10/15/17

The Greatest Miracles On Earth

"I do not believe in miracles when murder is being considered..."
- Rev. Ebenezer Buckle (Nicholas Brady's The Fair Murder, 1933)
Recently, the independent publisher of impossible crime fiction, Locked Room International, released a massive, 430-page anthology, The Realm of the Impossible (2017), which was edited by John Pugmire and Brian Skupin. This collection comprises of 26 short stories and 12 anecdotes of real-life examples of the locked room problem that came from more than twenty countries scattered across this Pale Blue Dot of ours. Some even crossed time-and space itself. So the assortment of stories in this anthology is genuinely wide and varied.

I've decided to take down its content in a long, drawn out blog-post and won't waste too many words on this introduction. I only want to point out that, if you're reading this on the front-page of the blog, to click on "Read More" for the entire review. Yes, I know. I should not have to point out the obvious, but usually don't break up my reviews. Right, now we got that out of the way, let's get to it.

Paul Halter's "Jacob's Ladder" opens this anthology and places his most well-known series-character, Dr. Alan Twist, in the comfortable seat of an armchair detective and he listens to a peculiar story related by a former French policeman at the Hades Club – a tale so implausible that even the presence of the supernatural can't properly explain it.

The story takes place in the late 1930s, in France, where the broken body of a man, named Jacob Amalric, was found on the stony bank of a pond. His wounds were consistent with a fall from a great height, but the problem is that ten miles in any direction there are were no buildings, cliffs or perches for the victim to have been thrown off of. And to add to mystery, the victim lately had religion on his mind and claimed to have seen "a golden ladder reaching to the sky." A ladder he was intended to climb. It took the teller of the story a week of sleepless nights to work out the solution, but Dr. Twist picked apart this conundrum in less than fifteen minutes and reader can do the same – because the narrator provided the reader with all the necessary information and clues to arrive at the same conclusion as Dr. Twist.

So the combination of scrupulous fair play and the fairly original nature of the impossible crimes makes this a strong opening story. I believe stories like these make the case that Halter is better suited for the short story form, because they highlight his strength (plotting) and underplay his weaknesses (characterization, settings).

A note for the curious: one of the murders in Mack Reynolds' The Case of the Little Green Men (1951) poses a similar impossible problem as "Jacob's Ladder," but have to admit that Halter imagined the better of the two solutions.

The next story comes from the pen of Christianna Brand, titled "Cyanide in the Sun," which had not been reprinted since its original appearance in the now defunct British newspaper The Daily Sketch in 1958. Brand blended the sly, prominent poisoner from the classic detective story with the deranged serial killer of post-WWII crime-fiction, but added an impossible angle to some of the deaths.

Sunnyside Guest House, in Scampton-on-Sea, is the setting of the story and the resort has been the scene of several of the infamous "Cyanide Murders," but the perpetrator had not struck for months and guests only feel uneasy now at the idea of unknown murderer strewing poison about the place – until a warning from the killer arrives ("prepare to meet your end"). Precautions are taken by a group of six guests, who share a hamper of food between them, which excluded any prepared stuff that could be "doctored in advance." Nevertheless, one of them ingested a fatal dose of poison and dies. Brand crafted a slightly unusual story here, lacking a proper detective character, with an even more unusual, but clever, resolution ("left-handed").

My only complaint is that the poisoning method was rather obvious, but, perhaps, I have read too much Paul Doherty. Because this is exactly the kind of impossible poisoning you find in his detective stories.



Next in line is a Swedish writer, Ulf Durling, whose contribution to this anthology is a well written, but incongruous, story with an ending that might disqualify it as an impossible crime. But that call is up to the individual reader.

The story in question, titled "Windfall," consists of a conversation between two life-long friends, Rev. Andreas Somenius and Maximilian Axelson, whose fathers were also friends and were involved, on the side, in an impossible crime from the 1930s – a baffling problem on account of its partial explanation. A disagreeable, wretched old man, Baron Rutger, was found dead in his garden, underneath an apple tree, without a mark on his body. Nobody could possibly have set a foot in the garden on account of the guard dog, Karon, who possesses "the most infallible nose in the region." And has the habit of attacking everyone who comes near the place. However, the next door neighbor took his own life and left a written confession, but the suicide-note neglected to explain how he did it.

