"There are, however, many more novels and short stories of impossible crimes that were published in other languages and that have never been translated into English."- Robert Adey
Recently, I discussed three Dutch locked room mysteries, one novel and a pair of short stories, which reminded me there was a particular filler-post patiently waiting on the back-burner for my attention. There are a number of such posts that need to be written or updated, such as my lists of favorite locked room novels and short stories, but always wanted to redo the rundown of Dutch-language impossible crime stories I posted, years ago, on the GAD Wiki – which could now be augmented with additional material. I know most of you will probably grumble and growl at a catalog of mostly untranslated mysteries, but this blog-post is more of a personal note to myself.
You might have noticed my deep, burning and undying love for the impossible crime story. So, naturally, I have always been on the lookout for some homespun miracles of the criminal kind, but result was discouraging to say the least. For years, I was stuck at five titles, divided between two writers, which left me with practically no hope of adding anything worthwhile to that small stack of books. Until recently, that is, when they slowly began to accumulate in front of me out of nowhere. And they seemed to come crawling out of every nook and cranny of the genre: the Golden Decade (1930s), the post-WWII period and even the 21st century!
So now those five titles have grown into a modest stack of more than twenty Dutch-language locked room tales, which makes me want to wave the national driekleur (tricolor) and putting the band back together. Yes, that last part is a euphemism for reassembling the Dutch Empire and the recolonization of Southeast Asia. Who wants to be the Governor-General of the New Dutch East Indies?
But enough padding for one badly written filler-post. Let's take a crack at this list!
A.C. Baantjer's Een strop voor Bobby (A Noose for Bobby, 1963)
Appie Baantjer was a homicide detective with 40 years of service on the Amsterdam police-force, but during the early 1960s he made his first, tentative steps in becoming one of the most successful crime novelists of the Netherlands – selling close to eight million copies during his lifetime. A Noose for Bobby is where it all began. The first three-quarters of the plot is a study of character, pitting a police-inspector against a ruthless pimp, but the last quarter turns into a technical impossible crime story when the villain of the piece is found swinging from a rope in the proverbial locked room. A very old and worn trick is used to lock the door from the inside, but the clue of the electric wiring is something one would expect from John Rhode.
M.P.O. Books' De blikvanger (The Eye-Catcher, 2010)
Marco Books is a grossly underrated writer of police-detective and thrillers, who occasionally takes a stab at the locked room problem, which began with this 2010 novel. The plot is primarily concerned with the murder of a doctor and the numerous attempts on the life of a local alderman, but towards the end there's an impossible poisoning behind multiple locked doors. A minor side-puzzle with a simplistic answer, but good enough to complement the overall plot.
M.P.O. Books' Een afgesloten huis (A Sealed House, 2013)
A figure head of the Dutch criminal underworld, Fred Duijster, is found gutted in his tightly secured, fortress-like home. The windows were covered with steel shutters and the ground around the house is monitored with motion sensors that trigger over head lights, back and front, and activate the CCTV cameras – which captured only one person entering and leaving the premise at the time of the murder. But is he guilty? It's a locked room conundrum in the same vein (and quality) as Marcia Muller's The Tree of Death (1983) and Herbert Resnicow's The Gold Solution (1983), but with an even better explanation. As a matter of fact, I believe this to be one of the best titles on this list.
Willy Corsari's De misdaad zonder fouten (The Crime Without Mistakes or The Faultless Crime, 1927)
Once upon a time, the Belgian-born Willy Corsari was the Grand Dame of the Dutch-language detective story, but her work always struck me as extremely uneven and her lowest point can be found in her debut novel – which has a horribly misleading book-title. The impossibility concerned a man with a broken neck found in a house completely locked from the inside, but dissolved in an anti-detective story with twins and sleepwalkers. The final "twist" was excruciatingly bad. Luckily, Corsari would go on to write at least one decent impossible crime novel.
Willy Corsari's De onbekende medespeler (The Unknown Co-Player, 1931)
An early, standalone novel with a German movie-and television company as a backdrop and the opening sequence of the story shows dashes of imaginative writing – rewinding and fast-forwarding between scenes like a movie. Unfortunately, the impossible stabbing of an actress in front of a rolling camera is underplayed and has a dull, routine solution. However, it's a mountainous improvement on her first attempt at penning a locked room novel.
