Uncage the Black Lizard, Part III: In a Puff of Smoke

"Things like this didn't happen in the twentieth century, except perhaps in unexplored parts of Tibet and India."
- Haila Troy (Kelley Roos' Ghost of a Chance, 1947) 
And We Missed It, Lost Forever is the fourth column in Otto Penzler's one-seventh of a ton looking anthology, The Black Lizard Big Book of Locked-Room Mysteries (2014), but only the third attempt at conquering it. I decided to give a pass to the opening salvo of familiar, over-anthologized stories in favor of the ones I hadn't read before and that's why I skipped on six of them here. This column of stories is the largest in the book and would've probably bloated this review pass the page-count of the first posts, which you can read here (I) and here (II).

Otto Penzler describes the stories collected And We Missed It, Lost Forever as thus: "It is a fantasy of many people to disappear from their present lives. Some people disappear because they want to; others disappear because someone else wants them to. And object—large objects—sometimes disappear in the same manner." 

Unfortunately, the best in this lot, "The Day the Children Vanished" by Hugh Pentecost, happened to be one of those gems I have read before, but I'll keep digging. I'll find one that I haven't gone over before. And to keep this post as short and tidy as possible... here's a rundown of the ones I hadn't already greedily consumed.    

"The Twelfth Statue" by Stanley Ellin was first published in the February 1967 issue of Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine and the impossibility surrounding the disappearance of an American producer of smutty B-movies, known as "quickies," is only incidental, but it's wrapped in a well-written, soundly plotted and character-driven crime story – which even throws a false solution at the observant reader. It's not the purest of impossible crime stories, but nonetheless a good example of what contemporary crime fiction could've been if "plotting" hadn't become such a dirty word.

"All At Once, No Alice" was penned by William Irish, who was better known under the penname of "Cornell Woolrich," and was published in the March 2, 1940 issue of Argosy. The plot is derived from the long-lingering legend of the vanishing hotel room: a newlywed couple have trouble finding a room on their spur-of-the-moment honeymoon and the only room they're able to find is small, narrow room with a cot in one of the more seedier establishments in the town. Mr. Cannon decides to take the room for his wife, but, when he returns the following morning, her room is being repainted and everyone at the place denies ever having seen them – even the registry seems to deny she ever signed her name in it. John Dickson Carr carried this premise to a better ending in his popular radio-play "Cabin B-13," collected in The Door to Doom and Other Detections (1980) and Heuvel & De Waal offered a classic treatment of this theme in Spelen met vuur (Playing with Fire, 2004).

William Irish wrote a fabulous impossible crime story, "The Room with Something Wrong," gathered in Death Locked In: An Anthology of Locked Room Stories (1987), in which a hotel room has apparently gained sentience and begins chugging guests out of the window in the middle of the night.

"The Locked Bathroom" by the late H.R.F. Keating was first published in the June 2, 1980 issue of EQMM and it's a short-short story about Keating's lesser-known series-character. Mrs. Craggs is a professional charwoman and had a cleaning job with Mrs. Marchpane when "one of the great mysteries of our time" occurred at her flat: John Marchpane was taking a shower, while his wife was at the basin, when he simply ceased to exist from one moment into the other. I suspected Mrs. Craggs was sweeping something under the rug, but was surprised to learn it was nothing more than one of those "Puzzles of Everyday Life." A nice and charming story.

The Mammoth Book of Locked Room Mysteries and Impossible Crimes (2000) contains the best locked room story I have read from Keating, "The Legs That Walked," in which a set of severed legs were taken from a guarded tent.

Dashiell Hammett's "Mike, Alec, or Rufus" appeared in the January 25 issue of Black Mask, which has his nameless gumshoe, The Continental Op, investigating a stickup job in an apartment building and the perpetrator, somehow, escaped without being detected. It's a situation barely enough to be considered a locked room mystery. However, the writing, style and characters were what's been promised in the many glowing reviews read over the years. The plot wasn't bad either, but the explanation left me unimpressed. So good story, until the end, but that's just me judging it as a snooty locked room fanboy and should not rustle the fedora's of Hammett enthusiasts – considering it's in an anthology of locked room mysteries.

Julian Hawthorne's "Greaves' Disappearance" was published for the first time in Six Cent Sam's (1893). The titular disappearance of Greaves happens in a busy street, but the only distinguishing mark of the plot is that the solution, "thus gent became invisible, and has so remained," makes it an ancestor to G.K. Chesterton's "The Invisible Man" from The Innocence of Father Brown (1911).  

"The Monkey Trick" by J.E. Gurdon was first published in a 1936 collection of short stories of the same name and the impossible problem here shows Gurdon, and "The Monkey Trick,' belonged to the pages of aviation fiction, but still an interesting and obscure find. The story takes place in the tumultuous years preceding the Second World War and the idea is to give the enemy the idea that England possesses a wireless controlled aeroplane, which is being demonstrated in front of witnesses – as it seen landing and taking off again without a pilot. It doesn't sport a solution that will leave many seasoned mystery readers in shocked surprise, but I found it to be a surprisingly fun story.

Edward D. Hoch's "The Theft of the Bermuda Penny" was originally printed in the June 1975 issue of EQMM and has a professional thief, Nick Velvet, chasing a worthless penny at the tune of several grand. That's part of the mystery of every story in this series: why would a client pay thousands of dollars for something that's barely worth a dime, while the other part consists of how Velvet is going to get that item. A bonus has been added in this story when the owner of the coin, Alfred Cazar, vanishes from the backseat of a moving car and left the seat belt fastened – as well as flabbergasted Velvet in the front passenger seat. Hoch also threw in some semi-impossible plot material on how to manipulate a bet, a bit clueing and a twist ending within the confines of just one short story. It wasn't just the sheer size of Hoch's output that made him a staple of the detective anthologies!

"Room Number 23" by Philip Judson, better known as "Hugh Pentecost," was first published in Flynn's magazine in 1925 and has classic locked room problem pried open by two late Rivals of Sherlock Holmes – a reporter for the Republican, named Renshaw, and the idling James Bellamy. The problem begins when a scream emanates from behind the door of Twenty-Three, at the old Nathan Hotel, but when the door is battered down they are greeted by a serene, empty room. It isn't until the following day, they find the occupant of Twenty-Three: stuffed in the ash barrels of the basement where a bootlegger kept his illegal stash of booze. So how did the murderer, alongside with the victim, disappear from a room that was locked from the inside and watched from the outside? The solution is a good, early example of the technique writers like Carr and Hoch loved to fool around with.

So, all in all, a better round of stories than the previous column and the next one has some familiar, but good, faces and some promising looking unknown ones.

To be continued...

Stories skipped in this section:

"The Day the Children Vanished" by Hugh Pentecost
"Beware of the Trains" by Edmund Crispin
"The Episode of the Torment IV" by C. Daly King
"The House of Haunts" a.k.a. "The Lamp of God" by Ellery Queen
"The Ordinary Hairpins" by E.C. Bentley
"The Phantom Motor" by Jacques Futrelle

1 comment:

  1. Very much enjoying your multi-part review of this collection. Just wanted to point out, however, that Cornell Woolrich is actually the author's real name, while "William Irish" is the pen name.