The Oldest Trick in the Book

"Now, brought to this conclusion in so unequivocal a manner as we are, it is not our part, as reasoners, to reject it on account of apparent impossibilities. It is only left for us to prove that these apparent 'impossibilities' are, in reality, not such.
- C. Auguste Dupin (Edgar Allan Poe's "The Murders in the Rue Morgues," originally published in Graham's Magazine in 1841)
Back in late July, a scathing blog-post appeared on The Invisible Event, "The Lazy Waste of Time That is Classic Locked Room Mysteries (Ed. David Stuart Davies 2016)," in which JJ berated the editor of a recently published anthology of impossible crime stories for the shameful laziness that yawns at you from behind its table of content – as nearly all of the stories were previously published in either The Mammoth Book of Locked Room Mysteries and Impossible Crimes (2000) or The Black Lizard Big Book of Locked Room Mysteries (2014).

There were two further entries: one of them a non-impossible crime story (!) plucked from the Sherlock Holmes canon and the other a locked room tale by Davis himself, which he had previously added to the lineup of Vintage Mystery and Detective Stories (2006). So you can understand the disappointment upon discovering that this brand new collection, promisingly entitled Classic Locked Room Mysteries (2016), turned out to be one of the laziest and cheapest anthologies in existence.

As a response to JJ, I compiled a blog-post, "The Locked Room Reader IV: The Lazy Anthologist," in which I assumed the role of armchair anthologist and imagined a hypothetical collection of locked room and impossible crime stories – all of them out-of-copyright. I had only read half of the short stories I listed and selected the other half with the help Robert Adey's Locked Room Murders and Other Impossible Crimes (1991), but both columns had one thing in common: they were rarely, if ever, included in any of the well-known locked room anthologies.

I compiled the list to demonstrate how easy it was to create a brand new and appealing collection of short stories by simply culling "fresh" material from the public domain, but JJ, with the zeal of a true believer, immediately set out to work and turned the book into reality – which is now available to everyone free-of-charge. The book is called Ye Olde Book of Locked Room Conundrums (2016) and you can download it in various formats here.

I'm well aware that you can't review something you had a hand in yourself. Well, obviously, you can do that, but we mockingly refer to that in my country as een slager die zijn eigen vlees keurt (a butcher judging the quality of his own meat). However, the book is only a collection of short stories from the 1800-and early 1900s. So why can't read and talk about the ones I had not read before? Besides, you know I can only be stopped obsessing over impossible crime stories by being beaten in a messy knife fight on top of a speeding train.

Well, that should give me a ghost of an excuse for the questionable ethics behind this review...

So I'll be giving the following entries a pass, not because they're bad (far from it), but I had either already read them or even reviewed them, which consists of the following short stories: "Rhampsinitus and the Thief" (c. 440 BC; reviewed here) by Heredotus, "The Suicide of Kiaros" (1887) by L. Frank Baum, "The Story of the Lost Special" (1898) by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, "The Mystery of the Circular Chamber" (1898) by L.T. Meade and Robert Eustace, "The Mystery of the Flaming Phantom" (1907; reviewed here) by Jacques Futrelle and "Flashlight" (1918; reviewed here) by Laurance Clarke.

Anne and Annabella Plumptre's "The Spectre of Presburg: A Hungarian Tale" is a 198-year-old novella from Tales of Wonder (1818) and an early incarnation of both the locked room mystery and the more widely defined stories of impossible crimes – as the plot concerns a ghostly apparition vanishing from a room under observation. The story is set during the first half of the eighteenth century and "the troubles which agitated the continent of Europe on the death of Charles the Sixth," which "afforded ample matter for the pen of the historian to expatiate upon." One of these events happened in the small town of Presburg.

A large number of troops were assembled in the town, who occupied nearly every public house, but the backdrop of this story is one particular inn where the soldiers had turned the largest space into a mess-room – passing their evenings round a crackling fire, drinking and discussing "that awful histories of specters." So one evening, after the stroke of twelve, the door of the mess-room opened and an officer in an Austrian uniform entered. Someone recognized him as Count Molziewitz, but the solemn figure walked silently across the room, head down, entering a second room and "was seen no more." They later learn that the Count was killed in battle prior to his ghost being seen at the inn and he makes a second appearance only a week later. However, the ghost of Count Molziewitz is not the only entity roaming the demon-haunted region of Presburg: a figure of a giant man has been seen wandering along the misty mountain passes a stone's throw away from the town.

The explanations for these supernatural phenomena are fairly straightforward and almost what you'd expect from a story this old, but certain aspects of the plot foreshadows the locked room mysteries that would appear over the next one-hundred years. I assume this story was too obscure to have had any serious influence over the development of the genre, but, when framed as a detective story, it was somewhat ahead of its time. But to do this story justice, it should be read as a ghost story with a logical and natural conclusion.