Decades later, Rev. Somenius accidentally stumbled across the missing piece of the puzzle and goes over the case again with his long-time friend, but the explanation shows that the impossible crime was merely a misunderstood problem – as their fathers overlooked the key-clue to the problem. And this makes the suicide a genuine tragedy. You can also argue that the explanation almost entirely rested on the shortcomings and mistakes of the characters. So not a bad story at all, but one that shows that there's a bleak deconstructionist hiding in practically every Scandinavian crime-writer.

The next story takes the reader to former Czechoslovakia, present-day Czech Republic and Slovakia, which is the birthplace of Josef Skvorecky, an award-winning novelist, who had moved to Canada and was known for supporting dissident Czech writers during communist rule in his home-country. Skvorecky also penned four volumes of short detective stories about his series-character, Lieutenant Boruvka, which includes The Mournful Demeanor of Lieutenant Boruvka (1973) and the playful Sins for Father Knox (1973). Several of his stories are locked room mysteries.

One of the locked room stories is "The Case of the Horizontal Trajectory" and has Lieutenant Boruvka of the Prague Police looking into a peculiar murder committed in a cramped apartment building in Neruda Street. A 85-year-old woman lived there with several relatives and children, but she kept the big bedroom and dining room pretty much to herself, which consigned to the rest of the family to "two little cubbyholes" – where they lived an existence as packed sardines. So there were more than enough potential suspect when the quarrelsome woman was found dead on her bed, with a spike through her eye, but the bedroom door had been locked from the inside and the room was pitch dark. And that eliminates the possibility that someone could have shot the spike through the open bedroom window.

Interestingly, Lt. Boruvka tackles the problem of the locked bedroom door and unusual murder weapon by playing the disciplinary father to his teenage daughter and have her work out a math problem. Not an approach I had seen before. And while the clueing is a little bit iffy in places, the solution turns out to be one of those clever and original scientific tricks you often find in the impossible crime tales by Arthur Porges.

The next story is "The Mystery of the Sleeping-Car Express" by Freeman Wills Crofts and, as some of you might know, I believe his reputation as a ponderous, dry-as-dust writer who can magically cure insomnia is pure slander, but this is not a good story at all. Granted, the premise of the story is intriguing: two people are found shot to death in a closed train-carriage and nobody appears to have been able to escape from the train. However, the technical and complex solution is difficult to visualize, because modern readers are handicapped by a lack of knowledge of trains from the early 1900s. The inclusion of a diagram would have made a world of difference. I also didn't like that a deathbed confession cleared up the whole case.

The following locked room story comes from one of the lesser-known pioneers of the genre, Mary Fortune, who was an Australian writer of more than "500 self-contained crime tales" and included probably "the earliest example of the police procedural" – predating Georges Simenon and Ed McBain by more than sixty years. She also wrote an early example of the modern locked room tale in 1867, titled "Dead Man in the Scrub," which is actually a sealed tent mystery. A badly decomposed body of a miner is found in a tent, sewn shut from the inside, in "a lonely and out-of-the-way place."

There's not much mystification about the locked tent, because the narrator finds an explanation at the start of page 4. Nevertheless, the solution is not a bad one, considering it was penned during the 1860s, which reinforced my opinion that Australian (classic) detective-fiction is grossly underrated and overlooked.

Melville Davisson Post's "The Hidden Law" provides the reader with the first seemingly impossible theft in this anthology and concerns the miraculous disappearance of a pile of golden coins that an unlikable miser, Dudley Belts, hoarded over the years – which he kept in an old-fashioned jar. One night, an unknown intruder managed to sneak into his locked house and emptied the jar of its contents, but even stranger is that every night a couple of the coins were returned to the jar. Every time this happened the windows had been fastened down on the inside and a bar had been placed across the door.

A curious and promising situation, but the resolution is a profound disappointment and can even be considered a cheat. Once again, it's a case-in-point of why I don't like the Uncle Abner stories. I actually like the old-fashioned, stern and unhumorous tone of the series (it has its charm), but they never live up to their premise. "The Doomdorf Mystery" is one of the most overrated locked room stories in the genre and the 1922 story "The Broadmoor Murder" had an identical solution as a Sherlock Holmes story that appeared that same year in The Strand Magazine. So, no, I didn't like this one.

