The Locked Room Reader II: An Overview

"The idea is there, locked inside, and all you have to do is remove the excess stone."
- Michelangelo (1475-1564)

This is going to be a filler post in commemoration of the two-hundredth post tagged as a "locked room mystery," which is a poorly contrived excuse to ramble about the impossible crime stories I previously rambled about on this blog. So it's basically the blog-post equivalent of a clip show episode. Enjoy!

In late February of 2011, I began this blog and Christianna Brand's Death of Jezebel (1948) was the first review to be tagged as a locked room mystery. The plot is as clever as it complex and deals with the onstage murder during a reenactment of a medieval pageant by a seemingly invisible assailant. It was an extremely scare and coveted collectors items for decades, but was finally brought back into circulation by Mysterious Press in 2013 – as a modern ebook. I heartily recommend it, because Death of Jezebel stands alongside Green for Danger (1944) as a fine example of Brand's craftsmanship.

The explanation for an impossible problem can be tricky, complex and sometimes result in an over complicated, unconvincing answer – which has often invited comments along the lines of "oh, that could never happen in real-life." Over the past several years, I compiled five filler-posts with real-life examples of the locked room mystery intruding upon reality. Some of them are practically pre-written cases waiting for a mystery writer to commit them to paper. You can find all five parts here: I, II, III, IV and V.

I have accumulated a number of lists over the past four years and two of the most popular blog-posts in this category are "My Favorite Locked Room Mysteries I: The Novels" and "My Favorite Locked Room Mysteries II: Short Stories and Novellas," which are constant occupants of best read blog-posts – a list that can be found on your right under the header Most Consulted Dossiers This Week.

In contrary to these best-of lists, I threw together one entitled "The Reader is Warned: A List of My Least Favorite Locked Room Mysteries." It's a shorter selection of novels that include Joseph Bowen's abysmal The Man Without a Head (1933), Randall Garrett's overrated Too Many Magicians (1967) and Gilbert Adair's The Act of Roger Murgatroyd (2006) – an atrocity comparable only to the horrors of trench-warfare from WWI.

Obviously, the television-and movie format of the detective story have been grossly neglected on this blog, but their under-representation is mainly due to barely watching any TV-and movie mysteries anymore. I used to watch quite a few of them, but have become increasingly frustrated with them over the years and you can't re-watch Columbo for eternity.

Nevertheless, I was able to work my way through a couple of episodes from various TV-series and the occasional mystery movie, which, to absolutely nobody's surprise, were by and large locked room mysteries. I reviewed Columbo Goes to the Guillotine (1989) that deals with two impossible scenarios: a decapitated illusionist in a locked, upper-floor apartment room and a remote-viewing trick – which the lieutenant wonderfully replicates in order to pad out the episode. So, yes, that part is padding, but good padding. I mean, it's Columbo giving a sound and logical explanation for an apparently genuine demonstration of supernatural powers, under test-conditions, at a highly secure location. What's not to love about that?

I've also reviewed a handful of episodes from Colonel March of Scotland Yard, under the post-title "Miraculous Shades of Black and White," which was a TV-series based on the short stories from John Dickson Carr's The Department of Queer Complaints (1940) – published under the byline of "Carter Dickson." I have also several reviews from the locked room-series Jonathan Creek, but they're mainly review of the poorly written, abominably plotted episodes from the final season. So I'd recommend my review of Time Waits for Norman (1998) and the best-of list posted in anticipation of the disappointment that buried the series.

Occasionally, I produce a filler-ish post that contains some particles of substance, which are rare, but they do occur from time-to-time. A case can be made this was the case with a post entitled "The Sealed Room: A Literal Stronghold," in which I touch upon the many death certificates issued to our beloved genre and an essay titled "The Locked Room: An Ancient Device of the Story-Teller, But Not Dead Yet." My conclusion is that we keep coming back because Edgar Allan Poe buried a soft, thumping organ beneath the floorboards of the locked room mystery when he invented the genre in his 1841 short story known as "The Murders in the Rue Morgue."

"Sealed Rooms and Ghoulish Laughter" is an overview of primarily short stories paying tribute or parodying my favorite mystery writer, John Dickson Carr, who's primarily known as the undisputed Master of the Locked Room Mystery – covering such classics as William Krohn's "The Impossible Murder of Dr. Satanus" and William Brittain's "The Man Who Read John Dickson Carr."

Speaking of the "Grand Master," I've read most of his best and most well-known novels and short stories, before I began to blog, which resulted in namedropping him more than posting actual reviews. It's something that needs to be fixed in the future, but I did cobble together a few, unworthy reviews of some of his classics: The Judas Window (1938), The Emperor's Snuff-Box (1942), She Died a Lady (1943), The Bride of Newgate (1950) and Fire, Burn! (1957). 