Fitz-James O'Brien's "The Diamond Lens" originally appeared in an 1858 issue of The Atlantic Monthly and collected in The Diamond Lens and Other Stories (1887), but the story is a bit of an odd duck in this collection. The story basically consists of three components: the first part is a prologue in which the narrator, a Mr. Linley, tells about his childhood fascination with microscopes and how it allowed him to look pass "the dull veil of ordinary existence" – which became an all-consuming obsession during his adult life. In the second part, Linley consults a medium, Mrs. Vulpes, who brings him into contact with the spirit of my compatriot and the Father of Microbiology, Anthonie van Leeuwenhoek.

The spirit tells him to create a lens from "a diamond of one hundred and forty carats" and expose it to electro-magnetic currents, which would rearrange its atoms and form a stone that's, essentially, a universal lens. But to get his hands on such a precious stone, Linley has to bloody them first and engineers the "suicide" of the owner of such a diamond. Of course, the body was left in a room that appeared to have been locked from the inside. Finally, the last part of the story tells of the wondrous world Linley discovered with the titular lens and this portion can be described as one of those scientific romances from the era of Jules Verne. A very strange story, but a well-written one that tells an intriguing story.

Two observations about the locked room situation: how could the servant "peeped through the keyhole" and saw the body when only few paragraphs before it was mentioned that the key was inside the lock? Secondly, the whole murder plot bears a striking resemblance to the one on from L. Frank Baum's "The Suicide of Kiaros," but Baum (IMHO) delivered the better locked room mystery.

Victorien Sardou's "The Black Pearl" came from the pages of Three Romances (1888) and I was pleasantly surprised to discover that the story takes place in the Netherlands. The story is set during a period when the Province of Flevoland was still below the troubled waters of an inland sea, De Zuiderzee, which blew a cold, harsh wind across the landscape and canals of North-Holland – accompanied by heavy rain and thunder. And it's in this hondenweer (bad weather), that the two principle characters are introduced: Balthazar van der Lys and Cornelius Pump. A couple of friends who happened to bump into each other, but the former drags the latter back to his home where they exchanged some good news about their personal lives. Both men have the intention of getting married, but the celebratory mood sours when Balthazar discovers that his study has been ransacked.

The window was closed and the study was fitted with a massive door, "which was provided with an old-fashioned brass lock," a type that's only used "in the Netherlands at present time," but this did not prevent a thief from taking all of the ducats, florins and jewels – without leaving a trace behind. The police suspects Pump's fiancée, Christina, but he comes up with an entirely different explanation for the miraculous theft. As Adey observed, the explanation is inventive enough, but hardly a credible one.

H. Greenbough Smith's "The Case of Roger Carboyne" was published in the September 1892 edition of The Strand Magazine and is one of the shorter stories from this collection, which takes place during an inquest on the body of Roger Carboyne in North Wales. Carboyne was spending his Easter holiday on a riding tour when, one day, his friend heard a scream, "uttered as if in extremity of agony or terror," but he had completely vanished – only leaving behind evidence of a struggle in the snow. However, there were no footprints in the snow. A similar problem arises when his body is found on a plateau and "the snow was absolutely undisturbed." A last-minute witness, who acts as a deus ex machina, gives the explanation but you can probably work out what happened from the given evidence. A fairly simple, but fun, short story.

Tom Gallon's "The Mystery of the Locked Room" was lifted from the June 3, 1905 issue of The Pictorial Magazine and prompted the following post by JJ, "Some Reflections on Editing," which kind of spoiled the story for me, because I had to see the illustration from its publication in the Chicago Daily Tribune – which did a thoroughly good job at giving the whole game away. The problem concerns the theft of a diamond necklace from a locked hotel room and the only clues were the peculiar behavior of the burglar: a cardboard box of chocolates had been half emptied and a jewel box that was not even locked was left untouched. Even if you've seen the illustration, you might instinctively guess the correct solution, because in 1905 this trick was already old hat and the person behind the theft was rather obvious.

Granddaddy Poe!
So it's a rather unchallenging mystery owning some debt to a pair of rather famous short stories by Edgar Allan Poe and Conan Doyle, but not an unpleasant one to read.

Rafael Sabatini made his name as an author of romance and adventure novels, such as The Sea Hawk (1915) and Scaramouche (1921), which is reflected in one of his short stories, "Plague of Ghosts," originally published in a 1907 issue of The Storyteller and has a reformed criminal, Capoulade, as its protagonist – who is send on a mission to Château de la Blanchette. A mission involving an infestation of ghosts and a ring of counterfeiters.