The next story is Alexandre Dumas' "House Call," an excerpt from Les Mohicans de Paris (The Mohicans of Paris, 1854), which is "the earliest recorded example of one of the most frequently used locked-room trick." However, I already reviewed this story back in 2013. So I'll be skipping it to keep this blog-post as short as I possibly can.

Moving on to the next entry, “The Twelve Figures of the World” by Jorge Luis Borges and Adolfo Bioy-Casares, culled from the pages of a collection of interrelated short stories, Six Problems for Don Isidoro Parodi (1942), in which the titular character is serving a lengthy prison sentence for a murder he did not commit and regularly receives visitors who tell him the strangest stories – followed by a logical and plausible explanation by Parodi. In this case, the visitor is a man who was allowed, as a complete outsider, to become a member of a cult and had to partake in a religious ceremony. During this ceremony, the man had to find four, pre-selected, people within a group of 150 veiled people. And this ceremony ends with a fatal stabbing and an all consuming fire.

I rather liked the hazy, almost dreamy, quality of the storytelling, but the explanation offered by Parodi appears to be only theoretical, because it only explains how such a trick could be done and does not necessarily explain the events as they were told to him. However, I might have missed something about that. The story also struck me as Thomas Harris' The Silence of the Lambs (1988) as perceived by M.P. Shiel.

The next two stories, Herodotus' "Rhampsinitos and the Thief" and Poul Anderson's "The Martian Crown Jewels," but I already reviewed them (here and here) and will skip them as well for the sake of brevity.

Dudley Hoys' "Leaving No Evidence" is the first short-short and no-footprints of this collection, which was originally published in a 1938 issue of The Passing Show. Surprisingly, this was one of the many impossible crime stories the late Robert Adey missed when he compiled Locked Room Murders (1991). I hope he was still aware of the story and had read it, because Hoys came up with a really nifty plot with no less than two seemingly impossible disappearances.

A man by the name of Cortland is traveling the globe and, while crossing the Middle East, he picked up a tough, sardonic and level-headed guide, named Fahmi, but when they arrive in his home village, in Lebanon, he suddenly begins to babble about The Thing – and how it gets people. So they have to pay good money to get local men from the village to help them climb the "dazzling slopes" to the snow-capped mountaintop, but during their ascent the two men they hired, one after another, vanish practically in front of them. Only leaving a trail of footprint in the snow that suddenly stop! The answer to this baffling problem, while not very well-clued, is really clever and even somewhat original. So not bad for a story consisting of barely six pages.

The next entry is "The Venom of the Tarantula" by Sharadindu Bandyopadhyay and was originally written in 1933, in Bengali, which makes this Indian detective story an authentic Golden Age mystery. And the plot is everything you'd expect from detective stories of this vintage!

Bandyopadhyay began to write detective stories about his series-character, Byomkesh Bakshi, in 1932 and that makes this one of the earlier ones, which begins when the Dr. Watson to his Sherlock Holmes, Ajit Badyopadhyay, has a chance encounter with an old school friend, Dr. Mohan – who's troubled by "an irresoluble conundrum." Dr. Mohan is the physician to bed-bound old man, Nandadulalbabu, but described his patient to Bakshi as a "foul-mouthed, mistrustful, crafty" and "malicious." A crusty, abusive and mean-spirited man who spends his days by filling page, after page, with the kind of writing that "would have made Emile Zola blush."

Nandadulalbabu's behavior would have been bad enough, but the old man is also addicted to "Spider Juice," a venomous extract from the tarantula, which the family has tried to keep out of his hands. They guarded his bedroom and implemented "a strong barricade system" within the house. 

However, their precautions were all in vain, because he continued to consume the drug and nobody knew how a crippled man kept getting his hands on it. I think the experienced and observant armchair detective can work out the method for themselves, but that does not take anything away from this excellent and fun story. Apparently, there are several short story collections by Bandyopadhyay available in English. So I have to give them a look somewhere in the hopefully not so distant future.

The next story is Victor L. Whitechurch's "Sir Gilbert Murrell's Picture," originally collected in Thrilling Stories of the Railway (1912), which reputedly is an excellent and one-of-a-kind collection of short stories about detective-and thriller stories that take place around trains, railway tracks and train stations – with nine of the fifteen stories featuring an eccentric detective-character, Thorpe Hazell. One of the notable aspects about these stories is that most of them are (borderline) impossible crimes.

