Tragedy of Errors

"It can only be attributable to human error."
- HAL 9000 (2001: A Space Odyssey, 1968)
Kate Wilhelm has a long service record as a fiction writer, debuting with a short story in a 1956 issue of Fantastic, who contributed to such a wide variety of publications as Cosmopolitan, Asimov's Science Fiction, Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine and Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction – a variation of genres that can also be found in her novels. Over a period of half a century, she penned an impressive stack of detective and science-fiction novels.

Well, I recently stumbled across one of her many detective stories and found the book in, what could be considered, an obvious place, but had not expected to it there: namely my own TBR-pile. I had completely forgotten about its existence until recently.

Last week, one of my fellow bloggers, "JJ," attempted to help me find a modern-day locked room mystery and hinted, before the blog-post went live, that the book he had been reading was originally published in the late 1980s – which activated my fanboyish curiosity and began to check my backlog. After all, there couldn't be that many impossible crime novels published on the tail-end of the eighties, right?

Apparently, there were enough of the infernal things to prevent me from correctly identifying the book, but did come across a peculiar looking locked room title, on the big pile, promising a manor house mystery covered with the fingerprints of the science-fiction genre.

Smart House (1989) tells the story of the brainchild of a computer prodigy, Gary Elringer, who founded the Bellringer Company, but the hard-and software business stopped being profitable once the boy genius began to work on his most ambitious project - "a computerized, automated house." A project that has become a deep, dark financial rabbit hole and not every one of the the nine shareholders are thrilled with Smart House. Gary's furious older brother, Bruce, is even attempting to organize "a palace coup." However, the computer genius is spoiled to the core and expects things to go his way, which is how things usually turn out.

So when Gary invites the shareholders to his futuristic home, situated on the Oregon coast, everyone turns up. And they all go along with the ridiculous demonstration he has planned for them.

A "stupid game of murder," called Assassins, in which players are assigned a designated victim by the computerized house and they have to eliminate their target "in front of a single witness" and log the kill into the computer – after which the house assigns a new victim to the successful killer. Each kill earns them one vote and the last one standing takes all. The "weapons" (i.e. toys) are kept in a showroom, inside a case with "a computer lock," which allows players to pick only one weapon for every kill. 
It's "a game for children," one of them complains, "grown-up people don't play such childish games," but they all go along with Gary's wishes. And that makes for some nicely imagined scenes.

The group of shareholders, and players, consists of professional, intelligent and respectable people, but Gary puts them in such a position that they find themselves sneaking around an intelligent house, logging every step they take, while being armed with children's toy – such as squirt guns, ribbons and balloons. It's reminiscent of the surrealistic quality often found in the work of Ellery Queen. A feeling strengthened when, shortly after each other, two people die under seemingly impossible circumstances.

Rich Schoen is the architect who helped design the house and his body turns up in a closed elevator, which had the air sucked out of it by the automatic vacuum system. A short while later Gary's body is found inside a sealed-off Jacuzzi. The computer logs proved nobody was near them at the time they died and the police decided there were glitches in the computer program, but an computerized, semi-sentient house that can kill its occupants would prevent the company from recuperating as much as a dime that went into its creation.

So they engage a couple of private-investigators to prove a human murderer was responsible for both deaths. Unfortunately, at this point in the book, the story experienced a slump.

Charles Meiklejohn and Constance Leidl were obviously meant to be a modern-day equivalent of Frances and Richard Lockridge, as they, too, are a childless couple with a bunch of cats, but the former misses the joie de vivre of the latter. They did, however, do some proper detective work by going over everyone's movements, and such, but these chapters were bare of any interest and the snail pace of the story-telling did not exactly help either.

What about the impossible angle, you ask? Well, I should have half expected this from a hybrid mystery, but the answer to how anyone could wander around the house without being logged is the science-fiction equivalent of a murderer using a skeleton key in a locked room mystery – which is a letdown to say least. Particularly when its given around the halfway mark. It's a real buzzkill on the rest of the story.

Smart House slightly redeemed itself in the end with a somewhat decent explanation, but it showed that the book should have been written as a novella-length story.

Well, as you can judge by my comments on the opening chapters, I really wanted to like the book, as a whole, which prevented me from skimming to the end or giving up altogether. However, the story becomes tedious drag between the discovery of the bodies and the explanation. A real shame as the ideas present in the story had real potential and some of the science-fiction elements are now reality (e.g. handheld computers and A.I. surveillance). So, sadly, I can only recommend Smart House as a curiosity of both the detective-and science-fiction genres.

No idea what I'll dig up next, but, hopefully, something good again and might pull another impossible crime story from the bookshelf, because I just noticed this is my 299th blog-post tagged as a locked room mystery!


  1. Yeah, this sounded too good to be true as I was reading the opening paragraphs -- stands to reason that it wouldn't be able to maintain that throughout. Oh, well, we'll keep chipping away and find something worthy of our time eventually. Although, knowing our luck one of us will love it and the other think it's a load of old tosh.

    I think I'm going to coin the term Counted Chickens Mystery for those books which sound so awesome you've convinced yourself they'll be a winner even before you pick it up...only for that hope to be brutally exposed when you actually get into it. Will it catch on? Probably not, but it seems to be happening more and more these days and I need a pithy way to refer to the experience.