Willy Corsari's De voetstappen op de trap (The Footsteps on the Stairs, 1937)
A legitimate and not entirely unsuccessful treatment of the locked room trope! The book concerns the complications surrounding the murder of Sir John Judge, born as Jan Rechter, who left his native country to amass a fortune on the British Isles, but the past has patiently awaited his return home – ending with a deadly shooting inside a locked study. One important piece of information is withheld from the reader, but the policeman was unaware of it as well. So, at the time, I was willing to show some leniency on that point, because I had finally found a Dutch-language locked room mystery from the Golden Age.
Cor Docter's Koude vrouw in Kralingen (Cold Woman in Kralingen, 1970)
Cor Docter was a prolific pulp-writer, known as "The Prince of the Lending Libraries," but during the early 1970s he wrote three traditionally-styled detective novels and one of them was a first-class locked room story. Cold Woman in Kralingen is a topographical roman policier, situated in a neighborhood of Rotterdam, where the stabbing of a gardener leads Commissioner Daan Vissering to a shadowy society known as Kostbaar Kralingen (Precious Kralingen). During one of their regular meetings, one of their members is murdered inside a sealed bedroom and the murderer appears to have been trapped inside. The key was tossed, underneath the crack of the door, into the hallway where everyone had gathered, but when they battered down the door all they found was a murdered woman!
The solution is proof of Docter's credentials as a writer of pulp-fiction, but it's a good and original answer. One that makes this book one of the better titles on this list.
Robert van Gulik's Labyrint in Lan-fang (translated as The Chinese Maze Murders, 1956)
Robert van Gulik was a diplomat, sinologist and an author of a series of detective novels, short stories and novellas about a Chinese magistrate from the 7th century, Judge Dee – which played an vital role in popularizing historical mysteries. This is one of the first books in the series and dispatches Judge Dee to far-flung district on the Northwestern border of the Chinese empire, Lan-fang, which is plagued by barbarians, corruption and murder. One of the victims, General Ding, was stabbed in the throat with a small, peculiar looking dagger with a poisoned blade, but the General was holed up in a hermetically sealed mansion when the murderer struck. The impossible crime angle is not as strong as in other locked room novels in this series, but the book, as a whole, is great!
Robert van Gulik's Fantoom in Foe-lai (translated as The Chinese Gold Murders, 1959)
Chronologically, The Chinese Gold Murders is the first book in the series and tells the story of Judge Dee's first post as a magistrate of a somber, mournful place, called Peng-lai, where tales are abound of the restless dead. One of them is the previous magistrate of the district who died under mysterious circumstances in his locked library. This is easily one of the best entries in the series!
Robert van Gulik's Het rode paviljoen (The Red Pavilion, 1961)
Judge Dee and Ma Joong are on a return journey home, to the district of Poo-yang, which brings them to Paradise Island. Upon their arrival, the island is busy with the celebration surrounding the Festival of the Dead and the only room is the cursed pavilion of the book-title. A place where people have died under unsavory and inexplicable circumstances, which Judge Dee get to witness first hand as he has to explain three seemingly impossible deaths that has occurred in the room – one of them discovered by the judge himself. I remember it as one of the best and most solidly plotted Judge Dee novels, but really should re-read the book to see if it holds up.
Ivans' De bosgeest (The Forest Spirit, 1926)
Under the single-name pseudonym of "Ivans," Jakob van Schevichaven had the honor of becoming the first commercially successful crime writer of the Netherlands. The Forest Spirit is a strange, early example of the serial killer novel: a number of forest rangers were beaten to death in a dark, sprawling wood in Germany. Someone had caved in the back of their heads and in one particular case the murderer left no footprints in the soft soil surrounding the body. However, this impossibility is mentioned only briefly and the revelation of the murderer immediately tells you have the no-footprints trick was done. Not the most impressive entry on this list.
Edward Multon's De onzichtbare doder (The Invisible Slayer, 1963)
A thoroughly bad "detective" story streaked with second-rate thriller material and only a token locked room murder. I recommend you read the review if you want to know more about the content of the story.
Frans and Tineke Steenmeijer's Moord in het provinciehuis (Murder at Provincial House, 1999)
Only the first two chapters deal with the impossible murder of a provincial politician, shot to death during a weekly round-table meeting of the College of Deputies of the Province of Friesland, which is too short to make this really a noteworthy as a locked room mystery. However, the locked room angle, as short as it is, made for one of the better parts of the book.