This story has a grand example of the impossible disappearance: an entire train carriage, carrying a collection of valuable painting, disappears in transit, but what really is baffling is that the carriage in question made up the middle section of the train! Somehow, the thieves picked spirited away a carriage that was attached, back and front, to other carriages. The carriage eventually turns up again, but the owner of the paintings claims that one of his pictures has been replaced by a forgery.

I think this story is a grand and brilliant caper, which has an explanation that reminded me one of those large-scale Kaito KID tales from Case Closed (e.g. volumes 44 and 61). I should really read the entire collection one of these days.

One of the most kind and heartwarming stories in all of detective-fiction is next, "The Miracle on Christmas Eve" by Szu-Yen Lin, who imagined a truly wonderful situation that has an adult man wonder whether Santa Claus really does exist after all. A story with the spirit of John Dickson Carr and Father Christmas.

A man by the name of Meng-Hsing Ko consults a detective, Ruoping Lin, about an inexplicable incident that dates back to his elementary school days. When he was a child, his widowed father (a humble shopkeeper) did everything within his power to give his son a happy, carefree childhood and perhaps overdid it when he instilled a strong believe in Santa Claus in Ko. Eventually, this believe made him a target at school, but his father encouraged Ko to invite his bullies for a sleepover on Christmas Eve and he would prove to them that the magic of Santa Claus is real.

On Christmas Eve, the bedroom of Ko is subjected to a thorough search. The window opposite of the door is sealed with tape and the door is locked from the outside, while the entire party of children and Ko's father camp out in the narrow corridor out of the bedroom. So nobody can even reach the door without stepping on one of the children. Nevertheless, they are awakened the following morning when the song Jingle Bells begins to emanate from the closely guarded bedroom and when they open the door they are greeted by the sight of a small Christmas tree surrounded by beautifully wrapped presents – outside of the window they caught a glance of "the silhouette of Santa Claus on the sleigh pulled by reindeer" and "bags of gifts hanging down from the back."

Original publication of "Miracle on Christmas Eve"
The sleight-of-hand used to create this astonishing miracle turned out to be pretty straightforward and rather workmanlike, but what's really important is the effect it created. And how this relates to the warm relationship between a son and his late father. This element is strengthened when a letter turned up that explained the motivation behind Ko's childhood miracle, which made this a bittersweet yuletide story.

The next entry is a brief, one-and-a-half page excerpt from Aleksis Kivi's Seitsemän veljestä (Seven Brothers, 1870), which is a Finish novel and contains a brief episode telling about a track of human footprints in the snow that suddenly stopped and continues as a trail of paw prints. As if the person had changed himself into a fox. The answer to the problem is not bad, particularly for a story from the 1800s, but what's really admirable is that the impossibility was presented, discussed and solved in less than two pages. A very tight and excellent job!

On to the next story, "Lying Dead and Turning Cold," which was written by a Portuguese author, Alfonso Carreiro, who seems to have taken his cues from G.K. Chesterton's "The Dagger With Wings" (The Incredulity of Father Brown, 1926) and Ellery Queen's "The Adventure of the Dead Man's Cavern" (a 1944 radio-play) Carreiro also adopted EQ's trademark "Challenge to the Reader." The impossibility of the story occurs when an unpopular young man, Tiago, returns to the home of his father. He had left when his drinking, womanizing and occasional blackmail schemes had caught up with him, which left him with many enemies. And several suspect when his strangled remains are found outside his father's home in field of virgin snow. This is very decent detective story with a commitment to playing the game as fair as possible (hence the challenge), but the no-footprints trick is pedestrian and Carreiro neglected to supply an answer to an impossible problem mentioned in the opening pages of the story. And that's a pity.

On a side note, the translator of this story, Henrique Valle, has a 7-year-old article on the GAD Wiki about classic Portuguese detective stories, which you can read here.

The Giant of the Short Detective Story, Edward D. Hoch, is represented in this anthology with an unconventional locked room story, "The "Impossible" Impossible Crime," which has a plot that's best described as an intimate take on Agatha Christie's And Then There Were None (1939) with a cast of two. Charles Fuller and Henry Bowfort retreat to the Canadian outback for eight months, in order to study the permafrost, and the out-of-the-way place is hundreds of miles away from civilization – a place that can only be reached by airplane, boat and snowmobile. Exactly in that order. So they'll be each others sole company for the better part of a year, but their relationship is slowly deteriorating during their stay and ends with a gunshot to the head for one of them.

