The Locked Room Reader IV: The Lazy Anthologist

"The career of the locked-room mystery in literature has been nothing short of exemplary."
- Donald A. Yates ("The Locked Room: An Ancient Device of the Story-Teller, But Not Dead Yet," from The Michigan Alumnus Quarterly Review, 1956) 
Earlier this week, one of my fellow locked room enthusiasts, JJ, wrote a scathing blog-post about the selection of short stories from a recently published anthology, Classic Locked Room Mysteries (2016), which was edited and compiled by David Stuart Davies – who is primarily known as a writer of Sherlockian fiction and Holmesian studies.

JJ dismissed the collection as both "the laziest anthology of classic crime tales ever assembled" and as a missed opportunity "to bring back into circulation stories that aren't readily and easily available."

I can only agree with his criticism about the choice of stories: the table of content resembles a well-attended reunion of all of the obvious suspects who regularly turn up in these kinds of anthologies. However, I've never seen them all neatly gathered in a single volume. They're all there! The stories range from Edgar Allan Poe's "The Murders in the Rue Morgue" and Jacques Futrelle's "The Problem of Cell 13" to Melville Davisson Post's "The Doomdorf Mystery" and G.K. Chesterton's "The Invisible Man," but the saddest part is that all but one of the stories are in the public domain and appeared in some fairly recent anthologies – specifically The Mammoth Book of Locked Room Mysteries and Impossible Crimes (2000) and The Black Lizard Big of Locked Room Mysteries (2014). It simply reeks of a quick, easy and cynical cash-grab.

JJ was right when he spoke of a missed opportunity, because a good, historical and interesting collection could've been cobbled together with stories from the public domain, but that would've required a bit of work. There are a ton of locked room yarns from the nineteenth and early twentieth century that were swallowed by the mists of time, which would make for an interesting and even historically important anthology. You only have to crack open and skim through Robert Adey's Locked Room Murders (1991) to find more than enough material for such a collection. So guess what I did?

I arranged an alternative line-up of fifteen titles for Classic Locked Room Mysteries or a hypothetical, non-existent anthology, called Ye Olde Book of Locked Room Conundrums, but I've not read every single story on this list – which were picked because they sounded interesting and were rarely or ever anthologized. And that's kind of the point of this blog-post: pointing out the stories that have been ignored and overlooked by anthologists for decades. I also threw in a handful of familiar names to give this potential collection some star power.

So, without further ado, here is my shot at being an armchair anthologist:

1. "Rhampsinitus and the Thief" (c. 440 BC) – Herodotus
2. "The Spectre of Presburg: A Hungarian Tale" (1818) – Anne and Annabella Plumptre
3. "The Diamond Lens" (1858) – Fitz-James O'Brien
4. "The Black Pearl" (1888) – Victorien Sardou
5. "The Case of Roger Carboyne" (1892) – H. Greenbough Smith
6. "The Suicide of Kiaros" (1897) – L. Frank Baum
7. "The Story of the Lost Special" (1898) – Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
8. "The Mystery of the Circular Chamber" (1898) – L.T. Meade and R. Eustace
9. "The Mystery of the Locked Room" (1905) – Tom Gallon
10. "Plague of Ghosts" (1907) – Rafael Sabatini
11. "The Mystery of the Flaming Phantom" (1907) – Jacques Futrelle
12. "The Unseen Hand" (1908) – M. McDonnell Bodkin
13. "The Round Room Horror" (1911) – A. Demain Grange
14. "The Mystery of Howard Romaine'' (1917) – Herbert Beerbohm Tree
15. "Flashlights" (1918) – Laurence Clarke

As noted above, I've not read all of these stories myself, but good, bad or dated, I think most of us would love to explore them between the covers of a single collection of short stories. You've to do a bit of digging to find them all, but such a book would still be dirt-cheap to produce. And readers would not feel like they're being ripped off.