The impossible situation presented in this story is interesting and shows some imagination: out of a luminous cloud emerged in an immensely tall figure, "swathed in a winding sheet," surmounted by "a hideously grinning skull" with "eyeballs of glowing fire." A character takes a shot at the ghost with a brace of horse-pistols, but the ghost responded with a burst of laughter and a skeleton hand dropped the two bullets on the ground. Sabatine gave a logical explanation for the phantom's bullet-catch trick, but now how the ghostly effects were accomplished. Jacques Futrelle's "The Mystery of the Flaming Phantom," published around the same time, handled a similar plot and impossibility with far more skill and ingenuity. That being said, I loved the moment when the ghost laughed and dropped the bullets. 

M. McDonnell Bodkin's "The Unseen Hand" comes from The Quests of Paul Beck (1908) and can be categorized as a railway mystery, in which a ticket collector stumbles across the body of the sole occupant of a carriage – a violent blow had "cracked the skull like an egg-shell." Mr. Paul Beck is summoned to take complete control of the case and constructs a particular ingenious, but very risky, method from such clues as the foul smell of asafetida, the strength of the blow and a missing item from the victim’s home. As I said, the trick is very risky and probably impossible to pull off on the first attempt, but Bodkin obviously gave the idea some thought.

Half a year ago, I reviewed another short story by Bodkin, "The Murder on the Golf Links," which was collected by Martin Edwards in Resorting to Murder: Holiday Mysteries (2015).

A. Demain Grange's "The Round Room Horror" is an obscure tale from a long-defunct publication, Everybody's Story Magazine, which published this particular story in March 1911. JJ dedicated an entire blog-post to the work he had done on tracking down and editing this particular story, which is well-worth a read in itself and the work was more than worth it – because this long-forgotten sealed room mystery is an interesting item for the period. The 1910s was not a decade known for its impossible crime fiction.

The round chamber of the story-title is a fortified tower room in Tor Hall, "a roomy, Jacobean mansion" situated "in one of the loneliest spots in England," which became the home of John Morden. A older man in his late sixties and reputedly possesses a great wealth, but his character had several marked peculiarities and one of them was "a morbid dread to be assassinated in his sleep." So he picked as his bedroom the impenetrable and windowless tower room, "used in former times as a muniment-room," but the heavy iron door proved insufficient to guarantee his safety. However, it took an entire party of workmen and several hours to remove "the ponderous mass of metal."

What they found inside the round tower room was the body of its owner, lying in his bed, with a deep, bloody wound in his forehead. A wound that was inflicted by a long, sharp instrument that was triangular in shape. It appears to be an insoluble problem and this attracts the attention of Montague Steele, who has some "brilliant achievements in the detection of crime," but even he struggled at first with the problem of the sealed nature of the room. Eventually, Steele reconstructs the complex and involved method of the murderer, based on the dimensions of the room and the murder weapon, which showed the genre as a whole was definitely moving away from the clichés of the previous century – which consisted of hidden passages, murderous animals and unknown poisons.

On the other hand, we have the murderer's identity... I mean... really, Grange? You picked that character to be the killer of this noteworthy locked room story from the early parts of the previous century? Well, you can’t have everything, I suppose.

Finally, the end of this overlong review comes on a lighter note with Herbert Beerbohm Tree's "The Mystery of Howard Romaine," from Nothing Matters and Other Stories (1917), which is the literary companion to MacKinlay Kantor's humorous "The Strange Case of Steinkelwintz" – collected in It's About Crime (1960). A large, heavy object disappears under seemingly impossible circumstances in both short stories: Kantor made a baby grand piano vanish from an upstairs room, while Tree pulled off a similar trick with a pine-wood coffin containing the body of a washed-up actor who had previously committed suicide. The presentations of both impossibilities and the slightly sardonic sense of humor were very similar, but the given explanations and respective resolutions were very different. Regardless, the professional anthologist should keep these two short stories in mind for any future locked room anthology, because they ought to be published as companion pieces.

So, far another one of my seemingly never-ending blog-posts about a handful of short stories. I can never keep this kind of reviews very short, but I hope you found my commentary fair and keep in mind there are six additional tales in Ye Olde Book of Locked Room Conundrums. I can particular recommend the ones written by Baum, Doyle and Meade.

Well, I'll try to keep it short for my next review. Whatever it may be.  


  1. Heeeeey, thanks for taking the time to do a piece on this (and I'm impressed at the speed you got through the half you hadn't read...Presburg is a loooong story!).

    The Grange tale does fee like a significant step, doesn't it? And while the choice of kiler is...let's go with "deliberate"...I know what you mean about who to pick. But, well, the fact that he's done so much to innovate and extend the scope of the locked room forgives a certina amount of flaws for me.

    Really pleased you enjoyed this, and thanks for not only starting it off but also helping to spread the word now it's done.

    1. What, I think, is significant about the Grange's locked room is that not only moved it away from secret passages (which was done before by the likes of Leroux), but this is one of the earliest examples I can think of that has such an involved and complex method for penetrating a sealed environment. The locked room was really coming to age by the time 1911 rolled around.

      I'm always glad to help. I hope others will find the book, as a whole, an enjoyable and worthwhile read.