Only problem is that the situation precludes suicide, but murder seems equally unlikable due to the extremely isolated location. Hoch came up with one of those cheeky, have-your-cake-and-eat-it-too explanations that make you want to both hug and strangle the author at the same time.

By the way, I once listened to a radio-play in the Suspense series, but can't for the life of me remember the title of the episode and therefore unable to find it. So, if anyone happens to know or remember the title, leave a comment a below. I would to listen back to it after reading this story.

The next entry is a historical detective story, "The Locked Tomb Mystery" by Elizabeth Peters, which takes place in ancient Egypt and the impossibility is a baffling case of tomb robbing from "one of the most inaccessible rooms" in history. Senebtisi was pernicious, rich old "she-goat" who had passed away and her funeral was "the talk of southern Thebes." 

She had been the bane of her son's life and this extended after her death, because she took all of her possessions to the next world and left her son, Minmose, practically penniless. A year passed and a rash of tomb robbers began to plague the region, which prompted Minmose to ask for an inspection of his mother's resting place to make sure her resting place has not been disturbed.

Senebtisi's tomb was entirely rock-cut and the walls, and ceiling, were solid without a single crack or cranny in them. The entrance to the tomb was untouched and "the seals of the necropolis were unbroken," but the tomb was entered they found the golden ornaments were gone and the coffin had been opened to mutilate the mummy – which had been cut apart. Even the King had taken an interest in this case and has tasked Amenhotep Sa Hapu with the finding of the perpetrators. Peters imagined a fascinating and apparently insoluble sealed room enigma, but the only problem is that the solution fails to life up to its ambitious and fantastic premise. It's not a bad explanation, mind you, but this grand robbery hinges on a simple and elementary piece of misdirection. Nevertheless, I like these kind of historical mysteries and this was a fun little story.

The following story is "Deadfall" by Samuel W. Taylor and according to the short introduction this tale has been included in two well-known impossible crime anthologies from Japan and France: 18 Locked Room Puzzles (1996; Robert Adey and Hidetoshi Mori) and 20 défis à l'impossible (20 Challenges of the Impossible, 2002; Robert Adey and Roland Lacourbe). On top of that, the story had also been selected as twenty-seven masterpieces in Lacourbe's 1001 Chambres Closes (1001 Locked Rooms, 1997). So this story enjoyed some popularity with locked room readers outside of the English-speaking world and now the story finally made it into one of the English-language locked room anthologies.

First of all, the story shares some similarities with the precious entry by Hoch. It revolves around two men, Jim and Vince, trapped in a remote cabin in the woods. They're all alone, in the middle of nowhere, but inexplicable foot-and paw prints keep appearing all around the cabin. One example is track of tiny prints made by "the high-heeled slippers of a woman" that came from nowhere and vanished into the river. A second instance were the tale-tell prints of children "playing the game of fox and geese in the snow." Such is "the stuff of nightmares" when you're stranded in a cabin deep in the woods.

You can say this is more of a suspense story, rather than a detective story, told through a short series of conflicting diary entrants. The bizarre explanation for the various footprints are given in the final line of the story, just like in Christianna Brand's Suddenly at His Residence (1946), but it should be mentioned that this trick can only work on a very thin film of snow. A thick blanket of snow, or a good stretch of mud, would render this trick completely useless. All in all, not all that of a story for something so short.

A note for the curious: there's a locked room novel, Corpses at Indian Stones (1943) by Philip Wylie, which has a plot that also employs the deadfall-trap of the story title.

The next story is perhaps the crown jewel of this collection, "The Lure of the Green Door" by Rintaro Norizuki, who's the Ellery Queen of Japan and was translated by our very own Ho-Ling Wong – who has also translated novels and short stories by Alice Arisugawa, Yukito Ayatsuji and Keikichi Osaka. I think the short introduction, preceding the story, accurately described it as "an outstanding bibliophile's mystery" with "a brand-new locked-room solution." And that's absolutely true.

