and off the wall) to never use it for anything else.