Of course, Carr is an old favorite of mine, but I made some new, excellent discoveries over the past few years.

I had been aware of Bill Pronzini in short story form, but it wasn't until 2011 I began to read his full-length novels about the "Nameless Detective," which is a series containing two of my all-time favorite locked room mysteries – Hoodwink (1981) and Scattershot (1982). They're a pair of interconnecting stories that strung together no-less than five impossible crimes and demonstrates the locked room trope can be as much at home in a contemporary, gritty environment as in the stately homes of the 1930s. Pronzini drove this point home a third time in Bones (1985), which is an exceedingly dark and brooding story with a locked room murder in the distant past and a pile of bones being revealed by an earthquake. I recommend all three of them without hesitation.

On a lighter note, over the past couple of years, Pronzini and Marcia Muller has been collaborating on a series of historical mysteries about a pair of late-1800s gumshoes, which all include one or more seemingly impossible situation. There are three titles to date: The Bughouse Affair (2013), The Spook Lights Affair (2013) and The Body Snatchers Affair (2014).

Herbert Resnicow is still one of my favorite discoveries, because he brought an entirely new perspective to the genre from his previous career as a civil engineer and constructed locked room mysteries on a completely new scale. Large, open spaces inside enormous buildings were sealed as tight as your stock-in-trade bolted bedroom or locked study. This also have rise to a couple of unique set-ups with one-of-a-kind explanations, which are especially exemplary in The Gold Deadline (1984) and The Dead Room (1987). The only downside is that he wrote so few of them!

Finally, as far as new discoveries are concerned, I should mention historian and prolific writer of historical mysteries, namely Paul Doherty, of whom I learned through In Search of the Classic Mystery Novel – and have been hooked ever since. I particularly enjoyed the cheekily plotted The Spies of Sobeck (2008) and The Mysterium (2010), which had a very Carrian atmosphere with two seemingly impossible crimes.

On the international market, John Pugmire has been doing yeoman's work in gathering locked room novels from across the globe and translate them for an English-speaking reading audience. The catalogue of Pugmire's independent publishing-house has a swelling list of Paul Halter novels, but also contains the Carrian homage L'enigme du Monte Verita (The Riddle of Monte Verita, 2007) by Jean-Paul Török and Yukito Ayatsuji's Jakkakukan no satsujin (The Decagon House Murders, 1987) – which, technically, isn’t a locked room mystery. But that shouldn't spoil the fun. 

To my own surprise, I also found a handful of locked room mysteries from my own backyard and some of them were very decent: Willy Corsari's De voetstappen op de trap (Footsteps on the Stairs, 1937), Cor Docter's Koude vrouw in Kralingen (Cold Woman in Kralingen, 1970) and M.P.O. Books' Een afgesloten huis (A Sealed House, 2013). You can find more about Dutch-language locked room stories on this page, but it’s in dire need of an update.

Well, I'm halfway through a third wall of text, which really tells nothing more than I already did in the individual blog-posts I linked to. So this post is really proving itself a waste of time, but I might as well finish it now and run down some of the novels reviewed on here – because they make up the bulk of the locked room label.

Roman McDougald's The Blushing Monkey (1953) and Helen McCloy's Mr. Splitfoot (1968) belong to a rare strain of miracle crimes, because the problems being tackled within their respective pages revolve around unlocked rooms. However, they're still locked room mysteries, but you have to read for yourself how they managed to pull that off. It goes almost without saying that McCloy's book is absolutely brilliant.

Plot-wise, Zelda Popkin's Dead Man's Gift (1941) and Beverley Nichols' The Moonflower (1955) have one only one thing in common: the ending of both novels reveal one of the deaths to have been an impossible murder all-along. I liked both of them, but the former was definitely superior to the latter. However, they're both worth your time.

In the depart of rare, lesser-known, but excellent, locked room mysteries I would definitely recommend Anthony Wynne's The Silver Scale Mystery (1931), W. Shepard Pleasants' The Stingaree Murders (1932) and Theodore Roscoe's Murder on the Way (1935).

However, its not just full-length, locked room novels I have read and reviewed, but also the occasional short story and short story collections. I should begin with mentioning The Curious Cases of Cyriack Skinner Grey (2009) by Arthur Porges, which almost entirely consist of impossible problems solved by a wheelchair-bound scientist. They're pretty good and amusing stories that deserve to be better known.

