2/24/18

Murder in the Future: "The Closed Door" (1953) by Kendell Foster Crossen

A week or two ago, Mike Gray of Ontos posted a notice on his blog, titled "Certainly It Was Impossible," which highlighted an obscure short science-fiction story that was published in a 1953 issue of Amazing Stories and the plot description promised a traditional detective yarn set in the 22nd century – complete with a locked room murder and an old-fashioned detective. I have to say, I was not disappointed by what I read.

Kendell Foster Crossen was a reviewer and writer of popular fiction, under a battery of pennames, who has strong ties to the locked room sub-genre. John Norris, of Pretty Sinister Books, reviewed The Invisible Man Murders (1945) and The Case of the Phantom Fingerprints (1945), but Robert Adey listed two additional titles in Locked Room Murders (1991).

However, Adey apparently overlooked a short story, "The Closed Door," that appeared in Amazing Stories. A genuine impossible crime story with a dying message and an original solution, grounded in science-fiction territory, but with an old-fashioned twist that harked back to our own time – even one of John Dickson Carr's famous detective characters gets a mention ("If Gideon Fell could have lived to see this..."). My only quibble is that this story would have worked better, as a detective story, had it been a novella or even a novel-length story, because it would have given Crossen the opportunity to fully explain the science behind this universe.

A better understanding of the science, behind the science-fiction, would have given the reader an honest shot at working out the locked room trick for themselves, which is a combination of old-fashioned trickery and futuristic treatment of plastic. Like a 22nd century version of an Arthur Porges locked room story. But this really should have been a longer story to do full justice to the plot. And it would bolstered the fair play element. Anyway, the story is still pretty good for what it is.

The setting of "The Closed Door" is set at the Planetary Rest Hotel, which is the only hotel in the universe capable of "catering to every life form in the galaxy," because the entire building is constructed out of "two hundred and seventy-three different plastics." So even the extremely radiating Mercurians can stay there and one of the passing the locked room, around the time of the murder, turns out to play a key in the solution! One of those clever little cheeky things that you can get away in science-fiction detective.

At the time of the story, the Planetary Rest Hotel is hosting The Galactic Acrylic Convention and the over-worked manager, Alister Chu, receives a disturbing call on his visiphone from the hotel's most important guest, Mr. G.G. Gru – a silicon-based Terran from Sirius II. Gru tells Chu that he can't abide practical jokers and orders him to come to his room immediately, but than all of a sudden, Chu sees Gru shaking on the screen, as if he's falling apart, and falling over. The last thing Chu saw on the video screen was a gloved hand turning off the transmission.

As per Gru's instructions, the door of his room was replaced with a special Plexilite door that has been fitted with "a palm-lock keyed to the atomic structure of the guest." Only he could lock, or unlock, that door without damaging it. Inspector Jair Calder, of Planepol, has to blast open the door with a hydrocarbon gun and inside they find Gru slumped across his desk in front of the visiphone screen. A torn piece of paper is found with "a crude drawing of a six-sided figure and the letters COO," but most of this dying message has been made off with by the murderer. Only question is how the murderer managed to get past a door only a dead man could have locked behind him?

The solution to the impossible murder has a foot firmly planted in two genres. On the technical side, the explanation is pure science-fiction and I know this is not very popular with everyone out there, but Crossen succeeded in pouring this science-fiction plot in the mold of the traditional detective. I also appreciate how the trick was not used as a simple, throw-away answer as to how to get pass a locked door, because the murderer still had to do some considerable work. And rely on some misdirection. But even more than that, I loved how this futuristic locked room trick hinged on a then historic item that is a normal, everyday object in our own time. You know when you read it.

On the downturn, the dying message is unsolvable and the identity of the murderer, alongside the motive, is not as inspired as the impossible crime, but I blame the short length of the story for that. As a short (locked room) story, it was already better than Manly Wade Wellman's Devil's Planet (1942), which also deals with a locked room murder in space, and expanding the story might have resulted in something comparable to Isaac Asimov's The Caves of Steel (1954) – i.e. a minor gem.

So, "The Closed Door" is a good example of how a detective story can be resettled in a science-fiction universe and an excellent demonstration how even speculative technology opens up, instead of closing down, new avenues for mystery writers who know how their way around a plot.

You can read and judge the story for yourself here or, in two parts, here and here.