So let me know what you think of my compilation and how it compares to Davies' Classic Locked Room Mysteries.


  1. Fabulous work, TC, which goes to demonstrate just how damned lazy that Davies compilation is. The only ones of these I've read are the Conan Doyle and the Futrelle, but that's exactly what this kind of thing should be doing, as you say -- hook 'em with some big names, and throw in some brilliance people don't yet know.

    Presumably if these can be found they can be collected into an ebook without too much hassle...I mean, they're out of copyright, right? Hmmm, that gives me an idea...

    1. Not only are they out of copyright, but you can cull most of them from online archives. Just a suggestion for your excellent idea.

  2. This looks like a really interesting collection. I've only come across three of them before. Somebody please put it out there as a book (ebook too please)- I'd buy it!

  3. This looks like a really interesting collection. I've only come across three of them before. Somebody please put it out there as a book (ebook too please)- I'd buy it!

    1. Thanks. I strongly suspect JJ's idea has something to do with bookforming these stories.

  4. Nicely done TC - I'd much rather buy your book!

    1. I'll let you know that someone is working really hard to make this filler-post a reality. So stay tuned!

  5. I enjoyed reading this. Maybe someone could answer a question that I've been wondering about. I haven't read many locked room mysteries (something I plan to remedy in the near future), but my question is, do the solutions begin to repeat themselves after a while. Surely there are limits to the different ways to commit a crime in an apparently locked room. Are there any noteworthy examples of the same solution being repeated in more than one book.

    1. Well, your question is not as easily answered as all that, but lets begin by saying that locked room mysteries are not simply limited to crimes committed in a sealed environment.

      You've the no-footprints variety, in which someone is murdered, close-up, in the middle of a field of snow, wet sand or a stretch of mud, but there's only one set of footprints leading to the body and they belong to the victim (e.g. Arthur Porges' "No Killer Has Wings" is an excellent example of this).

      There are several variation on this theme: bodies miraculously appearing in the middle of such a field without any footprints (William DeAndrea's Killed on the Rocks) or people who seem to have vanished into thin air at the end of a trail of footprints (Herbert Brean's Wilders Walks Away.

      John Dickson Carr, writing as "Carter Dickson," did something altogether different with this premise in She Died a Lady.

      People and objects that disappear under seemingly impossible circumstances is a subcategory all by it self, which can range from an envelope (Edward D. Hoch's "The Problem of the Pink Post Office") and a baby grand piano (MacKinlay Kantor's "The Strange Case of Steinkelwintz") to a school bus full of children (Hugh Pentecosts' "The Day the Children Vanished") and even an entire toyshop (Edmund Crispin's The Moving Toyshop).

      There really isn't a one-size-fits-all approach to explain away all of these different disappearance mysteries, which makes the impossible vanishing act one of the most fertile and varied fields of the locked room mystery. The solutions are very different from one another.

      It's true that your regular, old-fashioned locked mystery has some repetition in its solutions, or seems to have, because there was a lot experimentation with existing explanations that became classic gambits. On top of that there were also a ton of pale imitations and uninspired copy/paste jobs, which, sadly, outnumber the genuinely good and original locked room mysteries.

      Another reason why there seems to be a lot of repetition is the rearrangements in space-and time-technique, which actually is a one-size-fits-all solution for impossible crime stories. It allows you to create some very baffling premises, but with an easy and elegant explanation. I've seen a writer like Hoch rely on this technique to explain such things as an apparently invisible assailant striking in the open to a shower spitting daggers.

      But there were still writers who tried to find new ideas for the locked room, such as the late Herbert Resnicow, who brought his knowledge as an engineer to the genre and created some very original locked room problems.

      So you would be surprised how many ways there are to commit a murder under seemingly impossible conditions and I would probably pen one or two myself, if had a scrap of writing talent.

      I would recommend browsing my "locked room mysteries" label, which is tagged to nearly 250 posts on this blog. More than enough to be found there.