The Reader is Warned: A List of My Least Favorite Locked Room Mysteries

"Do not freeze it in a block of ice and then stand on it to hang yourself, creating a baffling locked room mystery."
- Jon Stewart (on one of the no-no's of the impossible crime genre)  
My two-part compendium posts of favorite locked room mysteries, "The Novels" and "Short Stories," continue to be the most popular items on this blog and while they could benefit from being rewritten, I decided to compile another list.

However, there's a slight difference with this best-of list: it's a compilation of notable examples of locked room mysteries that managed to be profoundly disappointing or turned out to be dull wastes of time There are even one or two I consider to be an abomination upon the genre itself, but let's judge them down from the top.

Gilbert Adair's The Act of Roger Murgatroyd: An Entertainment (2006)

Keep 'Em Under Lock & Key!
Cynically promoted as a warm, cozy send-up of Agatha Christie and the 1930s-style drawing-and locked room mystery, but the kind of love Adair dishes out to the classical whodunit is that of an abusive spouse. The book is telling the mystery genre it's has gotten old and fat, while it pinches it side fat and politely enquires when it plans on finally dying. That's the story in a nutshell and the locked room (solution) wasn't anything special, which may have been borrowed from an Edogawa Rampo story. This is the only detective novel in which I rooted for the killer to take out the detective.

Willy Corsari's De misdaad zonder fouten (The Faultless Crime, 1927)

The overconfident title of this debut novel is misleading, because the plot has more holes than Pablo Escobar on a rooftop in Medellin – which is the reason why I shied away from Willy Corsari for years. I remember the plot revolving around a man with a broken neck found inside his locked home, but the story (almost) reads like an anti-detective story as twins, sleepwalkers and other clichés tag each other in-and out. The final "twist" was just embarrassing.

Joseph Bowen's The Man Without a Head (1933)

I was able to find only one redeeming quality in Bowen's sole effort at writing a mystery novel: he genuinely wanted to write a baffling detective story, in which the reader could engage the writer, the detective and the criminal in a battle-of-wits. Unfortunately, the story of the decapitated miser in his sealed, ramshackle home in a sleepy village in New Mexico was poorly written and the plot borrowed heavily from the Sherlock Holmes canon. The solution for the locked front door was routine.

Maurice B. Dix's Murder at Grassmere Abbey (1934)

This book was penned and published smack in the middle of the Golden Age of Detective Fiction, but the plot was swamped in retired tropes, tired-old clichés and pre-conceived notions non-mystery fans have of 1920s detective story – shoehorned into one novel. Dix fluffed it all up with some smart aleck dialogue, but the only fun was figuring out an alternative solution for the locked room murder of P.C. Brown (which I posted in my review).

Paul Doherty's The Assassins of Isis (2004)

I love Paul Doherty as an author of well-written, atmospheric historical novels that are complemented with a good deal of imagination to provide intrigue for the mystery aspect of his stories, which often includes an impossible crime. Dorothy isn't in the same league as John Dickson Carr and Ed Hoch, but they're usually good enough. The Assassins of Isis is a glaring exception to this rule: there's an interesting question to be answered how a bag full of snakes could be smuggled to the General’s rooftop terrace, but I preferred my solution to this locked room problem to the dull one that was given. However, the biggest problem is that the book entombs and hides its one good idea better than the burial site of Tutankhamun. Dorothy can do so much better than this!

Maurice-Bernard Endrèbe's Elvire a la tour monte (Elvire Climbs the Tower, 1956)

A slow-moving, talky mystery novel from the "Anthony Boucher of France" starring Elvire Prentice, "the old lady without mercy," and France's answer to England's Miss Marple. The scene of the crime is the Tower of London and the duty of locked doors and latched windows are replaced here with eyewitness testimonies, which made the false solution psychologically unsound. But it was still better than the actual solution.

Randall Garrett's Too Many Magician's (1967)

I loathe this one! It's horribly over written and the flow of the story is bogged down in the never-ending stream of personal titles (Milord and Goodfellow) that are used to end a sentence like a punctuation mark, but on top of that it's one of the dullest detective stories I have ever read. That's somewhat of an achievement on its own, considering the story takes place in an alterative universe loaded with wizards and sword fights with ghosts. The locked room element, while completely fair, simply wasn't worth the read and it ripped off John Dickson Carr. Nevertheless, Too Many Magician's still appears on best-of lists. Baffling!