12 comments:

  1. TomCat - I agree with everything you say about this story, especially its length, which doesn't permit the reader enough leeway to play "The Grandest Game." As hybrid mysteries go, however, it's pretty good.

    Trivial point: According to the Internet Science Fiction Database, Crossen's first name was misspelled on both the cover of the magazine and the first page of the story. It should've been Kendell, with two "e"s, not Kendall.

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    1. Thanks for letting me know about the misspelling of Crossen's first name. I have corrected the mistake in both the review and the tags.

      And you might like to know that another review, of a short story I learned of through your blog, is scheduled to go live on Monday.

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    2. I'm looking forward to it. Mystery blogsters — and bloggers in general, for that matter — engage in what I like to call "The Great Conversation." Thanks to the Internet, discussions that used to take months to play out in dead tree magazines often take just a few hours. Now THAT'S progress!

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    3. It also helps that a ton of material is easily accessible today. If "The Closed Door" had not been available to read online, my only shot at reading it would have been its inclusion in some sort of science-fiction themed locked room anthology. And one of those anthologies has yet to be published!

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  2. Damn! Now I have to go change all my tags and Crossen's first name in my posts, too.

    Thanks for highlighting Crossen. I've also written about Milo March, an insurance investigator detective, he created as "M. E. Chaber." Those books are much better than any of the pulp novels I've read published under his own name or as Richard Foster. You've reminded me that I have all the Christopher Monig books and need to read them and write about them, too.

    Side note: I read REFLECTED GLORY this past week. Very disappointing after Harbottle's rave. The only stinker I've read by Fearn. Very brief review coming on Tuesday or Wednesday next week. Not worthy of an FFB post.

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    1. At least we all got it wrong! I suppose we were thinking of Randall when we botched his name.

      I'll take your word for it that Crossen wrote better stuff as Chaber, but “The Closed Door” served as a reminder that there's a writer out there with four locked room mysteries to his name. So, as pulpy as they may be, they have priority over the Milo March series. Predictable, I know.

      A pity Reflected Glory turned out to be a dud, but, on a whole, Fearn has a pretty solid good-to-bad ratio. It makes the occasional stinkers a little easier to forgive. I suggest you try the excellent Pattern of Murder next.

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  3. Thanks for this post about my father, Ken Crossen (and thanks for correcting the spelling Kendell). His profession should be described as writer and editor (not so much "reviewer," which ought not to come first), as he edited several magazines and anthologies; he also published in the earlier days. ... Just today I saw The Closed Door on the UNZ site, but it said one could not download it owing to copyright (I don't know who holds the copyright--Crossen usually retained his rights, but he probably did not renew it). Readers might be interested to know that I am preparing to reissue 21 Milo March novels, plus 6 Milo stories, and the final Milo novel, which was never published. I am feverishly completing the preparation of the manuscripts and also writing cover copy and forewords. My publisher is Altus Press, which reissued the Manning Draco sf stories in 2 vols and the Green Lama pulp stories in 3 vols. My publisher, Matt Moring, wants to have all the books designed and ready to go before we release the first ones. I'm looking forward to reading The Closed Door. I recently found something I had long been searching for, a nonfiction article from Bluebook called "Why Women Don't Wear Beards." I'm going to post it somewhere, maybe on my own web pages or on a KFC site yet to be created.

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    1. Thanks for dropping by, Kendra!

      I got the reviewer part from your father's GADWiki page, which mentioned that he reviewed detective novels for Pic magazine during the 1940s.

      Good to know you're working on getting the Milo March series back into print. I'm sure John Norris will be delighted to read this! Particularly about the, until now, unpublished novel. And, out of personal interest, do you think you can get your father's four locked room mysteries republished as well? You'll find a welcoming audience, of impossible crime enthusiasts, for those titles.

      In any case, I hope you'll enjoy “The Closed Door.” It's one of those stories that understands how place a detective story in a science-fiction setting, but was too short to do full justice to the ideas he was toying with.

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    2. Which are the other 2 stories mentioned by Adey?

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    3. The Case of the Curious Heel (as Ken Crossen) and The Laughing Buddha Murders (as Richard Foster).

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    4. I wonder where I could get the text of the Curious Heel. Online I see only 2 copies, one $80, the other $55. Do you think I could pay someone scan it for me for less? I have all of the others.

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    5. You could ask John Norris of Pretty Sinister Books. I don't think he would even charge you for it.

      Are you going to try to get these titles reprinted? :D

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