Rintaro Norizuki is a mystery writer and amateur detective, who promised his editor of Shosetsu Nova to write "an unprecedented locked-room murder," but he got distracted by a beautiful librarian, Honami (his Nikki Porter?). A private collection of occult books were offered as a donation to Honami's library and Rintaro accompanied her to survey the private library, which becomes really interesting when he learned the owner died under peculiar circumstances. Sugata Kuniaki was collector or rare books on occultism and mysticism, even writing for fanzines under the penname of Kurouri Arashita (a play on Aleister Crowley), but he committed suicide by hanging himself. However, Rintaro finds it very strange that someone "who pretended to be the magician Crowley to commit suicide." But the door had was bolted on the inside and the windows were nailed shut. There was a second door, painted green, but that door has not budged an inch for many years. Like it has become one with the wall. Although the victim did prophesied that when he died, "the green door will open again." The secret to this locked room is truly unique and original, which showed the possibilities for creating a miracle problem are far from exhausted. An absolute gem of a locked room story!

The next story is "The Barese Mystery," written by Pietro de Palma, who can be found blogging over at Death Can Read and also sporadically posts on Vanished Into Thin Air, which is a blog dedicated to locked room and impossible crime story. So very much a kindred spirits of ours and his love for the locked room yarn is perfectly demonstrated in this story. The protagonist of the story, Piero Alteri, is a ferocious consumer and collector of classic (locked room) mystery novels, but he pulled into an actual locked room investigation by his policeman friend, Vice Quaestor Gregorio Longhi.

One of his fellow book collectors, Count Rambaldi, had apparently committed suicide in a room that locked and shuttered from the inside. However, the room was strewn with detective novels by Clifford Orr, Philip MacDonald, Rupert Penny, Anthony Wynne and Hake Talbot. It is even rumored that the count possessed the manuscript of C. Daly King's long-lost 1940s novel, The Episode of Demoiselle D'ys, which Alteri is allowed to read on the sole condition that he helps his friend solve the locked room angle. A very fun story with a simplistic solution that also explained the book-strewn room. I also strongly suspect De Palma was poking fun of contemporary crime fiction through the perverted victim. Particularly when Alteri mentioned to Longhi that the count had casually invited him to a threesome after he bought a rare, 1930s mystery novel from him.

I did not care at all about the next story, "The Witch Doctor's Revenge" by Jochen Füsler, in which a curse with a thirteen-year-fuse finally strikes a man dead in a locked room and makes another one disappear. Oh, and the body in the locked room also disappears under seemingly impossible circumstances. I very much disliked the second disappearance. The locked room has some points of interest, but, on a whole, this story did nothing for me. Moving on.

The next entry is "All the Birds in the Air" by Charles B. Child and is one of the three locked room stories in the author's series about an Iraqi policeman, Inspector Chafik J. Chafik, of which fifteen of the thirty-some stories were collected in the early 2000s – under the title The Sleuth of Baghdad (2002). Inspector Chafik is called on to investigate the murder of an elderly man, Hadji Hussain, who was "loved and venerated in Baghdad." The body of the man had been found in his summer room, a deep windowless room, which had a single entrance and a small air shaft in the roof. So the room was a pleasant retreat from the sultry heat of the Middle Eastern sun. But it was in this room that was man was found, slumped in a chair, with a head wound and a dead bird in his lap. A homely scene gives the inspector the insight of what happened in that inaccessible room.

A well-written, clever and mostly amusing story, but it has to be noted that the trick was borrowed from a Hercule Poirot novel.

The next-to-last story is "The Warder of the Door," a collaborative effort by L.T. Meade and Robert Eustace, who were among the first to specialize themselves in impossible crime fiction and had the distinctive honor of penning the first short story collection of exclusively locked room mysteries – entitled A Master of Mysteries (1898). A landmark collection of six short stories that moved away from the tropes that had dominated the 1800s, such as hidden passages and unknown poisons, and showed a variety of new problems with equally original solution. The detective-character of these stories is John Bell, a professional skeptic, who debunks such apparent miracles as a room that kills, a talking statue and in this case he takes on a family curse. One that involves a hidden room with a coffin in it and a heavy door that closes on everyone who dares to enter the room. A door that is closed by an invisible entity that was placed in charge of carrying out the curse.