T.C.H. Jacobs' Appointment With the Hangman (1935)

Arguably, the worst mystery novel I have read in 2012 and I say "mystery novel," but what I meant is a third-rate potboiler that threw everything in the mix it could get its grubby paws on. Appointment With the Hangman is laden with enticing, seemingly impossible occurrences, ranging from a talking cat to subduing an elemental spirit, but the only impossibility with a speck of originality was the disintegration-trick. On the other hand, the Detection Club should've confiscated his typewriter and broken his fingers for the levitation-bit.

David L. Marsh's Dead Box: The "Brown from the Sun" Mysteries (2004)

I can summarize this entry in one sentence: dried up brain barf scrapped and held together with a folded soft cover. Harsh? You can try the book for yourself, because copies are still available and the digital edition is practically free. You'll still get robbed of a buck and downloading it for free is simply a waste of bandwidth. So, once again, let the reader be warned!

Rupert Penny’s Sealed Room Murder (1951)

This entry will probably evoke cries of sacrilege and pledges to constables to shoot me, but it's a great example of a clever locked room trick buried in a mediocre novel and the impossible angle here is hampered by the floor plan – which gave part of the game away. The final quarter of the book could stand on its own as a novella, but the build up to the murder is a long, dragging ordeal and the pay-off isn't worth it in comparison.

A Room to Die In (1965) by Ellery Queen is another case of a good locked room trick stranded in a bad story. And speaking of EQ...  

Ellery Queen's The Door Between (1937)

This title receives a mention every now and then in best-of lists of locked room-and impossible crime stories, but there isn't much choice if you insist on having Ellery Queen on your list and that should explain why this book can make it on such lists – because there isn't any book from the same period that would make any list with such an obvious and outdated solution. I remember intensely disliking the slow, dragging and predictable pace of the story, which shouldn't even make a top-10 list of best EQ novels. The severely altered, somewhat hockey rewrite, entitled The Vanishing Corpse (1941), was so much better and far more entertaining than the original. There even was a reason for the race with a stolen ambulance!

Frederick Ramsay's Stranger Room (2009)

The first 20-30 pages bristled with promise as the author presents the reader with two locked room murders, one from 150 years ago, but that was apparently all the plot the book required and Ramsay proceeded to flesh out the characters inhabiting the backwater in which the story takes place. I hated all of them! Worst of all, the shift in focus came after Ramsay flung the telltale clue (pretty much the solution) to both locked rooms at the reader. As if saying, "enough of this silly plotting business for one book." I mean, how could you not notice the significance and potential of that particular item in a locked room mystery?! Good idea, but horribly executed. Did I mention I hated every single character from this book?

Clayton Rawson's No Coffin for the Corpse (1942)

Admittedly, the first half began promising enough when an attempt at blackmail ends in murder and a dead man rises from his improvised grave to extract revenge, but when the ghost apparently commits a murder and vanishes from a locked-and guarded room the story begins to loose its memento – noticeably so! If an author has to stop the story in order to pull the reader back in with a lecture on fakirs, you might want to ease off on the carnival-stuff just a little bit. It’s like saying to the reader, “now wait, hear me out! This is actually possible.” The solution for the locked room wasn't much better. It only makes you wonder why Rawson made it an impossible crime story in the first place: for the sake of discussing and theorizing about them?

This list hasn't been as extensive or in-depth as the previous two lists, but I probably repressed a handful of them and completely erased another few from my mind. I could've added Footprints (1929) by Kay Cleaver Strahan, but I actually liked that one and lacking a solution adds to the charm of the story. 

Well, that's the first (real) filler post in a long time and I hope to be back soon with a regular review. 


  1. Some of these books I own but have yet to read (eg., the one by Clayton Rawson). I will likely try reading them, but not one after the other. Some have actually been recommended by others in the past, a reflection of differences in taste or expectations, I suppose (Stranger Room, for instance.) What might be more interesting for your readers: a list of locked room and impossible crime stories that didn't make your top drawer list, but are still worthy of honorable mention.

    1. Well, there are already a few honorary mentions on the list (e.g. Joseph B. Carr's The Man With Bated Breath and Lou Cameron's Behind the Scarlet Door), but I guess I could split the list when I decide to finally update it.

  2. Well, I've only read the Rawson and Queen titles here and have the Garrett on the shelf but none of the others. I remember liking the Queen book quite a lot at the time, for all its obvious faults, and may even have the read the 1941 movie novelisation actually, but can;t remember hmmm - I'll probably stay clear of the other you list though!