Uncage the Black Lizard, Part VII: Closing the Book

"If you drink much from a bottle marked poison it is almost certain to disagree with you, sooner or later."
- Alice (Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, 1865)
A few days later than anticipated, but finally was able to turn over the final page of Otto Penzler's mammoth-like anthology, The Black Lizard Big Book of Locked-Room Mysteries (2014), which packs nearly a thousand pages worth of impossible crime fiction in one book – from Edgar Allan Poe and John Dickson Carr to Edward D. Hoch and Bill Pronzini. 

But, first of all, the reviews up till now of The Black Lizard Big Book of Locked-Room Mysteries:

- Uncage the Black Lizard, Part 7: Closing the Book.

The final four stories that round out this collection are, thinly, spread over the remaining two categories, One Man's Poison, Signor, is Another's Meat and Our Final Hope is Flat Despair, which borrowed from another locked room anthology to fill them. That I found to be slightly disappointing. 

"The Poisoned Dow '08" by Dorothy L. Sayers was originally published in the February 25, 1933, issue of The Passing Show and first collected in Hangman's Holiday (1933). Sayers is primarily known today for her creation of a well-bred, aristocratic amateur sleuth, named Lord Peter Wimsey, but not as well known is her creation of Montague Egg – a traveling salesman who lives by rules and wisdoms contained within the Salesman's Handbook. There are eleven stories featuring Montague Egg, which were collected in Hangman's Holiday and In the Teeth of the Evidence (1939), and the opening of this story is (as far as I remember) fairly standard for the series: Egg arrives at the home of a customer, Lord Borrodale, only to be greeted by a uniformed policeman. Lord Borrodale was discovered in his study, door locked from the inside and windows protected with burglarproof locks, succumbed to nicotine poisoning from a doctored bottle of wine. However, the sealed bottle was opened in front of Borrodale and, except for the victim, nobody seems to have had the opportunity to administrate the poison. Egg finds an explanation that would've received the nodding approval of John Rhode, but the clues left for the reader to reconstruct a complete picture were rather sparse. It's a pity Egg and Wimsey never collaborated together on a case.

"A Traveller's Tale" by Margaret Frazer originally appeared in The Mammoth Book of Locked Room Mysteries and Impossible Crimes (2000), edited by Mike Ashley, which places an impossible situation in medieval England. A wine merchant, William Shellaston, his wife and young son are found dead inside a carriage, but none of their servants heard any outcry nor saw someone approaching the wagon – so how could someone have administrated poison to them? I think the situation in combination with its solution makes it closer related to an "How-Dun-It," such as Sayers' Unnatural Death (1927), but close enough to qualify as a locked room mystery. Fairly good, but not very memorable. I didn't remember anything from this story from my first reading, years ago.

"Death at the Excelsior" by P.G. Wodehouse, of Wooster and Jeeves fame, was first published in the December 1914 issue of Pearson's Magazine, which I reviewed early last year – alongside some other uncollected short stories. You can read the review here.

The final story is collected under Our Final Hope is Flat Despair and is accompanied by the following description, "some stories simply can't be categorized," which in this case isn't entirely true. I would file this story away under a good example of a Hoist On Their Own Petard and it came from the pen of a fellow mystery blogger, Connoisseur in Murder and successful crime novelist.

"Waiting for Godstow" by Martin Edwards was first published in The Mammoth Book of Locked Room Mysteries and Impossible Crimes, which gives the reader a front-row seat to the unraveling of a common, garden-variety murder case from a local news item. Claire Doherty has convinced her hunky toy boy to bump off her cheating husband, Karl, in a hit-and-run "accident," but Karl turns up alive after the job was supposed to be done. What's more: Karl accidentally killed his old mistress! So how could her husband murder someone at one end of town when there were people who swore he was somewhere else, while yet another person is convinced he just ran him over with a stolen car. The only thing Claire can eventually do is waiting for Sgt. Godstow, who's never even aware that's handling an impossible crime. I think this story would've made a great template for an episode of Columbo or Monk.

This was a good, solid round of stories to end a good, if uneven, collection of locked room mysteries, impossible crimes and miraculous thefts on.

So in summation:

The pros of The Black Lizard Big Book of Locked-Room Mysteries:

- The most frequently, over anthologized-and collected stories (e.g. Edgar Allan Poe's "The Murders in the Rue Morgue") are, by and large, contained to the opening column of stories.
- The inclusion of some truly obscure, rarely reprinted stories that are hard to find (e.g. James Yaffe's "The Department of Impossible Crimes," J.E. Gurdon's "The Monkey Trick" and Nicholas Olde's "The Invisible Weapon.")
- The anthology patched-up some obvious gaps in my reading (e.g. Lord Dunsany's "The Two Bottles of Relish" and Jepson & Eustace's "The Tea Leaf.")
- The anthology contained a few great new discoveries (e.g. Manly Wade Wellman's "A Knife Between Brothers," Fredric Brown's "The Laughing Butcher," Stephan Barr's "The Locked Room to End Locked Rooms," Meade & Eustace's "The Mystery of the Strong Room" and Erle Stanley Gardner's "The Bird in the Hand.")
- Good introductions by the editor, Otto Penzler.

The cons of The Black Lizard Big Book of Locked-Room Mysteries:

- There were too many stories that repeated the same kind of tricks (e.g. icicle weapons, suicides disguised as murders and the same variations with time-and space manipulation), which can give new readers the impression the locked room is a one-trick pony.
- Reprinted a number of stories originally written for The Mammoth Book of Locked Room Mysteries and Impossible Crimes, which is an anthology fans more than likely have already read.
- There were, altogether, too many stories I had already read in this anthology.
- Allowing John Sladek's "By An Unknown Hand," at the moment only available in Maps: The Uncollected John Sladek (2003), to escape, to be anthologized, yet again. I know there are a lot of mystery fans who'd love to read it, but don't want to buy a SF-collection for one detective story.
Results may vary from reader-to-reader. I'll be back soon with a regular review.


  1. You've done a sterling job TC - I will have to get this but inevitably, for us locked room addicts, there was always going to be a lot of repetition

    1. Thanks, yes, there will always be some degree of repetition in these specialized anthologies.

  2. The Sladek book, however, does have a second Thackery Phin story and (for the locked room fan) a story where a whole town disappears from the landscape as well as froma printed map (SF, to be sure, but with an extremely clever solution that would work as well in a straight detective story)

    1. I can recommend that second Phin story!

      Maps also collects a handful of inverted crime stories and remember enjoying "You Have a Friend at Fengrove National."