"If magic and locked room mysteries don't intrigue you... well, sorry, no offense, but you're one of those hopeless, world-weary cynics. You don't deserve magic, mind-bending stories, or fireworks."
- Otto Penzler
At the stroke of midnight that ended, December 31st, 2014, the book was closed on another year and handed over to the history books of tomorrow. Who knows what 2015 may've in store, but, hopefully, it'll include some finely written and masterly plotted mysteries for the readers of this blog – which is all we can really hope for, right?
This will be my fifth year of enthusiastically rambling (i.e. blogging) about detective stories and it seems appropriate to mark the start of 2015 with a long, multi-part review of The Black Lizard Big Book of Locked-Room Mysteries (2014). "Big," in "Big Book," isn't an exaggeration. It's a behemoth of an anthology with a page count clocking in at 940 pages! Roughly.
|He's dreaming of a sequel to this anthology.|
The Black Lizard Big Book of Locked-Room Mysteries was compiled by an award-winning editor, Otto Penzler, who, judging by the content page, took great care in avoiding the pitfalls of such previous anthologies as The Locked Room Reader (1968) and Tantalizing Locked Room Mysteries (1982) – covering too many over anthologized stories. There are some of those familiar stories collected here, but they're, by and large, contained in the first portion of the book.
Familiar As the Rose In Spring deals with "the most popular and frequently reprinted impossible-stories of all-time" and serves as a 1920s-era drawing room to gather all of the usual suspects in: Edgar Allan Poe's "The Murders in the Rue Morgue," Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's "The Adventure of the Speckled Band," Jacques Futrelle's "The Problem of Cell 13," Wilkie Collins' "A Terribly Strange Bed," Melville Davisson Post's "The Doomdorf Mystery" and G.K. Chesterton's "The Invisible Man." I have skipped these stories, but there was one I hadn’t read before.
"The Two Bottles of Relish" by Lord Dunsany was first published in the November 12, 1932, issue if Time & Tide and is an old-fashioned, armchair detective story with a remarkable modern twist-ending. Smithers is a salesman of relish, for meat and savories, who asks his college educated roommate, Linley, to put his mind to the problem of how a murderer could've made his victim disappear from a cottage under constant police observation. As well as why the vegetarian suspect would've bought two bottles of relish and was seen furiously chopping wood in the garden. A good story and I would recommend Robert Arthur's classic "The Glass Bridge," collected in Mystery and More Mystery (1966), to readers who would love to read a less gut wrenching explanation to a very similar impossible problem.
This Was the Unkindest Cut of All declares "stabbing in a completely sealed environment appears to be the most common murder method" and gives twelve examples of varying degrees of success. I had to skip a few stories here, as well, because I was already more than familiar with them.
William Hope Hodgson's "The Thing Invisible" was first published in The New Magazine in 1912 and collected in Carnacki, the Ghost-Finder (1913), which are stories exploring the boundaries between the supernatural of the horror genre and the skullduggery found in impossible crime stories. The stories are formulaic in structure and begin with Carnacki summoning his friends to give them a first-hand account of his latest paranormal investigation, which sometimes are revealed to have a human origin – such as this one and that qualified it as a bone-fide locked room mystery. Carnacki was called to a family castle where an old-family legend has come alive in the chapel and an invisible entity stabbed the butler in full view of several witnesses. An atmospherically described, night-time vigil at the spot of the haunting is another familiar element of the series, usually showing Carnacki as everything but a fearless ghost buster, but this time the ghost turns out to be nothing more than human ingenuity. The solution is a bit dated, perhaps, but that's to be expected from a story from this vintage and not all that bad for a series partially immersed in a different, rule-breaking genre.
"Department of Impossible Crimes" by a 16-year-old James Yaffe was first published in the July 1943 issue of Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine. I reviewed "The Problem of the Emperor's Mushroom," from All But Impossible! (1981), back in 2011 and enjoyed its double-layered structure, but Douglas Greene (from Crippen & Landru) mentioned it was "far and away the best of the lot" and didn't think "the series as a whole is worthy of being bookformed." I hold Greene's opinion in high regard, but, after this story, I would still love to read a complete collection of this series. What can I say? I love locked room mysteries.
Paul Dawn is the sole member of the titular department and he is called upon to solve the death of an old, rich stockbroker, George Seabrook, who was seen entering the elevator on the fifth floor and push the button for the first floor. The elevator didn't stop between the fifth and first floor, but the doors revealed Seabrook's body on the floor – a knife sticking out of his back. I'll admit that a seasoned armchair detective won't have too many difficulties with dismantling the illusion of the sealed elevator, but I enjoyed reading it nonetheless. Interestingly, the April 1965 edition of EQMM published "The Impossible Murder of Dr. Satanus" by 18-year-old William Krohn, which also concerned a miraculous stabbing in a moving elevator – except that it was much more elaborately plotted and executed.
