"Someone had only to ask them how a man might be murdered inside a locked room, or how many words could be anagrammed from PEORIA, or whatever, and they had to find out the answer. They were possessed, if you like, by demons of problem-solving. The majority could only shake their heads at the time-wasting foolishness of it all."- John Sladek (author of Black Aura, 1974)
There's a string of filler-posts in the archived section, The Muniment Room, collecting instances of that much-maligned plot-device, The Locked Room, invading our normal, everyday world with its insanity. I managed to churn out five parts, before running out of examples. You can read them here: I, II, III, IV and V.
Well, I recently stumbled across a gem of a story, involving an apparent traveler from a parallel universe and an impossible disappearance from a locked-and guarded hotel room, but everything seems to indicate it's just another urban legend – which was reportedly written down as an anecdote in Into Thin Air: People Who Disappear (1979) by Paul Begg. The premise was also too good to be true, because it read as a plot outline for a hitherto unknown, lost manuscript of a third Thackeray Phin novel.
The account of the incident may vary from one telling to another and the background details are vague, but here's the main gist of the story.
Somewhere in the hot, sweltering summer of 1954, a bearded businessman from Europe arrived at Haneda Airport, Tokyo, which was a common commute for the man as he spoke fluent Japanese – among other languages. There was nothing uncommon about the man, but that changed the moment custom officials took a peek at his documents. The man was from a non-existent country named Taured, situated on the border between France and Spain, but the man's passport looked legit and "normal" – as it showed visa stamps proving he had traveled to various countries across the globe. However, the company he was having a meeting with had never heard of him and neither had the hotel he had booked a room at.
Naturally, the man was convinced he was being the subject of an elaborate hoax and claimed Taured had existed for a thousand years, but our maps only showed the tiny Principality of Andorra where the man's home country was supposed to be.
The custom officials detained the man in a nearby hotel in a top floor room and stationed a pair of immigration officers in front of the door, but when they enter the room on the following morning the man has vanished – alongside his personal documents from police custody! There were only two possible exists in the room: a window with a hundred feet drop and a door that was locked from the outside and guarded.
There you have a potential premise for an impossible crime novel and I'm convinced it was started by a frequent flyer from the 1950s, who killed time on the plane by reading detective-and SF stories. However, that still doesn't give us a rational answer as to how an inter-dimensional traveler could've disappeared from a locked and guarded hotel room. So I came up with two possible solutions for you to pick from, but they have one weakness: they depend on a conspiracy with a small gang of accomplishes to pull it off, which might even be a government agency. Who knows. It was the Cold War. That would be the only explanation I could offer for the disappearance of the Taured documents from police custody.
First of all, the explanation for the country of Taured and the official-looking documents remains the same in either scenario. The preposterous story in combination with properly stamped papers from an alternative time-line was meant to throw custom officials of their routine, which prevented the man from being properly processed. Technically, the man hadn't broken any laws, because all of his travel documents seemed in order. Just not for this particular strand of reality.
Now there are two possible ways the escape from the hotel room could've worked, but they aren't exactly elegant and lean heavily on accomplishes buzzing around in-and outside of the hotel. But that's because I only have some sketchy, surface details to work with.
Scenario 1: the man was locked in a hotel room on the top floor with a hundred feet drop beneath the windowsill. There were (apparently) no balconies on that side of the hotel and bare of any narrow side-ledges. However, a platform for window cleaners can move freely, up and down, without attracting any suspicion. One or two accomplishes lower the platform to the window of the occupied room and whisk away the traveler. They take the service elevator to the garage, while the man is probably hiding inside a laundry basket or donned the window cleaners uniform with sunglasses – never to be seen or heard from again as they sped away in an unmarked van.
I don't know if the window was found latched from the inside, but a piece of strong, thin thread could do the trick. Or another (sinister) accomplish, such as one of the immigration officers, could've locked the window when he was pretending to inspect it – after discovering the hotel room empty.
Scenario 2: this scenario takes some gross liberties with the story and presumes a lot, but, again, I have very little to work with here. The first presumption is that the staff of the hotel is involved in the conspiracy to get that man out of custody. The second presumption is that there is a change of the guards halfway through the night. The third presumption is that the first two guards were tired and a little careless in handing over the guard.
Let's assume the hotel manager (imagine a Japanese version of Basil Fawlty) has been breaking his head how to get that man out of the hotel, before the proper authorities get involved, when halfway through the night a fresh pair of officers appear to relieve the first two and, before he knows it, blurs out they're guarding room E-11 – instead of E-12. The manager accompanies them to the floor, while chatting with them to keep their attention occupied, and when the elevator door opens one of the guards immediately comes towards them. It was the guard standing on the right side of the door of E-12, left side of room E-13, while the one the right side of E-12 remained in his position. The fresh guards didn't notice the original position of the guard and simply assumed stood guard on the left side of E-11. The second pair of officers was now guarding an empty hotel room.
After the change of guards, the manager immediately called room E-12 to explain the situation to the traveler and that he would come up presently with an early breakfast. The guards wouldn't be suspicious about a guest having an early breakfast and they hear the voice from E-12 speaking fluent Japanese, while they were guarding some crazy European. The breakfast is brought to the room by the manager on a covered trolley, which would serve as a temporary hiding place for the traveler – while being wheeled pass the guards next door. Guards would hear the knock of the manager being answered in Japanese and the manager humbly apologizing for the delay. While they hear this typical, mundane hotel scene, the manager serves a dirty plate and used cup of coffee as the traveler worms himself inside the trolley. So in case they checked that room, they found traces of a one-night guest who probably had an early flight.
This way the phantom guest who never checked in and the phantom guest who never checked out are actually one and the same person.
Well, that's the best I could muster. Hopefully, I have made the ghosts of John Dickson Carr and Agatha Christie proud. Anyhow, I've rambled on long enough. I'll be back before long with a regular review.