Berts Wiersema's De ongeloofelijke ontsnapping van Tengere Tinus (The Unbelievable Escape of Tengere Tinus, 2010)
I've not read this book myself, but know of its existence and will pick it up if I ever stumble across a copy. The story is geared to primary school children and is about a couple of aspiring detectives, Iris and Ko, who help the police figure out how a criminal pulled of an escape from a warehouse – which he had barricaded from the inside and was surrounded by the police on the outside.
Bertus Aafjes' "De zaak van de bronzen waterreservoirs" ("The Case of the Bronze Water Reservoirs," collected in De vertrapte pioenroos, 1973; The Trampled Peony)
Bertus Aafjes was a world traveler, poet and writer whose oeuvre included several volumes of short stories and a single novella-length mystery about a venerable Japanese magistrate, Judge Ooka – an 18th century judge who presided over the city of Edo (present-day Tokyo). The impossibility in this story falls in the same category as the Egg of Columbus and the Gordian knot. A dishonest bronze caster has been overcharging the prize of the titular water reservoirs, claiming he has used more bronze than he probably did, but, at the time, they had no means to weigh the huge reservoirs. So how could they proof the dishonesty of the bronze caster? Judge Ooka's scheme is as clever as it's simple and is arguably the most original story on this list.
Willy Corsari's "Sporen in de sneeuw" ("Tracks in the Snow," collected in De weddenschap van Inspecteur Lund, 1941; Inspector Lund Makes a Bet)
A broken leg and the story of a long-forgotten, unsolved and impossible, murder turns Lund into an armchair detective, but the solution was pedestrian and uninspired.
Anna van Doorn's "De dichter die zichzelf opsloot" ("The Poet Who Locked Himself In," collected in De geliefde die in het veen verdween en andere mysteries, 2017; The Lover Who Disappeared in the Bog and Other Mysteries)
Corbijn and De Jong are particuliere onderzoekers (private investigators) who specialize in cold cases and their first recorded investigation concerns the apparent suicide of an obscure and reclusive poet in a log cabin in the woods – where he withdrew from the world to slave over a line of poetry in solitude. There he was found, shot in the face, with traces of gunshot residue on his hand and a double-barreled shotgun next to the body. The door was latched from the inside and the only window could not be opened. So if it's not suicide than how could a murderer have entered and left the log cabin?
One of the better locked room tricks on this list!
Robert van Gulik's "Moord en ambtelijke haarkloverij" ("The Red Tape Murder," collected in Zes zaken voor Rechter Tie, 1961; Judge Dee at Work)
Judge Dee investigates the murder of Commander Soo at a military fortress, shot with an arrow loosened from a room on the other side of the complex, where only one person was present who could have pulled the bowstring. However, this person is proven innocent by Judge Dee and the solution turned this straightforward murder case into a locked room mystery.
Robert van Gulik's "De twee bedelaars" ("The Two Beggars," collected in Zes zaken voor Rechter Tie, 1961; Judge Dee at Work)
A very minor locked room tale in which Judge Dee witnesses a ghostly apparition escape from a watched, moonlit, garden with a gate that's securely locked and barred from the inside.
Havank's "De gegrendelde kamer" ("The Bolted Room," collected De Schaduw & Co, 1957; The Shadow & Co)
Charles C.M. Carlier, a.k.a. De Schaduw (The Shadow), is called on to investigate the alleged suicide of a company director, who apparently shot himself inside his private office, which is nicely resolved in a handful of pages.
Ashe Stil's "De dode kamer" ("The Dead Room," collected in De dode kamer, 1996; The Dead Room)
Ashe Stil is a historian and the author of a series of historical mystery novels and short stories about Willem Lootsman, a waterschout (water bailiff) in the Amsterdam harbor of the Dutch Golden Age, which may be the Dutch counterpart to the historical detective stories by Paul Doherty – as at least two short stories are locked room mysteries. This story is about a greedy merchant found dead inside a hermetically sealed vault.
Ashe Stil's "Het zilveren pistool" ("The Silver Pistol," collected in Het zilveren pistool, 2005; The Silver Pistol)
A rich merchant is found murdered inside an upstairs room, locked from the inside, but there was an open window. However, the plot-description noted that the window offered no means of escape to the murderer. So you can expect me to explore this series in the hopefully not so distant future.
That's the last one for now, but, surely, this blog-post will be updated in the future and compiling this list gave me an idea for another post, because most of the solutions have something in common – a preferred technique, or approach, to the locked room problem. Something that shows a clear difference in the mindset of Angelo and Germanic mystery writers, but hey, that's subject for another time.