Uncage the Black Lizard, Part II: A Foot in the Door

"The only way of discovering the limits of the possible is to venture a little way past them into the impossible."
- Arthur C. Clarke.
Yesterday, I posted the first of a multi-part review of The Black Lizard Big Book of Locked-Room Mysteries (2014), edited by Otto Penzler, going over the stories collected under the headers "Familiar As the Rose in Spring" and "This Was the Unkindest Cut of All." It was a nice, carefully selected jumble of established and familiar mystery writers as well as stories with a far less impressive print run than "The Murders in the Rue Morgue" by Edgar Allan Poe.

The second part of this review will cover the six stories gathered under the third portion of this anthology, Footprints in the Sands of Time, which rightfully states "is there a more baffling scenario than to find a body in smooth sand or snow with no footprints leading to or from the victim?" – 'cause the no-footprints situation seems to be as difficult to plot as they are to solve. I'm afraid the greater number of stories in this category made a case for that statement.

Follow that invisible man!
Luckily, you can always (always!) count on the late Edward D. Hoch to have a good story even in the worst of short story collections. "The Man from Nowhere" was originally printed in the June 1956 issue of Famous Detective Stories and has one of Hoch's earlies series-characters, Simon Ark, as the detective. However, Ark isn't any ordinary sleuthhound, but a 2000 year old Coptic priest who spent centuries tailing Satan to do battle with him – or so he claims.

Douglas Zadig is the man who came from nowhere, as he turned up one day without any recollection of his past life, but began to attract the attention of Simon Ark when Zadig began to preach a new philosophy. The teachings of Zadig philosophy were lifted from the works of a religious leader who lived in the 7th century BC. Of course, Zadig is knifed in front of several witnesses, including Ark, but the murderer refused to materialize before them – which is the same story with the killer's footprints in the snow. It's a good, simple story that's only marred by the fact that the solution is build around a trick that has many variations, of which I have already found two examples of in this anthology.

"The Laughing Butcher" by Fredric Brown was first published in the Fall 1948 issue of Mystery Book and snatches the prize for the most original solution to the "no-footprints" premise in this selection. Well, no footprints... There were two tracks of footprints leading to the body in an open field of snow, but they both stopped there. As if the second person simply ceased to exist where they both stood. The butcher of Corbyville, Illinois, was a known rival of the victim, a former circus illusionist and practitioner of the Dark Arts, which is why the townsmen dragged him out of his shop and strung him up to the lamppost outside – in what was the first lynching in a long time for the town. The explanation for the footprints tip-toed on a fine, thin tightrope that the other stories in this category slipped on. So well done, Mr. Brown!

I previously reviewed one of Brown's locked room mysteries, Death Has Many Doors (1951). I would also recommend "Little Apple Hard to Peel," collected in Murderous Schemes: An Anthology of Classic Detective Stories (1998), which is a modern crime story I surprisingly enjoyed reading. Lastly, I find Brown's Sci-Fi comedy, Martians, Go Home (1954), a pleasant diversion from my mystery reading. I should make it a point to read some more of Fredric Brown in 2015.

"The Sands of Thyme" by Michael Innes originally appeared in a short story collection, Appleby Talking (1954), which begins when Appleby tells a story of how he found the remains of a supposed suicide victim on the beach of Thyme Bay – a single track of footprints showing the way to the scene like breadcrumbs. It was a nice, short-short story up to the point of the explanation. The whole design of the story is to give Appleby an opportunity to eruditely chirp, "a simple story about the footprints on the sands of Thyme." It doesn't make the way in which the murderer escaped from the crime-scene any less of a copout.

The worst offender of this is Phoebe Atwood Taylor with The Criminal C.O.D. (1940). Don't spend any time in figuring out who the killer is, but to guess what the pun at the end will be. An entire novel for a bad pun and you lot dare to cringe at my word jokes!

Samuel Hopkins Adams' "The Flying Death" was first published in the January and February 1903 issues of McClure's, which I would mark as interesting reading material for connoisseurs of the work of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle – Spiritual Father of Sherlock Holmes and Professor Challenger. Adams and Doyle wrote casebook-style mysteries, popular around the late 1800s/early 1900s, and this story has elements of The Lost World (1912) creeping into the investigation. A man has been fatally assaulted on the beach, but there aren't any footprints near the body except for claw-like track that could belong to a prehistoric bird. This makes for a charming, old-fashioned story, but the explanation was way too carny for my taste.

I think I would've preferred it, if the strange, gash-like wound in the neck of the victim was caused when it was badly grazed by a projectile fired from a spear gun, because someone actually tried to save him from a prehistoric creature and kept quiet. Who would believe him and the spear/harpoon was still in the creature, which took off into the sky. Anyway, I'll probably toss Adams' much lauded collection of short stories, Average Jones (1911), on this years pile. I'd like to see what Adams could do with straight-up locked room scenario. John Norris from Pretty Sinister Books reviewed the novel-length treatment of this story.

"The Flying Corpse" by A.E. Martin was first published in the September 1947 issue of Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine and has one of those charming, mystery solving husband-and-wife teams, Mona and Rodney, tackling the problem of how a nude man could've ended up in field without any indentations in the ground – and a close-range bullet wound in the head. I've seen this solution before in a campy parody of the locked room/detective story and it worked there, because it was played for laughs and giggles. But here, well... never mind.

"The Flying Hat" was first published in the May 1929 issue of The Storyteller and deals with a murderous, but unsuccessful, attempt on a man life and as to be expected, there aren't any footprints. It's the worst story of this section and I would advice to skip it.

So, yeah, that's not a very positive, second round of reviews of The Black Lizard Big Book of Locked-Room Mysteries, but the "no-footprints" or "stopped tracks" are the most difficult of all the impossible situations to pull off. John Dickson Carr himself only delivered one classic novel in this category, She Died a Lady (1943), under the Carter Dickson byline. One of the best examples (IMHO) is still Arthur Porges' "No Killer Has Wings," which can be found in The Mammoth Book of Perfect Crimes and Impossible Mysteries (2006) and sports one of the all-time great solutions for this predicament. The Jonathan Creek TV Christmas special, The Black Canary (1998), attractively translates this problem to small screen and masterly wrangles out a completely new ending to this scenario. The Footprints of Satan (1950) by Norman Berrow deserves a mention for not just tackling the problem, but plotting an entire obstacle course with it.

I'll probably review something else for the next post and than continue slaying this giant. That final page shall be reached and (hey!) I managed to keep this post shorter than previous one! I'm on the right track again with this blog!

1 comment:

  1. What surprised me with this book (and I haven't begun to penetrate the depths of it properly) is the choice of Hoch mysteries - there are massive similarities between the Simon Ark one and the Sam Hawthorne one - with so many to choose from, why pick both of these?

    And why isn't The House In Goblin Wood in the collection?