Cherchez la femme

"Locked rooms and mysterious disappearances smack of deliberate subterfuge."
- Sabina Carpenter (Bill Pronzini's "Gunpowder Alley")

John Pugmire is a self-published translator of French-language impossible crime tales, under the enterprising name of Locked Room International, whose résumé includes translations of Paul Halter and Jean-Paul Török – and has recently launched a website to keep us abreast of his publishing plans.

Dumas in 1855 (*)
It was on Pugmire's new website that I learned that he had translated an Alexander Dumas (yes, that Dumas) story, "House Call," for the June, 2013, issue of the Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine and it's actually an excerpt from Les Mohicans de Paris (The Mohicans of Paris, 1854). The introduction notes that "House Call" is the first story since Edgar Allan Poe's 1841 inaugural locked room story, "The Murders in the Rue Morgue," that employed the device and according to Pugmire, this is the story were "Cherchez la femme" originated from.

Before we dig in, I would like to point out that The Mammoth Book of Locked Room Mysteries and Impossible Crimes (2000), edited by Mike Ashley, mentioned that Thomas Bailey Aldrich's "Out of His Head," a self-contained episode from an eponymous novel, was the second only after Poe to feature a locked room problem – except that Aldrich's story is dated 1862. On top of that, Aldrich might not even be third: M.M.B.'s "The Mystery of the Hotel d’Orme" was published in the same year and Dumas has a similar problem, if you consider Wilkie Collins' "A Terribly Strange Bed" as a proper impossible crime, but that's something for the scholars to mull over. I thought it noteworthy that both stories, credited with coming in second, are excerpts from otherwise non-mystery novels.

Anyway, a young woman vanished like a gust of wind from her closed quarters at a boarding school and head of the Sûreté, M. Jackal, is called up to investigate, but it must be said, for a master detective he has to work on his priorities. Jackal is informed upon his arrival that they aren't sure if there had been a disappearance, because the room hasn't been entered yet, but instead of breaking an entrance he parades everyone around the garden to look for clues – and establishing that the door and shutters are bolted and hooked from the inside. Fortunately, this does not deter the story in any way and the outdoor scene is actually quite fun, if you like these kind of deductive reconstructions, and even gave me an early example of the rival detective (e.g. Simon Brimmer in the Ellery Queen TV-series from the 1970s and should be used more often!) as M. Jackal is bested in one or two deductions by a friend of the missing girls' fiancée.

The explanation for the disappearance from the sealed room is dated and often used in later stories as a throw-away suggestion, but "House Call," if it's indeed the second locked room in modern fiction, than this is were the trick first appeared. 

Bill Pronzini, always up to something
And to pad out this post, I decided to pick an impossible crime story from a contemporary fictioneer and ended up choosing Bill Pronzini’s "Gunpowder Alley" – which appeared in the August, 2012, edition of the Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine. You probably picked up on the opening quote that this is a Carpenter and Quincannon story, who appeared recently in The Bughouse Affair (2013), but this time it's mostly a solo-case for John with Sabina on commentary in the background, and naturally, there's a murder that looks everything but natural. 

Quincannon accepted a job from a reluctant client, Titus Willard, to put a stop to a blackmailer who's squashing him for thousands of dollars, but refuses to supply any details and with nothing much to work on, he sets a trap at the drop off – tailing the suspect to a tobacco-store in Gunpowder Alley. A talkative policeman walking his beats bumps into Quincannon when the sound of gunshots whips them into action. The door and windows are bared and secured from the inside, but they do offer a smudged view of a body sprawled on the ground of a cluttered room. 

It's one of those days that John has to relay on his noggin instead of his Navy Colt or a clenched fist. And he did it better then me this time. I was completely lost on this one and Pronzini walked a fine tight-rope, because part of the solution used a gimmick that I am not overly fond of, but once you get the overall picture, it's a nifty trick that shows that the author knows his classics. 

Well, I think if there's one conclusion  we can draw from this post, it's that I love a good locked room mystery.


  1. Thanks for spreading the word about the website (though my efforts are shamefully weak compared to the magnificence of your blog.) I agree that EQMM erred about the first locked room in history, but I believe it occurred much earlier than the 19th century, more like the 4th century B.C., namely "Rhampsinitos and the Thief," as told by Herodotus (the father of history)and readily found on the web.

    John P.

    1. Great tip, John! I might do a follow-up on this post, later this week, with two ancient locked room mysteries. I believe there was also a story from biblical times about a dragon in a locked room that has a very Scooby Doo-ish solution.