    Okay, I'm off to Google "Please recommend a good, obscure, recent locked room mystery that neither TomCat nor I have previously heard of" and see where that gets me...though it occurs to me now that it will simply bring me right back to this page here, won't it? Dammit!

    1. All roads lead to Rome and all locked doors open onto this blog!

  2. According to the Internet Speculative Fiction Database, there were six volumes of Charlie and Constance stories. As far as getting any impossible crime or locked room stories written in English in the late eighties, well, good luck. I can't think of any either. By the mid-seventies the detective novel, like the science fiction novel, was well into senescence. In this period and later, there is an almost total dearth of new ideas. Who now talks about authors who began to write in the 1980s? Golden Age fair play authors, 50s PIs and 60s spy novels will be read much longer because a good plot lasts forever. Police procedurals can be good, but all too often they are just an excuse for lazy writing and plotting.

    This may be changing in both fields, because lately I have noticed increasing interest in older pulp fiction which, as you know, is all plot.

    In the end, I wind up going with the Japanese (which I do for just about all of my popular culture needs nowadays), because they still try to plot a mystery. I am currently reading The Summer of the Ubume by Natsuhiko Kyogoku. It is a locked room mystery. My copy is copyrighted 1994, so it seems to be close to your needs. It is a wild and crazy book but I like it a lot. I would check with Ho-Ling: I'm sure he can come up with something for you. By the way, he just published one of his Japanese translations, which I just purchased from Amazon.com, and it seems to be mainly impossible crime stories. Check with him.

    1. The 1980s wasn't the most fertile decade, granted, but it did produce some interesting, classically-styled writers and a number of excellent locked room mysteries.

      Herbert Resnicow wrote a whole slew of original, well imagined impossible crimes during the eighties (e.g. The Gold Deadline, The Gold Curse and The Dead Room). And they really deserve to be better known. Bill Pronzini wrote Hoodwink, Scattershot and Bones, which have no less than six impossible crimes between them. Marcia Muller also a wrote a really good (solo) locked room novel during this decade (The Tree of Death). Richard Purtill's Murdercon is set at a science-fiction con and contains two original impossible crimes.

      Paul Halter also began to write during the late eighties and the neo-orthodox movement was born in Japan. So the decade has some merit. It was thinly spread around a ten year span, but the aforementioned books and writers should not be ignored.

      I'm aware of the recently published collection of Japanese short stories. I'll get around to it. Don't worry. I agree that the Japanese scene is a gold mine at the moment. It's a pity they only reach the western shores in a slow drip, but we will have to be patient.

  3. The computer-controlled setting sorta reminds me of Subete ga F ni Naru - The Perfect Insider (1996), one of the major works in the second wave of new orthodox in Japan (together with the above-mentioned The Summer of the Ubume). The solution might feel a bit like a cheat perhaps (it is not dissimilar to your description of the solution in essence), but there are some neat things done thematically with it. Both the anime (based on just the book) and TV drama (based on the whole book series) can be streamed (for free) at Crunchyroll (Episode 5 & 6 of the drama being based on the book).

    1. I did a quick search and the anime-series looks to be somewhere up my alley. Only the solution part sound a bit off-putting, because anything similar to this book, as far as the technical side is concerned, would be disappointing. So maybe I should just go for the two episodes of the drama?

      Or, perhaps, I should finally take a crack at that other mystery anime, Hyouka, which has been queued for years now.

    2. The drama is a tad fast, but the anime's tediously slow (2x50 minutes VS 12x22 minutes to adapt the same book), so I'd recommend the drama. I'd also take a look at the first two episodes, as that story has a great locked room mystery too (two bodies appearing inside a sealed off laboratory of which the single entrance had been under constant observation because of an on-going experiment).

      And why not watch The Kindaichi Case Files Returns? :D It adapts most of the more recent (post-2004) stories.

    3. If they're adaptations of Amagi's stories, instead of Kanari, I might consider giving the series another shot.

      Any particular case you can recommend from the series?

    4. The Prison Prep School Murder Case (Episode 10~14), The Death March of Young Kindaichi (26~29) and The Rosenkreuz Mansion Murders (32-36) are the most memorable, and also form a mini-story arc about Hajime's old nemesis from The Magical Express.

    5. You know what? I'm going to give this incarnation of Kindaichi a shot and will do so with an open mind. So keep your eyes fixed on this spot, because I might end up having to say something positive about the series.

    6. I expect you'll find this batch more to your liking, as the plotting is generally much closer to one of those longer Detective Academy Q stories (obviously, as the Young Kindaichi only returned from its original hiatus after DAQ was finished by Amagi/Satou).

    7. I've seen The Perfect Insider drama (review coming in 2027), and it's quite good. The Perfect Insider adaptation is certainly shocking, and I can see why it became so popular.

      The Dark One

  4. I've read a very small amount of Kate Wilhelm's science fiction. Enough to convince me that I don't want to read any more of it.

    1. Yeah, as much as I liked the premise and opening of the story, it was not really an invitation back to her other work. Oh, well, at least I gave the book a fair shake.