I recommend everyone who loves locked room mysteries to read A Master of Mysteries, because it's an excellent read and an important cornerstone of our beloved sub-genre. The collection has fallen into the public domain and is available on Project Gutenberg in various formats.

Finally, this 430-page anthology ends with a short story by one of Japans premiere writer of locked room mysteries, "The Locked House of Pythagoras" by Soji Shimada, which I reviewed separately back in 2013 and you can read that blog-post here.

And that brings us to the end of both this excellent anthology and my bulky review. What can I say about The Realm of the Impossible as a whole? I always had a strong suspicion there's a wealth of traditional detective-fiction hiding in non-English speaking countries and this collection has given us a sampling of what is waiting in foreign lands to be discovered. Sure, not every single story included here proved to be a stone-cold classic, but you'll never like 100% of the entries in any kind of anthology or short story collection – particularly when the book in question has a lengthy table of content.

So, to make an extremely long, tortuous story short: I loved burning through these stories and hope Pugmire compiles a second compendium of locked room stories, because this one didn't last me very long. ;)

21 comments:

  1. We're generally in agreement here, I think -- the Porges comparison in Skvorecky's story is especially apt, and of the ones I've read I tend to feel the same way as you. I'm still in the middle of this, though, so have skipped anything I've not yet encountered. Expect more thouhhts over at my place as I get to those in the coming weeks.

    One question about 'The Witch Doctor's Revenge' -- the order of events does require something that can't actually be done, doesn't it? I haven't misread that? On the whole I like the setup and execution, but the locked door cannot be achieved by the order of events as presented herein...

    It's also interesting (and a little frustrating) to see 'The Venom of the Tarantula' published here and also included in the British Library collection Foreign Bodies that's just come out: c'mon, guys, could we not avoid repetition in two such close anthologies? The BL also have a Keikichi Osaka story that LRI pubished in The Ginza Ghost (the superb 'Cold Night's Clearing') and John Pugmire is thanked by Martin Edwards in the introduction, so it's not like they were unaware of this doubling up. Gaaah!!!

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    1. Hey, look on the bright side, JJ. At least today's anthologists aren't endlessly reprinting Edgar Allan Poe's "The Murders in the Rue Morgue" or Conan Doyle "The Adventure of the Speckled Band." I call that an improvement!

      You're right there's something screwy about the sequence of the locked room in "The Witch Doctor's Revenge," which is one of the things I did not like about it, but there's also the sudden move from the witch doctor's curse to the real reason behind their disappearance. A very jerky story. I sincerely hope the novel the author is currently working on turns out to be better than this story.

      However, not really a bad score that there was only one story out twenty-six that I didn't like at all. There was some stories that were not as good as they could have been, but this was the only that completely lost me. So not bad. Not bad at all.

      I'll drop by your blog when your next post goes up.

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    2. Well, sure, if TVotT is as good as you say then I suppose it's better to have it out there twice than see 'The Sands of Sodding Thyme' anthologised yet again. Still feels like a bit of a missed opportunity.

      Hmmm, apparently I am never happy.

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    3. Oh, you're absolutely right that this is a missed opportunity, because Bandyopadhyay has had five, or so, of his short story collections translated in English. So that's more than enough material to pick from, but perhaps it had something to do with acquiring rights. Good news is that a ton of his work is available in English and therefore within reach.

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  2. I've yet to read Whitechurch's "Sir Gilbert Murrell's Picture," so I have to wonder if it had a more ingenious solution than one of the best episodes in THE GREAT DETECTIVE TV series, "Train of Events" (1980):

    http://www.imdb.com/title/tt3155612/?ref_=ttep_ep1

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    1. No idea, Mike. I've never seen that episode, but you can read the story for yourself on Gutenberg (here). Hope this helped!

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    2. Thanks for that link, TomCat. The technique employed by the thieves in Whitechurch's story reminds me of one used in an early BANACEK episode, whereas the method used in THE GREAT DETECTIVE was, shall we say, more labor intensive.

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    3. Glad I could help, Mike.

      Ah, yes, Banacek. I still haven't watched a single episode from that series, but I'll get around to watching it one of these days. Just like I'll get around to eventually watching The Last of Sheila. Give me another year or two. ;)

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  3. Thanks for the review, and I'm very encouraged to hear that this is a worthwhile collection to purchase - especially since I'm not overly-fond of short stories. I recently purchased 'Foreign Bodies', and like JJ I could only wish there was no overlapping material at all. Nonetheless, I'm grateful that only one short story overlapped - though I also own 'Ginza Ghost', which makes a total of two overlapping short stories. John Pugmire got mentioned a few times in 'Foreign Bodies', so I was fearful that there would be even more areas of overlap.