Earlier this year, I wrote a seven-part review of a nine-hundred-page anthology, The Black Lizard Big Book of Locked Room Mysteries (2014), which could all be read by clicking here. I didn't cover every single story in that mammoth anthology, because I had read a significant portion of them before, but I think seven separate posts is reviewing doing some justice to nearly thousand pages worth of impossible crime material.

I guess I'll end this dictionary definition of filler by pointing to the review of one of my all-time favorite short stories, "Eternally Yours" by H. Edward Hunsburgen, which was reprinted in The Mammoth Book of Perfect Crimes and Impossible Mysteries (2006) alongside one of my least favorite stories – "Death and the Rope Trick" by John Basye Price. It's somewhat baffling both shared pages in the same anthology, but it shows an interesting contrast in quality.

Well, I'll end this overlong overview here and apologize for wasting your time, because it really turned out to be nothing more than pointing towards old reviews and blog-posts, but, hopefully, there was something of interest in it. 

I'll try follow up yesterday's review of The Death Angel (1936) by Clyde B. Clason with a regular and proper review as soon as possible.


  1. Not a waste of time - it's good to take a step back and consolidate some of the best reads. In any case, I was reminded that few months ago I wanted to hunt around for some copies of Herbert Resnicow - but had yet to get down to it. :)

    I'm glad you started off your post with Christianna Brand, as I think her best novels stand in the same league as Christie's - but not enough people know about, or have read, 'Green for Danger' and 'Death of Jezebel'. I suppose 'Tour de Force' could qualify - somewhat loosely - as a locked-room murder? I quite enjoyed 'Crooked Wreath'/ 'Suddenly at His Residence' - which certainly qualifies as a locked-room murder.

    1. I had to cut a lot of stuff as well to keep the post readable, but guess I hit all of the important highlights. It never ceases to amaze me how many mystery readers are unaware of top-and middle tier writers like Brand, Crispin and Hare. So everything I can do to help fix that is a won battle.

      It's been too long since I read Tour-de-Force, but I guess you can argue it's a semi-impossible crime novel. Suddenly at His Residence is absolutely an impossible crime novel, but people seem to either love it or hate it. I'm of the former.

    2. I quite enjoyed 'Suddenly at His Residence' - it wasn't in the same league as 'Green for Danger' and 'Death of Jezebel', but I didn't think it was necessarily worse than 'Tour De Force' or 'Fog of Doubt'/ 'London Particular'. From my vague recollection it wasn't especially well-clued, but it was nevertheless an interesting country-manor mystery.

      What titles would you recommend for Edmund Crispin and Cyril Hare? I've only read 'Love Lies Bleeding', which I found hilarious at points - and I've 'Swan Song' and 'Tragedy at Law' sitting on the shelf awaiting reading...

    3. Tragedy at Law is pretty good, but it has long, slow build up to the murder, which happens in the final quarter of the book. However, there's a well motivated reason for this slow-burn. Some readers love it, others hate it.

      Suicide Excepted and An English Murder are my favorites from Hare, but still have to read a few of them, such as Death is No Sportsman and When the Wind Blows, which I always seem to be putting off. One word of warning: Hare's plots often revolve around an obscure piece of law or forgotten passages of history, but that's a minor quibble.

      Swan Song is a pretty good mystery and even has a locked room murder! I would further recommend The Case of the Gilded Fly and The Moving Toyshop, but nearly of Crispin's mysteries are good for one reason or another – with exception of The Glimpses of the Moon.

      It was the last one in the series and there was a gap of more than two decades between publication The Glimpses of the Moon and The Long Divorce, which painfully shows the drop in quality when read back-to-back. The latter should be seen as Gervase Fen's official last case.

  2. I agree with Jonathan, this post is worthwhile. Somehow I managed to miss some of the reviews you mention, so thanks for giving me a chance to catch up. Perhaps I should do the same on my own blog once in a while.

    1. Thanks Mike. I hope there was something worthwhile in them for your TBR pile.

  3. I agree with those who have commented above. This is certainly not a waste of space or time. This is an extremely interesting post. Now I'll be reading (or re-reading as the case might be) all the posts that you have high-lighted. I am already excited about the reading pleasure that awaits me. Thanks for the recommendations also. i have not read a majority of the authors that you have mentioned, so it is going to be fun, looking up for these books.

    Thanks a lot for this post. Looking forward to many such 'filler' posts in the future

    1. Thanks Neer and, like I said to Mike, I hope there's something in my reviews and filler-posts to fatten your TBR-pile with.

  4. A terrific summary TC - lovely to be reminded of all that locked room ingenuity - marvellous!