"The Crewel Needle" by Gerald Kersh was first published in Lilliput in 1953 and was reprinted, under the title "Open Verdict," in the October 1959 issue of EQMM. The narrator is an ex-policeman, who was booted out of the force for trying to solve a case. Miss Pantile was found dead in her hermetically sealed house, inside a locked bedroom, with a needle driven forcefully through her skull and the only other occupant of the house was her niece of eight. I wouldn't qualify this necessarily as an impossible crime story, but more of a how-was-it-done (e.g. Dorothy L. Sayers' Unnatural Death, 1927).
“The Doctor's Case” was an original story for The New Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (1987) and was penned by the modern master of horror, Stephen King, in which Sherlock Holmes has been dead for forty years and Dr. Watson is approaching his centennial – which is enough time passed to reveal the truth behind one of those many untold cases. But not any mere case. A case Sherlock Holmes wanted to solve, but had to see how Watson beat him to it. Lord Hull was a family tyrant with a tight fist on the purse strings and in the face of his wife, while using his ill health and the prospect of an inheritance as leverage to get free reign. When he changed his will, even the locked door and the fastened windows of his study offered little protection from the standard knife in the back. However, Lord Hull was fond of cats, but they give Holmes the sniffles and Watson the opportunity the spot the clue to solve the case with the assistance of a battle scarred tomcat. The crux of the locked room trick isn't new, but points have to be awarded for the creative refurbishing of it and it was about time Watson won one.
Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson investigate their best miracle problem in "The Adventure of the Sealed Room," collected in The Exploits of Sherlock Holmes (1954), written by Adrian Conan Doyle and John Dickson Carr.
"A Knife Between Brothers," by Manly Wade Wellman, was originally published in the February 1947 issue of EQMM and places the common, garden-variety locked room mystery in an unusual setting. The detective is a Native American policeman, David Return, descendent of the warrior-chiefs of the Tsichah, assigned by Tough Feather, his grandsire and senior agency policeman, to resolve a dispute between two brothers – named Stone Wolf and Yellow Bird. What Return has to solve instead is the death of one of the brother, one of who was found with knife planted between the shoulders, but is the remaining brother also the murderer? Return finds a simple method for a third party to penetrate the secure cabin. The motive could've been clued better. I also reviewed a hardboiled private-eye novel by Wellman, Find My Killer (1947), which had a locked room subplot.
“The Glass Gravestone” by Joseph Commings was first published in the October 1966 issue of The Saint Mystery Magazine and Penzler's introduction mentioned, "this is its first appearance in book form." If I recall correctly, it was a part of a France and (maybe) Japanese collection of Commings' short stories. This story is set at the U.N. secretariat and the impossible situation involves the inexplicable throat-cutting of Sir Quiller Selwyn, while standing alone on a moving escalator and being watched by two witnesses – yet the assailant remained invisible to the naked eye. Senator Brooks U. Banner is America's answer to England's Sir Henry Merrivale and he makes short work of this case, but the story was a cut below most of the ones gathered in Banner Deadlines: The Impossible Files of Senator Brooks U. Banner (2004). A good, fun story, but I have always a problem with solutions employing this particular item. I have seen it pop up in stories by John Dickson Carr and Baynard Kendick, but still find it a tad bit unbelievable.
Edgar Jepson and Robert Eustace collaborated on a short story, "The Tea Leaf," published in the October 1925 issue of The Strand Magazine, which I have always read about, but never read. Somehow, I kept coming across spoilers and that spoiled some of the fun, but I can see why historians and enthusiasts love to blabber about its solution – one of the earliest examples of what's now considered a flogged horse. A man is stabbed to death in a Turkish bath and there's clear suspect, but a successful prosecution hinges on locating the vanished murder weapon. I normally hate this type of explanations, but you can hardly blame one of the originators and the solution was surprisingly well foreshadowed.
"The Flung-Back Lid" by Peter Godfrey was first published in John Creasey's Crime Collection (1979) and is one of those stories as familiar as the rose in spring, because I have several versions of this story, in just as many anthologies, but I can't help but love it! The spots of Dutch peppering the lines of English and Afrikaans speaking characters, an impossible stabbing in a suspended cable-car with Table Mountain as a backdrop and a solution as classic as the problem its sets out. Seriously, the explanation of this story doesn't differ all that much from another story in this book, but Godfrey's obviously the superior effort.
"The Crooked Picture" by John Lutz first appeared in the November 1967 issue of The Man from U.N.C.L.E. Magazine and has in spite of its shortness a story-within-story structure. Louise Bratten is a drunk, washed up policeman with shades of Anthony Boucher's Nick Noble and helps locating a compromising photograph hidden by a dead blackmailer. Bratten does so by recounting the details of a previous assignment, a stabbing in a locked room (of course!), which had a very familiar solution. I found that the mystery novel, I remembered the explanation from, was published a year prior to this story. It's still a pretty good trick and the best treatment I found of it was in a novel from 1978. There's a puzzle for the real locked room enthusiast to pore over.
The stories I have skipped in this section are: John Dickson Carr's "The Wrong Problem," R. Austin Freeman's "The Aluminium Dagger," and Carter Dickson's "Blind Man’s Hood." Yes, skipping two JDC stories, what's the world coming to! I have already read them. This review has gone on long enough. And it's really time for me to get off my hobbyhorse. If I started talking about Carr... well... we'll be here until the New Year.