Uncage the Black Lizard, Part V: Chambers and Cartridges

"Nothing is impossible... the word itself says I'm possible!"
- Aubrey Hepburn 
Shoot If You Must is the sixth column of stories from The Black Lizard Big Book of Locked-Room Mysteries (2014), edited by Otto Penzler, which gathered roughly two hundred pages worth of fiction under the motto, "it may not be terribly original, but shooting someone tends to be pretty effective."

Traditionally, I have skipped a handful of stories, because they had been read before and even reviewed: "Where Have You Gone, Sam Spade?," collected in Casefile (1983), by Bill Pronzini, "In a Telephone Cabinet," collected in Superintendent Wilson's Holiday (1928), by G.D.H. and M. Cole and Georges Simenon's "The Little House at Croix-Rousse," which I read in the anthology All But Impossible! (1981) – edited by the Edward D. Hoch. I also passed over Clayton Rawson's "Nothing is Impossible," read in The Locked Room Reader: Stories of Impossible Crimes and Escapes (1968), but I don't have an old, archived review for that one handy.

Stuart Towne's "Death Out of Thin Air" was first published in the August 1940 issue of Red Star Mystery Magazine and has a plot jam-packed with impossible material, magic and illusions, which brought to mind Clayton Rawson's Death from a Top Hat (1938). Not surprisingly, seeing as "Stuart Towne" was the pseudonym Rawson adopted for a short-lived series of novelettes in a magazine that only spawned four issues. The protagonist in these stories is Don Diavolo, "The Scarlet Wizard," who (IIRC) made a brief cameo appearance in The Footprints on the Ceiling (1939) when he performed a daring escape trick on stage – while The Great Merlini was intently watching him from the wings.

Sgt. Lester Healy was investigating a disappearance case when he's confronted with a man who fade away into thin air. In front of his eyes! However, the next impossibility is even more baffling. Healy is murdered in an office at Centre Street, headquarters of the New York Police Department, but when Inspector Church tries to enter the office the door is slammed in his face and the bolt was drawn. Naturally, nobody, except the body, was in the office when the door was shot open, however, it's again slammed shut behind Church – who hears a disembodied voice saying, "see you later, Inspector." None of the policeman in the hallway saw anyone leave the room. The solution for these (and more) impossible situations can be classified as "carny" and I tend to dislike them, but Rawson got a lot of mileage out of it. And I liked the friendly antagonism between Diavolo and Church ("I'm going to get the goods on him sooner or later! He can't fool me!"). So, a fun, pulpy story, but nothing more.

I re-read Agatha Christie's "The Dream," first published in The Regatta Mystery and Other Stories (1939), because it's one of my favorite Hercule Poirot mysteries, period, which has a lot to do with it being one of her rare, full-blown locked room mysteries – and actually treading in John Dickson Carr territory. An eccentric millionaire, Benedict Farley, consults Hercule Poirot about a recurring dream, in which he shoots himself at exactly twenty-eight minutes past three. The dream becomes predictive when Farley kills himself in his office. At approximately the same time as in the dream! There were witnesses who swore nobody entered or left the office, which throws the option of murder out of the window. However, based on physical and psychological clues, Poirot constructs an alternative explanation that reveals a cold, premeditated murder. I’m surprised this story wasn't included in any of the previous locked room anthologies.

"The Border-Line Case" by Margery Allingham was first published in Mr. Campion: Criminologist (1937) and is a short-short story, in which Albert Campion assumes the role of armchair detective as he helps D.I. Oates to solve "The Coal Court Shooting Case." A man is being seen stumbling and falling to the pavement by a policeman walking his beat, but it wasn't the heat that got to the man, but a slug lodged between the shoulder blades. Death was almost instantaneously. However, the street was bare of any blind spots and the gunman appears to have been invisible. I gave up on Allingham, years ago, but this was a pretty good story with a simple, elegant and original explanation. I was pleasantly surprised by this story.

"The Bradmoor Murder" by Melville Davisson Post was originally published as a three-part serial in The Pictorial Review in 1922 and I think Post is another writer I can't seem to enjoy. The story is a textbook example of padding and, while the padding was well written, it made the dénouement a resounding disappointment. It revolves around the death of a former explorer found dead in his locked room with a hole in his chest and a fishing rod in his hands, but the only points of interests were the back story of the exploration in the Libyan Desert for traces of a forgotten, ancient civilization – roaming the borders between the mystery and Lost World genres. The solution, interestingly, was identical, if slightly elaborated on, to that of a Conan Doyle story from an early 1922 issue of The Strand Magazine and collected in The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes (1927).

"The Man Who Liked Toys" by Leslie Charteris was first published in the September 1933 issue of American Magazine and was rewritten for its first book publication, Boodle (1934), to include Simon Templar and Inspector Teal. My only exposure to The Saint was the 1997 Val Kilmer movie, but this was an agreeable introduction to the original. A financial speculator, Mr. Enstone, committed suicide by shooting himself in the eye in his bedroom. The only windows were both shut and fastened and the door was closed, but Templar figures out a clever and sneaky way to by pass them – even if it's impossible to figure out the exact trick before its explained. Otherwise, a good introduction to the series.

"The Ashcomb Poor Case" by Hulbert Footner was first published in Madame Storey (1926) and has a plot that ran for too long. The problem revolves around a clumsily disguised suicide: a man is shot in the back and the gun is deposited underneath the clenched, cold-dead hand of the victim. However, how could a murderer from the outside have by passed a (then) modern burglar alarm, which is a pretty crude system by today's standards, but it was interesting to see how easily mystery writers adapted to new technologies and scientific advances. In this case, an old, crude trick revamped to bypass early 20th century technology that was suppose to secure a home better than old-fashioned locks and bolts. There was also a nice scene, in which lovers are clawing and tearing away at each other's false confessions. So not bad, but not terrific either. Some good ideas though!

All in all, a good round of stories, except that I begin to get really annoyed at the number of stories treating (or ripping-off) ideas and tropes in such a similar fashion that this anthology makes the locked room genre look like a one-trick pony to new readers. Or as we call them here, the uninitiated ones. The number of suicides disguised as murder, icicle weapons and similar displacement in time-and space tricks are ridiculous!

Well, there are three sections and about two hundreds pages left to go in this anthology. I should be able to finish it before the end of the month. 


  1. A massive blog post befitting a massive book! Would love to get the Towne novelettes - these are only e-books, correct? Still paper-bound in my house, for now ...

    1. Yes, they're ebooks only.

      I should learn to include links to the previous reviews in this series.

  2. All the Don Diavolo mysteries and five other pulp stories by Stuart Towne were published in a very pricy book from Battered Silicon Dispatch Box. You can read a bit more on http://www.batteredbox.com/LostTreasures/07-DonDiavolo.htm. I have this collection and it's very nice with reproductions of the original covers and so on. But quite pricy indeed...