    I'm supposing you will be getting a copy of the latest LRI release, 'Death in the House of Rain' by Szu-Yen Lin? I'm about to complete another of his novels, 'Death in the Ice Mirror Mansion', and it contains eight impossible crimes - though three of them happen in the backstory to the main plot.

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    1. You know, printing the same Bandyopadhyay story in two recent anthologies is a missed opportunity, but the Osaka story is purely a strategic decision. People who read and like "The Cold Night's Clearing" in Foreign Bodies might decide to pick up The Ginza Ghost, which could potentially bring a ton of new readers to LRI. As a locked room addict, I'm OK with that. It would give Pugmire the means to expend his catalog even further.

      And, of course, I'll be looking at Death in the House or Rain, but now I also want to read Death in the Ice Mirror Mansion! Eight impossible crimes, you say? I surely want to read that one now. Where's Ho-Ling when you need him?

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    2. I've just finished 'Death in the Ice Mirror Mansion', and I'm afraid the three impossible crimes that form the backstory do not receive explanations; only the solutions to the five impossible crimes that feature in the main story are revealed.

      On the whole, I found the story ingenious, though the reader needs to be warned: the solutions were exceptionally convoluted, and possibly overly-technical. In fact, the novel was submitted as an entry for the Soji Shimada award, and my edition of the novel contained a brief commentary by the judging panel, who found the solutions overly-convoluted. Having said that, I'm looking forward to Szu-Yen Lin's other works: his 'Death in the Fog Shadow Mansion' and 'The Ghost of the Badminton Court' have garnered some awards in Taiwan.

      I fear Ho-Ling wouldn't be of much help in providing a translation of 'Death in the Ice Mirror Mansion', since Szu-Yen Lin writes in Chinese, not Japanese - though the novelist was clearly inspired by Ayatsuji Yukito and other Japanese writers.

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    3. Just out of curiosity... are the five impossible crimes overly-convoluted because their solutions, like Carr's The Hollow Man and Ormerod's The Weight of Evidence, are tightly interwoven and depended on another or just a series of intricate locked room tricks? Anyway, I'm still intrigued.

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    5. I'm afraid I haven't read 'Hollow Man', and so can't comment specifically on a comparison. Now I need to un-see the comment that the solutions are tightly interwoven and dependent on one another... >.<

      Not sure how much you want me to say about 'Death in the Ice Mirror Mansion' - but all five impossible crimes involve some degree of replaying certain key motifs. There are some events associated with these crimes that receive explanations that are less tightly interwoven or dependent on the key motifs.

      Hope this helps! :)

      PS Is it me or is there no way of correcting a post apart from deleting it and then posting another one?

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    6. ...the over-convolution stems from the fact that even the key motifs can be technical...

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    7. Ah, sorry about that, Jonathan! I'm always intriguid by those rare mystery novels that string together a whole series of impossible crimes, which is why I hope Paul Halter's The Twelve Crimes of Hercules will get translated one of these days. I know it will probably very similar to The Seven Wonders of Crime, but can't help but be intriguid by a serial killer specialized in impossible murders.

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  5. I reveal a secret to you. Piero Alteri is made up of references to two persons: to me, because this character for which I have written some stories all with impossible crimes must represent me, and to my acquaintance Paul Halter. Alteri is an italianization of Halter. So with my character, I wanted to connect me with one of my favorite authors, Paul Halter.

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    1. Thanks for giving us a peek behind the curtain, Pietro. Your homage to Paul Halter fits the spirit of your story. A job well done!

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  6. Since we are talking about it, I'll tell you something else. The spirit of the collection was to write a story by adding folklore notes to the chosen location. That is because another story I had given to John, who also liked it, essentially a Sherlockan apocryphal, always with impossible murder was not accepted. When I learned that an important factor was the folklore note, I gave another story. Best. P.

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    1. I hope your other story will get published one of these days, Pietro. Maybe it's time we start to pester Pugmire about a second anthology, because this one didn't last us very long, did it? :)

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